Lameen Souag of Jabal al-Lughat has a fascinating entry on the use of be as a suppletive form of go, but only in the past participle: you can say I’ve been to Finland or I’ll have been to Finland five times, but not *I’ll be to Finland or *I am to Finland. I’ve used the construction all my life, but never really thought about how it works; Lameen finishes up with this thought-provoking bit of research:

Google does reveal a couple of instances: “I’ll be to bed in a minute”, “I’ll be to work way early”, and perhaps most strikingly, “I’ve been to more than half of the counties, and in the next six weeks, I’ll be to the other half of the counties”. So it seems we have a change in progress. Does this depend on the region? Will it culminate in a complete merger of “go” and “be”? Are there any parallels to this outside English? What do you think?

And while you’re at the mountain of languages, don’t miss his latest post on classical Kanembu and its relation to Kanuri and Arabic:

Most strikingly, since vowel length is non-phonemic in Kanuri, it seems to use vowel length to indicate high tone instead; thus, for example Arabic al-‘aakhirah “the afterlife” has been borrowed as láxíra, and thus gets spelled as لاخِيرَ. As far as I know, this would make it the only Arabic orthography to mark tone.


  1. michael farris says

    don’t know if it’s exactly what you mean, but in English you (or at least I) say things like “I went to the movies.” “I went to the doctor’s” etc while in Polish you use ‘be’ (być) instead:
    Byłem w kinie dzisiaj. (I went to the movies today. lit “I was in the cinema today.”)
    Byłem u lekarza. (I went to the doctor’s, literally “I was at the doctor’s today.”)

  2. Well, as you point out in your translations, we can also say “I was at…” in English. The distinctive thing about the construction under discussion is that you use “to” with it, something impossible with “be” in its normal sense. Note that you can use “be at” in any tense or form (he’s at, I’ll be at, you were at, &c).

  3. michael farris says

    Well you can say “I went to the doctor’s” in Polish to, the meaning is just different (as it is in English for me).
    But I’ve have to say I really doubt if any Slavic or Romance language has anything like the English construction “I’ve been to Spain.” I wouldn’t be surprised if some other Germanic language(s) do(es) though.

  4. Long knock-down dragouts on this subject on the newsgroup fr.lettres.langue.francaise
    Purists deplore “j’ai été à Paris” but it appears that many people say it in just that manner. Search “avoir été / être allé”, the latest thread to deal with it from an intial post on 2 July 2005.
    In Spanish, “fui” is a past of “ir” (to go) and “ser” (to be). Problem solved.

  5. Of course, you could say “I’ll be to Finland before he realizes I’ve stolen his boat.”

  6. And I’ve just realised that there’s no past participle of the verb to be (είμαι) in Greek, so that I’ve been doesn’t exist as an expression.
    There isn’t really an equivalent for to either, but that probably has something to do with the relatively declension-friendly and preposition-unfriendly nature of Greek.
    What’s the situation with other declension friendly languages?

  7. I think what is working here is a rule in English that mandates that you use the semantically stingiest formulation. We use ‘get’ the same way vice ‘go’.
    There is a general preference for this kind of parsimony at work in strings of nouns for instance, which is why we find long strings in German to be a little awkward and comical. It is probably a general cultural value – English understatement versus German overstatement. Was anything ever so over-engineered as the ashtray in a Mercedes?

  8. Russian does the same thing: “Ia byl v teatre”/ “Ia khodil v teatr”.

  9. I wonder whether there’s a problem displaying the Arabic on my Mac. The rightmost character in لاخِيرَ. is disconnected from the other characters, not connected the way I would expect Arabic to be. It looks like an upside-down cause ribbon. In isolation — ل –it looks like the letter J.

  10. It happens sometimes with me also….the characters are not displayed well. I’m looking out for the solution right now.

  11. Russian does the same thing: “Ia byl v teatre”/ “Ia khodil v teatr”.
    No, that’s not the same; it’s as if Russian were to say “Ya byl v teatr,” treating byt’ as a verb of going.

  12. This is actually a sticking point here in Japan where I teach middle school English. Damned if they can explain it, but the editors of my textbooks noted at least the frequency of the expression as the usual equivalent of “itta koto ga aru”, which literally renders “I have gone”. I do my best to counter the tendency, but it’s treated so prominently that students often fail to learn the past participle “gone”, and rarely encounter “been” in its original meaning, as in “I’ve been at school all day.”
    This means that in effect, they do acquire the verb as “go-went-been”, and I bet many decent Japanese speakers of English go their whole lives this way and native speakers never notice. Which supports the idea that “been” has partially supplemented the verb.
    As to the origin, from what I understand, in parallel to “he’s gone”, “he has gone” used to have the connotation “and he’s still there”, in contrast to which “he has been” conveyed merely the experience of having been in a place at some point in the past. It’s understandable how such a distinction could start to crumble, though it still kind of makes sense to me.

  13. I wonder what Lameen’s source was for this utterance: “I’ve been to more than half of the counties, and in the next six weeks, I’ll be to the other half of the counties”
    This does not strike me as native American English. You would finish the thought with “I’ll go” or perhaps “I’ll have been to the other half of the counties”, meaning at the end of the six-week period. I cannot imagine saying or writing “I’ll be to the other half of the counties.” Do any native speakers disagree?

  14. Now I see the source is a Senator from Wyoming. It still strikes me (A New Englander) as a very odd utterance. Is this Mountain English? Or should we just discount anything Senators say on principle.

  15. LH: “No, that’s not the same; it’s as if Russian were to say “Ya byl v teatr,” treating byt’ as a verb of going.”
    But, conversely, khodil, as a multidirectional verb of motion, also carries the meaning of “was in” (I was in the theatre, but left).
    In the English, the only thing that’s confusing us, perhaps, is the preposition (“to” as opposed to “in”). The meaning in the Finnish example is virtually the same as “was in”….

  16. BTW, Vanya — totally agree, that is not native English (at least not to this native Englisher).

  17. elessorn: ‘”he has gone” used to have the connotation “and he’s still there”‘
    At least for me, it still does; I don’t think I could write “I’ve gone to Finland” unless it was on a note I left behind for somebody.

  18. pm215 – I agree. To me the difference is still valid – “I’ve gone” means I have not yet come back. “I’ve been” means I have come back. I think most native speakers make this distinction.

  19. Of course, you could say “I’ll be to Finland before he realizes I’ve stolen his boat.”

    Could you? I couldn’t. “I’ll be halfway to Finland…”, or similar, but not “I’ll be to Finland…”.

  20. Are there any parallels outside English? said someone above.
    Answer yes! Cornish! (That for languagehat).
    In modern Cornish dialect, which is often a direct translation of the old Cornish language, you may still hear some Cornishmen saying, “I be to Devon tomorrow” or whatever.

  21. Tim May: ‘Could you? I couldn’t. “I’ll be halfway to Finland…”, or similar, but not “I’ll be to Finland…”.’
    I agree it sounds better with the ‘halfway’, but I still think I could say it. For example:
    A: “Will you be home before he realizes you’ve stolen his boat?”
    B: “Hell, I’ll be to *Finland* before he realizes I’ve stolen his boat.” (Emphasis on Finland.)
    I agree this would still sound better with a ‘halfway’ or something, but I think I would still allow it without it.
    Perhaps this is a regional thing. I grew up in California. The senator who had the sentence about the counties is from Wyoming. It sounded a little odd to me, but not quite wrong. I’m pretty certain, though, I would never use it without some time limit, possibly implied. “We’ll be to Finland by tomorrow morning”, etc.

  22. Michael Farris says

    Ñongratulations !
    I know the year is young, but this gets my nomination for word of the year (or decade, whatever).
    I love, love, love this word!
    Ñongratulations !

  23. michael farris says

    Oops, now that you’ve deleted the comment spam I was reacting to I look like a blithering idiot (I’d like to think that that’s a change, but I’m going to ask for a majority opinion or anything).

  24. Michael, what do you care how you look? Not an idiot, that’s for sure. Blithering idiots, here and elsewhere, are very proud of their every word.
    Speaking of [favorite] words

  25. That’s a funny post!

  26. Lars Mathiesen says

    Let me adduce the syncretism of Spanish fui as the preterito of ser and ir both. Especially that it’s in the past perfect form only. You’ve been in a place if you’ve gone there innit, and the converse is hard to avoid.

    (It’s clearly irrelevant that modern Spanish uses estar for being in a place).

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