The Truly “Dark Side of the Subjunctive”

Oct 17, 2014 by

[Many thanks to Stephane Goyette, Olaf Koeneman, and Seth Johnston for helpful discussions related to this post!]

In his TED video, Phuc Tran explores a Whorfian idea that English having a subjunctive and Vietnamese lacking it leads the two peoples to engage with reality differently. According to him, Vietnamese people do not—and cannot, due to a grammatical gap in their language—think about “shoulda”, “coulda”, “woulda”. The Vietnamese can only think about things that happen in reality and are grammatically expressed through indicative mood. Tran’s claims are not limited to a connection between grammar and thought, however, as he makes a larger humanistic claim: instead of wasting energy thinking about what didn’t happen, they face reality head on. Which, all in all, makes Vietnamese a happier, more optimistic nation, Tran says.

In this post, I will not address the latter claim—that the Vietnamese are a happier nation—which rests on the flimsiest empirical evidence. Instead, I will focus on the alleged correlation and even causation between grammar and “being able to think about what didn’t really happen”. While I have not had a chance to discuss with any Vietnamese speakers whether they can imagine (“think about”) entities and events that do not have a basis in reality, I imagine they can. It is a well-established design feature of human language, called “displacement” that we can talk about things that are not present in the immediate reality, the “here and now”. We can talk about things that happened in the past, even remote past we could not have witnessed, about imaginary events (“fiction”), and creatures like Santa Claus and the unicorn. Animals, in contrast, cannot. I would be much surprised if Vietnamese was shown to lack this core property of human language. What is more, Tran himself reveals that perhaps the Vietnamese are not as unable to think about the unreal as he claims when he talks about his parents reaction to his remarks about what “could have” or “should have” happened. His father’s reaction is “we don’t talk about this, why waste time talking about what didn’t happen”. If he truly could not fathom what didn’t actually happen, his reaction should have been more along the lines of “I have no idea what you are talking about, son!”. Imagine explaining to a native of an Amazonian tribe who has never seen a computer how anti-virus software works and what it is for. I suspect you will get a puzzled stare, but not the sort of reaction Tran’s father gave him to the “coulda/shoulda” statements.

The difference between English- and Vietnamese-speakers is not so much of what their language allows them to express—or even worse, to comprehend—but of what the corresponding cultures tolerate. Compare Tran’s story to the following. We Russians do not talk about what happens when a person talked to (or talked about) dies, who would inherit their property, or how they might wish to be buried. To ask a Russian-speaking person what they think their spouse might live on if they pass away first is insulting, as is inquiring whether they would like to be cremated. If one raises a topic such as this, a typical reaction might be “we don’t talk about this” or “why waste time talking about what happens when a person dies, we should better expend our energy living well while we can”. One could even spin a story how not having such morbid conversations might make a whole nation happier. Conversely, abstaining from such conversation might be seen as ridiculous, even backwards, in a society obsessed with legalities such as a will, a living trust, a power of attorney, and so on. Those reactions would be merely cultural takes, themselves informed by multiculturalism (“all cultures are great, even the decidedly odd ones”) or ethnocentrism (“other cultures are bizarre, but not ours”). One would hardly talk about the gap in what the Russians talk about as being due to a gap in the grammar of their language—of lack of a grammatical “mortative”. There is no such thing, to the best of my knowledge: no language seems to have a special grammatical category dedicated to expressing after-death circumstances.*

The Vietnamese situation, as described by Tran, is very similar, except that the grammatical culprit supposedly present in English and absent in Vietnamese, the subjunctive, does exist. The only problem is that English does not really have a subjunctive, in the same sense that French, Armenian, or Russian do. Subjunctive mood is usually defined as a set of distinct verbal forms with a certain type of meaning prototypically used in subordinate clauses. The meaning associated with the subjunctive can be described, as the Wikipedia article on the subject does, as “various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred”. An alternative description is “non-committal to the truth value of the clause”. For example, in the following French near-minimal pair, the indicative vient expresses the speaker’s certainty that “he” will come, whereas the subjunctive vienne expresses the speaker’s uncertainty, or a mere possibility, that “he” shows up.

Je suis sûr qu’il vient.                     [indicative]

Je ne suis pas sûr qu’il vienne.   [subjunctive]



Exactly how to define the meaning associated with the subjunctive mood remains a topic of some debate among linguists, especially when different languages are considered. As the WALS chapter on the optative written by Nina Dobrushina, Johan van der Auwera, and Valentin Goussev (see map on the left) states:

“the notion of subjunctive is itself a problematic notion. One can choose to define it as a mood that is typical for subordinate clauses, or at least some subtypes, or one can associate it with non-actuality and thereby bring it closer to notions like “irrealis” and “potentialis”.”

But meaning alone does not a subjunctive make; grammatical distinctiveness is crucial. Languages are said to have subjunctive as a grammatical category when they have morphological or syntactic means dedicated especially to expressing the “subjunctive meaning” (however vaguely defined at this point). As can be seen from the French example above, subjunctive is a morphological category in this language. Verbs have a distinctive form—in fact, a set of distinct forms—associated with the subjunctive. Compare the following:

  indicative subjunctive
‘be’ il est qu’il soit
‘need’ il fait qu’il fasse
‘go’ il va qu’il aille
‘know’ il sait qu’il sache


Moreover, French distinguishes four subjunctive tenses: present, past, imperfect, and plus-que-parfait, as well as the usual six agreement forms for each. For the regular verbs, such as aimer ‘to love’, some of the present subjunctive forms are identical to the corresponding present indicative (e.g. indicative present il aime ‘he loves’ vs. subjunctive present qu’il aime), but other forms in the indicative and subjunctive present tense paradigms are distinctive: for example, indicative present nous aimons ‘we love’ vs. subjunctive present que nous aimions). The other tenses of the indicative and subjunctive are similarly distinctive: compare, for example, the indicative imperfect il aimait ‘he loved’ and the subjunctive imperfect qu’il aimât.

Similarly, subjunctive is a distinctive morphological category in Eastern Armenian; the following example is from the WALS chapter referenced above:

Eastern Armenian

Du oɣĵ mnas, aɣĵik-s.
you well remain.SUBJ.FUT.2SG daughter-POSS
‘I wish you good health, daughter.’


In other languages, the subjunctive may be formed not by morphological means, but by a separate subjunctive particle. For instance, one might analyze the Russian particle by as a subjunctive marker, although its meanings is only partially correlated with the “subjunctive meaning”, as discussed above: it is more properly analyzed as a counterfactual marker (but note that Tran subsumes the counterfactual meaning under his notion of “subjunctive”).


Esli by on vernulsja, ja by ušla.
‘If he returned, I would have left.’


Let’s consider English now. Although English has several constructions that express “various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred”, as in Wikipedia’s definition of subjunctive, none of them employ distinctive verbal forms. In general, English is relatively poor in verbal forms, which can be counted on the fingers of one hand: a regular verb such as play has only four forms (play, plays, played, playing), whereas some irregular verbs sport five (eat, eats, ate, eaten, eating). These forms can be used together with auxiliaries have and be to form composite tenses (e.g. have been eating vs. have been eaten). Moreover, English speakers also have to make do with these forms to express not only the various tenses of the indicative mood, but also the imperative (Eat your veggies!), the conditional (If you eat spinach, I will eat it too), and the “subjunctive”, or more properly the counterfactual (If he had eaten spinach, I would have eaten it too).

The only English verb that seems to have a semblance of a distinctive “subjunctive” (read “counterfactual”) paradigm is the highly irregular verb be: compare the indicative past tense Back in my country, I was a rich man vs. the “subjunctive” If I were a rich man… However, even for the verb be the “subjunctive” is non-distinctive; it is simply the “repurposed” plural indicative past tense form, as in Back in their country, they were a rich couple.

Ultimately, English lacks a distinctive subjunctive paradigm for either regular or irregular verbs and hence lacks subjunctive as a grammatical category. But that grammatical gap does not mean that English lacks ways of talking about “subjunctive meanings”. Instead of having a dedicated grammatical form (in the form of a bound or free morpheme) for subjunctive, English co-opts other verbal forms, typically in combination with auxiliaries or modal verbs, the infamous “shoulda”, “woulda”, “coulda”. But rather than being dedicated subjunctive markers, these modals are associated with a different range of meanings (and can be used equally well in matrix and subordinate clauses).

deictic contrastsThe difference between having a certain grammatical category and being able to talk about the corresponding meaning in some other way (typically, through lexical means) can be illustrated by an example from a different domain, namely distance contrasts in deictic expressions. In English we have a two-way distinction between this and that (as well as between here and there, now and then). These demonstratives “indicate the relative distance of a referent in the speech situation vis-à-vis the deictic center … roughly equivalent to the speaker’s location at the time of the utterance”, according to the definition by Holger Diessel in the WALS chapter 41. Some other languages have a three- (or even four-) way contrasts. For example, Noon, a Niger-Congo language spoken in Senegal, distinguishes between kaan-fii ‘the house (near me)’, kaan-fum ‘the house (near you)’, and kaan-faa ‘the house (over there)’.** More importantly for the present discussion, the Noon distinction is grammatical while the English one is lexical. To appreciate the grammatical nature of this distinction in Noon, consider how its speaker would say ‘the black dog’. There are three ways to say this in Noon, depending on how far the said dog is (we’ll ignore the agreement prefix fi- on the adjective for the purposes of this post):

baay-fii fi-suus-fii ‘the black dog (near me)’

baay-fum fi-suus-fum ‘the black dog (near you)’

baay-faa fi-suus-faa ‘the black dog (over there)’

Note that the adjective is marked with the same deictic distance marker as the noun: they match. Mismatching deictic distance markers in a noun phrase is ungrammatical in Noon. One cannot say *baay-faa fi-suus-fii or *baay-fii fi-suus-fum and so on. Deictic distance is thus relevant to the grammar of the language, particularly to its “concord” (or “agreement”) system. The adjective must agree with the noun it modifies in noun class and number—and deictic distance (if definite). Moreover, a definite noun phrase cannot be left vague as to the deictic distance. In contrast, the English the black dog is vague: is it a dog near me, near you, or over there that we are talking about? It can be either. Nor is the choice between this and that, when made, relevant to any other grammatical phenomenon, such as agreement. And yet, although English lacks the grammatical category of deictic distance, its speakers can still talk about the notion—not to mention understand that some objects are right here and others are far away.


*Apparently, in Algonquian and Iroquoian languages there exists a “decessive” suffix, which you attach to a noun designating a human being if and only if this human being is dead. A suffix also called “decessive” exists also in Tlingit (Eyak-Athabaskan), but in that language it is used invariably to “describe states holding in the past but no longer holding at present” (Cable 2012), for example in the translation of ‘When I was a kid, I used to be short. But now I’m tall.’

** Noon examples are from a talk given by Nico Baier of UC Berkeley at Stanford Linguistics Department on October 13, 2014.


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