Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Endangered Tenses

You've all got me thinking about the shrinking use of verb tenses in this day and age. If language reflects how we think and who we are, Western civilization is going to hell in a handbasket.

French long ago retired the preterite indicative and the preterite perfect (the passe simple and the passe anterieur, as we learned in Intermediate French) to literary use, replacing both with the present perfect, or passe compose, for real-life purposes. Spanish, I am glad to report, still hangs on to the significant distinction between the preterite (indicating actions that were completed in the past) and the present perfect (indicating actions that have just been completed). Those nemeses of anglophones, the imperfect and the pluperfect (indicating actions begun in the past but still ongoing) seem to be holding their own in Romance languages, for the time being.

But in English, quelle horreur! In a language that already has a pared-down verb system (no distinction between preterite and imperfect), people these days can't even seem to be able to deal with the past perfect, the tense that allows you to specify that a certain action preceded another action in the past. Thus routinely you hear “if I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake” as opposed to “if I had known you were coming, I would have baked a cake.” The knowing preceded the coming, and it would be nice to have it expressed accurately. How hard is that?

The situation is especially grave regarding the subjunctive. In her comment on my last post, Elizabeth mentions someone who has established a Society to Save the Subjunctive. Would that it could! The subjunctive is not a tense, but a mood with its own tenses. In contrast to the indicative—the mood of factual reality—or the imperative—the mood of command—the subjunctive expresses longing, desire, wishful thinking as opposed to what actually is, e.g., if I were rich, you would love me; or, may you rot in hell for putting your mat on my spot in yoga class.

Why are we losing the subjunctive? Is it because wealth and technology have erased the gap between wanting and having? Is it because of a more subtle philosophical shift, Kant dressed up in New Age lycra, that posits that subjectivity constitutes the only valid reality? Either way, there is cause for alarm, and the only solution I can see is to bring the subjunctive back in hopes that, if we speak well, we will think well.

If you were to have a happy Thanksgiving, I would be delighted.

2 comments :

  1. You know, if noun declension existed in English, we would be in better shape as well. At least when it was time to take Russian in high school, the idea of tiny little endings thrown here and there would make some sense.

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  2. "If language reflects how we think and who we are, Western civilization is going to hell in a handbasket."

    My feelings exactly.

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