Lade Inhalt...

Ser or not estar: That Is the Question for Spanish Speakers

Bachelorarbeit 2014 59 Seiten

Romanistik - Spanische Sprache, Literatur, Landeskunde




1.A Ser/estar Dichotomy
1.B The Effect of Language on the Life of Men
1.C The Philosophic Value of the Being
1.D The Translation of the Verbs in Question
1.E Hypothesis and Objectives

2.A Initial considerations
2.B Etymologies
2.C Brief Overview of the Beginning and Development of the Spanish Language
2.D Brief Overview of the Beginning and Development of the English Language
2.E The Being as a Philosophical Concept
2.F The Role of Language in the Construction of Reality

3.A Evolution of the Verbs Ser, Estar and To Be
3.A.a To Be
3.A.b Ser and Estar
3.B The translation of the verbs ser, estar and to be



I would like to thank all the people who supported me throughout the development of this work, especially Lucy and Lucas, who, at all times, showed great interest in its evolution; my parents, without whom I could never have come this far; my colleagues, who were infinitely patient with me, particularly Mauro, who acted as my editor; and lastly but not less importantly, to my tutors for this thesis, who guided me through this journey and cleared my doubts at all times.


“To be or not to be, that is the question”1

William Shakespeare

1.A Ser/estar Dichotomy

The ser/estar dichotomy has always been of interest to those who ventured in the learning of new languages. It is striking, especially for Spanish speakers, that the verb to be alone can express both alternatives. The curiosity regarding such fact is what motivates this work: why does Spanish make said distinction while most languages -even some of the romances- do not? Even though both verbs have a mostly copulative function, they differ from each other in more than one aspect. It is true, nonetheless, that, in many cases, they share functions and the dividing lines are not always evident. In the first part of the thesis, an answer to such phenomena shall be proposed.

On these grounds, therefore, does the first question arise: how is it possible that almost no other language has had the practical need to create such an evident differentiation in Spanish? Or rather, from the opposite point of view: why did Spanish developed two different verbs to express what in other languages seems to be the same idea?

The initial approach could be made from the historical and linguistic point of view. In that manner, this work will begin with a historical journey regarding the languages of interest: Spanish and English; and with the etymology of the verbs relevant to this investigation: ser, estar and to be.

Even though, in theory, the case of to be is more complex, since its conjugations come from the conjugations of different verbs from the Indo-European (source language of most of the modern occidental languages); ser and estar represent a bigger challenge. This is due to the fact that, though they derive from different verbs (ser mainly from est, estar from stare), their meanings progressively intertwined as Spanish began to detach itself from vulgar Latin.

Another question will be, therefore: which was the moment in time when they began to acquire the value and meaning they have nowadays, and what functions did they have in the respective historical periods?

These questions open the way for a second stage of the investigation, and from them shall arise others, more specific, which will constitute the core of this work.

For this section, the consulted bibliography will be mostly La Andadura del Español por el mundo, by Humberto López Morales, Lengua hablada en la Romania: español, francés, italiano, by Peter Koch, and A History of the English Language, by Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable.

Furthermore, as this work progresses, texts of different types and different stages in the development of both languages will be analyzed. Among them are the following: El Cantar del Mio Cid, from around 1200; General Estoria, written by the very Alphonse X, the Wise, starting from 1270; Nebrija's Gramática, which dates from 1492. Regarding the texts in English, the following will be analyzed: Bewolf, as the Old English representative example; The Grave, a poem written during the transition to Middle English; and Layamon's Brut, belonging to Middle English, among others.

This process will allow an investigation situated in the corresponding contexts, which will, without a doubt, have a correlation with the historical ages where the different forms and functions of the verbs in question existed; and therefore, a thorough understanding of the implications of said characteristics.

1.B The Effect of Language on the Life of Men

All men are aware that language has a crucial role in communication and, therefore, in the way people communicate with others. It is language what allows them to identify as individual beings and individuals within the society. Personal realities are built through words, and it has been often said that language is one of the most accurate representations of a civilization.

On these grounds, another question arises, which shall try to uncover the way this concept applies to the work proposal: does this dichotomy affect the world's vision of English and Spanish speakers in different ways?

As a starting point in this respect, The Social Construction of Reality, by Peter E. Berger and Thomas Luckermann, will be consulted, as well as other monographs and essays of the same sort.

Within this second stage, the following question is also posed: regarding the languages themselves, is there an apparent change in the world’s vision due to the development of the different functions of said copulas, or is this vision unchangeable throughout time?

The answers to these questions will be found both in the examples of the texts of each age, and in the translations offered almost at the end of this work. Even though they might not prove as measurable as the results of previous matters, they are just as valid and represent an equally important part.

1.C The Philosophic Value of the Being

The question previously expressed is related, in turn, to another fundamental matter of this thesis: the philosophic value of the being. This concept, existing since the very beginning of philosophy (and even since earlier times), poses another problem: the difficulty of translating and understanding the different meanings and characteristics it presents, especially regarding the philosophic literature.

In order to try to fully comprehend the implications of this philosophical concept, different authors will be consulted (Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Heidegger, among others), in a very brief chronological journey through the theories of some of the most important philosophers who dealt with the being.

In the same way as with the previous point, the product of this exploration will be noticeable in the results of the analysis of the offered examples; and this approach shall be of particular use when the example of the dasein -what Heidegger considers the being- be brought to light and the accuracy of its translation into Spanish be questioned. This case shall, in turn, establish a ground that will make it possible to study the following examples; examples which will be more specific to the subject matter of this investigation and propose alternative translations if required.

1.D The Translation of the Verbs in Question

Finally, as it has already been briefly expressed, a proposal related to the translation arising from the many questions posed in this dissertation is contemplated: what difficulties emerge when said verbs are translated, both from English into Spanish, and vice versa? How could these frequent difficulties -which are due to the fact that these verbs are of a constant and permanent use- be overcome?

It is these two last questions which direct the work as a whole, the main and ultimate queries which represent the actual objective of the thesis; and through them, a real solution to a real problem will be offered.

The potential translation problems shall be presented through several examples, among which will be the famous To be or not to be, which proposes, from its very first translation, a challenge that, even today, does not seem to have been overcome. These will be analyzed regarding their meaning, and afterwards, the accuracy of their already established translations shall be questioned and, in case they shall not be satisfactory, other alternatives will be proposed.

1.E Hypothesis and Objectives

In view of the aforementioned points, the following hypothesis can be proposed: The existence of only one word in English (as well as in the majority of the other languages, even in some of the romances) equivalent to the verbs ser and estar in Spanish affects, not only the world's vision of its speakers, but also the level of difficulty in translation.

The goals, on the other hand, will be the following: in the first place, to discern in which point of history the verbs ser and estar began to acquire the meanings they have today, and which their meanings were at different points of history. Another edge within the same subject is to discover what the motives were for the copula to have taken a duality in Spanish that is not seen in most of the other languages of the world.

It is also expected that the analysis bring some light on whether this difference affects the world's view of Spanish and English speakers in different ways.

The fourth objective would be to determine whether the philosophical weight of the being poses a considerable difficulty regarding its translation, and how it could be overcome.

Finally, an attempt will be made to identify the typical problems that arise during the translation of these verbs, independently of the source language, and to find their roots. All this aims at offering solutions to these problems, based upon the results that may be drawn from the development of this thesis.

Before fully focusing on the work, nonetheless, some clarifications are in place2: the terms Spanish and Castilian shall be used indistinctly. This is due to the fact that, as will be explained in Chapter 2, the Castilian was the language which began to impose itself in Spain around the 13th century because of different reasons, and managed to displace the other Latin derivations in the Iberian region until they became nothing but dialects.


2.A Initial considerations

The verbs ser and estar, as analyzed in this work, are mainly copulative; i. e. they function as linkers between subject and predicate. Attributive sentences, in which the predicate is an attribute of the subject, are built with these verbs (and others to a lesser extent). In these sentences, the predicate is nominal, i. e. it is mostly expressed by a name, adjective or noun.

Naturally, both verbs have a great variety of meanings. Therefore, it is important to define those which fit this work’s hypothesis best. The Royal Spanish Academy3 established that the verb ser is used to “state about the noun what the attribute means”. This verb is the copula whose purpose is to describe or classify, even though when it is used jointly with the participle of certain verbs, it loses its own meaning and only serves as the auxiliary verb in passive voice. In this case, the action of the participle happens in the time of the auxiliary; i. e. it means the action itself as experienced by the subject. Another possible meaning, also of great importance, listed in the Royal Spanish Academy’s Dictionary is that of there be or exist. It is worth stressing, given that it will be focused on in the development of the work.

On the other hand, the RAE defines estar in the following way: “said of a person or a thing: To exist, be located here or there, situation, condition or current manner of being.”

Estar means situation and state, even though when it’s joined with the gerund form of another verb, it also loses its meaning and only serves as an auxiliary to express the other verb in its duration. On the other hand, if this verb is used with a participle, the action of the latter is previous to the time of the auxiliary; i. e. it means the result of the action or a consequential state of the action. Estar is used when the attribute is seen as the result of becoming something else, either real or alleged. This verb is applied when the judgments depend immediately from personal experience. When the verbs to feel or to look can substitute to be, estar must be used in Spanish.

Generally, some verbs are conjugated with ser and others with estar, though in certain cases, both shades of meaning fit within the same verb. Furthermore, it can be stated that ser tends to go with imperfective verbs and estar, with perfective4 ones. In the case of adjectives, when used with ser, they mean a trait inherent to the subject; when used with estar, they can mean a fulfilled state or contemplate an implicit comparison with the trait deemed normal in the subject.

Sentences with ser have a defined imperfective nature, while those with estar, a perfective nature.

In old times, the verb ser was also used to indicate local situation, competing with estar. Estar, on the other hand, has inherited from the Latin stare (to stand, to remain) its local sense of situation or position, either physical or figurative. This original usage has consolidated more and more, though in old texts there are many examples of ser that express situation, as in the rest of the romance languages. By the 16th C this use of ser was almost inexistent, even though there were isolated cases until late 17th C.

The definition of to be, therefore, cannot differ much from that of verbs ser and estar. According to the Cambridge Dictionary5, said verb is used to “say something about a person, thing, or state, to show a permanent or temporary quality, state, job, etc.” This definition would correspond to the use of ser, while the second listed definition would refer to estar: “used to show the position of a person or thing in space or time.” As it can be seen, both definitions are not far from the Spanish ones at all, and make the verb to be the English copulative verb by definition.

2.B Etymologies

The roots of ser and estar come from three Latin verbs:

Sum, es, esse, fui: v. To be (in the sense of ser), to exist, there be || To have existed, to stop existing, to die || There is, there was || To be (in the sense of estar), to find oneself (in a place, a situation, a state, etc) || To be on someone’s behalf, in favor of, etc. || To be at someone’s disposal, to be someone’s property || Copulative verb ser.

Many forms of the verb ser come from this verb.

Sedeo, sedere, sedi, sessum: v. To be sitting, to sit, to place oneself || To be still, motionless, idle || To be in a position || To stop, to stand; to besiege, to occupy, to penetrate || To be at a standstill, to put down roots, to settle down, to become consistent, to be settled || To lay something, to fall.

Many conjugations of the verb ser, including the future and conditional tenses, the present tenses in subjunctive and imperative, and the impersonal conjugations come from this verb. In Spanish, its meaning weakened until it became a synonym for estar, and then for ser.

Sto, stare, steti, statum: v. To stand, to be steady, to be motionless || To be around (circumstare) || To be in favor or against someone (pro aliquo stare/adversus aliquem stare) || To be on (superstare).

The conjugations of the verb estar come from this verb.

The verb to be, on the other hand, is a combination of related paradigms from several historical origins which come from proto-Indo-European (PIE) derivatives.

Hies-: It was used as a copula in PIE and from this root comes the simple present for the third person, is.

B(h)uH-: This root probably means to grow and to turn into and it is the source of the infinitive be and the participle been.

Wes-: It is believed that it originally meant to live and, in English, it can be found in the simple past for the third person, was.

Hier-: Copula from which the second persons derived: in Early Modern English, art, and Modern English, are.

2.C Brief Overview of the Beginning and Development of the Spanish Language

One can certainly state that the development of the Spanish language was considerably simpler than that of the English language, though not less interesting because of that. As it is known, the so called romance languages came from Vulgar Latin and are named in such a way because they were the languages spoken in what was then the territory of Romania. It is worth mentioning now that Castilian was the variation that eventually prevailed amongst the contending ones in what is considered nowadays as Spain.

The growth of these ramifications (Astur-Leonese, Navarro-Aragonese, Galician-Portuguese, Catalonian, and Castilian itself) resulted in the gradual extinction of popular Latin in ancient Hispania. Nevertheless, the romance languages spoken in the Iberian Peninsula around the year 800 were not at all in the distance scope6 ; i.e. they could be considered of synchronic existence.

It was only around the year 1000 that the first linguistic milestones in the different Hispanic-romance languages appeared. Initially, none of these had any sort of priority. It is worth mentioning that, even though at this time they were not transmitted in a written manner, there are documents in Arabic and Latin which have glints of these languages, noticeable in the phonetics, phonology, morphosyntax and vocabulary. It is also important to take into account that the peninsular romances on the whole were relatively elaborate, independently of whether they would be registered in writing at later stages. The process of language elaboration became stronger during the 13th century and developed in a polycentric fashion, in such a way that the imitation of Latin and Arabic-Hebrew discursive traditions, as well as of the models of other romance languages led to the proliferation of genres and promoted an acceleration of extensive elaboration. Because of the existence of such a diversity of genres, each of which manifested a specific conceptional profile, very different demands were posed to the competence of senders and receivers.

The year 1252 can be symbolically dated as the time when the linguistic uses of the Castilian dialect began to be codified, and already by the reign of Ferdinand III, the written codices were not scarce (given that the Cancilleria Regia had produced texts in Castilian even when custom only recognized Latin); even though it would be his son, Alphonse X, the wise, who would really foster this process.

Thus the Castilian began to consolidate in the literary language, historiographical works and important judicial texts. Even before, the Toledo School of Translators translated into Castilian important philosophical and scientific works from the Greek and Arabian cultures. Such work was far from diminishing during the reign of Alphonse X (which lasted between 1252 and 1284), who made said language his own through his works and turned it into the official language of the Cancilleria Regia, relegating Latin only to communications with foreign countries.

It was Alphonse who arranged the translation and compilation of judicial, historical and scientific works, which allowed the Castilian prose to acquire the precision, flexibility and diversity needed in order to become a full distance language.

He participated actively and for over three decades, he promoted Castilian widely. Said variation became then the language of the Court, setting the rest of the kingdom’s languages aside.

It is likely that the use of Castilian in the judicial scope came from the necessity for legal regulation, caused by the repopulation of the bordering territories, given that Latin was ruled out for new settlers. As a consequence of these processes, the notarial Leonese language was castilianized, and it would be Navarre and Aragon which would later go through this process.

A fundamental fact that finally imposed the supremacy of Castilian text production in the Iberian region during the 14th and 15th centuries was the leading role of Castile in the Reconquest of the center and south of the peninsula. During the last years of the long process Isabella, the Catholic, ruled Castile, and she would be a key figure in the consolidation of Castilian as the official language. Isabella and Ferdinand shared a project of dynastic union of both Crowns, which targeted the unity of Spain, a very significant factor in the development and imposition of said language.

It was thus the Reconquest what caused the scope of communication to broaden throughout the whole territory, which resulted in a unification of the spoken tongue in the colonized lands. Furthermore, Mozarabian was finally extinguished and Astur-Leonese and Navarro-Aragonese were marginalized.

Because of the fall of Granada (last of the Arab settlements) in 1492 and the unification of Castile and Aragon, the process of standardization over the other varieties was finished in the 16th century. All the others were marginalized, and in this way, Castilian became Spanish.

An event which contributed greatly to this process was the propagation of Spanish in America. It can be stated that thanks to the early constitution and standardization of the official language in Spain, there is today a relative uniformity in the whole Hispanic-American territory. Another important factor was the political and military preponderance that Spain had in the 16th and 17th centuries, time in which it was also experiencing an unparalleled cultural development.

Nevertheless, Latin remained an important corrective for renaissance authors who favored said language. Therefore, it had a great influence in the phonetics, syntax and vocabulary during a time when Spanish was so susceptible, given that it was experiencing an internal elaboration. During the expansion of the printing press, there was an attempt to reach a codification, which included pronunciation and spelling. Thus, Nebrija’s Gramatica (1492) and Vocabulary (1495) appeared. Covarrubias’ Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española (1611) was also published afterwards; and the contribution of the Royal Academy through different dictionaries (which were used in every Grammar class) in the 18th century would also be decisive. There was also an attempt to create stylistic standards and to offer rules for the proper linguistic use, about which the simplicity standard was set forth, i.e. a natural, unaffected style.

2.D Brief Overview of the Beginning and Development of the English Language From Indo-European to Germanic

In this transformation process there are several important changes. Originally, the existing syntax system was much more complex than the one that resulted from it, given that the Germanic language only had two tenses: present and past. Indo-European also had a flexible accentuation system, where the accent shifted from one syllable to another in various forms of a word, which resulted in the Germanic language generally stressing the first syllable.

Old English

Great Britain’s first settlers were the Celts, who lived in that territory for several centuries, before the Roman invasion led by Julius Caesar in the year 55 BC. Nevertheless, many inhabitants continued to speak their own tongue, which was not really threatened until five centuries later, when the island was invaded by the Angles, the Jutes and the Frisians. Thus most of the population became English speakers and said English began to differentiate itself from its continental equivalent.

It can be stated that the settlers belonged to some Germanic tribes from the North of Germany, reason why they spoke a variety of very similar Germanic dialects. When Saint Augustine arrived to convert them into Christianity during the 6th century, they already dominated the whole territory of what is currently known as England.

Shortly afterwards, the Christians descendants of the conquerors who had taken hold of Great Britain suffered the oppression of other Germanic invaders during the first and second Viking Conquests. The first one began in the early 8th century, when the Viking raiders pillaged several churches and monasteries.

Despite the enmity and the attacks, there was a feeling of fraternity among the English and the invaders, given that they shared the same roots. Even though one of the main motives of the Scandinavian to settle in England was the desire to loot, the Northern conquerors, during the 10th and early 11th centuries, seemed more interested in colonizing. Therefore, the Danish settled in a relatively pacific way and lived alongside the English.

In regard to lexical assimilation, the languages spoken by both peoples shared a great variety of words, among them man, wife, house, thing, etc. A difference with Modern English lies in the inflections: they were much more abundant, both in nouns and adjectives, as well as in demonstrative and interrogative pronouns.

After the conversion into Christianity in the late 6th century, England became a very important cultural beacon, where monasteries played a fundamental role. The great scholarly movement to which Bede (who wrote about Christianity in England and contributed largely to the cultural development of the region) belonged was responsible in a significant way for the preservation of the classical culture.

There was a great amount of poetry during that time, even though prose was also of great importance. English was certainly one of the earliest Vernacular Tongues in Europe, and through its vocabulary, the subtleties of Latin could also be expressed. The English culture was the most advanced in the whole of Western Europe.

For a span of around six centuries, four main dialects coexisted: West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian.

Middle English

Middle English was a transitioning period between Old and Modern English, and that is why the beginning and ending dates, arbitrary as they might seem, represent moments in time during which two changes in the language became very evident: grammar changes, around the year 1100, and phonetic ones, around the year 1500.

Both dates also coincided approximately with historical events which had very significant effects in the language.

Almost at the end of the Old English period, the Normans invaded and conquered England. For a long time after the Norman Conquest, England was trilingual: Latin was the language of the church; Norman French, the one of the government; and English, the one spoken by most of the population.

By the 14th century, different events, like the cutting of ties with France, boosted the use of English. The Hundred Years War finally established a growing bitter enmity between both countries which would put an end to the already scarce use of French in England.

John Wycliffe, on the other hand, defied the authority of the Church, from within a movement which translated the Bible into English and popularized doctrines that anticipated the Reform. By the late 14th century, there appeared rhymeless poetry which came from the narrative tradition of versification, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times.

Around this time, the legal documents and records were also starting to be written in English, and Henry IV used it to claim the throne in 1399.

During this period, Latin continued to be of important influence in the English vocabulary. Additionally, the greatest impact of the Norman Conquest on the English language was mostly in the vocabulary, even though there were also some changes in grammar and language.

Middle English had a great variety of dialects in which authors wrote until the late 15th century. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that the dialect spoken in London would become the standard for the whole of England, since, for centuries, it had been a big, prosperous –and therefore important- city.

Among the most relevant changes in the language during this time, there are differences in spelling, most due to the Anglo-Norman influence. Furthermore, the non-accentuated vowels merged into a single sound, fact that caused the inflection suffixes to be drastically reduced. This, in turn, resulted in the loss of the grammatical genre, a very important structural change.

Even though in Middle English –as well as Old English- literature, all kinds of variations of the order of subject, verb and complement were possible, this was due to the fact that most of the literature was in verse. The prose of that period shares the sentence order of the Modern English prose almost completely.


1 Hamlet, Act III, scene III

2 Even though the correct translation in English for both español y castellano is Spanish, said distinction is necessary for the understanding of its development, reason why both Spanish and Castilian will appear in this work.

3 Real Academia Española (RAE)

4 Imperfective verbs are those in which the action lasts throughout time, e.g. to sing, to hear; while perfective ones are those in which the action, having reached its perfection or ending, expires, e.g. to die.


6 Koch y Oesterreicher explain in Lengua hablada en la Romania two interdependent concepts related to languages: the distance scope and the immediateness scope. These depend on a variety of factors: oral and written expression, publicity, familiarity among interlocutors, emotional involvement, referential field, etc.; and in accordance with these criteria, a great number of ways of communication can be determined.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
577 KB
linguistics spanish english to be ser estar translation copula socio-historic analysis




Titel: Ser or not estar: That Is the Question for Spanish Speakers