Posted by: puebloman | March 30, 2009

Subjunctivitis

Verbs in the Spanish language have two equal and different “moods”. Last week our Spanish teacher turned the spaceship Endeavour out towards the great unknown, to “boldly go” as Captain Kirk would have had it, where few English speakers had gone before. Not willingly anyway. We were leaving the world of the “indicative” mood , where everything is more or less certain, and entering into the dimension of the “subjunctive” mood where the rules are somewhat bent.

The indicative mood uses verbs as we were taught to use them as kids – as  “action” or “doing” words that make things happen. They lurch forward like John Wayne, ready to slug all obstacles to the floor and they don’t take “no” for an answer. In the subjunctive mood however, the verb is  a different animal, lounging in a soft chair,  legs apart and dress unbuttoned. It evokes the mood of yearning,  hope, doubt,  expectation or desire. It is most useful when the need is great and  the outcome uncertain.

English used to have a strong spoken subjunctive too but today we’ll do anything to avoid it. The language has somehow allowed itself the become nerdified. We’ve thrown away, for example,  the words “thee” “thy” “thou” and “thine” and swapped their gentle intimacy for the clumsy formality of  “you”.

I blame Dr Johnson for his horrible language manual, the dictionary. Published in 1755 it laid the foundation for a technologised English list of words that would serve the empire during the machine age. This was the beginning of the end of intimate mutating English.

To get to the point where you can find a direct analogy in English to the Spanish subjunctive you have to time travel backwards past Johnson to an age where language was able to yield to feeling. Shakespeare will do. He had a vocabulary four times the size of ours, the intimate “thou” and full use of the subjunctive mood. The character of Hamlet is virtually written in the subjunctive.  Thus:

“Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt”

Easily slips into the delicious:

“¡Ojala, si esta sólida carne se fundiera!”

The word “Ojala” itself is a curious Spanish word that draws us  into the arms of the subjunctive. It’s a piece of Arabic and evidence of Spain’s Muslim past. It means “would to Allah that. . “, is part of the language of the “infidel” that Spanish has unconsciously absorbed, and absolutely typifies the subjunctive mood. When we objected that so many routes into the subjunctive more or less obliterated the future tense, our teacher said. “What makes you think that there is a future? Who says that tomorrow you won’t wake up dead? Surely everything is God willing, and very little is certain?”

I don’t believe in God, but even I saw her point, and understood how arrogant the flat future tense must sound to a Spaniard, used to the future being tempered by the thought “If only”, “Oh that it might be so”.

I was listening the other day to the leader of the free world saying “YES WE CAN”, and I realised that this obsession with the indicative might be more American English than English English. At the moment of course, the  mouth of the American Empire is more evident than its trousers but it did occur to me, his middle name being Hussein, that the president might himself benefit from a touch of subjunctivitis.



Responses

  1. Ask your teacher if this tense is used in your village! It certainly is not here.

    We learned all the complex ways and means of Spanish when we took lessons in the UK, only to find that in Yunquera there are only 2 tenses that are used in practice!

    Like

    • Hi Anne
      Yes of course, the present and imperfecto are the only subjunctives spoken! Still. . .these posts are supposed to be poetic as well as informative! Talking of which, I’m afraid I have abandoned Plinky. It is just too disgusting. I know at my age I should be grown up enough to exploit everything, but I simply cant help getting my big ego caught up in this stuff. I do sincerely thank you, by the way, for caring that no one but you looks at my blog. As it is, you are my only reader. Actually there are a handful out there but they don’t say anything to me except in private emails. Its as though just you and my mum read this stuff. I am going to recommend it to those of our past customers and some friends who I think might like it, and develop a snotty superior little clique of followers. What do you think? I know I should offer myself to the world body and soul as you, do but I can’t quite manage it!
      Warm regards
      John

      Like


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