Conditions with the Subjunctive

by William Harris
(the text is published with the permission of the author)


Now we can turn to something more interesting and difficult, the meaning and use of the Subjunctive in the realm of Conditionality and Un-reality. Since we are dealing with the meanings of a group of verbal forms which define various stages of un-reality, we must be prepared to stretch our mind a bit in grasping them, and I am not going to try to simplify the nature of the unreal, since this would be a very unreasonable kind of falsification, unattuned to conditionality as a thought process.

First, the conditionals which have been listed above as tenses, or time-conditioned systems, are at heart something quite different. They are modes which refer to varying stage of reality or unreality, with a slight time-sense flavoring. Furthermore I should say that the conditional tenses, all four of them, are only stages (which we call the conditional mode) on a continuous line, which stretches from sheer fact ---to cancellation of truthfulness on the other side of conditionality. Consider some such continuum as this:

Present...Future...Pres. Cond...Impf Cond...(Pf. Cond..)...Ppf Cond.
1         2        3            4            5)            6
I have put numbers beneath both to show direction of the process, and also so we can speak of the various elements conveniently.

Class #1 represents what in daily use, we consider incontrovertible fact, the fact that I am here, and the earth remains, and that the sky is blue, or that it is raining. Since there is not a great deal of room for dispute about these points, assuming for the moment a congregation of non-psychopathic, non-ecstatic, non drugged or brainwashed persons, we can assume that we are on sure ground in this area. Call this basic factuality.

Class # 2 is grammatically just the future indicative tense in conventional terms, but it has moved into something we call "the Future", so it is a prediction more or less, and as such far less firm that #1. It seems reasonable to assume that if it rains, I will get wet; but if I have an umbrella or go indoors, I can evade the condition predicted by this future statement.

Class 1 and 2 are pretty well concatenated, but there is nothing like identity of meaning. Also note that the future tense, which seems so natural to English speakers, is lacking in many languages, and apparently was not developed in a regular form in Indo- European, where we note historically that Greek has a form with -s-, Latin verb Class I and II with -b-, but Class III and IV with a short -e- vowel.

(Such variations point to non-originality in the reconstructed parent language, and we might well wonder if IE had a future category at all. Note even in English the phrase "I am going down town", where the present is used to clearly indicate something that lies in the future, and only a non-native speaker will assume that the person is going down town at that very moment.)

Section #3 is more difficult to grasp. It refers to the merest possibility of something being so, just pure possibility and the shadowing forth of an idea. "If the sky should fall down" thinks Chicken Little in the old story book......and it is a fanciful idea, no more. "If it should just happen to rain" says the little man in the Arizona summer heat, "I suppose we would just stand here and break out laughing". The idea is possible, the occurrence of the fact is really not possible. We can think of it, that is the role of this present conditional, supposition, and pure supposition only.

Turning to the next group, Class #4, the imperfect conditional (which again I remind you is not imperfect time-oriented), we find we have something a little more tangible. Often cause and effect enter, something like Engl. "If I should do this sort of thing, then I would not be surprised if the police picked me up." Actually no English speaker would say that, although he would know what the sentence means; he would say "If I did that, I guess the police would pick me up", the difference being the fact the English speakers prefer to state situations, even problematical ones, in terms of fact. Hence the indicative past tense "did" is more natural to mnodern English speakers , and the traditional present conditional "if I should do...", or the phrase "if it be true...", would seem a little pretentious or literary.

Think of this class as having some elements of cause and possible effect, with ideas couchable in the words "should....would", or "should....might". Better define "might" as a bit more hypothetical (somehow) than "may" which is technically present tense, and more open-ended, hence Class #2.

This is not easy to follow in English, but for a Latin speaker it was not only natural, but necessary. To confuse levels of possibility is to confuse everything important in life. I think we are not dealing with covert subleties of Latin as much as the deficiencies in out sense of conditionality, which we have come to accept as normal in English.

The next class of the perfect conditional, #5, does not have as distinct a flavor or meaning of its own, and I really cannot put words on it at this point. It is still conditional, it expresses "shouldness" as well as the imperfect conditional but it rather fits into stylistic conditional structures as an automatic or mandatory element, rather than sporting a distinctive meaning of its own. I don't like to be so absolute about a form which concerns itself with the unreal, but I suggest that we let this class go for the moment, and study it later when we get into reading documents written by native Latin speakers, and see from performance what the core of meaning is (or better: may be...).

In many cases, when dealing with language, only experience and time will tell. Reading a geuine text often makes the unclear grammatical statement more understandable, and I think that applies here.

But with #6, the last class in our continuum, the so called pluperfect conditional, we have no qualms about being too direct. The meaning is clear as glass, and only a little strange in that is shoots right off the right side of the graph, and while looking conditional, tells us about something that could have, but most emphatically DIDN'T happen. The traditional terms for this conditional (The Contrary To Fact Condition) is cumbersome and perhaps oddly worded, but it is absolutely true in its meaning. "If it had rained" says the Arizonite still examining the desert floor, "we wouldn't have believed it....", and the inference is absolute: It didn't rain. We are talking about the potential or possibility which lies on the other side of provable fact, and the conditionality is in our minds alone.

A statement of condition which uses two of these forms always allows us to add in English thought patterns: "but it didn't, but it wasn't so....". This is an odd category of thought, but not a difficult one to grasp, we learn about it early in life when we consider how nice it would have been if Mom had given us another piece of cake (but she didn't). The lesson is driven home by the sledge of disappointment.

Let us try transforming a single phrase through the conditional classes as outlined, and since we are writing for an American audience, what better way to involve us all, than discuss money?

1)"If I have money, you have money (being my friend)."

Simple statement of fact (regular indicative verb form), factuality level is stated as high, even if he has to renege later.

2)"If I get rich (clear future meaning), I'll for sure get out of this dump of a college."

Future pure and simple, intent in time to come, that's all, hence still indicative and a future verb form.

3)"If it happened that there were a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I would be delighted."

The idea runs high as a tempting possibility, the factualness is very low, fantasy rules and only the IDEA is real. Hence Present conditional, meaning pure conditionality, and nothing more.

Second example: A panhandler asks me in the street for a dollar (?) for a cup of coffee. Looking at him with a smile, my eyes wide open, my hands turn with palms out and up toward him, I say "if I had it, I'd give it to you".

Pure supposition, but no attempt to verify by looking in my pocket, all of which with the smile, makes the fellow realize that I am not at the fooling-around or fantasizing stage, so he tells me where I can go and stomps off. He knows you can't make a living on suppositions.

4) He asks me for the monobuck, I purposefully my slip hands into pockets, saying
"If I should have a dollar, I would give it to you".

When we get to this stage of possibility, the imperfect conditional with its semi-"cause and effect" words "should" and "would", everything changes. (Again note that to translate in colloquial English, we have to condense "If I had it..." without the bookish should, but the meaning is the same.

Behold the confrontation, I have my hand in my pants pockets, and am searching around; the panhandler is waiting, serious and intent, waiting for the cause to mature into effect ( $l.OO)....and the scene does a cinematic frame-freeze. We can't go further, there is nothing more to be said until I do something. This situation is all possibility but no fact at all!

(I might as well let Class#5 pass by, it is furnished with with less character, no special tone of voice, and it operates in grammatically automatic functions mainly, in non-dramatic situations.)

But when you search in the Latin grammars, under the heading "Conditional Sentences", you will find that they are talking about something that seems entirely different. It is not so much that their explanation is different, as that it is linguistically inside-out. Formalists have always maintained in treating Latin grammar, that the definition of an idea comes first, then rules were developed to inform the ancient authors exactly how to do it, and then examples from genuine writing of the Classical period prove that they did it just that way. Meaning is encapsulated in the definition, and the forms are automatically selected as justification. This mode of operating sounds strange, and it is indeed strange.

 It is just as wrongheaded as making a formulation of music of Eighteenth Century common Harmony, then defining all the rules and practices, and finally justifying the whole matter by citing Mozart's usage in detail to prove that the formulation was right. Truth is Mozart personally evolved a complex style, consciously and unconsciously that style evolved into his life work, which when analyzed a century later it served as the basis for an academic statement of Eighteenth Century Common Harmony. Only one element was suppressed: That is all came from the mind of a musical genius, who worked at a pace and level of complexity which in his time defied exact analysis. The analytical music study starts out at a later date--- out of his work, it couldn't be the other way around. Musical analysis and linguistic analysis (grammar) are historical statements of what evolved by itself as a living human occupation. The manuals do not write the rules for operation, the operation writes the rules!

I belabor the point for a reason. It is very important how you approach something, and I want you to approach the Latin conditional sentence structures which can be very complex, as evidences of human meaning, not as a system of rules which are automatic and arbitrary, or so complex and regulatory as to defy comprehension.

In practical terms, when you see a conditional form, translate it as some sort of condition in English, even if it makes the English rough and odd-looking. Use the concepts "may" and "might" and "should" and "would" and "would have" appropriately, whenever you see conditionals, and you will come out within a stone's throw of the sense of what you are reading.

Later, when you have accrued some reasonable experience in reading Latin texts, it will be useful to examine the formal grammatical statements, which will then do you no harm. Just so it is not harmful to study Piston's or Sessions detailed books on Music Harmony, but only after you have heard a lot of music. But to read them first as preface to hearing Mozart's G minor Symphony is impossible and witless.

A note on modern Linguistics: Since the beginning of this century new schools of Linguistics have evolved, which have revolutionized the way the world thinks about language. Modern language teaching methods have changed greatly in the last fifty years. The old methods of teaching Greek and Latin with fixed ideas about every detail which you are learning, assuming that they will be fixed clearly and permanently in your mind, are totally obsolete. When you learn to comprehend or read a language, you face chaos which must be reduced to some sort of linguistic order. In the case of an ancient language, you must read documents which come from ancient authors extensively, until you can begin to read them in the original, without translating. It is just the way you would proceed if you would hope to read French or Russian in the original. This is difficult, since removes in time and place and culture make the reading of the books from an older society more inaccessible. But Latin is a language, it must be read as a language, it is a web of meanings expressed in words and forms, and the sense must be taken just as the words occur, without saying any word of English to yourself even in the back of your mind. Unfortunately this is virtually the opposite of the way Latin is taught in this country, and the decline in the teaching of Latin may be in good part a result of wrong-headed and ineffectual teching methods.

But whatever your approach. the major effort must come from yourself, since books and advice and teachers and dictionaries are only partial aids, when all is said and done. At a conference years ago the atomic physicist Isadore Rabi told a surprised academic audience that the most important thing for students was NOT to trust their teachers. Nowhere does this seem more pertinent advice than in the current state of Latin instruction.


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