Guest post by Catherine Maguir
Many a troubled linguist can surely relate to my experiences of the “s word”. Panic not, I am writing this article on a Sunday, lest you fear I dabble in profanity on the Lord’s Day. Rather, I speak of that “s word” that must surely strike terror in the heart of any linguist, particularly those for whom English is their mother tongue: the subjunctive. Anglophones learning a foreign language often find themselves at sixes and sevens (and huits and nueves and zehns) when it comes to the subjunctive, a regular feature in the Romantic and Semitic languages.
Pourquoi? Because the subjunctive, like many other institutions such as elevenses and pretty ladies’ hats has fallen out of favour in Modern English, burrowed deeply in exhortations such as “God save the Queen”, or “Heaven forbid!” If we’re getting technical about it, hypothetical situations preceded by “if”, really ought to be followed by the subjunctive too; Beyoncé’s got it right when she crows on about “If I were a boy”. However when Gwen Stefani waxes lyrical about “If I was a rich girl”, any seasoned linguist would surely shudder. The subjunctive, much like penicillin and mothers in law, is a necessary evil. Secretly, I like the subjunctive. I suppose it’s not so secret now that you know, but heck.
And it isn’t only English speakers who suffer. Those who learn English as a foreign language must surely wonder how this mysterious tongue must function without a subjunctive, or at least a rare one. Indeed, those of you who speak Spanish will know that the subjunctive is as much a Hispanic institution as the siesta. To imagine the Spanish language sin subjuntivo would be to imagine the Daily Mail without its rolling coverage of the Kardashian Klan. Unthinkable. But I’m not concerned about the subjunctive itself, but rather by what it signifies. What does the subjunctive really say about us?
In some languages, it screams “old fashioned” and “pedantry”. Take French for example. Revolutionary and rebellious, it still clings on (just like English) to the imperfect subjunctive, although its use is mainly literary. It is most certainly not a spoken language. Oh, if only Nicholas Sarkozy had got that memo. A few years ago, he was widely
mocked following a press conference in which he used the slightly cumbersome and laboured (but technically correct) imperfect subjunctive where a present subjunctive is more courant (widely used). Of Jean-Louis Borloo, he stated:
“J’aurais souhaité qu’il restât au gouvernement” (“I would have preferred that he should stay in government”)
Even though the preceding clause (“j’aurais souhaité”, “I would have preferred”) technically requires that an imperfect subjunctive follow (see what I did there?), modern French dispenses with this technicality, and simply uses the present subjunctive instead. In an effort to presidentialize himself, Sarkozy looked to language in order to make himself appear as a statesman. Unfortunately, his efforts were panned as a “jeu d’acteur”, an actor’s performance.
Now let’s zip off to Spain (if you’re flying with Ryanair, I apologise in advance for having to wear all of your clothes to comply with baggage allowance). Here, not only is the subjunctive a national treasure, but its close relative, the imperfect subjunctive is equally as cherished. Had Nicholas Sarkozy dabbled in a bit of Spanish (“Quisiera que se quedara en el gobierno”), no-one would have batted an eye. The imperfect subjunctive, far from being antiquated like its French cousin, is no more unusual than the present tense.
We’ll scoot back to Ireland now (I say Ireland. I live in England most of the time, but Ireland’s still in my heart, I’m afraid). We’ll fly Aer Lingus this time, Ryanair are just too stingy. (Sorry Mr O’Leary.) Now, if you were given a pound (or a Euro) for every time you heard someone say “if I was” instead of “if I were”, you could probably resolve Ireland’s debt crisis of your own accord. It’s not a conscious act of rebellion against the imperfect subjunctive, but if you began to get too fiercely protective of it, people might think you a little peculiar. A bit of a pedant, a grammar snob. In all likelihood, people wouldn’t know what a subjunctive is. (“Is that some kind of thing on the roads?” “Ahh, yes, the subjunctive, I’ll just lift up the bonnet here and have a look.”)
What’s quite interesting is that the misuse of the subjunctive is rather more commonplace and acceptable than its correct application. Nicholas Sarkozy wasn’t wrong when he said what he did, at least not grammatically. It’s not wrong to insist that hypothetical “if” clauses carry an imperfect subjunctive in English. What a horrible situation for linguists, forced to settle for incorrect grammar for the sake of convenience. I use “horrible” lightly: I don’t quite lose sleep about it, but it does make me think. The subjunctive really does say a lot about us. Unfortunately, it often marks us as hoity-toity Shakespearean fanaticals, when in reality, we’re just fond of a good bit of grammar. But heck, as linguists, we’re always seen as being a bit off the wall, a bit “out-there”, a bit “eccentric”. At least I am, anyway.
Perhaps I think too much about the subjunctive. Perhaps I’ve got one of those dependent personality disorders and I’m much too reliant on a grammatical mood for writing inspiration. I should probably worry more about Egypt and Syria and how much bread costs before I declare that the world is undergoing some kind of great subjunctive inquisition. Maybe I should just move to Spain, embrace my love for sangria and the subjunctive, and live happily ever after, sin que nadie me moleste.
Catherine is a linguaphile and coffee enthusiast from Northern Ireland. A freethinker and off-beat, she currently studies Modern and Medieval Languages at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. No, she is not posh – although she does enjoy the finer nail polishes in life. A coffee enthusiast and free spirit, she’s most likely to be found with some form of foreign literature. Odd fact: aversion to kidney beans.