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I had ridden wrapped up in a Union Jack to protect me from the sun, and when I rolled out of it, and stood piping loud among the buzzing jungle of that summer bank, then, I feel, was I born.

Source: Laurie Less (1962) Cider With Rosie, London: Penguin, pp.9-10

Why here uses inversion "was I born"? What does the author want to express by it? What differences does it make?

I'm not asking why the character said "I was born". My intention is to know what effects the inversion has, how I should use that effect in my own writing in a similar way.

3 Answers 3

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The full sentence includes the word "then", so your question is about "...then was I born".

The normal form for that sentence is "I was born then".

Both the fronting of "then" and the subject-auxiliary inversion are poetic style, which is the only function of that inversion. There's no change in meaning whatsoever.

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    Indeed. To my ear, the effect is to make it sound poetic, and rather pretentious.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 4, 2022 at 17:59
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You may be asking about (1) the literal meaning of the passage (why does the character feel he or she was born then?) or (2) about the literacy choice to use "was I born" instead of "I was born."

(1) The greater context shows why the character feels this way:

That was the day we first came to the village [...] I don't know where I lived before then. My life began on the carrier's cart which brought me up the long slow hills to the village, and dumped me in the high grass, and lost me. I had ridden wrapped up in a Union Jack to protect me from the sun, and when I rolled out of it, and stood piping loud among the buzzing jungle of that summer bank, then, I feel, was I born. And to all the rest of us, the whole family of eight, it was the beginning of a life.

The character has no memories before this, and this was the moment where they first came to the place they remember as home. The character says this is their birth because in many ways it is like a birth: they come out of a dark enclosure into their family's home. They also cannot identify with their past self before this transition--they don't remember anything from that time. Thus, in a sense, the person they know themselves as came into being in this instant.

(2) It is hard to say exactly why an author uses a literary device. The answer here is probably simply "the author liked the sound of it." The inverted word order is slightly more formal, which adds dignity to the character's pronouncement. The word order also gives the word then much greater stress, and allows the word to come much earlier. Read aloud these two versions naturally, and you will see that in the author's text the word then has much more weight than in the alternative:

Authors: Then, I feel, was I born.

Alternative: I feel I was born then.

To my ear, in the latter case, the stress falls on born as much (if not more) than it does on then. Why exactly the author chose to emphasize then over born I leave to you to think about :)

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The basic sentence that you are asking about (without any extra words) is:

I was born then.

We can "front" certain sentence elements, often for emphasis:

Then I was born.

This is acceptable, but it forces the simple predicate ("was") into the sentence's third position, whereas it usually comes in second. In order to keep it in second position, we can use what is sometimes called AVS (adverb-verb-subject) word order:

Then was I born.

This is fairly common when the first element is a verb-modifying adverb; one famous example is Nietzsche's "Thus Spake Zarathustra". (This inversion is often obligatory in German and appears in the original German-language title.)

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  • But the OP is asking after the purpose.
    – Joachim
    Jun 4, 2022 at 16:46
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    @Joachim I said that an element like "then" is fronted "often for emphasis". It's impossible to know the author's motivation for certain, but I'd guess that that was the purpose. Jun 4, 2022 at 18:00

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