Monday, April 20, 2015

La bella lingua, part IV, and Kaia as herpetologist

``There's a misunderstanding about snakes,'' Kaia told me, ``when they         
wrap around your arm it doesn't mean they want to squeeze you and eat          
you. Because if people didn't have arms, how would they hug?''                 
That last statement might seem obscure--unless you spend a lot of time         
around 5-year olds, in which case the meaning is clear: If the snake had       
arms, it would give you a hug. And without arms, people too would have         
trouble hugging, so it isn't fair to blame the snake. (Kaia was recently       
at some kid event or another where they got to handle real snakes.)            
Sunday Jessie, Kaia, Finley and I went on an expedition up Denny Creek,        
a wonderful little ravine near our house that very few people frequent         
(it's part of Denny Creek Park, but almost everyone stays on the other         
side of the road, by the lake). Among other things it features the             
biggest tree in King County, 26 feet in circumference. Unfortunately it is     
now only 40 feet high, the rest having been broken off in a storm years        
ago. But it's still pretty impressive.                                         
If we dawdled too long, Finley would urge us on: ``come on, let's go on        
our way!'' At the end he announced that ``we are at the end of a very          
long journey''. Kaia took great delight in finding ways to cross the           
creek, via stepping stones, logs etc. After a tricky crossing she would        
say, contemplating the return, ``this was not such a good idea'', and          
then after getting back, ``I have saved my own life!''.                        
On to things Italian. Or French, as the case may be. I finally finished        
the 60-hour audiobook of ``I miserabili''. It was quite an experience,         
even apart from listening to it in Italian. Anyone else out there read         
it, in whatever language? I found the story to be very involving, even         
gripping at times. But to maintain interest and suspense one has to skip       
past Hugo's strange historical digressions. An extreme example: Valjean        
has rescued the unconscious Marius at the barricades, carrying him on          
his back and fleeing into the labyrinthic Paris sewers. Just at this           
suspenseful moment, Hugo digresses for several chapters on the history         
and design of the Paris sewer system. Later Valjean encounters                 
quicksand in the sewers, at which point we get a lecture on the                
different types of quicksand and where they can be found.                      
The core of the novel still has some flaws that might diminish its             
appeal to some readers, notably the many absurd coincidences that are          
contrived to reconnect various threads of the plot. When Valjean and           
Cosette are running for their lives in Paris, with relentless policeman        
Javert hot on their heels, they are able to climb over a high wall into        
a large garden. Desperate for a hiding place, Valjean takes the risk of        
approaching the elderly gardener to ask for help. And what luck! The           
gardener is none other than Fauchelevant, a man whose life                     
Valjean saved years earlier (and far from Paris). There are many more          
coincidences of this type.                                                     
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the plot and the characters, and in particular the     
relationship between Valjean and the orphaned Cosette. Hugo lost one of        
his own beloved daughters in a boating accident (her fiance also               
drowned, attempting to save her), a tragedy visible between the lines of       
``I miserabili''.                                                              
My current Italian reading project is ``I Malavoglia'' by Giovanni             
Verga, a 19th century author of Sicilian origins. I'm listening to the         
audiobook too, but in this case I find it essential to have the book, as       
the vocabulary and the plethora of characters make it                          
difficult to follow. Although a tragedy, its dialogue is often amusing;        
those Sicilians sure were good at insulting one another: Ladro!                
Assassino! Nemico di Dio! (``Thief! Assassin! Enemy of God!'') Plus            
there is an interesting connection of the sort I love discovering: The         
opera Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni is based on some short           
stories by Verga, with a similar setting. I'll probably read those next.       
Meanwhile, returning to grammar, I offer a brief introduction to the           
subjunctive in Italian (for the long version, see my essay ``The               
subjunctive: theory and practice'' in ``A mathematician looks at               
If you rely on a typical textbook or grammar book, the subjunctive             
can appear daunting and mysterious. One such book gives ten different          
categories of main clause verbs that require the subjunctive in the            
subordinate clause, plus eight further categories with 24 examples. But        
this is the wrong way to look at it; there is a single, simple, elegant concept
that governs the use of the subjunctive. Let's first look at a few             
examples. Since I don't want to assume familiarity with Italian, I'll          
present the examples in English, putting an asterisk after a verb that         
would be ``subjunctified'' in Italian. For instance:                           
1. I suppose your brother arrives* by train.                                   
If English functioned like Italian, the conjugation ``arrives'' would be       
replaced by something else; imagine for example ``I suppose your brother       
arriveth by train''. (And in fact the verb ``functioned'' in the               
sentence I just wrote would be in the subjunctive, if we had one.) Some        
other examples:                                                                
2. I'm afraid you didn't* understand me.                                       
3. I demand that you tell* me the truth.                                       
4. I doubt that Fabrizio shows* up with Paola.                                 
5. It's rather unlikely that they have* already sold that house.               
6. It seems that Julia is* better.                                             
7. I'm happy that my friends had* fun.                                         
8. The fact that he rejected* it doesn't mean anything.                        
In some of the examples, such as no. 5, it is the auxiliary verb               
``have'' that gets the subjunctive, rather than ``sold''. That's just a        
rule of Italian, and is not part of the concept.                               
So what the heck IS the concept? As my favorite grammar book (by Maiden        
and Robustelli) points out, the first question to ask is not ``what does       
the subjunctive mean?'' but rather ``what does the indicative                  
(i.e. normal conjugation) mean?''.  The indicative means that the verb         
in question is actually realized: You didn't understand me. They have          
(or haven't) already sold the house. Julia is better. My friends had           
fun. He rejected it. And so on. The subjunctive, on the other hand,  
refers not to actual realization of the verb, but to its abstract              
possibility or abstract essence. In example 6 one is not asserting that        
Julia is better, only that it seems that she is better. Example 8 is the       
purest illustration of this abstraction: Even though ``he rejected it''        
is a realized fact, the sentence refers to the ABSTRACT fact that he           
rejected it. Similarly in example 7 my friends did in fact have fun, but       
what I'm saying is really ``the (abstract) fact that my friends had            
fun'' makes me happy and for that reason the subjunctive is used.              
Needless to say, every language has its exceptions and its funny,              
arbitrary rules. In particular, the Italian subjunctive doesn't follow         
the above logic perfectly. But it follows this ``Realization                   
Principle'' to a remarkable degree, and that's one of the things I love        
about it. It's interesting to note too that the subjunctive seems to have      
evolved independently in completely unrelated languages, suggesting that       
the Realization Principle is somehow wired into our grammatical                
brains. In English we do have a pitiful, vestigial remnant of the              
subjunctive, e.g. ``if I were king'', ``I demand that he tell me the           
truth''. The latter example is a good case in point, because it only           
works in the third person singular; in e.g. ``I demand that you tell me the    
truth'' the subjunctive conjugation is the same as the indicative and          
therefore effectively non-existent.                                            
You have to see lots of examples in Italian before it really starts            
making sense. But just to reassure any would-be Italian learners, in           
speech you can get by perfectly well without the subjunctive; if you use       
the indicative it is unlikely that you will be misunderstood. On the           
other hand, you do need to at least be able to recognize the subjunctive       
conjugations, not for the above conceptual reasons but simply to               
recognize what the verb is (when listening or reading). To take a simple       
example, ``I don't think Paolo knows German'' would be rendered in             
Italian as ``Non credo che Paolo sappia il tedesco''. If you only know         
the indicative ``Paolo sa'' for ``Paolo knows'', the appearance of             
subjunctive conjugations like ``sappia'' will get confusing. And there         
are some cases where you'll get the meaning wrong. Take for example the        
famous aria ``Nessun dorma'' from Puccini's opera Turandot (even those         
who are not opera fans would recognize the aria if they heard                  
it). Without knowing the subjunctive, you would think it means ``Nobody 
sleeps''. But that would be rendered in the indicative: ``Nessun               
dorme.'' The subjunctive ``dorma'' changes the meaning completely to           
``Let nobody sleep!''                                                          
Well, by this point all but the most hardcore grammar fans are probably        
already asleep, so I will quit. Those who are interested, however, might       
take a look at the essay cited above.                                          
Buona notte a tutti!                      


  1. If I were not such a grammar nerd, I wouldn't have understood what you're indicating.

  2. OMG Daddy you should be a language teacher! You know, with all your spare time. I wonder how closely French follows this pattern in its use of the subjunctive. From what I remember, it seems it does. (It seems it doeth?? :) ) In any case, I never had a very good explanation of it and thus it was the bane of my existence (and I believe it is for many a French language learner).