Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Condition contrary to fact

I am a grammar geek.

I am also a metaphor geek.

So when I watched a TEDx talk my sister pointed me to (it is WELL worth the watch) on the use of the subjunctive in English, suffice it to say I geeked out entirely. 

If you didn't stop to watch the video, you should.  But for those who are not grammar geeks or who are too time-crunched to watch, let me sum up.  The essence of the talk is this: people who speak languages with the subjunctive are not as happy as people who speak languages that do not. 

The idea is not novel.  The Sapir Whorf hypothesis (see, Judie, I DID listen to the lectures in linguistics class!) basically says that there is a feedback loop between language and culture: that the way we speak affects our attitudes, and the culture, in return, affects our language. 

Garbage man = Sanitation engineer. Short person = vertically challenged.  The entire political correctness communication strategy is built on this concept - that if you change the name of the thing, you can change the attitude towards it.

But Phuc Tran shows something different and wonderful. 

The subjunctive is rarely used in English.  You have to look for it.  "I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener."  "It is about time that I went to work." "I would rather that you take a long walk off of a short pier."

All the previous sentences are governed by the subjunctive: conditions contrary to fact.  This conditional tense, followed by the subjunctive mood, is something that Phuc Tran did not have in his native tongue (although the comments to his talk discuss Vietnamese conditional at length).  

And the lack of that subjunctive, he claims, has a massive impact on the psyche of the people.  By not having the "I wish I were" construction, people without a working subjunctive are left to describe "what is", instead. 

Not "I wish I were a college professor".  Not "I wish I could do some archaeology again" 

But rather, declarations - statements of what I can control.  Description.  Declaration.  I am a civil servant.  I am going to pursue a career in Bespoke Archaeology.

The indicative, it gets me out of my wishes.  And forces me to make it real.

Addendum:  A friend responded with the following link.  Nearly every line is in the subjunctive.  But it made me happy in the way that no indicative mood would ever do. 

Because who can resist Kermit D. Frog?


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