Tower of Babel in Babylon

Tower of Babel

♪♩♫ Joy to the world 
The Lord is come… ♫♩♪

Wait, wait. The Lord is come? Isn’t there something wrong? First, we know that come cannot be in the passive voice here, as come is an intransitive verb, it does not have an object, which basically means it cannot have a passive form. On the other hand, if it was in the present perfect tense, then the auxiliary used should have been “have” (has) instead of “be” (is). What is happening?

To understand what is going on here, let us first take a look at German, a sister language of English.

Similar to English, the present perfect tense in German is formed by an auxiliary and the past participle of the main verb. What is peculiar is that in German there are two groups of verbs, one makes use of the auxiliary haben ‘have’, whereas the other makes use of the auxiliary sein ‘be’. This can be illustrated with the following two examples.

1. Was haben Sie gemacht?
  What have you done
2. Was ist passiert?
  What has happened

The use of sein as the auxiliary is actually restricted to a small set of verbs, all of which express some kind of state or change in state or location. In addition, they are all intransitive verbs which do not take any direct object. These include verbs like ankommen ‘arrive’, aufstehen ‘get up’, bleiben ‘stay’, gehen ‘go’, kommen ‘come’, passieren ‘happen’, sein ‘be’, sitzen ‘sit’, stehen ‘stand’, sterben ‘die’, vorkommen ‘appear’, wandern ‘wander’ and werden ‘become’. In fact, this distinction is also made in a lot of European languages such as Italian, French, Spanish and Dutch.

In linguistics, these verbs are called unaccusative verbs. They are distinguished from other verbs because the subject of an unaccusative verb does not initiate the event expressed by the verb volitionally. Instead, it merely experiences, undergoes or is affected by that event. This can be easily understood in the cases of ‘happen’, ‘die’ or ‘become’, although it may be harder to grasp in the cases of ‘go’ and ‘come’.

In this respect, in terms of its meaning, we can say that the subject of an unaccusative verb is more like an object. Indeed, in English, many of the verbs in the above list allow their subject to be placed in the object position if the subject position is filled with a dummy subject like here or there.

3a. A man in a black suit came.
3b. Here came a man in a black suit.

4a. The trees stand there.
4b. There stand the trees.

Just like the languages mentioned above, English also used to require the use of ‘be’ as the auxiliary for unaccusative verbs in forming the present perfect tense. Although in Present Day English, ‘have’ has taken over to be the sole auxiliary used, this usage of ‘be’ can still be seen in some archaic or idiomatic expressions.

5. The Lord is come.
6. Babylon is fallen.
7. All hope is gone.

In fact, if we come to think of it, there is certain reason to use ‘be’ for unaccusative verbs. The verb ‘be’ is normally used to describe the states or properties of its subject. Is a book new? Old? Thick? Thin? Or torn? Is a shop open? Closed? Empty? Or full of people? On the other hand, since unaccusative verbs express events that occur involuntarily, semantically, they almost necessarily focus on the resulting states rather than the actions themselves.

This tendency can be illustrated with the verb ‘go’, which can still be used with ‘be’ now. Let us consider the following two sentences:

8a. John has gone.
8b. John is gone.

On the surface both sentences mean more or less the same thing. However, (8a) has a stronger stress on the temporal location of the event, whereas (8b) focuses on the present state that John is no longer here. This can be seen if we consider the situation that John left a long ago, then (8b) can be used but not (8a). On the other hand, we can modify (8a) with ‘just’ to stress on its recentness, but not (8b) (wth ‘just’ meaning “but a moment before”):

9a. John has just gone.
9b. *John is just gone.

As a matter of fact, ‘gone’ in (8b) is so much like an adjective that many dictionaries simply list it as an adjective.