Monthly Archives: October 2017

A subtle case of the subjunctive

Today I’ll start by sharing a gorgeous example of the subjunctive/indicative contrast that I recently noticed in one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero. Then I’ll circle around and explain what makes it so gorgeous.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú [Patro], por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you [Patro], for what you know or might say.

A bit of background: I like to tell my students that the subjunctive/indicative distinction is easier to master than the the preterite/imperfect distinction. The contexts, or triggers, that require the subjunctive are usually clear-cut, whereas there’s often a lot of subjectivity in deciding whether a given past tense context triggers the preterite or the imperfect. For example, Ojalá ‘God willing’ always triggers the subjunctive, whereas ayer ‘yesterday’ can be followed by either the preterite or the imperfect, depending on how the speaker perceives what happened yesterday.

For this reason, I’m intrigued by subjunctive/indicative contexts that allow more flexibility. Certain triggers are famously ambiguous. For example, tal vez and quizás, both meaning ‘maybe’, can be followed by either the subjunctive or the indicative, depending on whether you are pessimistic or optimistic:

  • Tal vez venga ‘He might come, but probably won’t’ (subjunctive)
  • Tal vez viene‘ He might come, and probably will’ (indicative)

Most Spanish grammar guides (e.g. here) cover in depth a second flexible context: so-called “adjective clauses”, or relative clauses that describe (give more information about) a noun, i.e. a person, place, or thing. A subjunctive In an adjective clause indicates that the clause describes a hypothetical person, place, or thing while an indicative indicates that the noun is real. Consider, for example, the sentence pair below, which I remember from tenth grade (!!), and which distinguishes between a hypothetical and an actual secretary:

  • Busco una secretaria que sepa escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for a (hypothetical) secretary who can type’ (subjunctive)
  • Busco una secretaria que sabe escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for an (actual, specific) secretary who can type’ (indicative)

Not all flexible relative clauses are adjective clauses. This brings us back to the example I started this post with, in which the relative clause functions as a noun.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú, por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you, for what you know or might say.

I love this example because it contains both an indicative and a subjunctive within a single relative clause! This combination subtly mirrors the progression of the speaker’s thoughts: from the murderer’s certain motive for killing Patro — what she knew — to the murderer’s hypothetical motive — what Patro might say. As with the venga/viene and sepa/sabe examples, the subjunctive and indicative forms of the verb provide a compact and elegant way to achieve this distinction.

Frankly, having looked through my collection of grammar books and websites, I’m not sure what category the puedas subjunctive falls into. The noun clauses with the subjunctive presented in grammars typically follow classic WEIRDO triggers like Espero queEs triste que, Ojalá que, and Dudo que. Nevertheless, the puedas example strikes me as splendid Spanish. Any ideas?

My talk at HLCCNY’s Feria del Libro

It was a real thrill to participate in this weekend’s Feria del Libro Hispana/Latina, organized by the Hispano/Latino Cultural Center of New York. Here are some takeaways from the event.

  1. There was genuine interest in my book! I sold several copies, and my talk on “Aspectos sobresalientes del español” (video below, text here) was well received. While I have always believed that ¿Por qué? should be of interest to Hispanics as well as Spanish teachers, students, and linguists, this is my first proof. I will continue to work to identify other ways of reaching this community, and welcome any reader suggestions.

2. I fell in love with this year’s Feria’s honoree, the poet and translator Rhina Espaillat. She is one warm and classy lady, both accomplished and approachable. She gave a wonderful talk about the art of translation which included several examples of poems she has translated from English to Spanish and vice versa.

3. Another highlight was, surprisingly, a presentation by Mayra Faña on her new book El vino, La bebida intelectual. I say “surprising” because a wine book was the last thing I would have expected to be on the program, which leaned toward poetry. However, Sra. Faña is passionate about wine — her day job is, I think, in engineering, but she gives wine appreciation classes — and wrote the book as part of her crusade to increase appreciation and consumption of wine in the Hispanic community. Her talk was excellent; my favorite part was her discussion of the difference between Argentinian and Chilean wines.
I am myself rather lazy/timid in the wine department, and buy only through established wine clubs. But if I wanted to read a book about wine, it would be this one.

4. I shared a table with Altagracia Cabrera, who has recently published a novel, ¡Dios hazme blanca!, about racial prejudice in the Dominican Republic. She brought her adorable granddaughter and grand-niece to the fair. In this picture you can see them holding copies of the book while wearing their abuela’s promotional T-shirts.

5. The event was catered by La Brisa restaurant in Jackson Heights. So good! But after three days of eating roast pork and tostones (fried plantains), it was a relief to cook up a batch of one of my favorite vegan soups, featuring yellow split peas and lots of vegetables.

My talk this Saturday (Queens, NY)

For those of you in the New York area, I’ll be speaking 8:00 pm Saturday night at the 11th Feria del Libro Hispana/Latina in Jackson Heights, Queens. You can see the flyer below. I will also have a table to sell my book on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Here is more information about the fair.

The organizers asked me to provide an interesting title for the talk, which I did, but I think the result is a bit confusing because it looks like this is the title for the BOOK. Whatever. Also, they added an (incorrect) accent on lingüista — but at least they remembered the diaeresis (double dots) on the u. As a final linguistic note, note that in the name of the fair the organization went with feminine hispana/latina (to agree with feria) rather than masculine hispano/latino (to agree with libro). I find this disconcerting every time I read or say the name of the fair because the adjectives immediately follow libro.

This talk will be a real challenge for me because it will be (i) to a non-academic audience, (ii) in Spanish, and (iii) without PowerPoint. It will be my first real attempt to promote my book to a Spanish-speaking, non-academic audience. Wish me luck!