Subjunctive(?): not critical that

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Sun Mar 23 18:31:31 UTC 2008

C'mon, now, dInIs! Give a brother a break! Even reading-to-understand
(is this term used, anymore?) the work of dead *English-speaking*
white men is next to impossible without knowledge of the subjunctive -
well, maybe with a copy of the Cliff's Notes versions - is a bitch,
let alone reading the work of writers ranging from Homer to Hitler,
without having any prior concept of what "subjunctive," "optative,"
and "past, contrary-to-fact, conditional clause" mean, before trying
to read them in their original languages.

Let me give an example from Homer, a pun whose point requires a
knowledge of the admittedly moribund subjunctive in English.

Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is "O˜utis." (Note the
circumflex, presumably an indication that this is an actual name. It's
not possible to know for certain, since this is a hapax.) After
Odysseus has blinded him, Polyphemos calls for help, saying that
"O˜utis" has hurt him, the other Cyclopes answer, if "mé tis" (note
the use of  the subjunctive form of "no one" _mé tis_, which shows
that "O˜utis," the proper name of unknowable meaning, has been
understood as the indicative negative pronoun, _oú tis_, meaning "no
one") have hurt you ...

Why do the other Cyclopes misunderstand him? Because he's screaming in
pain and they assume that, whatever he's actually saying, he means to
say "oú tis," his use of the circumflex being merely coincidental
wavering of his voice as he shouts in pain and not the screaming out
of an actual, personal name. Knowledge of both Greek and of the
subjunctive not only is good for a laugh, but gets around the problem
of how the Cyclops could really be stupid enough to accept the claim
that a being that is clearly *someone* could possibly have the
illogical personal name, "No One."

The solution is that he isn't. He accepts "O˜utis" as a personal name,
not "Oú tis."


On 3/23/08, Dennis R. Preston <preston at> wrote:
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> Poster:       "Dennis R. Preston" <preston at MSU.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Subjunctive(?): not critical that
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> Well, I must be a poor reader. I thought you said that Spanish took
>  its subjunctive seriously and that the evidence you gave was that
>  your Spanish teacher spent a lot of time on it and tested you on it
>  extensively. I'm still having trouble not understanding that.
>  dInIs
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>  >Subject:      Re: Subjunctive(?): not critical that
>  >-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>  >
>  >On Sat, 22 Mar 2008 at 16:40:43 Zulu minus 4 Dennis Preston
>  ><preston at MSU.EDU> wrote:
>  >
>  >This entire message assumes that the subjunctive
>  >is intact in Spanish and apparently used by all,
>  >unfortunately on the basis of a single Spanish
>  >teacher's instructions! (My favorite bit of
>  >sociolinguistics for quite some time is is "How
>  >seriously? My Spanish teacher...."). That would
>  >equate studying the drift of living languages by
>  >asking what their teachers taught. In fact, the
>  >Spanish subjunctive it is rapidly disappearing in
>  >nearly all varieties of spoken Spanish. Good
>  >riddance!
>  >
>  >This was in response to my comment:
>  >
>  >Spanish is a language that takes the subjunctive seriously.  How
>  >seriously?  My high school Spanish teacher had us spend several weeks
>  >studying nothing but the subjunctive, ending with the longest take-home
>  >exam I have ever had.  It was at the end of those weeks that I first
>  >felt that I spoke Spanish, because I could now say so much more than
>  >before the exercise started.
>  >
>  >My response:
>  >
>  >What I said was that I personally felt that I was beginning to
>  >master Spanish once I had emerged from that weeks-long torture
>  >session on the subjunctive.  Specifically once we ended that
>  >sesstion we went into Spanish history, and I discovered while doing
>  >homework assignments and essay exams that I could express myself in
>  >Spanish much better and with a wider range of possibilities now that
>  >I knew the (textbook) rules of the subjunctive.  This was MY
>  >conclusion, not my teacher's.
>  >
>  >From Spanish history we went into the literature of the Siglo de Oro
>  >and the Generacion de 98, so I can't really claim to concentrated on
>  >contemporary spoken Spanish.  And in fact if the subjunctive is
>  >"rapidly disappearing" in present-day Spanish, then it must have
>  >still been alive and kicking back in 1962.
>  >
>  >In any event I was using century-old literary Spanish usage to make
>  >a point about the why? of the subjunctive mood, not about
>  >contemporary Spanish usage.
>  >
>  >Also I stated:  the so-called *subjunctive mood* in English is not
>  >a true subjunctive but rather a grammatical idiosyncracy which is rarely
>  >used to distinguish two moods of a verb, and should be referred to as a
>  >*pseudo-subjunctive*.
>  >
>  >Since you say "good riddance" to the subjunctive, you should be
>  >applauding my statement.
>  >
>  >If the subjunctive is rapidly disappearing from spoken Spanish, what
>  >is taking its place?  Not aspect, since the Spanish verb has only
>  >two aspects and one of them is about as rare as proper (i.e.
>  >prescriptivist) usage of the English subjunctive.
>  >
>  >Aside to Laurence Horn:  You give the examples
>  >
>  >     She insists that he not take his medicine
>  >     She insists that he does not take his medicine.
>  >
>  >Indeed the difference between the two is in the aspect of the verb.
>  >A prescriptivist, however, would render the latter as:
>  >
>  >     She insists that he do not take his medicine.
>  >
>  >
>  >            James A. Landau
>  >            test engineer
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