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My question is why English uses the past "was" in "I was born", and many other languages (the majority of the European languages for instance), use the present "is" with this past participle?

(Je suis né. Sono nato. etc...)

What are the historical and grammatical reasons. (I'm not looking for the logical reason, as it's obvious)

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    What research have you carried out? Sep 23, 2019 at 10:09
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    @marcellothearcane The research is in the question and takes the form of references to other languages. Sep 23, 2019 at 10:11
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    Why do some other languages use a present tense? Clearly, they consider né(e) and its equivalents to be adjectives that describe a trait or characteristic of a person (“I have X as my birth date”), whereas English considers the phrase to be a passive construction (“Someone gave birth to me on X day”). For the record, there are plenty of other European languages that use past-tense constructions as well (Irish, Danish, Greek, etc.), though some also have the option of using a present-tense formation. A ‘why’ question like this is essentially impossible to answer – it’s just because. Sep 23, 2019 at 10:38
  • The English language has a preference for past tense while other languages, at least those mentioned in your question, prefer to use past participle also for past events.
    – user 66974
    Sep 23, 2019 at 10:50

2 Answers 2

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The apparent similarity of "Je suis né" and "I was born" is deceptive. Even though both use a "to be" auxiliary, they are actually not very similar structures in terms of how they fit in the rest of the language's grammatical system.

English "be born" is a verb that takes the form of a passive construction, despite not actually being a passive construction ("to be born" can't be converted to an active-voice equivalent, and it can't take a by--phrase to mark the agent of the action). Historically, born is derived from the past participle borne of the verb "to bear", used as a passive particle. Compare a true passive like "to be killed": "I am killed" refers to the present, and to refer to the past, the auxiliary is inflected for past tense: "I was killed". (Or to refer to the past in other ways, you can use a perfect construction: "I have been killed", or "I had been killed" for the pluperfect.)

French "Je suis né" is a perfect construction. In French, as in English, the perfect construction consists of an auxiliary verb and a past participle; the auxiliary is not inflected for past tense unless you want to refer to a "past-in-the-past" (pluperfect) situation. So "J'étais né", with past inflection marked on the auxiliary étais, means "I had been born".

French mostly uses the auxiliary avoir "have" to form the perfect, but a handful of verbs such as naître "to be born", as well as all reflexive verbs, use être "to be" instead when forming the perfect. This use of être to form the perfect is not very comparable to the English use of "be" in the English passive construction, or in the pseudo-passive construction "to be born". The French usage of être to form the perfect is comparable instead to the obsolete usage of "be" in English to form the perfect of verbs like become (as in "He is become my salvation").

Unlike in English, the French perfect construction is used to express a plain "perfective" past, with no special connotation about a relationship between the past event and the situation in the present. Since "Je suis né" is a French perfect construction, the word "suis" doesn't actually mean "is" here, even though that's the translation of the word suis in isolation. So I disagree with the comment that suggested thinking of "Je suis né le 13 Novembre" as meaning something like “I have November 13 as my birth date”: it doesn't mean that, it means "I was born November 13". You can use sentences like "Il est né en 1943" to refer to someone who was born in 1943 and has died since: the "suis/es/est... né(e)" construction does not have to describe a currently existing person.

Naitre is used in the present tense, where it inflects the same as other French verbs, rather than looking anything like a passive construction: e.g. je nais "I am born", vous naissez "you are born". English happens to lack a verb that can be used as a single word in the active voice with this meaning.

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The answer lies in the definition of verb tenses.

In English, PAST tense (was) is used for action that completed as a definite/specific time in the past. "Being born" is a MOMENTARY action that spans seconds or minutes. It begins and ends relatively quickly (in the past)

We were born in the past.

I am born/he is born => Present tense/passive voice referring to a birth in the PRESENT (now or a few minutes ago perhaps), not years ago.

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  • The question is asking about the history and not the (present day) logic of the phrase.
    – Lawrence
    Dec 26, 2019 at 6:42

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