When learning some basic French, I was somewhat surprised to learn that phrases of the form "I have found the cat" generally translate almost word-for-word from English (J'ai trouvé le chat). To me, it's not immediately obvious that possession ("I have"/"J'ai") has a correspondence with past tense, although if I think about it a little more I suppose I can kind of see how it makes sense.

This makes me wonder: Is this a common pattern in other languages? Especially ones not closely related to English.

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    If you noticed this because it was common to both English and French, why do you consider English the unusual one in the title?
    – Barmar
    Oct 10, 2019 at 17:31
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    @Barmar I don't understand what point you're trying to make. I don't think my experience implies that either of the mentioned languages is more unusual than the other for having this feature. It seems like an unusual feature in any language, and I'm a native English speaker so I was curious whether this is an unusual feature in my native language or more common and fundamental than that.
    – llama
    Oct 10, 2019 at 19:35
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    phrases of the form "I have found the cat" generally translate almost word-for-word from English (J'ai trouvé le chat) This is not quite true. In the English phrase, "have found" is different from "found," and it emphasizes that the action has been completed. In French, the passe compose is simply how the past is expressed in the spoken language. (There is a passe simple, which is only used in formal written French.) Also, note that French has some verbs, e.g., aller, that take etre rather than avoir.
    – user12663
    Oct 11, 2019 at 0:03
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    English, German, and French all use "to have" and "to be" when forming the past tense - "to have" when the verb is a discrete or completed event (like "I have found" or "I have walked") and "to be" when the verb is continuous or ongoing at the time being referred to (such as "I was looking" or "I was walking"). Other related languages probably do similar, but I wouldn't know; I only speak those three. Oct 11, 2019 at 8:43
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    @Barmar My inference is that the OP originally saw this feature and just thought it was an idiosyncrasy of English, but then saw it in French, and started wondering whether it's a general feature of languages, or whether it's a feature particular to English that French happens to share. Like if you see one person walking down the street wearing a gas mask, you might dismiss as one person being weird, but if you see two people, you might start to wondering whether something's going on. Oct 11, 2019 at 17:10

1 Answer 1


This is what's called a "Sprachbund" feature: it's a trait shared by a bunch of languages in an area, even ones that aren't genetically related. In particular, this one is a feature of the "Standard Average European" Sprachbund, a group of languages centered in Western Europe, and it's one of the features that was originally used to define that Sprachbund in the first place!

The construction seems to have arisen back in Latin. In Classical Latin, past aoristic verbs ("I loved") and present perfective verbs ("I have loved") look exactly the same: both of those would be written amāvī. But it's a pretty useful distinction to be able to make! So in Vulgar Latin, a new construction arose, using the verb habēre ("to have"). It's thought that a phrase like habeō litterās scriptās "I have (written letters)" got reanalyzed into "I (have written) letters", with habēre no longer indicating that you're actually holding anything in your hands, just that an action's been completed in the past.

Vulgar Latin eventually evolved into French, Italian, Spanish, and all the other Romance languages, and brought this construction with it; habēre is the direct ancestor of French avoir, via a series of sound changes. And once various Romance languages and Germanic languages and others were all being spoken in the same area, this feature spread through the Sprachbund: people speaking Germanic languages started to use the same construction. English "have"/German haben/etc isn't actually at all related to Latin habēre, but they looked similar, so it was the obvious choice when adopting the construction into Germanic.

Nowadays, this feature is called the "have-perfective", and it shows up in all sorts of languages within the Standard Average European (SAE) Sprachbund. It's not at all universal, but can be a good way to determine if a language has been influenced by SAE or not!

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    I can confirm that this construct is also present in Spanish with haber (the local cognate of avoir), for example, "He encontrado el gato" (="I have found the cat"). Oct 9, 2019 at 23:40
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    It may be worth noting how Portuguese developed in this, by using the verb ter from Latin tenēre ("to hold"), cognate to French tenir.
    – Michaelyus
    Oct 10, 2019 at 14:19
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    @gormadoc To the best of my knowledge, attestation of the Continental Celtic languages ends before the habēre-perfective really catches on in Latin. But Celtic is very far from my area of expertise so I'm not sure.
    – Draconis
    Oct 10, 2019 at 19:34
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    It was a linguistics "mind blown" moment for me when I learned that habere and haben (and Germanic friends) were NOT cognates. Certainly helped me understand why we need to be very cautious with assuming cognates, and keep remembering that coincidences are much more likely than our brain is led to think... although I guess in this case it's not fully a coincidence, as the superficial similarity of the words probably helped this way of forming the past spread to Germanic languages. But still.
    – LjL
    Oct 10, 2019 at 21:39
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    @Dave Because 'have' and 'haben' ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *kap- 'to hold', and 'habēre' derives from the PIE root *ghabh- 'to give; to receive'. When looking for cognates one does not look for similar-looking words, but rather regular correspondences. I recommend reading up on Grimm's Law.
    – Angelos
    Oct 11, 2019 at 11:24

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