Je suis venu, j’ai vu, j’ai vaincu.
zhuh swee vuh-NEW, zhay VEW, zhay vaa-KEW. Click below to hear the sound file!
I came, I saw, I conquered.
Julius Caesar, of course! This is the famous Veni, vidi, vici memorized by every student of Latin. In Caesar’s time, this was pronounced WAY-nee, WEE-dee, WEE-key. By the early Middle Ages, they were saying VAY-nee, VEE-dee, VEE-chee.
Because Julius Caesar conquered many territories and left them occupied by Roman soldiers, the Latin language became a durable souvenir of their presence. And because languages undergo constant change and are influenced by surrounding languages, Latin began very early to morph into French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Rumanian.
The verbs that Caesar used were already somewhat irregular in his own time. That’s why we got stuck with three irregular verbs in the French version of his famous pronouncement. Generally speaking, the more frequently-used a verb is, the more likely it is to be irregular!
“Irregular” means that the verb doesn’t follow the “normal” patterns. In English, an example of a regular verb is to walk: I walk, you walk, he walks, we/you/they walk. In French, a good example is parler (to speak): je parle, tu parles, il parle, nous parlons, vous parlez, ils parlent. Caesar’s verbs, above, don’t follow that pattern. They have a pattern of their own, but it’s different from the majority of verbs, so it’s called “irregular”. A good English example is to be: I am, you are, he is, we/you,they are. Do you see? Different forms for each person.
I’m sure you’ve already figured out that these three verbs are in the same tense in French–the passé composé, or compound past (compound, because it takes two pieces to make one verb), but that they don’t look the same. All verbs in the passé composé have to have an auxiliary verb (“helping verb”), which can be either avoir (to have) or être (to be). But you don’t get to choose–the French language has already chosen, and we just have to memorize which goes with what.