To be . . .

“The entire species of the verb may be reduced to the single verb that signifies to be. All the others secretly make use of this unique function, but they have hidden it beneath a layer of determinations: attributes have been added to it, and instead of saying ‘I am singing’, we say ‘I sing’; indications to time have been added, and instead of saying ‘before now I am singing’, we say ‘I sang’; lastly certain languages have integrated the subject itself into their verbs, and thus we find Romans saying, not ego vivit, but vivo. All of this is merely accretion and sedimentation around and over a very slight yet essential verbal function, ‘there is only the verb to be . . . that has remained in this state of simplicity’. The entire essence of language is concentrated in that singular word. Without it, everything would have remained silent, and though men, like certain animals, would have been able to make use of their voices well enough, yet not one of those cries hurled through the jungle would ever have proved to be the first link in the great chain of language.”

— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

It doesn’t get enough recognition, this brilliant and beautifully written work (sadly there is no translator credited), amidst Foucault’s better known books. I’m reading a Routledge reprint, but have tracked down a first translation into English and will credit a translator if included in that edition.

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