Monthly Archives: July 2012

Learning to Love the Subjunctive

Learning another language is less about acquisition than a long process of letting go. You think adjectives should go before the nouns they modify? Let it go. That grammatical rule seems illogical? You think irregular verbs should be outlawed? Let it go. Why are things that way? They just are. Let it go. Besides, the more Spanish I learned, the more logical it seemed and I pitied folks who were trying to learn English. English makes no sense whatsoever.

Most people fare pretty well through Spanish 1 and 2 – adjectives, present tense, past tense, commands, imperfect (which sounds baffling, but is actually one of the easiest tenses)…Then comes…THE SUBJUNCTIVE.

The subjunctive exists in English, but we could say it has atrophied from lack of use. What better example than Justin Bieber’s new song “If I was your boyfriend”? The grammatically correct phrase would be “If I were your boyfriend,” because the status of boyfriend is currently NOT locked down…it’s not out of question, but that it is currently contrary to fact that Bieber is this lady’s boyfriend…right now, the Biebs is in more of a hopeful, wishful state. That’s the subjunctive – a perfect blend of hopefulness, uncertainty and ambiguity.

As it turns out, English-speakers (and Americans especially) are not too big on ambiguity. For the past ten years, it has bothered me that Mexicans don’t have different words for cantaloupe, honeydew and crane melons. They’re all just…melón. Ditto with lemon vs. lime. This doesn’t bother Mexicans in the slightest however. So if my head explodes over that, you can imagine how well I took to the subjunctive. Americans also have some rude and demanding tendencies. Using the subjunctive will instantly make you more solicitous and humble. There is more than a linguistic gulf between the phrases: “I think she’s totally preggers” and “¿Podria ser que este embarazada?”

Americans are culturally averse to the subjunctive. Which is why I listened with such interest to this lecture “Can Diverse Societies Cohere?” Sociologist Richard Sennett argued that in order for very different people to get along and cooperate, three things need to happen. 1) Our conversations need to be less of a dialectical tug of war and more about listening to get at what people are REALLY saying behind the words they’re using. Basically the opposite of “Crossfire.” 2) We need more subjunctive in our lives. 3) We need less sympathy and more empathy. He has an interesting definition of empathy that is more akin to a caring curiosity for others, not pretending you get everything about them and where they’re coming from, but caring enough to wonder.

Why the prescription for more subjunctive? Because it’s gray and unclear, it leaves space. Let’s say you’re next to a stranger on the bus. If you say, “Look at that girl’s outfit. Teenagers these days. I think they need not only a little more clothing, but a little more God,” the conversation probably isn’t going to progress very far. You already stated your piece. If you instead opened with, “How about that outfit? Wonder what it could be that inspired that…” There’s space to converse. (Sorry for the poor example. That’s how little we use the subjunctive in English!)

For us Americans, the subjunctive is confusing and ambiguous. That’s exactly why we might possibly need a little more of it in our lives. ¿Podria ser?

Thoughts? C’mon friends – based on your recent rants on the Oxford comma, I’m pretty sure  that you all have strongly held opinions about my favorite (and almost everyone else’s least favorite) part of Spanish.

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