Anyone who has studied Spanish knows that saying “is” and “are” in Spanish is not as straightforward as it is in English. You have to choose between a word that is connected to *Estar* and one that is connected to *Ser*. Why is Spanish so complicated?
A better question to ask is “why isn’t English as complicated?”. As English speakers, we may be able to understand Spanish better by exploring English. Let’s do just that.
Are you happy?
Though it is only one sentence, “are you happy?” is used to ask two different things. The question could be inquiring about something deep and asking if you are content with your life. The question could also just simply be inquiring about something not so deep and simply asking if you are in a state of cheerfulness. There are two kinds of happiness, one is deep and you carry on you like a skin and the other is fleeting and is more like a t-shirt. A miserable man laughing at a joke is happy (t-shirt) since he is laughing but at the same time is not happy (skin) since he is miserable.
Exploring happiness in English helps us understand *Ser* and *Estar*. The concept of traits having skin and t-shirt versions exists in both Spanish and English, it is just more explicit in Spanish. The word for happy in Spanish is ‘*feliz*’ and there are two ways of saying “are you happy?” [using casual language]:
*Estás feliz?* (t-shirt)
*Eres feliz?* (skin)
The explicitness of Spanish makes it such that the question “are you happy?” cannot be ambiguously interpreted. If I am inquiring about how happy you are with your life, I have to use a word that comes from *Ser* (*eres*) and if I am simply asking if you are cheerful, I must use a word that comes from *Estar* (*estás*).
Not only is the skin/t-shirt concept more explicit in Spanish, it is also more extensive. It is not just happiness that has a skin and t-shirt form. Let’s explore. The word for young is ‘*joven*’. Using casual language, to say “you are young”, you say “*eres joven*”. ‘*Eres*’ is used instead of ‘*estás*’ in this case because youth is a skin trait and not a t-shirt. Youth is not permanent but, it is not so fleeting that it’s a t-shirt. Just having said that though, there are times when people do say “*estás joven*”. “*Estás joven*” is used in a sentence like:
*Estás muy joven con ese vestido* (You look very young in that dress)
In this case, ‘*estás*’ is used to convey that with that dress on you, it’s like you have put on youth. Another trait which has a skin and t-shirt form is slimness. The word for slim is *delgado*. Compare the sentences below:
*Eres delgado* (You are slim)
*Estás muy delgado*! (You are looking very slim!)
Though some adjectives can be used with both *Ser* and *Estar* to produce different meanings, this cannot be done with all of them. There are cases in which only *Ser* can be used and others where only *Estar* can be used. Consider the sentences below:
*El café está frío* (the coffee is cold) [*Estar*]
*Soy de Bogotá* (I am from Bogotá) [*Ser*]
*Está roto* (It is broken) [*Estar*]
*Mañana es sábado* (Tomorrow is Saturday) [*Ser*]
*Donde está Burgos*? (Where is Burgos?) [*Estar*]
As far as I know, there is no single explanation that perfectly explains all the uses of *Ser* and *Estar*. Looking at the sentences above though and thinking in terms of skin and t-shirt traits, you may see why some sentences use *Ser* and why others use *Estar*.
To answer the questions at the top of this article, “why does Spanish have *Ser* and *Estar*?”, My answer is, “so as to have a way of precisely talking about and distinguishing skin traits from t-shirt traits”. As for the second part, “does English have something similar”, my answer is, “not quite. English resorts more to the use of more words to more precisely phrase things”.