Sunday, March 29, 2015

La bella lingua, Part III

Grammar is fascinating. At least I think so, especially the ways in             
which grammar differs from language to language. Even a humble concept          
such as the article shows striking variation from one language to the           
next. In Romanian, for example, definite articles are attached to the           
end of the word: ``endthe of wordthe''. In Russian there are no articles        
at all. In Hungarian there is no verb ``to have''; if you want to say           
``I have a cat'', you essentially say ``a cat of mine there is'',               
although it actually looks more like ``catmine is''. In English we say          
``the cat is black'' and it doesn't even cross our minds that the word          
``is'' in this sentence can be viewed as redundant. Many other languages        
(Hungarian for instance) would simply say ``the cat black'', and to             
their native speakers it is a bit of a puzzle why we insert the word            
``is'' (to be contrasted with the existential use of ``is'' in the first        
example, '' a cat of mine exists''). And Gaelic has no word for ``yes''!        
I found this incredible the first time I came across it; how on earth           
can a language get by without the word ``yes''? The solution is to              
answer questions by repeating the verb affirmatively: ``Did you go to           
Ireland last year?'' ``I went.''                                                
Among all languages that I've ever looked at, English has by far the            
simplest grammar. In making such statements one has to be careful,              
because it is virtually impossible to be objective about one's native           
language. But it's true. In particular, Italian is grammatically much           
more complicated than English, and this of course is a big part of the          
challenge in learning it. I find the grammar quite beautiful,                   
however. Like any language it has idiosyncrasies that are alternately           
delightful or exasperating, but the underlying general structure is             
quite elegant. In what follows I'll try not to get carried away with            
detailed technical discussion; true grammar nuts can consult the ongoing        
series of essays ``A mathematician looks at Italian'' on my Italian website.    
In a fit of shameless self-promotion, however, I will occasionally refer        
to the aforementioned essays. Accents are indicated by putting them             
after the letter that they're supposed to be over: e`, e'.                      
1. Verb conjugation.  This is the biggy. (And it is not part of what I consider "beautiful" in the grammar; I'll get to that next time.) In English we are spoiled          
by having almost no conjugation at all (I'm told that Chinese has even          
less). Want to put ``to speak'' in the future tense? Just put ``will''          
in front of it: I will speak, you [singular] will speak, he/she will            
speak, we will speak, you [plural] will speak, they will speak. In              
Italian each of these six cases requires a different modification of            
``parlare'' (the infinitive of ``to speak''):                                   
For the conditional we just stick ``would'' in front of the verb: I             
would speak, etc., whereas in Italian all six forms have different              
endings. The present tense in English is rather bizarre, since the third        
person singular alone is singled out for special treatment: He/she              
speaks, but for the other five cases it's ``speak''. Some dialects of           
American English take the very logical step of eliminating the silly            
third person singular distinction, and simply say ``He speak.'' And why         
not? I wouldn't be surprised if in the natural course of linguistic             
evolution, the ``s'' is eventually dropped by all speakers. At any rate,        
in Italian all six forms are different, and there are many                      
irregularities to boot. Then there are the past tenses, the subjunctive,        
the imperative...if you have a memory as poor as mine, to learn all this        
a daunting task.                                                                
And unfortunately (or fortunately, if you enjoy such challenges) you            
really do have to learn most of the verb conjugations. Precisely because        
every person/number has a different conjugation, the relevant pronoun is        
usually omitted because it is determined by the given conjugation. In           
English the sentence ``will go to the store'' is ambiguous: Who will go?        
I will go? You will go? We will go? They will go? etc. So we have to            
insert the pronoun; for example, ``we will go to the store''. But in            
Italian the pronoun ``noi'' (=``we'') is omitted: ``Andremo al                  
mercato.'' The ending ``emo'' tells you not only that it's future tense,        
but that it's the second person plural conjugation, so ``noi'' is               
redundant. (Incidentally, this allows the nice option of inserting              
it--''noi andremo al mercato'' to emphasize that WE, as opposed to              
someone else, will be going to the store. In English you can't do this
                           without using italics, caps as I've done here, or tone of voice.) In any        
case, the point is that without knowing the verb conjugations you won't         
even know who the heck is supposed to go to the store!                          
At this point I need to confess that I haven't been telling you the             
whole truth about books and audiobooks. The catch is that the vast              
majority of novels are written in a past tense called the ``passato             
remoto'', literally ``remote past'', which is different from the                
``passato prossimo'' that one uses in normal conversation. French too           
has these two parallel past tenses, whereas English has only one. The           
terminology ``remote past'' is misleading, because it doesn't mean that         
you only use it when discussing the Roman Empire or the rise of the             
dinosaurs. It is, as I said, the tense of choice in novels, and as such         
is exactly analogous to the plain old past tense of English. (Well,             
there is a further complication in the use of past tenses, discussed in         
my essay ``Italian meets the fourth dimension''. But we won't worry             
about that here.) Still, the passato remoto is a whole new conjugation          
to learn, and just to add insult to injury, it is the most                      
irregular of them all.                                                          
To make headway you need a good reference, and for verb conjugations in         
general the best by far is the Larousse Concise Dictionary. At the back         
you'll find a list of 126 patterns of verb conjugations (do not be              
intimidated--it's bad, yes, but not as bad as it looks!). If you want to        
know into which of these patterns a given verb--e.g. ``stordire'', to           
stun/deafen/befuddle--falls, you just find it in the body of the                
dictionary where it will appear with a number in brackets, in this              
instance [9]. That tells you that ``stordire'' follows the same pattern         
as item 9, ``capire'', in the back.                                             
On the other hand, you can't rely on a dictionary forever; at some point        
you have to memorize. For me, the only way to do this is to make a              
systematic study on my own terms, and write it down. I've done this in          
my essay ``Verbs and their mutations: the genetics of conjugation''.            
Here the analogy with genetics is partly just for fun, but I've also            
found it to be quite useful. Another approach that I find simultaneously  
useful and amusing is to imagine that there was a ``Designer'' of               
Italian, who I then attempt to psychoanalyze. As in the case of biology,        
the Designer did not think things through as well as he/she might have          
done; at times the ``markers'' for the various conjugations (e.g. the           
vowels at the end of parlo/parli/parla that distinguish ``I speak/you           
[singular] speak/he or she speaks'') seem to have been chosen randomly,         
or only because the most logical marker was already taken for something         
else. My biggest complaint is that the Designer almost never uses the           
vowel ``u'' as a marker, and as a result a/e/i/o are horribly                   
overworked. The worst casualty of this oversight is the formal                  
imperative, which--ironically--is exactly the most important case to            
know if you want to avoid seeming rude while visiting Italy.                    
But enough for today; I'll discuss the formal imperative later. Other           
coming attractions include word order (fascinating!), the menagerie of          
pronouns, and why the subjunctive is really cool.                               

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