Q: I recently read a reference to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s comment about the first test of an atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I assume that “I am become” is an old usage. How would it be expressed in modern English?
A: That quotation illustrates an archaic English verb construction that’s now found chiefly in literary, poetic, or religious writings. This is the use of forms of “be” in place of “have” as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses: “The prince is [or was] arrived” instead of “The prince has [or had] arrived.”
The passage you ask about, “I am become Death,” is a present-perfect construction equivalent to “I have become Death.” (We’ll have more to say later about Oppenheimer and his quotation from the Bhagavad Gita.)
As we wrote on the blog in 2015, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has a well-known example of this usage: “We are met on a great battle-field.” Another familiar use is from the Bible: “He is risen” (King James Version, Matthew 28:6). And Mark Twain uses “I am grown old” in his Autobiography (in a passage first published serially in 1907). All of those are in the present-perfect tense.
Though usages like this were rare in Old English, they became quite frequent during the early Modern English period—roughly from the late 1400s to the mid-1600s, according to The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1992), by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo.
The verbs affected were mostly intransitive (that is, without objects) and involved movement and change. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions “verbs of motion such as come, go, rise, set, fall, arrive, depart, grow, etc.”
The dictionary’s citations from the mid-1400s include “So may þat boy be fledde” (“That boy may well be fled”) and “In euell tyme ben oure enmyes entred” (“Our enemies are entered in evil times”).
In Modern English (mid-17th century onward), this auxiliary “be” faded from ordinary English and was largely replaced by “have.” So by Lincoln’s time, the auxiliary “be” was considered poetic or literary. You can see why if you look again at the examples above.
Lincoln used “we are met” to lend his speech a gravity and stateliness that wouldn’t be conveyed by the usual present-perfect (“we have met”). “He is risen” is nobler and more elevated than the usual present perfect (“He has risen”). And Twain’s poetic “I am grown old” is weightier and more solemn than the prosaic version (“I have grown old”).
Apart from matters of tone, the auxiliary “be,” especially in the present perfect, conveys a slightly different meaning than the auxiliary “have.” It emphasizes a state or condition that’s true in the present, not merely an act completed in the past.
As Oxford says, this use of “be” expresses “a condition or state attained at the time of speaking, rather than the action of reaching it, e.g. ‘the sun is set,’ ‘our guests are gone,’ ‘Babylon is fallen,’ ‘the children are all grown up.’ ”
Even today verbs are sometimes conjugated with “be” when they represent states or conditions. A modern speaker might easily say, “The kids were [vs. had] grown long before we retired,” or “By noon the workmen were [vs. had] gone,” or “Is [vs. has] she very much changed?”
In older English, those participles (“grown,” “gone,” “changed”) would have been recognized as verbs (“grow,” “go,” “change”) conjugated in the present perfect with the auxiliary “be.” Many such examples are interpreted as such in the OED. However, in current English they can also be analyzed as participial adjectives modifying a subject, with “be” as the principal verb.
In its entry for the verb “grow,” for example, Oxford has this explanation: “In early use always conjugated with be, and still so conjugated when a state or result is implied.” And in the case of “gone,” the dictionary says that its adjectival use “developed out of the perfect construction with be as auxiliary, reinterpreted as main verb with participial adjective.”
We can never write enough about the word “be.” As David Crystal says, “If we take its eight elements together—be, am, are, is, was, were, being, been—it turns out to be the most frequent item in English, after the” (The Story of Be, 2017).
And a word that’s in constant, heavy use for 1,500 years undergoes a lot of transformations. It’s entitled to be complicated, and no doubt further complications are still to come. To use an expression first recorded in the 1600s, miracles are not ceased.
As for Oppenheimer’s comment, various versions have appeared since he witnessed the atomic test at Alamogordo, NM, on July 16, 1945. You can hear his words in The Decision to Drop the Bomb, a 1965 NBC documentary:
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”