Sunday 13 December 2009

Emotion, doubt, desire, influence

The thing about learning a foreign language is you discover how little you know about your own one.

For example, did you know that English only has two tenses - present ("I work") and preterite (aka simple past - "I worked")? Portuguese has four - present, preterite, future and imperfect (which is a bit like "I used to work").

Of course, English is quite capable of expressing these extra two tenses and many more besides but has to do it through the medium of compound tenses which employ auxiliary verbs such as be, go, have, will etc. You can really pile these on to come up with such constructs as "I am going to have been working". Don't ask me what that tense is called by the way (and certainly don't ask me to translate it into Portuguese!)

Another thing is that, in my ignorance, I thought the past participle of a verb was simply its preterite (simple past) tense form. The preterite and past participle of "work" are both "worked" but that's because "work" is a regular verb in English. The difference only appears in irregular verbs, for example "to go": the preterite is "went" but the p/p is "gone". Ditto I speak, I spoke (pret.) and I have spoken (p/p) etc. (But not all irregular verbs have p/p's different from the pret. - e.g. I think, I thought, I have thought.)

The p/p is the verb form used in compound past tenses. Scottish football managers (soccer coaches) struggle with this and are wont to deliver themselves of such utterances as "We've came to Celtic Park with low expectations but the lads done great, they've gave 110%, and we've went home with a point, Jim." (They're also apt to dig themselves in even deeper by adding what's known in English as a Colemanball such as "... we've went home with a point and you can't do any better than that, Jim.")

Where was I before I digressed into football? Making an arse of myself, actually, because when I said the p/p is the verb form used in compound past tenses what I meant was compound past perfect tenses. I think. Because there are also compound past continuous tenses - e.g. I was speaking - which employ the present participle ("speaking"). And, indeed, present and future continuous tenses (I am speaking, I will be speaking.) The past participle is also used to form the passive - i.e. "I have been spoken to by her" as opposed to "She spoke to me". Although passive might be a mood as opposed to a tense. I think.

Now Portuguese has compound tenses and participles, past and present, as well. Portuguese past participles are always different from the preterite (simple past) even with regular verbs. But it's never safe to assume that the same sequence of words translates as the same thing. For example, Eu estou falando literally translates as "I am speaking" and Eu tenho falado as "I have spoken" but that's not how you would say either of these things in Portuguese (at least not in European Portuguese - Brazilian may be different).

There's a lot to the learn so the following quote from chapter 40 of Teach Yourself Portuguese Grammar is the understatement of the year:  

"It is not surprising that many, if not all, learners throw up their hands in horror at the sheer mention of the word "subjunctive". Having spent precious hours mastering various sets of verb endings, it is frustrating to be presented with a completely new range." 

English has a reputation as a dfficult language to learn but at least our verbs are relatively easy and we don't have subjunctive. Or so I thought but actually we do - it's just that subjunctive in English is a bit subliminal and old fashioned and, in practice, nobody bothers about it much anymore. It certainly needn't cause a learner of English to throw his hands up in horror.

If "to boldly go" is the most famous example of a split infinitive, the most famous of the subjunctive's relatively rare appearances in English is "If I were a rich man ..." The fact that it's "were a rich man" rather than "was a rich man" is subjunctive, apparently. Also, we know that Jesus saves so have you ever wondered why God save [not saves] the Queen? That's subjunctive as well, apparently. You're not ordering God to save the Queen - after all it's not good form to address the Deity in such peremptory terms even where the safety of the Queen is concerned. Rather, you're saying "Let/may God save the Queen" in the sense of wishing/hoping that He will. And as TYPG tells me, expressions of emotion, doubt, desire, influence and counter factual situations (I'm not a rich man but if I were ...) call for the subjunctive. Life is one big subjunctive, really ...

How did I get started on this again ...?


Baby Chou said...

More football Colemanballs:

"Gary Neville was captain and now Ryan Giggs has taken on the mantelpiece." Rio Ferdinand

"For it to be a tight game, Marseille needed to score first and that never looked likely after Liverpool scored." David Pleat

"I'm 28 now and they say you peak at 28, so my best years are still ahead of me." Kieron Dyer

"He brings out an extra six to twelve inches and it's a fantastic tackle." Scott Minto

Kathie said...

According to the invaluable, always-beside-my-computer volume "501 Portuguese Verbs / Conjugated in the All the Tenses" (by John J. Nitti & Michael J. Ferreira; Barron's, 1995) Portuguese has all the following tenses:

Personal Infinitive
Simple Pluperfect
Present Perfect
Past Perfect or Pluperfect
Future Perfect

Present Perfect
Past Perfect or Pluperfect
Conditional Perfect

There are basically 3 conjugations, for regular verbs ending in -ar, -er & -ir. Then there are the dreaded irregular verbs, which inevitably seem to be among the most commonly used :-((( So, re learning your verbs, I can only say...

Ótima sorte!

Kathie said...

In Brazil "eu estou FALANDO" is standard usage, but in Portugal it's more common to see "eu estou A FALAR."

Kathie said...

I didn't even mention another verb construction used in writing, that's sort of the opposite number to not splitting infinitive. Instead of writing, e.g., "eu lhe teria falado" (= I would have told you), it's "eu ter-lhe-ia falado)."

Please don't shoot the messenger ;-)

Oh, and have a safe trip & Happy Holidays!

Anonymous said...

Neil, perhaps you could settle a disagreement with my husband. Hope you and Carol are still enjoying the Florean tranquility. Last night, while feigning interest in Sky Sports News, I postulated that Falcao (Columbian who played a pivotal role in Atletico Madrid's comprehensive humping of Chelsea) should be pronounced Fal-con. I think Columbia is Spanish rather than Portugese-speaking but it looks like a Portugese name to me. Bert poo poo-ed my contribution. Whae's richt? Ruth

Neil King said...

Ruthie - sorry, I've only just noticed your comment here. I don't expect you'll notice this reply so long after the event.

Colombia is indeed Spanish speaking but I agree Falcão looks more Portuguese than Spanish.

As for how you pronounce it, the Portuguese "-ão" is a wee bit tricky but it's pretty close to French "-ean" (as in "Jean").

Thus, the biggest city in Brazil (only Portuguese speaking country in Latin America) would be far more accurately pronounced "SONG Pow-Loh" than "SOW Pow-Loh" as it tends to be.

Does that enable you to rebut Bert?

Do let me know if he ever challenges you over how to pronouce Leixoes (a place near Porto).