Dr. Mrs. Vandertramp

Both the French and German languages feature a discrete set of intransitive* verbs, largely dealing with motion, that require the verb “to be” (not “to have”) as their auxiliary in the perfect. Thus:

• J’ai fait, j’ai marché, j’ai mangé but je suis venu, je suis allé, je suis arrivé
• Ich habe gemacht, Ich habe spatziert, Ich habe gegessen but Ich bin angekommen, Ich bin geganen, Ich bin gefallen

I recently realized that this feature was operational in English as late as the King James Bible (1611), in which we read things like:

• I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes (Ps. 119:83)
• The end of all flesh is come before me (Gen. 6:13)
• Behold, the whole family is risen against thine handmaid (2 Sam. 14:7)

So when did this use of “to be” fall out of common usage? I asked my colleague Graham Johnson of Reinhardt’s English program what he knew, and he provided some helpful commentary:

The answer is similar to the question you asked several years ago about when “thou,” “thee,” and “thine” (second person singular pronouns) dropped out of common English usage.

The verb form in the example “Christ is risen” is known as the present perfect tense, which now in Modern English uses a form of the verb “to have” (in the present tense) rather than “to be” (in the present tense) combined with the past participle: “Christ has risen.”

We find both of these (1. “thou” and 2. perfect present using a form of the verb “to be”) still in common use in Early Modern English – so, early- to mid-1600s.

We also see some poets even in the mid 1800s occasionally using both, but by then it seems to be rare, with the writers doing it for dramatic results (using old-fashioned forms), rather than because either is in common usage. We even will find a more literary author use a present perfect in the 1900s either to make a line sound more “old-fashioned” or arguably to sound more biblical, i.e., echoing the KJB (this is rare indeed).

So, without delving into the material enough to pin down an exact decade or two (which may be impossible to do with certainty anyway), one could say that both these changes happened after Early Modern English and before Late Modern English – basically still being used but less and less over the mid- to late-1700s, and by the mid 1800s not much at all, except for artistic reasons (to sound a little archaic).

Interesting – thanks, Graham! 

(The title of this post is a mnemonic device.)

* They have to be intransitive verbs, because in all three languages the auxiliary verb “to be” normally signals the passive voice (“I am eaten”). Intransitives cannot take an object, thus they cannot be made passive.

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