Friday, May 03, 2013

AS IT WERE....

I once taught the subjunctive to an Advanced Level French class, all of whom were also studying Advanced Level English Literature, by using French versions of lines from Shakespeare that they already knew, because they were more likely to find the subjunctive in Shakespeare than in modern English. The method, I am glad to be able to report, worked.

Here is a confession: I love the subjunctive. I love its elegance, its sound and the grammatical hoops you have to go through in order to use it.  But what is it? It is not a tense but what is known grammatically as a "mood", implying that what is important in the utterance is not what happens but the speaker or writer's attitude towards it.  A simple example in Italian would be, "Penso che sia buono" ["I think it's good"]. The second verb - part of essere [to be] - is in the subjunctive; the speaker or writer thinks something is good but it may not be - so the subjunctive is often an indicator of uncertainty. Half the fun of using it, in the Romance languages, is in judging the degree of uncertainty. In Italian, as in French and Spanish, the subjunctive is also used in certain set expressions and after certain verbs and conjunctions but the uses are not necessarily the same in the different languages.

Frequency of subjunctive use varies from language to language, too: The subjunctive is a rarity and a formal mode of expression in British English so it may surprise some of you to learn that it is more often used in American English. However, it does survive in British English and most of us are unaware that we are using it in forms such as "If I were you". It also survives in our national anthem, for the line "God Save the Queen" is the expression of a wish. 

Alas, even in French, a language passionately defended by its académiciens, the present subjunctive is drowning out the other forms and it is now quite common to hear "Penso che è" rather than "Penso che sia" in Italian - so much so, in fact, that Rosalba Occhipinti, a primary school teacher from Gela, has formed a Society for the Protection of the Subjunctive. All signora Occhipinti's pupils are members of the society and they have promised to seek out examples of the use of the subjunctive and to correct any errors that they come across. Next year, the school will run a competition based on exercises involving the use of the subjunctive. Long live [there's another one] the Associazione a tutela del congiuntivo and may signora Occhipinti's students continue to have fun with the subjunctive for many years to come!

6 comments:

Lee said...

Yes, I concur. There is something quite elegant and dignified about the subjunctive...as it were!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Would that it were used more often, Lee!

rosaria williams said...

Elegant, yes. Dignified, yes. But, we couldn't communicate as easily as we do in our modern age. Since email and texting have become our daily messages, we ought to accept that every occasion deserves its appropriate language. We don't wear a cocktail dress at a coffee shop, do we?

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Rosaria. I'm all for adaptations of language for specific purposes. I like your cocktail dress analogy.

James Higham said...

Society for the Protection of the Subjunctive. Would that it could be so.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Would that it be successful, James.

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