In Geoff Pullum's recent post Being an Auxiliary on the Lingua Franca blog, he states that the sense of "have" as an auxiliary (forming the perfect tense) evolved from the possession sense, "but the speciation that separated them took place half a millennium ago".

This struck me as much too recent, given that an almost identical perfect construction exists not only in most (all?) other Germanic languages, but also in the Romance languages (with the exception of Portuguese?). But, sure enough, the OED says that this evolution "to some extent parallels developments in other Germanic and Romance languages, but appears at least partly to reflect development within English". (On the other hand, it also says "This development appears to have largely taken place before the written record.")

Assuming that it indeed happened within the last half millennium or so, how can this kind of fundamental language change occur in parallel between a dozen or so languages dispersed over a continent (from Iceland to Romania)? Did the innovation occur in one region and then spread between languages (like a new vocabulary item might), or is it better to think of it as a natural development that came about independently in multiple language communities (like simplification of noun inflection)?

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    I think that what Prof. Pullum is saying is not that the perfect arose half a millenium ago but that the modern strict distinction between English auxiliaries and lexicals arose half a millennium ago. And I think it's true that many of the characteristic NICE properties which distinguish auxiliaries from lexicals are products of the transition from ME to ModE. Jul 8, 2016 at 10:48
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    See also this question and its answers: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/17462/… Jul 9, 2016 at 21:54

1 Answer 1


Areal features develop when languages from different groups or branches are in contact with each other. There are a few main mechanisms - common substrate, common superstrate, parallel development.

About the feature in question:

The use of have, haben, avoir, avere etc as an auxiliary for the past tense is an example of an areal feature. The areas where languages use this auxiliary correspond roughly to former Celtic-speaking areas and to those where language was heavily influenced by Vulgar Latin, including deep in the Balkans. I will not speculate on the ultimate source and exact mechanism here.

Danish, Dutch, French, German and Italian represent a transitional zone, where to be is the auxiliary for intransitive verbs, and to have for others. Old Spanish and Middle English had this distinction too, which is to say this feature's area was still evolving in recent centuries - across language families.

It is not common unbroken Indo-European legacy - Latin habere and Germanic haben are not actually cognates, and classical Latin and Greek made little use of auxiliaries anyway. Many Indo-European languages outside of Western Europe - Armenian, Iranian languages, Slavic languages beside Macedonian - use the copula as an auxiliary, but most do not use any translation or cognate of habere or haben as an auxiliary for the past tense.

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[Pardon the seeming equation of languages with current political entities]

  • The use of the verb "to be" as an auxiliary to form transitive and intransitive verbs is wide-spread in Iranian and Indo-Aryan languages. Also in Aramaic (Semitic).
    – fdb
    Jul 8, 2016 at 18:41
  • Yes, but the delicate balance as in French, Italian, German and Dutch is not. Jul 9, 2016 at 6:13
  • Re-worded to be hopefully more clear Jul 9, 2016 at 7:09
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    Standard Ukrainian has future tense with "to have", the map does not reflect this. Apr 19, 2017 at 22:31
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    @ConstantineGeist The map is for the past tense. English has auxiliary be and even do for some random tenses, the map is not intended to show that either. Apr 20, 2017 at 7:54

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