Lo que fuera

by Oliver

Learning a foreign language likely counts as one of the cooler experiences that I have had. I remember having to write weekly essays in our “diarios” for my high school spanish class and in them trying to use all of the different locutions we had learned in class. Thinking back on the last two years of my high school spanish experience, learning Spanish was like building a mountain out of legos; the base was large and extensive, representing the importance of a good foundation, and gradually with each new verb tense or set of vocabulary the mountain crept upward into the clouds. For the sake of posterity, I can’t say that I will ever reach the the peak of my spanish language mountain, but each part of the language that I learn (or relearn) always seems essential.

I’ve always believed that by learning a foreign language I have begun to understand the English language better. I think I should probably better acquaint myself with the proper terminology, but perhaps I have embraced my indolence because there’s a certain pleasure in referring to the rules of spanish relative pronouns when speaking English. Using them a lot in English (where they are not as crucial as in Spanish) is almost directly related to my understanding of their usage in Spanish. Yet it’s interesting that even though English grammar is classically Latin-based, the language has grown in such a way that English speakers can effectively communicate well even without using perfect grammar when they speak.

I recall hearing about the subjunctive well before learning about it in Spanish class. I heard from people in more advanced classes that it was pretty difficult and hard to understand, but I didn’t really know what they were talking about until I learned it in class myself. I never knew that besides tenses, there were verb moods; perhaps the best thing for me to hear when I first learned about the subjunctive was that we don’t really use it in English (well, I guess we do, but it’s super simplified). In Spanish, verb conjugation is crucial because using subject pronouns isn’t mandatory. It is to say, in English we have to use subject pronouns with verbs or who the speaker is would be unclear. The sentence I went to the store wouldn’t make sense without the subject pronoun I (although colloquially, anything goes). Removing the subject pronoun I, the sentence reads went to the store. In English we have to use subject pronouns because often there aren’t many verb inflections (I went; you went, he/she/it went, we went, you all went, they went). However, Spanish verbs have many inflections, such that the subject pronoun can be dropped because verb endings are different for each subject pronoun.

To show the variety of Spanish verb inflection, a basic example is the present indicative conjugation of the Spanish verb ver (to see):

yo veo [I see]
tú ves [you see]
él/ella ve [he/she sees]
nosotros vemos [we see]
vosotros veís [you all see]
ellos/ellas ven [they see]

But to avoid digressing further into pronouns, I’ll say why I started writing this today: I think the subjunctive is cool. What I also think is cool is that in English we don’t conjugate verbs any differently when expressing emotion, preference, desire, etc. However, in Spanish expressing emotion, preference, or desire calls for the use of the subjunctive. On my way to the library I was listening to the Silver Jews song “Death of an Heir of Sorrows” in which David Berman says “mostly I wish, I wish I was with you”. I find it funny that he could also have said “I wish I were with you” and nothing would have changed at all as far as the meaning or the grammar. Yet, grammatically speaking, were is the only evidence of the past subjunctive left in English.

Studying the loss of the subjunctive in English would really require a lot of research if I were to want to discuss it much more. But, in the meantime, perhaps take a moment to think about how many times you hear was instead of were, and vice-versa, in conversation. Also, do you find that in certain instances you would use was instead of were, just as David Berman did? According to Dr Goodword’s Language Blog, the past subjunctive is in its death throes, yet a lot of idiomatic expressions use were (e.g. as it were, if I wereyou) which leads me to wonder: are idioms the most effective means of preserving language?