Monday, November 12, 2007

Bemoaning the Loss of English Subjuctive

The New York Times published an article today about efficiency in the workplace. The book is called The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. This is what Po Bronson had to say about it:

'“It’s not saying the ‘20-Hour Workweek,’” Mr. Bronson explained. “That would be something that lots of people can live. It’s 40 hours a week versus four. It’s very important in the tech world that consequences are exponential, not geometrical.”'

So what does he mean? Does he mean that in the tech world, concequences are defined as being exponential, not geometric (declarative reading)? Or that the tech world isn't going to care unless the consequences are exponential (subjunctive reading)?

Now, if English still had a subjunctive in regular use, I would know: if he meant this subjuctively he would have said "It’s very important in the tech world that consequences be exponential, not geometrical." Since he didn't, this is declarative. Unfortunately, I think he might actually have intended this to be read subjunctively.

Now, I know what you're thinking: wait a minute, aren't linguists supposed to be all desciptivist and shun prescriptivism? Well, to that I say two things:

1. I come from an intensely prescriptivist background. It's not that easy to throw off, you know!

2. The main reason I'm posting this is to talk about language change. What happens when a change causes confusion? Doesn't it usually ultimately fail? Or, something comes in to take its place?

It seems to me that the loss of the subjunctive is too far along to reverse itself. Once language change gets going in earnest, there doesn't seem to be any stopping it. But if situations like this keep coming up, where I can't figure out from context which of two ambiguous meanings was intended, can we expect to see something come in to take its place? Maybe a slightly awkward injection of a modal, like "It’s very important in the tech world that consequences should be exponential, not geometrical"?


meagan louie said...

I thought I was one of those people that had completely lost the subjunctive, but apparently not. That's gotta be "be exponential." The modalized version is okay, but I think it sounds hedge-y, and then it no longer seems THAT important to the tech world...

And I think that while linguists like to pretend that there's a categorical difference between "prescriptivist" grammar and "descriptivist" grammar, the difference is not nearly as quantized as they'd like. For example, I can use (apparently horrifying) phrases like "much people". Is this a dialectal variation (and therefore the issue of grammaticality judgments is of interest to linguists), or is that grammatical, but just not according to a prescriptivist rule (and therefore not of interest to linguists, other than me)?

Also, I, for one, think that "John wonders which woman likes which pictures of himself" is perfectly grammatical, and wonder why on earth people would rather make that sentence, according to them, "grammatical" by substituting "himself" with "him," thereby introducing ambiguity.

So maybe natural language doesn't care too much about ambiguity...

Meaghan Fowlie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Meaghan Fowlie said...

I think you're right. Natural language doesn't care that much about ambiguity. I just found a scrambling language, Tohono O'odham, with null 3p case morphology, so "John called Sally" and "Sally called John" appear in exactly the same set of forms. (approximately:

John -ed Sally call
John -ed call Sally
Sally -ed John call
Sally -ed call John
Call -ed John Sally
Called -ed Sally John)