Monday, February 13, 2006

Where have you been? - a semantic change in progress?

Just a random observation...

Good sentences: I've been to Finland, I'll have been to Finland five times, he's never been to Finland...

Terrible sentences: *I am to Finland, *I will be to Finland, *I was to Finland, **he never is to Finland...

It seems that "been", in some cases, can act as an alternative past participle for "go", replacing "gone". A linking environment is provided by sentences with a bare locative adverb: I've been there / I am there / I will be there are all fine. Presumably, since "I've been there" normally implies "I've gone there" (unless you've been locked up there since birth or something), the "been" was reinterpreted as an even more irregular past participle of "go".

"I'll be there" equally implies "I'll go there", so it's odd that this wasn't extended similarly to allow "*I'll be to Finland" - or so I thought, before checking Google. 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?

12 comments:

Paul Davidson said...

"Be to bed" and "be to work" sound pretty odd to this Canadian, perhaps dialectic (maybe from somewhere in England). "Get to" sounds normal. Maybe when expressing the present and future, English speakers prefer the effort implied in "get" or "go".

That long sentence sounds really bad to me.

Aidan Kehoe said...

In German, and historically in English, the perfect for "to go" and "to come" is constructed with "to be"; "joy to the world, the Lord is come" and a search for "i am gone" in Google turns up Nelson's letters. Though it's mostly dead in current speech, I think your example is one of the places where it persists.

Justin said...

Parallels? Hmmm... arent' there a number of languages where forms of "go" and "be" are precariously close to one another? Greek and Hittite spring to mind.

But that has little to do with your overall question.

language said...

Fascinating. This had never occurred to me. If it is indeed changing as you suggest, current English will sound even more alien to me than it does already.

Lameen Souag said...

Hmm. I'll have to look into those Greek and Hittite cases you mention; maybe they could have arisen from a similar sort of confusion?

Language change in action is fun to look for, although you never know which innovations will get picked up. "He was like, 'I'm leaving'" (use of "like" as a quotative particle) is another that I've seen mentioned as a recent innovation catching on...

Anon said...

I agree with the first poster; "I'll be to bed in a minute" sounds a little odd, albeit not as odd as "I'll be to Finland." I suspect this is still a regional thing (I'm American). The last sentence sounds like a different phenomenon -- it sounds like language play to me.

Anonymous said...

In Spanish the past tenses of be and go are identical. Regarding quotative particles, go itself is used thus (perhaps originally for animal noises?) "The pig goes 'oink'; the cow goes 'moo'; the farmer goes 'get away from my animals!'"

Anonymous said...

a musing by an amateur: "to-bed" and "to-work" are different from "to Finland;" they're very common phrases; they've almost become placenames. And the situations in which you'd use these phrases are few. Surely you'd only say them to someone who was already "to-bed" or "to-work"? "I'll be to bed in a minute" I can only imagine as called over one's shoulder (possibly through a mouthful of toothpaste) to one's partner; "I'll be to work in a minute" might be me, on my cell phone, telling my colleagues I'm about to arrive.

Anonymous said...

the one commonality between all of these instances is that they reference a time period in which the being to will happen. i would expect we won't find it outside of that context very often, if at all.

David Marjanović said...

To my germanophone mind, the oddity is not "be", it is "to". This wonderfully fits the observation that English prepositions are thoroughly weird anyway. That said, "to" instead of "in" is not all that bizarre. It occurs in archaic German with place names: "Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin", "Fürst zu Thurn und Taxis"...

I agree on "to bed" and "to work" becoming fixed phrases -- locatives if you will*.

* Leftover from the times when "will" meant "want".

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to mention that I am disturbed by the phenomenon of googling to survey the popularity of a particular linguistic construction. No one has established the reliability of the "google corpus" for linguistic research.

Anonymous said...

There is a difference of meaning between "to go" and "to be" in this context. If you use "to go", as in "I have gone to Finland", it means that you are still in Finland, whereas "I have been to Finland" means that you are no longer in Finland. Similarly, "I have gone to bed" means you are still in bed, but "I have been to bed" means you are no longer in bed.