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Share Paper 1458

Pieces of the be Perfect in German and Older English
Thomas McFadden and Artemis Alexiadou
270-278 (complete paper or proceedings contents)


This paper examines the development of periphrastic constructions involving auxiliary have and be with a past participle in the history of English, on the basis of parsed electronic corpora. It is argued that the two constructions represented distinct syntactic and semantic structures: while the one with have developed into a true perfect in the course of Middle English, the one with be remained a stative resultative throughout its history. In this way, it is explained why the be construction was rarely or never used in a number of contexts, including past counterfactuals, iteratives, duratives, certain kinds of infinitives and various other utterance types that cannot be characterized as perfects of result. When the construction with have became a true perfect, it was used in such contexts, regardless of the identity of the main verb, leading to the appearance of have with verbs like come which had previously only taken be. Crucially, however, have was not spreading at the expense of be, as the be perfect had never been used in such contexts, but rather at the expense of the old simple past. At least until the end of the Early Modern English period, the shift in the relative frequency of have and be perfects is to be explained in terms of the expansion of the former into new contexts, while the latter remained stable. A formal analysis is proposed, taking as its starting point a comparison with German which shows that the older English be perfect indeed behaves more like the German stative passive than its haben and sein perfects.

Published in

Proceedings of the 25th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics
edited by Donald Baumer, David Montero, and Michael Scanlon
Table of contents
Printed edition: $375.00