Subjunctive: Evolution from Classical Latin to Spanish

by María Constanza Pérez

I. What is Subjunctive?

General Considerations

In the passage from Latin to Romance, verbal inflection has survived much more than noun declesion. Morphologically, the verb system survived comparatively intact from Latin to Romance. The ways in which the verb forms are used are not very different from Latin either.

The most obvious change has been the reduction of uses as well as forms of the subjunctive. When the subjunctive retains a function in Romance -- that is in contexts in which it can contrast with the indicative --, it has developed emotive overtones, especially suggesting doubt, unreality, or some sort of hypothetical futurity.

Use of Subjunctive

Subjunctive is used specially in subordinate clauses dependent on verbal expressions of command and exhortation, emotion or doubt, e.g.:

The subjunctive also regularly follows subordinating conjunctions that project action forward into the future, notions such as 'until', 'before', 'in order that': On the whole, however, Romance languages use the subjunctive less frequently than does Latin, with recession particularly, when no doubt is implied, in indirect speech and in temporal and concessive clauses. The infinitive is often used in subordinate constructions where Latin would have used a subjunctive.

Generally speaking, the indicative mood is used in stating a fact, whether positive or negative or in asking a question. The subjunctive mood is not used for these purposes. The subjunctive has a variety of uses and depends upon a preceeding verb or expression. It often expresses doubt or uncertainty.

In the sentence '"We ordered that he bring the report", the verb 'bring' does not state a fact, ask a question or give a command. It would be translated by the subjunctive in the Romance Languages. The difference between 'Bring the report' and 'We ordered that he bring the report', is that the latter refers to a command which was given.

The subjunctive is used after verbs expressing command, prohibition, desire, etc. It is used for example, after the verb 'to command' (Sp. mandar, It. comandare and Fr. commander).

The verbal system, although less drastically reduced than the nominal and adjectival, is the area of greatest divergence among Ibero-Romance languages. (Castilian, Portuguese and Catalan). Castilian presents a rather conservative treatment of Latin tenses.

Having essentially timeless reference, expressing the speaker's lack of commitment to the reality of the event mentioned.

Expressing the atitude of the speaker to the event he reports, or conveying optative or volitive nuances.
Differences of tense form depend automatically on sequence of conventions, and not on real time setting of the event reported. Use of the 'past' subjunctive can in some languages imply a greater distancing of the speaker with regard to the veracity of the report.

According to traditional grammars, Romance Languages do show indicative/subjunctive distinctions however minimally. Optative, voluntative or potential semanticism has remained unchanged since Latin.
Romance now scarcely uses the subjunctive in main clauses, however.

Romance subjunctive is a form used principally in subordinated clauses, reflecting some Latin uses faithfully than others. In many cases it can be viewed as merely an agreement feature, a servitude grammaticale, which serves to reinforce the semanticism of the governing verb conjunction, usually implying or the lack of certainty inherent in anticipated events.

In other cases the choice seems one of style, with the subjunctive adding a certain air of elegance, to the subordinated post position. This is particularly so, for some languages, after verbs indicating pleasure, anger, fear and the like. Sometimes, where the choice of mood is prescribed by standard grammars, the actual verbs involved may differ:

In the Iberian languages "esperar" may be translated as 'to hope, to wait for' when followed by the subjunctive, and 'to expect' when followed by the indicative: In restrictive relatives, the subjunctive has semantic import. Here, the antecedent is understood as non-referential when a subjunctive follows: In Italian there is to a lesser extent, a tendency for the subjunctive to be avoided in many contexts. In these standard languages, it may be that the dead hand of Latin has forced the retention of a range of uses.

In the Iberian standars and in some non-standard dialects, on the other hand, the subjunctive seems to have retained more vitality in spoken usage, as it is difficult to say whether Latin has had the same sort of influence.

The sort of context in which the subjunctive is used - principally in elaborated discourse, with subordinate clauses -is in any case rare in unplanned everyday spoken usage. Certainly the subjunctive does carry with it an aura of refinement, which comes into play especially in more formal speech.

Present, imperfect. perfect and pluperfect all appeared in medieval Romance. The same four tenses persisted in Vulgar Latin in the subjunctive mood, but two of them were soon in difficulties.

The phonetic attrition of popular speech made the perfect and imperfect subjunctive so liable to confusion with other tenses that they were gradually discarded, the functions of both taken over in the west by the pluperfect subjunctive, with its unmistakable flex ions and its everyday currency. In the process, the pluperfect subjunctive lost in western usage its own pluperfect functions, a fate which readily befell the pluperfect indicative too.

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