What is the habitual be? Who uses the habitual be? I began writing this post a few months ago as I investigated verb constructions outside the tense-aspect paradigm of the mythical standard English for the grammar book that I am writing. Writing about a topic helps me with my understanding.
Habitual be refers to the use of an uninflected be to denote a habitual or extended action, state, or occurrence. Invariant be is another name for the habitual be. In my English (St. Louis Corridor of the Inland North of American English), the present progressive denotes an ongoing action, state, or occurrence happening at the moment. The simple present can express habituality.
- I am singing.
- You are reading.
- She is studying.
- I sing.
- You read.
- She studies.
In the first three sentences, the verbs sing, read, and study are occurring in the present at the time of the utterance.
- I am singing right now.
- You are reading at the moment.
- She is studying at the present.
In the last three sentences, the verbs occur habitually.
- I sing regularly.
- You read habitually.
- She studies regularly.
In contrast, some Englishes use the habitual be to express habitual actions, states, and occurrences.
- I am singing. (now)
- You are reading. (now)
- She is studying. (now)
- I be singing. (habitually)
- You be reading. (habitually)
- She be studying. (habitually)
In Englishes with the habitual be, the verbs sing, read, and study in the first three sentences are occurring in the present at the time of the utterance. In the last three sentences, however, the be marks the habitual aspect. The habitual aspect marks an action, state, or occurrence as happening habitually. The mythical standard English lacks a unique habitual aspect, instead using the simple present to express habituality.
(By mythical standard English, I refer to Englishes considered socially prestigious such as Standard American English and PR (Received Pronunciation) English. All languages are linguistically equal. Some languages are considered socially more prestigious than others. The mythical standard does not necessarily reflect actual usage by actual speakers, which is a topic for another post. I use refer to the standard as mythical because no one actually speaks a standard language.)
In the above examples, the habitual be functions as an auxiliary verb. Habitual be can also be a copular verb that links the grammatical subject with the subject complement.
- I am tired. (now)
- I be tired. (habitually)
- They are angry. (now)
- They be angry. (habitually)
- My aunt is sick. (now)
- My aunt be sick. (habitually)
The verb be in all six above examples is a main verb, specifically a copular verb. In the examples with am, are, and is, the inflected form of the verb be indicates an immediate state of being. I am tired right now but am not tired generally all the time. In the other three examples, the unmarked be indicates a habitual state of being. I am generally and habitually tired.
Which Englishes have the habitual be? African American Language (Black English, African American English, African American Vernacular English, Black Vernacular, Black English Vernacular, Black Vernacular English) is the most well-known English that has the habitual be, at least among Americans. Habitual be also occurs in a handful of other Englishes including Caribbean Englishes, Gullah, Newfoundland English, Irish (Hiberno) Englishes, and Scotch-Irish Englishes. Habitual be also occurs in non-black Englishes among speakers in east-central Texas; East Louisiana, Gulf Mississippi and Lower Mississippi; and certain coastal counties in North and South Carolina. The do be construction also expresses the habitual aspect, especially in Irish Englishes.
An important point to take away from the above paragraph is that habitual be is not a feature of only African American Language. While habitual be is a feature of some Englishes spoken predominantly by BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) people, the feature also occurs in Englishes spoken predominantly by white speakers such as Irish English. Furthermore, not all BIPOC people speak African American Language. Furthermore, not all speakers of African American Language are BIPOC. (African American Language (AAL) is an English heavily influenced by African languages as a result of language and discourse patterns of African slave descendants. AAL differs phonologically and morphosyntactically from other Englishes while sharing many features.)
If the habitual be is not a feature of the mythical standard English, where did the feature come from? One hypothesis about the habitual be of African American Language in the United States and Canada is that the form arose as a result of contact between blacks in the United States and Scots-Irish immigrants. Like the habitual be of African American Language, Ulster Scots marks habitual verb forms with be and do be. Another hypothesis is that the form arose among black speakers via contact with Hiberno-English in the Caribbean. Neither hypothesis has enough evidence for confirmation, and criticism abounds.
The source of habitual be in African American Language is still disputed. Irish immigrants and blacks in the Caribbean and North America did have extensive contact with each other beginning in the 17th century. Just as blacks were discriminated against (and still are), Irish racism also occurred in Britain and America beginning in the 19th century (but dating back to the Norman invasion of Ireland). Segregation separated blacks and whites. (Think Jim Crow “Whites Only” and “Colored” signs that were pervasive in the United States until the 1960s.) Anti-Irish discrimination also occurred. (Think about the “No Irish need apply” signs that were common in the United States dating from the mid-1800s.) As often happens, disenfranchised groups come into contact with each other, which happened with BIPOC Americans and Irish immigrants. Habitual be is now found in Englishes considered “less prestigious” such as African American Language, Irish English, and Caribbean Englishes.
Whatever the beginnings of the habitual be, the form is not an error. All languages are linguistically equal. Both Englishes with and without the habitual be can express habituality. African American Language along with Irish English and Caribbean Englishes have a unique form for expressing habituality: the habitual be.
AAL Facts: https://oraal.uoregon.edu/facts
Habitual aspect: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitual_aspect
Habitual be: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitual_be
Habitual marking in Irish English: http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:726010/FULLTEXT01
Invariant be: https://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/invariant-be
Social Contact and Linguistic Diffusion: Hiberno-English and New World Black English: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/414674.pdf?seq=1