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I been, I seen, I done

By Anatoly Liberman

The forms in the title are substandard but ubiquitous in conversational English, and the universally understood reference to the genre called whodunit (it originated about seventy years ago) testifies to its partial victory. I have often heard the question about their origin and will try to answer it, though my information is scanty and to the best of my knowledge, a convincing theory of whodunit (the construction, not the genre) is lacking, which does not augur well for a detective story.

The English perfect (has) had a checkered career. First of all, it is used according to the rules partly different from those in the other Germanic languages. In no variety of English is it possible to say Dickens has died in 1870, while in every other Germanic language, in some contexts, this would be a legitimate sentence. Imagine the following exchange: “We have all read The Tale of Two Cities. But what was Dickens’s attitude toward the Paris Commune?” “He could not know anything about it. That event took place in 1871, while Dickens died in 1870!” To emphasize (or “foreground”) the date, rather than the fact of Dickens’s death, a speaker of German and of any Scandinavian language will use the perfect here. English prohibits this choice. The only concession to the “Eurozone” is the vacillation with the adverbial in the past. Depending on the circumstances, one can say: “It happened in the past” and “It has happened in the past.”

Three little kittens lost their mittens; And they began to cry, "Oh! mother dear, we really fear that we have lost our mittens!" "Lost your mittens! You naughty kittens! Then you shall have no pie." "Mee-ow, mee-ow, mee-ow." "No; you shall have no pie." "Mee-ow, mee-ow, mee-ow, mee-ow." The Three Little Kittens by R. N. Ballantyne, 1858. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Second, the present perfect seems to have increased its sphere of influence in British English since the colonization of the New World. The more usual American correspondences of British I have never seen it and she has just left the room are I never saw it and she just left the room. Even the anthologized picture of a boy weeping at the sight of the mischief he has done/did (it is supposed to illustrate a classic use of the present perfect as opposed to the simple past) — “Mother, I have broken a plate!” — leaves American speakers cold, for most of them would say in this situation: “Mother, I broke a plate!” Finally, our main theme: the affront of the omitted auxiliary in I been, seen, done. (I am almost tempted to apologize for the use of the term auxiliary; everybody around me says help verb, which is probably fine.)

The origin of grammatical phenomena is no easier to trace than the origin of words and idioms. So few things are certain in the history of I been/seen/done that it may be useful to mention them at once. I been and the rest are not imports from Black English (though some people think so) and they are not Americanisms (as most people believe). Another tempting hypothesis should also be dismissed. The auxiliary have is usually shortened to ’ve: we’ve met before, you should’ve come earlier, and so forth. This ’ve is meaningless even to such an enlightened segment of our population as college students, who write you should of come earlier. So why not leave it altogether? No, things don’t happen this way.

The omission of have produces strange sentences. What is do in I done? A participle or a new preterit? The same question may be asked about been and seen in I been and I seen. The past and the past participle of weak verbs always coincide: helped/helped, robbed/robbed, shredded/shredded. (This also holds for such irregular weak verbs as hear/heard/heard, feed/fed/fed, and keep/kept/kept.) Even a few strong verbs behave in a similar way: find/found/found, grind/ground/ground. (A point of information. Those who have forgotten the meaning of the terms weak and strong, as applied to verbs, are kindly requested to read the post for July 25, where this theme is developed in connection with the etymology of fart.) It could therefore be argued that the non-discrimination of principal parts by weak verbs influenced even such verbs as be (which is historically irregular), see (strong), and do (irregular). But then why do other strong verbs stand their ground so well? No one seems to say we eaten, I taken, and he spoken. Be, see, and do are the most common English verbs. However, the greatest frequency may even be a hindrance to change.

The only analog of I been/seen/done is I got for I’ve got. Here are a few examples from the 1978 article by the late Russian linguist G. S. Shchur. “What you got there, grandma?”; “There is no necessity of rushing it unless you want to, because we got to get more save up and everything arranged right”; “I got a right to know what she said, haven’t I?” (This is an especially interesting sentence because it shows that the speaker is aware of the unpronounced auxiliary.) However, I’ve got is an idiom, while I been/seen/done is not. A similar situation occurs in the following dialogue: “’What you got there,’ he asked Cameron, ‘run?’ — ‘We did have’ Cameron said drily.”

Been, seen, and done without have turn up in the novels and plays by Kingsley, Dickens, Joyce, Shaw, and others. “…they never got nothing but fourteen shilling, and I seen um both a-hanging in chains by Wisbeach river, with my own eyes” ; “Yer lie, I don’t owe yer nothing; I never seen yer” ; “Though I say it, I’m better than the best collector he ever done business with” ; “God knows we done all we could, as poor as we are.” Not all the speakers quoted above are low class characters. American authors (Sinclair Lewis, Steinbeck, and many others) recorded the same grammar: “What you been doing with yourself?” ; “I been checking up” ; “Any of you boys seen Curley?” Pre-nineteenth century examples exist, with a few (very few) going back to Middle English, but whatever the origin of I seen and the rest may be, its spread is recent and a continuous development from an early epoch to the present cannot be observed.

Judging by the not too copious data at our disposal, I been/seen/done arose in Irish English and the influx of Irish immigrants can account for their popularity in the United States. Perhaps the wide use of the have-less perfect in America had repercussions for British English (as happened to subjunctives like I insist you do it, without should, in Australia and New Zealand). But this suggestion does not carry too much weight, for no one says I done and I been on the American TV on a regular (or even irregular) basis, let alone write so in newspapers. Nor do northern English and Scots constructions of the type we done got this far, with done serving as an auxiliary, shed any light on the usage that interests us here. In the southern American states, “among the persons of assured social position,” one often hears “I’(ve) done told you this three times,” apparently, a relic of British usage brought there from the old country. (Southern I used to can ~ I used to could are also of Scottish provenance.)

As we can see (“as we seen”), the games with the perfect are many, but it is hard to detect a unifying thread. The Old Germanic languages did not have the perfect of the modern type or of the type known from Latin and Greek. This tense developed in the full light of history, and the development did not follow a straight line. Several auxiliaries have been tried, and sometimes the participle was considered sufficient for the form. Irish English seems to have been particularly radical in that respect. We probably owe the I been/seen/done construction to it. It was exported to America and became more widely used there than in the old country, but the virtual absence of pre-nineteenth attestation remains a mystery.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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3 Responses to “I been, I seen, I done”
  1. annie morgan says:

    That one gave me the horrors! It also reminded me of an accusatory/defensive conversation between two under-ten-year-olds in a Toronto settlement house overheard by my mother back in the 1930′s.
    “You done it”
    “I didn’t done it”
    “You did done it. I seed you done it”.
    Your article has left my grammatical sensibilites frazzled for the entire day. Hugely entertaining, and will be chortled over again before nightfall.

  2. John Cowan says:

    Mencken reports several more such preterite-like participles in non-standard use in the 1920s: I have beat, I have knew, I have laid (reclined), I have rang, I have shook, I have showed, I have span, I have sprang, I have took, I have throve, I have wore, I have wrang, I have wrote. Many of these came with participle-like predicates as well: I beat, I beaten, I have beat.

    Since the strong verbs no longer follow any but analogical patterns, it is not surprising that they get mixed up in the dialects or even in the standard language: the present tense of run would be rin if the standard were tracking its historical origin, and it still is rin in Scots.

  3. John Larsson says:

    Sorry for being so late, but this fascinating blog is so new to me!
    How shall I put this? I once studied law. At first you don’t understand one word of it, then you understand everything and at last you end up with understanding how little you really understand! Isn’t this also the case with languages? There are differences in our (western) languages in how much grammar means and what is idiomatics outside grammar, but generally we have a rather rigid understanding of “our” language as a grammar with a certain number of word classes, a certain number of “tenses” and so forth. In other languages, even languages ind old cultures as in East Asia, language can not be defined with the same terminology; the language in this part of the world is a bunch of nouns; expressing tenses and reflexions comes with subtile understandings of the sequence in which these nouns are presented!
    I moved from Sweden to Denmark as adult and I also converted to Danish rather quickly (you know started to “think” in Danish!) Maybe one is more observant when one is converting language, but one “sense” in Danish puzzled me very much. In Denmark you can hear “jeg vil mene” (“I will mean”). I started to make notes at this and my “statistics” showed that the persons saying so, never said “jeg mener” (“I mean”), and these persons only used this way of expressing in first person singular! There is no special “tense” in Danish, but a minority (maybe being extra ambivalent!) is trying to change the grammar! ;-)

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