Ir, Ser, and suppletion in Spanish: why the preterites of “to be” and “to go” are the same
From my perspective as a linguist, Spanish is a rather unremarkable language. It has a relatively normal sound inventory (no ejectives, clicks, or voiced aspirates) it has a standard verbal conjugation system reflecting person and number, and its syntax is, for the most part, vanilla Subject-Verb-Object — like English.
However, there was always one thing about this language that bothered me: the past tense of its verb ‘to be’ is the same as the past tense of its verb ‘to go,’ ser and ir respectively. Take a look at the following tables for comparison:
|yo fui||‘I was’||nosotros fuimos||‘we were’|
|tu fuiste||‘you (sg. familiar) were’||vosotros fuisteis||‘you (pl. familiar) were’|
|él/ella/vd. fue||‘he/she/you (sg. formal) was/were’||ellos/ellas/vds. fueron||‘they(masc./fem.)/you (pl. formal) were’|
ir ‘to go’ (preterite)
|yo fui||‘I went’||nosotros fuimos||‘we went’|
|tu fuiste||‘you (sg. familiar) went’||vosotros fuisteis||‘you (pl. familiar) went’|
|él/ella/vd. fue||‘he/she/you (sg. formal) went’||ellos/ellas/vds. fueron||‘they(masc./fem.)/you (pl. formal) went’|
Exactly the same! Freaky, I know.
I always wondered how a language could get by without the ability to distinguish ‘went’ from ‘was’ — it seems like such an indispensable distinction. Other related languages, like French, maintain two separate words for these concepts, as did Latin. So this got me thinking: what happened to Spanish along the way that allowed these verbal paradigms to collapse into one?
As always, the past is the key to the present. In Latin, the word ‘to go’ was the tiny little word īre. The macron over the i means that it was pronounced twice, so another way to write it could be iire. However, given that the morphological marker for the infinitive in Latin was [vowel]re, the stem of this verb was even smaller; it was really just i. Not a very substantial morpheme, and it tended to get bullied around a bit, sometimes showing up as e. Take a look at the present tense:
īre ‘to go’ (present)
|eo||‘I go’||imus||‘we go’|
|is||‘you (sg.) go’||itis||‘you (pl.) go’|
|it||‘he/she/it goes’||eunt||‘they go’|
The blue parts are conjugational endings that are added to every verb. For our purposes, they don’t even count as part of the word, so you can really get the feel that this word was a feeble little guy.
Most of the romance languages were of the same opinion, so one of the first things they did was dispense of īre, usually replacing it with a version of the word vadīre, which meant ‘wander.’* This is where the French get their present forms vais, vas, va and vont, and where Spanish gets voy, vas, va, vamos, vais, and van (although both languages retain some forms that use the base ir, and we will see why in a moment).
Having already developed a propensity for suppletion — which is the technical term for replacing part of a verb’s paradigm with forms of another verb — īre was ready to lose its past tense. Fortunately, there was already a good candidate for replacement, and it came from an alternative past tense expression using the word ‘be’ followed by an accusative. We have the same construction in English: ‘We’ve been to France.’ Over time, this expression became the predominant means of expressing ‘go’ in the past tense, and so ser slowly replaced the original past tense of īre.
When no reasonable alternative to īre was available, the languages were stuck with it. This is why today Spanish still forms its futures, imperfects, and conditionals on a descendant of īre — iré, iras; iba, ibas; and iría, irías etc. French uses the stem ir- as a base for futures and conditionals — j’irai, j’irais — but has performed even further suppletion, replacing the imperfect, preterite, and some present forms with the base all-, borrowed from neighboring Germanic languages.
So, as you can see, what appears today to be totally nonsensical irregularity has a completely sensical, regular origin. Understanding the mechanisms that are responsible for creating the irregularity in the conjugation of ‘to go’ in Spanish sheds light on the irregularity of verbs like aller in French, whose forms vary unpredictably from je vais, to j’allais, to j’irai. Ultimately, these processes even illuminate the origins of highly irregular English paradigms like go/went and be/is/was.
Historical linguistics is cool!
*Interestingly enough, English did a similar thing. Our past tense went is taken from the word wend, which means something close to ‘wander’. It supplanted the original past tense of go.