French/Italian and German have a composite past tense (passé composé/passato prossimo/Perfekt) that is formed using either auxiliary verb to be (être/essere/sein) or auxiliary verb to have (avoir/avere/haben) plus the past participle. The verbs using one or the other auxiliary are not the same (a very well defined group in French and much larger groups in Italian and German), but the rules given by traditional grammars regarding the use of one or the other auxiliary are very similar:

  • reflexive/pronominal verbs always use to be (Remark: It was pointed in the comments that this is not the case in German.)
  • other verbs using to be are usually verbs of motion or state (but often imply motion in a rather generalized sense, like to be born and to die as "coming into/out of life".)
  • transitive verbs always use auxiliary to have; whereas verbs than can use both auxilaires, always use to have when transitive: e.g., Je suis monté à l'étage vs. J'ai monté la valise à l'étage.

I am not sure whether such use is characteristic to other Romance or Germanic languages (of which I have vanishingly small knowledge.)
The question is: are these similarities between French/Italian and German a consequence of shared history/interaction or should we rather speak of a convergent evolution (same feature emerging independently)? Perhaps, these are ancient features inherited from a much earlier ancestor?

Italian passato prossimo agrees with subject with 'essere' but not 'avere'. Why?
Why use “être” with pronominal verbs in complex tenses in french?

Thread How did the same perfect-tense structure become so widespread in Europe? provides an interesting discussion of how the analytic perfect has developed in Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages. My question, although related, is more specific: alternation of two auxiliary verbs (to be vs. to have.)

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    this is a classic feature of "standard average european". I'd recommend reading a summary of that (e.g. this wiki page here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Average_European) first
    – Tristan
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 15:16
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    Re. #1: That definition works for French (and Italian, I think, but my Italian is not good enough to be familiar with the ins and outs of auxiliaries), but not German – or indeed any other Germanic languages. As in English, German reflexives use have, not be (though a specific subset of reciprocal verbs do use be). Re. #3: That’s not even true in French. Verbs belonging to group #2 use have when used transitively, but ambitransitive verbs in general use have both transitively and intransitively (“J’ai mangé le pain” ~ “J’ai mangé”, not “*Je suis mangé” [that’s passive]). Commented May 3, 2023 at 16:24
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    Interestingly you can add Hittite to your list as well using the verb 'ḫark' corresponding to 'have' and 'es' corresponmding to 'be'.
    – Ned
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 18:04
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    @RogerVadim it's still worth considering more broadly. English also used to alternate between two auxiliaries (easily seen in Shakespeare, but the use of "be" as a perfect auxiliary is ofc now pretty much completely obsolete)
    – Tristan
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 10:21
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1 Answer 1


This is called auxiliary selection. It came about in the late Roman - early Medieval period in the major Romance and Germanic languages, before being progressively lost in many languages through the late Medieval and into the Contemporary Modern period.

For the emergence of this distinction, it pays to go back to the Latin of the 9th century. The HAVE-perfect is outlined in other Linguistics.SE answers. The BE-perfect can be linked to the breakdown of the deponent - passive distinction. As stated by Drinka 2017:

Not only did the HAVE perfects flourish in particular contexts in Carolingian Latin, but the BE perfects also grew in prominence, in conjunction with the prolific increase in the use of deponent verbs. [...] Latin passives and deponents are formally identical, forming periphrastics with a BE auxiliary in the perfect and pluperfect.

These deponents became especially productive in Late Latin, beginning especially n the 6th century, and culminating in a crescendo of increased frequency in the late 8th and 9th centuries, precisely at the time of Charlemagne’s reign. Deponents came to be used so profusely that virtually all of them had active counterparts which substituted for them freely: the glosses demonstrate complete interchangeability between deponents and actives. It was the late profusion of both deponents and passives in Latin which promulgated the periphrastic BE perfects.

The closeness of the Germanic and Romance 'Standard Average European' sprachbund can be attributed to the various stylistic and sociolinguistic changes. However, each language developed the use of the periphrastic perfect to different extents.

Among those that have lost auxiliary selection in the perfect tense, we find the standard forms of Catalan, English, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish, all in favour of the HAVE-auxiliary.

Based on the types of verbs that converted to HAVE-auxiliary, as well as the semantics of the verbs that have BE-auxiliary, there is the Auxiliary Selection Hierarchy (Sorace 2000):


  • Change of location
  • Change of state
  • Continuation of a pre-existing state
  • Existence of state
  • Uncontrolled process
  • Controlled process (motional)
  • Controlled process (non-motional)


For those in the middle of this hierarchy, for languages that have the boundary around there, they have a certain amount of fluctuation, and the influence of the predicate becomes important. For example, for Italian, the 'change of state' nature of the first sentence selects BE, whilst the 'process' in the second selects HAVE:

La pianta è fiorita all’improvviso.

"The plant blossomed suddenly."

La pianta ha fiorito per tutta l’estate.

"The plant blossomed throughout the whole of the summer."

I will share this warning from Ackema & Sorace 2017 though:

Of course, it should be kept in mind that the possibility that there is a diachronic change going on does not affect the point that the synchronic grammatical situation should somehow be accounted for. (In this respect, it is interesting to note as well that the history of some Germanic languages, like Dutch and German, seems to be characterized by a development towards a more pronounced dispreference for a HAVE-alternant with some BE-taking verbs)

The paper continues to boil it down to a combination of semantics and syntax.

On the Slavic use of auxiliaries: this is mostly not comparable to its use in Romance/Germanic, as the perfect is based on the "l-participle", which is active, and BE is the only auxiliary. Even Macedonian, which does have the HAVE-auxiliary, doesn't distribute them across different lexical verbs, but is rather a dialectal marker (сум-perfect vs има-perfect, and then with different participles, according to Tomić 2006).

  • Thanks a lot. The Russian examples from other threads, like у меня всё сделано, are certainly limited to set expressions. Besides, they form future and past forms with to be: у меня всё было/будет сделано.
    – Roger V.
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 16:09

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