Burton reciting present indicative of the English verb, 'to be.' He skips 'it is.' Video Source: Youtube.
Simple observations can be gateways to profound knowledge. Actor Richard Burton (1925-1984) recited the present indicative tense of the verb 'to be' as the greatest poem in the English language. This clip is from In from the Cold: The World of Richard Burton (see it here while the link lasts). A Youtuber dismisses this video: "The man speaks well, of course, but this is pretentious nonsense." Another one says: "Richard Burton believes in aliens--look at his eyes when he says 'they are.' Weird, right?"
That is an interesting remark, because verbs begin by propelling their subjects through the world. With 'they are,' Burton was pondering 'others,' those furthest removed from one's existence. Burton showed here that the simple present tense conjugation of 'to be' indicates a journey from the immediacy of the individual self outward into the world, with decreasing levels of intimacy. Starting with the self as centre point ('I am'), one moves to the next closest person outside of one ('thou'). From there, 'she,' then 'he,' and so on. The progress of the verb through the present ends by taking the speaker to subjects placed at furthest degree of external existence away from the self. That is, 'they are' is a plural, outside, group and implies: 'they exist.' This is how the verb indicates how close the speaker is or is not to the subjects he or she (or it) is discussing.
After that, the verb explains how the speaker relates to time, then reality, and then the flow of time. In other words, the verb must switch temporal tenses (past, present, future) and modal relations to reality (signifying how closely the speaker does or does not connect to reality via the nature of an action taken - a fact, a desire, a command, a conditional, etc.).
Wiki lists ten grammatical moods for verbs, and not all are used in every language. They are divided between the 'real' (realis) and the unreal or 'irreal' (irrealis). Only one verbal mood describes reality, and asserts your basic, garden-variety actions-as-facts: that is the indicative. The nine irreal moods are:
- Subjunctive (a German favourite (the Konjunktiv) indicating wishes, emotions and possibility)
- Conditional (an English favourite, expressing a potential dependent upon a condition that is sometimes counterfactual - coulda, woulda, shoulda)
- Optative (used in Finnish, Japanese, Albanian, Biblical Hebrew and Ancient Greek, among other languages, it expresses wishes, curses, swearing, a conditional or formal politeness or blessing, or certain wishful commands depending on circumstances beyond one's control, in a way similar to the subjunctive; it does not exist in English but its sense is evident in sentences such as, "God save the Queen!" "May you have a long life!" "If only I were rich!")
- Imperative (a favourite in many languages, used for commands and orders; in English, it uses the infinitive rather than a separate mood: "Stand to attention!" "Run for your lives!")
- Jussive (a favourite of Arabic, it indicates the plea of a conditional command: "Everyone should mind his own business." "May my daughter be beautiful.")
- Potential (used in Finnish, Japanese and Sanskrit, it describes a possibility, dependent upon the opinion of the speaker, expressed using adverbs in English: "She will probably go.")
- Inferential (surviving in Balkan languages, the inferential reports a non-witnessed event without the speaker confirming it; it is also called the 'renarrative' or 'oblique' mood, constructed in English with adverbs: "He reportedly/allegedly went there.")
- Interrogative (used in Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh for asking questions; English does not have a special verbal mood for questions, but consider the verb used by a girl picking daisy petals: "He loves me. He loves me not." means "He does love me?" "He doesn't love me?" )
- Deity (recently described, the deity mode of speech abuses the verb 'to be' in a way that "allows even the most ignorant to transform their opinions magically into god-like pronouncements on the nature of things" - that sounds like something for the Internet! "It is what it is." "That's just who I am.")
In English, the verbal aspects are: neutral, progressive, perfect, progressive perfect, past habitual; and there are some prospective constructions. The aspects get quite complicated; but as an example, African American vernacular English employs the verb 'to be' to display the habitual-be: "Don't you be doing that." The prospective is evident in 'going to be' + verb, such as: "I'm going to be going to university next year."
Sadly missing from English is the gnomic aspect of verbs, available in literary Swahili, which describes eternal truths or aphorisms:
Thus, the gnomic aorist aspect (or gnomic present imperfective) describes a timelessness in mundane existence, a magical point of union between eternity and the limited life of the everyday. That union returns to the present moment, the present of infinities about which Richard Burton was speaking in the above video. This is what William Blake (1757-1827) presumably meant when he wrote in the Auguries of Innocence (1803): "Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour."[T]he gnomic [aspect] is considered neutral by not limiting the flow of time to any particular conception (for example, the conceptions of time as continuous, habitual, perfective, etc.). Used to describe a mood, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting the expression of words to the speaker's attitude toward them (e.g. as indicative, subjunctive, potential, etc.). Used to describe a tense, the gnomic is considered neutral by not limiting action, in particular, to the past, present, or future. Examples of the gnomic include such generic statements as: "birds fly"; "sugar is sweet"; and "a mother can always tell". If, as an aspect, it does take temporality into consideration, it may be called the empiric perfect aspect. Generally, though, it is one example of imperfective aspect, which does not view an event as a single entity viewed only as a whole, but instead specifies something about its internal temporal structure.English generally uses the simple present tense as the equivalent of a gnomic aspect, as in "rabbits are fast" ... though the past tense ("Curiosity killed the cat") is sometimes used. The auxiliary "will" can also be used to indicate gnomic aspect ("boys will be boys").[In Ancient Greek, a] gnomic future, the rarest of the three usages, similarly states that certain events often occur, and does not imply that an event is going to occur. A gnomic aorist ([or present imperfective,] the most common of the three usages) likewise expresses the tendency for certain events to occur under given circumstances and is used to express general maxims. The gnomic aorist is thought to derive (as the English example does) from the summation of a common story (such as the moral of a fable).