In French, there are a set of 17 verbs lovingly called the Vandertramps:

Devenir (to become)
Revenir (to come back)


Monter (to climb)
Rentrer (to reenter)
Sortir (to exit)

Venir (to come)
Aller (to go)
Naître (to be born)
Descendre (to descend)
Entrer (to enter)
Retourner (to return)
Tomber (to fall)
Rester (to stay)
Arriver (to arrive)
Mourir (to die)
Partir (to leave)
(P)asser par (to pass by)

All of these verbs (French Wiktionary has a more complete list) are conjugated differently in the compound past tense than all other verbs: they use the verb être rather than the verb avoir as the auxiliary for compound past tenses.

I can't think of anything that using a different auxiliary for only 17 verbs would accomplish. Is there a linguistic reason to do this?

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    Where did you get this list? It's strange; for example it lists devenir and revenir separately from venir but omits parvenir. Another major omission is reflexive verbs which also use the auxiliary être. By the way, “Vandertramps” seems to be an English thing, in French they're just calls “verbes qui utilisent l'auxiliaire être” or some such. I suggest changing your title to be more explicit. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' May 9 '16 at 22:13
  • @Gilles I am currently taking French II in America, and this is how we remember them. Google Search "Vandertramp" or "Vandertrampp" and you will get tons of results. We just learned reflexive past today, but that's not considered a "Vandertramp". – OldBunny2800 May 9 '16 at 22:18
  • Latin doesn't use an auxiliary (except for the passive perfect - it is not a coincidence that few of those verbs have passives). – Colin Fine May 9 '16 at 22:43
  • @LePressentiment, I didn't see that! Thanks! – OldBunny2800 May 15 '16 at 17:21

As usual in language evolution, having two auxiliaries wasn't a goal, things just happened this way (and in fact the long-term evolution is towards a single auxiliary).

There is an article in French Wikipedia that explains how the compound past tenses evolved in French (and to various extents in other Romance languages). My answer here is mostly a summary of this article.

In Latin (the ancestor language of French), past tenses do not use an auxiliary (except in the passive voice). All the past tenses are formed by adding suffixes.

The verb habeo (“have”) was not an auxiliary in classical Latin. However it it was sometimes used in combination with past participles. For example, “meam fidem est cognitam” (“my loyalty is known”) can also be said “meam fidem habent cognitam” (lit. “they know my loyalty”). This kind of phrasing was initially used with expressions meaning know, believe, etc. and was gradually generalized to more verbs.

The verb habeo was also used in constructs like “habeo literas scriptas” (lit. “I have a written letter”), which gradually came to be used to mean “I have written a letter”. The letter is a direct complement of the verb; this explains how habeo gradually became an auxiliary for transitive verbs. This meaning had become generalized in late Latin, while some of the single-word past tenses disappeared. This formation didn't make sense for intransitive verbs. Italian still uses the auxiliary avere for compound past tenses. In French, the auxiliary avoir became generalized not only to all transitive verbs but also for most intransitive verbs as well.

As some simple past tenses were disappearing, expressing a motion or state change came to use the auxiliary esse. For example, “venitus sum” literally means “I am in the state of having come” — that's essentially equivalent to veni (“I came”).

This formation converged with another reason to use the auxiliary be: Latin had deponent verbs, with only passive forms. In the passive mood, Latin did have some compound tenses, using the auxiliary esse. For example patior (“I suffer”), passus sum (“I have suffered”). The concept of deponent verbs disappeared as the endings got simplified and merged with active voice endings; this left verbs with compound tenses formed with the auxiliary be. In Italian, all intransitive verbs use the auxiliary essere for compound tenses. This was also the case in medieval French, but over time more and more verbs came to use avoir. In modern French, only about a dozen verbs (and their derivatives) still use être.

The evolution of French may have been influenced by German, which also uses either haben (“have”) or sein (“be”) to form compound past tenses, with haben being the most common and sein being used with verbs expressing a movement (ich bin gegangen: I have gone), a change of state (ich bin geschwollen: I have swelled), or sometimes a lasting state (ich bin gelieben: I have stayed). The French verbs that use avoir also fit in those categories, though in French many verbs that express movement or state use avoir.

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  • "In modern French, only a dozen verbs (and their derivatives) still use avoir" Don't you mean être? BTW, good answer! So, it's an etymological thing… – OldBunny2800 May 9 '16 at 23:23
  • ONly in the sense that everything in language is "an etymological thing". You can see certain patterns, but you can't say why it has turned out this way and not that). – Colin Fine May 10 '16 at 9:17

This is not unique to the French language and not really caused by the Latin origins of the language. German and Dutch have the same thing. They use "have" as auxiliary verb for most verbs and "are" as auxiliary verb for some.

As stated before, there is some logic behind it. Verbs that describe something that you actively do use "have". Verbs that describe a status you're in or change of status (like leaving, coming, going, falling, etc.) use "are". But this is never 100% consistent.

Neither of these languages use "do" as auxiliary verb in questions as English does. Dutch and German say "Know you?" rather than "Do you know?" French has 3 options. 1) Use the intonation to change "You know?" from an expression to a question. 2) Do the same as Dutch and German and reverse the order of the words to become "Know you?". 3) Add "Is it that" at the beginning of the sentence "Is it that you know?"

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Because they are unaccusative verbs (ones where the subject may be seen as an experiencer rather than an active causer of something).

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  • Why do "quitter", "courir", "marcher", etc. not follow this then? – OldBunny2800 May 9 '16 at 23:14
  • Because language. (Sorry for the flippancy, but the answer to almost all 'why' questions about language is "Because that's the way it is"). – Colin Fine May 10 '16 at 9:14

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