LANGUAGE IS A TREASURE CHEST 3: THE POWER OF THE WISH AND THE CURSE

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 4 mins.)

Apparently the Subjunctive Mood is disappearing from modern languages, including the Indo-European groups of Celtic, Germanic, Nordic, Romance and Slavonic. The Subjunctive is the grammatical mood by which we expressed wishes and desires, with an underlying feeling that their realisation was uncertain. But why is the Subjunctive disappearing? I think that its disappearance reflects a profound change in our general thinking, a definite shift towards a scientific view of the world.

Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as: wish, emotion, possibility, judgement, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred; the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language.” (Wikipedia)

Wishing while blowing the seed parasols off a dandelion ‘clock’. The form of words combined with an object and perhaps an element of chance was believed to have a power of realisation. (Image sourced: Internet)

Firstly, let’s look at relatively common phrases where we find the Subjunctive Mood and in English, these are not as common as in other Indo-European languages such as Irish and Castillian (Spanish), for example.

In its article on the grammatical use of the subjunctive mood in English, the online Collins Dictionary gives, among others, these examples:

  • God save the Queen!
  • God bless you!
  • God help us!
  • Heaven help us!
  • Heaven forbid that that should happen to me.
  • Suffice it to say he escaped with only a caution.

As an antidote to monarchical and religious expression, I give you the example Long live the Revolution! which is also in the subjunctive mood.

Often we can arrive at the subjunctive form by beginning the sentence with the word “May”: e.g May God bless you; May Heaven help us; May Heaven forbid. Sometimes when we use “May” we have to change the order of words a little: May it suffice to say from Suffice it to say; May you go with God from Go with God; May the Revolution live long from Long live the Revolution! And sometimes the May or even more words might have disappeared in common modern usage but be understood as in (May) thy Kingdom come1 and (May you be) welcome or (May) God speed (you).

Certainly the calling or greeting of Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year heard and read everywhere around this time of year were originally preceded by May you have a ….

Well and good2 but what has that to do with the “profound change in our general thinking, a definite shift towards a scientific view of the world” which I interpreted as the cause of the disappearance of the subjunctive?

Well, although the use of the subjunctive expressed a wish about the outcome of which we were not certain, it seems clear that its use was believed to have power. So to wish someone to (May you) go with God in English ((Que) Vaya con Dios3 in Castillian and still common in most of South and Central America and in the USA Southwest4) expressed a feeling that by saying those words, one could invoke protection upon the person leaving. Go5 dté tú slán, an equivalent in Irish but without any mention of God, one can find in the last line of the chorus in the Irish Jacobite song Siúil a Ghrá. And when we did not wish someone well, we might express a curse, invoking ill upon them: May you go to Hell! May you never prosper!

A curse tablet from ancient Athens — sometimes it was not enough to say or to write the curse but one had to attach it to an object (or to the object of the curse). (Image sourced: Internet)

Uncertain as the outcome of expressing a wish for another, whether good or ill, was believed to be in more ancient times, we are fairly convinced today that it is empty of any predictive or enforcement power, i.e we can’t make it happen by wishing alone. The only power left in the words is in the expression of emotion for us and to convey a strong wish of good (even if only socially conventional) or conversely an intense dislike towards the object of the phrases.

So when we wish someone well today we are only expressing a positive regard (whether strongly emotional or only as a social convention) and similarly the reverse with an ill-wish. Gone is the belief that the use of the words themselves had any power at all over the outcome. If we were to say nowadays May you go to Hell or the truncated Go to Hell, we would do so without the slightest belief that we can somehow convey the person to that destination6 by the use of those words – we’d merely be saying something like “I really dislike (or hate) you” or perhaps “I am angry with you at the moment”. To really express a malevolent feeling, we might instead use “I hope” but again with without any expectation of realisation, as when Bob Dylan sang to the Masters of War:

“I hope that you die

and your death will come soon”.

Today, we find the remains of the Subjunctive mostly in prayers and greetings7 and to some extent in curses and in prayers. In religion, the traditional forms of prayer tend to be preserved, whether through strong devotion, convention or habit. The survival of the Subjunctive in greetings is probably retained through the inertia of convention. We also find its survival in a few grammatical constructions and in the feeling that “I wish I were in Carrickfergus8” is somehow better than the more commonly-heard “I wish I was in Carrickfergus”.

Hands in prayer, by Albert Durer. (Image sourced: Internet)

In general we no longer believe in the power of invocation, in making things happen by expressing a wish for them in a certain verbal way. We know now or believe that to make something happen, that we need to act. Even if wishful thinking can still be seen in much of political and social expression, that is more a reflection of a reluctance to confront reality or of hope for the future, rather than a real belief in the power of expression in verbal form. A scientific outlook has replaced that of the religious, of the otherworld, giving us a stronger intellectual tool to govern our actions, to bring a wish to reality.

As with the study of history, the study of language tells us a lot about who we were and who we are now — and helps us to speculate on who we are becoming.

End.

La Malediction Paternelle (the Curse of the Father) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805). (Image sourced: Internet)

FOOTNOTES

1 go dtaga do Ríocht in Irish, from The Lord’s Prayer of Christians.

2 Or the full Conditional Mood: That may be all well and good 🙂

3“May you go with God” — the subjunctive mood – compare with Ve te con Dios (“Go with God”), the imperative mood.

4 And sometimes in Hollywood “Westerns”.

5The Irish word Go (pronounced as guh might be in English) in the Subjunctive precedes the verb to correspond to the use of the word May in English we saw earlier. In Irish, the name for the group of greetings is Beannachtaí which interestingly translates as “Blessings”.

6If we even believe any more in the existence of that place.

7And since greetings are important for social communication the Subjunctive often gives the learner of a language some difficulty, as in the Irish Go raibh maith agat, for example.

8A line in a centuries-old macaronic Irish song (i.e a verse in Irish followed by one in English etc), Do Bhí Bean Uasal or in English, Carrickfergus. Sadly most people are probably completely unaware of the verses in Irish.

FURTHER READING

https://grammar.collinsdictionary.com/easy-learning/the-subjunctive

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjunctive_mood

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_mood

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s