eli5: can someone explain the phrase is “I am become death” the grammar doesn’t make any sense?


Have always wondered about this. This is such an enormously famous quote although the exact choice of words has always perplexed me. Initially figured it is an artifact of translation, but then, wouldn’t you translate it into the new language in a way that is grammatical? Or maybe there is some intention behind this weird phrasing that is just lost on me? I’m not a linguist so eli5

In: 1806

It does make sense in old-fashioned English.

So the tense being used here is the perfect tense. It’s a fairly normal way of forming the past tense in many languages. You have a subject pronoun (I), your auxilliary verb (have), and your past participle “become”.

In modern English we only form the perfect using one auxilliary, that being “have”. I have eaten. I have gone. She has died. Many European languages (French, German and Italian do it, probably others too) have two different auxiliary verbs, “have” and “be”. Most of the time you would use “have”, but in some instances, you would use “be”. The two main ones in most languages are to denote some kind of change, either in location (I am gone, I am arrived, I am come) or in state (I am died, I am grown, I am become).

English also used to have this. So whereas nowadays you would say “I have become”, this is a change of state, so in older English you’d write “I am become”. Same in German (Ich bin geworden) and Italian (Sono diventato/a).

This is also why in Silent Night, we have the line “Christ the saviour is come”. Because it’s an old-fashioned song using old-fashioned English. A more modern translation would say “Christ the saviour has come”.

In Middle English, you had a quirk of grammar where you could replace the verb “has” with the verb “be” in front of certain words. The famous example is from the Bible: “He *is* risen”, where “is” replaces “has” — nowadays we would just say “he *has* risen”.

This fell out of usage as we moved into Modern English, but many older poetic and religious texts retained some of these old Middle English quirks (like the Bible) and people would occasionally bring this usage back as a way of sounding deliberately older and regal and poetic — the same way you might hear someone say “shall we” today.

So the grammar is correct, its just a relic of grammar that hasn’t been regularly used in 600 years. The quote itself comes from the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, which was translated into English in the late 1700s and deliberately used this archaic grammar to give it the book the same feel as other ancient religious texts, like the Bible. The grammar today would just be “I *have* become death”. Its grammar wasn’t “updated” in the same way that we don’t really “update” the grammar of translations of other ancient religious texts — if you read translations of the Torah or the Quran they are also filled with “antiquated” writing like this.

There’s a couple of steps to this, because there’s some grammar to it, some history to it, and some translation going on.

This is what’s called the “perfect tense” – it describes an action that’s already been completed. And nowadays, we use “have” to signify that tense. “I have finished breakfast,” or “She has bought a new car.” But back in Early Modern English – Shakespeare’s time – it was totally acceptable to use “am/is/be” to convey the same meaning. You see it in Shakespeare’s plays here and there.

The most well-known writing from that time, besides Shakespeare’s work itself, is the King James Bible, the most well-known English translation, which was incredibly widely-used for hundreds of years. And the King James Bible uses the perfect tense in the same way:

>I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.

So even though we don’t speak that way any more, that pattern is mostly ingrained in us from Biblical phrases – which lends them an air of gravitas.

Now for the translation bit – the *Bhagavad Gita*, the sacred Hindu scripture which the phrase comes from, was first translated into English in the late 1700’s, nearly 200 years after the King James Bible. The “am” version of the perfect tense was fairly uncommon by then, but the translators still wanted to give the text a classical feel. So they copied the Bible’s phrasing, and when the god Krishna was showing off his power, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds” was the translation they went with.

Oppenheimer used this version of the quote when he was discussing the atomic bomb, and so that classical, archaic phrasing is fairly stuck in the English-speaking world now.

It’s is technically correct, just very archaic.

Of course, Robert Oppenheimer said that in 1944, but he was quoting the [Bhagavad Gita](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagavad_Gita) which is many centuries older, so he (or the translator of whatever English edition he was quoting) chose to translate it into archaic English.

It’s not ungrammatical; it’s merely archaic.

The phrase “am become” as well as “are become” and “is become”—all occur in the King James bible:

Genesis 3:22: And the Lord God said, Behold, the man **is become** as one of us, to know good and evil….

Genesis 24:35: And the Lord hath blessed my master greatly; and he **is become** great….

Exodus 15:2: The Lord is my strength and song, and he **is become** my salvation….

Exodus 15:6: Thy right hand, O Lord, **is become** glorious in power….

Exodus 32:1: …we wot not what **is become** of him.

Psalm 69:8: I **am become** a stranger unto my brethren….

Psalm 79:4: We **are become** a reproach to our neighbours….

Psalm 118:14: The Lord is my strength and song, and **is become** my salvation.

Psalm 118:22: The stone which the builders refused **is become** the head stone of the corner.

Matthew 21:42: Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same **is become** the head of the corner….

1 Corinthians 13:1: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I **am become** as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

[I’ll bet it occurs in Shakespeare also, but I don’t have an easy way to search all of Shakespeare’s works.]