English’s odd, meaningless “do.”
“Do”: The Celtic-English Connection
In fact, the only other languages that exhibit this kind of behavior with their verb for “do” are the Celtic languages—the mostly extinct languages that were spoken in Great Britain before the Angles and Saxons came to stay. McWhorter argues that these striking peculiarities are strong and clear evidence of how the Celtic languages influenced English.
Surviving Celtic languages include Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh, which has the same peculiarities about “do” that English does, and can even have uses like “I did make my bed” in ordinary, non-emphatic utterances. As a clincher, McWhorter reminds us that English used to be like that, too, and quotes a few lines from Shakespeare, such as “My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time.”
One more example of “do” serving when no other helping verb is available is in elliptical verb phrases—that is, verb phrases consisting of just a helping verb, which allow us to avoid repeating a verb phrase. For instance, if a minister asks you this summer, “Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to love and cherish, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, for better for worse, till death do you part?”, I don’t recommend responding, “I take this man to be my lawfully wedded husband, to love and cherish, in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, for better for worse, till death do us part.” Instead, “I do” will work just fine.
What’s really fun is when helping-verb “do” runs up against ordinary-verb “do.” As Cole Porter wrote, “Do do that voodoo that you do so well”—though I wouldn’t advise singing that line to an audience of elementary-school boys. Then there’s the well-worn joke about three lines of graffiti involving “do” and “be.” One version goes like this:
“To be or not to be” – Shakespeare
“To be is to do” – Socrates
“Do be do be do” – Sinatra
And with that, we’ve done our “do” diligence!
Dryer, Matthew S. 2011. Polar Questions. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 116. Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/116 Accessed on 2012-04-25.
McWhorter, John. 2008. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. New York: Gotham Books.