Oppenheimer is quoting the Bhagavad Gita, Hindu scripture originally in Sanskrit first translated into English in 1785. However, in current English they can also be analyzed as participial adjectives modifying a subject, with “be” as the principal verb. How would it be expressed in modern English? Oppenheimer is recalling the verse from some edition that maintained the archaic but rhetorically powerful to be present perfect. 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.) Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. Press question mark to learn the rest of the keyboard shortcuts, https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/433468/is-robert-oppenheimers-phrase-now-i-am-become-death-the-destroyer-of-worlds. 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. J. Robert Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the USA's World War II program to develop the first nuclear weapons. I never hear it corrected to "I have become death", so I assume Oppenheimer meant to say it that way, but why? Maybe it once meant "equal to", which is a modifier rather than the verb it is now. All these (warriors) have already been destroyed by Me. Grammars change just like vocabulary. Its an archaic construction of the present perfect tense. Even without your participation all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to exist. Also, grammar might have stayed the same while the definition of "become" changed. Rather than translating it incorrently with correct tense, it was translated correctly with incorrect tense. This is conjecture, and may be without relation to reality. Measure for Measure II.4I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness. It could instead say 'I have become' but instead says 'am'. And Twain’s poetic “I am grown old” is weightier and more solemn than the prosaic version (“I have grown old”). The original Sanskrit makes no reference to the past, so in modern English, "I am death" is more fitting than "I have become death". 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. As modern German, French, and Italian still do today. As for Oppenheimer’s comment, various versions have appeared since he witnessed the atomic test at Alamogordo, NM, on July 16, 1945. Therefore, get up and attain glory. It's a translation of a phrase from the Bhagavad Gita. It was pretty much how he wrote English back at the time. What is this know as? While there still were English speakers using a form like "I am come" in normal speech — some of Jane Austen's characters regularly use the form — it is unlikely that the translator was imitating that usage as much as the Shakespeare-KJV archaic forms to add gravitas to the translation. And Mark Twain uses “I am grown old” in his Autobiography (in a passage first published serially in 1907). Is "Thunderbirds are go!" Another common example is in Joy to the World, “the Lord is come”. 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. So there were several factors. Quotation: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." And a word that’s in constant, heavy use for 1,500 years undergoes a lot of transformations. ISABELLAI am come to know your pleasure. The Supreme Lord said: I am death, the mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy. Now it's been awhile since that (obviously), so there are somewhat better translations available now. Tenses have sure come a long way since then. In any event, in modern communication, it is incorrect because "am" indicates present tense, and "become" in this use suggests past. Most people were silent. All of those are in the present-perfect tense. A subreddit for questions and discussions about grammar, language, style, conventions[,] and punctuation. ‘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. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again. Nice question. Edit: Another possible meaning is with a hyphen: "I am become-death", because it was said in response to the question: "Why do you appear as such a terrible avatar". 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.”. "Lord Krishna" was "Kreeshna", "Arjuna" was "Arjoon" and so on.The spellings were written based on the way the Britishers would pronounce the names. (I ate.) 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. It been nagging me a while and don't remember ever having studied this at school. I don't understand the 'I am become' . Ich habe gegessen. Note that the Bhagavad Gita was first translated to English in 1785. A: That quotation illustrates an archaic English verb construction that’s now found chiefly in literary, poetic, or religious writings. I just can't unsee it now and it will bother me forever. 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. 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. To add to that it can be quite evident if you look at how the names of the characters are written. Nice question. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions “verbs of motion such as come, go, rise, set, fall, arrive, depart, grow, etc.”. Its an archaic construction of the present perfect tense. I say somewhat because translations can never convey the whole meaning if you ask me. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again. What type of tense is this. To use an expression first recorded in the 1600s, miracles are not ceased. 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”). Movement verbs, like gehen, is sein + perfect infinitive form. Are there any other examples with other verbs? 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.). New comments cannot be posted and votes cannot be cast. And check out our books about the English language. Grammar, etymology, usage, and more, brought to you by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window), Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window), Click to share on Tumblr (Opens in new window), Click to share on Reddit (Opens in new window), Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window). 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.”. I have become is the modern grammatical equivalent of the archaic I am become, but far from equal in rhetorical power. The famous quote from Oppenheimer "I am become death". I've seen this form form of speech in songs and poetry but can't figure out how 'become' is being used. 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?”. Non-English text doesn't usually worry about English grammar. The line is quoted from the Holy Bhagavad Gita, (translates to "The Song of God") which is a very important Hindu scripture. (I went.). A few people laughed, a few people cried.
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