A woodcut of the Wife of Bath from Richard Pynson’s 1492 edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’.
Had I paid more attention to the minute detail of a book by O F Emerson entitled The History of the English Language given to me by a quite famous Professor of English by the name of Guy Butler who was reputed have have known by heart no fewer than three of Shakepeare’s plays, one of which was Richard II, then this may well have been an off-the-cuff potted history of why we would fail to recognise the subjunctive mood even if it were to zap a splodge of jelly directly between our eyeballs.
Suffice to say that I treasured the book primarily for the style of its writing more than for its content. I was the honoured recipient of the book because the esteemed Professor was astonished beyond measure that I knew what he was talking about when he remarked that I had a very old name (“Wright”). Far be it for me to attempt to outstrip this senior scholar of broad vision. I replied thus, in my best-imagined Chaucerian accent,
In youthe he hadde lerned a good myster;
He was a wel good wrighte, a carpenter.
Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, The Reeve’s Portrait
In modern English:
In youth he had learned a good trade;
He was a very good wright, a carpenter.
where “wright” would equate to today’s usage of the word “craftsman”.
Here is a definition from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913, 100,000 entries) for those of you who may like proof, or dictionaries, or both:
Wright noun [ Middle English wrighte , writhe , Anglo-Saxon wyrtha , from wyrcean to work. √145. See Work .] One who is engaged in a mechanical or manufacturing business; an artificer; a workman; a manufacturer; …
Were it not for my humble though informed reply, I may not have been rewarded with a book from this man’s extensive shelves. Though I be of “small Latin, and less Greek” (Ben Jonson describing William Shakespeare), I had already in my teenage years developed a fascination for etymology and a fascination for the system of inflections in French and German. If you were blessed as I was at that age with this strange confluence of budding linguistic expertise, Chaucer would have provided hours of fascination, not least because once you got the hang of it, the stories that each of his characters told on their pilgrimage to Canterbury were highly entertaining, if not downright bawdy. Alisoun, the Wyf of Bath, is an intriguing character right from the start:
Gat-tothed was she, ….
In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe;
Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath’s Portrait
Oh, what lust and wit await the careful reader! Needless to say, I have just introduced you to the other bit of my name.
It should be quite plain by now that I shall probably never give much of a clue as to why the subjunctive fails to grab our attention. Suppose I were less tangential in my pattern of thought or that I had more stamina? After such a hefty introduction, one ought to expect at least another 4,000 words to follow. Let it not be said that I have have bored you; for if you read my blog as a soporific aid, you ought at least to let me know by way of comment. I strongly suggest that you be frank with me on this matter!
The simple reason these subjunctive forms are hard to spot in English has to do with verb endings, or inflections. Had we kept that little “e” at the end of the verb to denote the subjunctive mood on the third person singular in the present subjunctive (and originally “en” for the third person plural, as in modern-day German), there would be no question as to the existence of the subjunctive because it would look different in print. One theory is that the final “e” on these verb forms was at some stage pronounced, but then stopped being pronounced and therefore no longer needed to be spelt with the final “e”. Similarly, in the indicative mood, we lost the -st and -est endings (“wouldst”, “lovest”), as well as the -th and -eth (“doth”, “doeth”, “maketh”) endings.
This simplified the conjugation of English verbs enormously, something which did not have a parallel development to any great extent in German, French and Portuguese, and no doubt other languages of which I have no meaningful knowledge.
With this simplification, of course, there was a catch: Most verb forms look the same, e.g. conjugation of the present tense indicative of the regular verb “to love”: I love, you love, he/she/it loves, we love, you love, they love. The conjugation of the present tense subjunctive differs from the indicative in the third person singular only: “he loves” in the indicative becomes “he love” in the subjunctive, as in the construction, “I insist that he love me (unconditionally or not at all)”.
English has thus gained the singular distinction of having the most boring verb conjugations of all modern European languages. To its credit though, it does occasionally do some interesting things with the verbs to be, to have, and its auxiliary or modal verbs.
If you are studying English as a foreign language I would recommend that you gain a good understanding of the workings of be, have, and modal verbs in order that you better appreciate the fine architecture which does exist beneath the seeming sea of dull uniformity. Then you to may well be able to say something like the following with confidence and ease: I really ought not to have begun writing this blog without first having planned a decent conclusion which does not focus solely on grammatical labels for things!
There is a pretty good tutorial on use of the subjunctive with examples at www.englishpage.com, which I hauled out for my one and only and favourite English student who is a Mandarin native. If I were to smile particularly sweetly at her, I am sure she would agree that we have had enormous fun conjugating verbs and learning how to use them correctly in context. I like this tutorial because it gives modern examples which are still used today.
My blog post today is full of verbs – and of course, other parts of speech, as one would expect. I hope you like the way I have coloured all instances of the subjunctive mood in red (together with the pronoun with which the verb agrees).
If I have missed a verb in the subjunctive mood, then so be it!
Should I throw in a “God save the Queen!” for good measure?
(Alisoun, a “wel good wrighte”)
Let it be known that this blog be written in direct response to the WordPress DPChallenge, the Weekly Writing Challenge: I Wish I Were. Okay, that last “be” it may be argued, is not strictly speaking a subjunctive, but I will leave any reader brave enough to have reached the bottom of this page to tell me why.