Friday, March 11, 2011

Konjunktiv I

Speaking of the fairer sex, seeing Niki chasing geckos around the yard this afternoon prompted me to think more about my 이상형...just kidding.

On the contrary, I was actually thinking at the time about—nerd alert—German verb tenses, particularly Konjunktiv I, which I find especially useful.

The German language has two forms of the subjunctive mood, Konjunktiv I (subjunctive I) and Konjunktiv II (subjunctive II). Though they can both be used in the past and present tenses, Konjunktiv I and Konjunktiv II are also known as the present subjunctive and past subjunctive, respectively, because of how they are constructed.

Of the two, Konjunktiv II is more similar to the subjunctive mood as it is used in English and most Romance languages—it is used to signal doubt, uncertainty, obligation, desire or politeness or to describe situations contrary to reality. At other times, it is used to form the conditional tense and also as a replacement for Konjunktiv I when the indicative form and the Konjunktiv I form of a verb are identical.

Konjunktiv I, on the other hand, is reserved for indirekte Rede (indirect or quotative speech), including indirect questions, commands or extended direct discourse. Along with a pronoun shift or the use of dass (that), Konjunktiv I is one of the three ways in German to signal indirect discourse. Here is an explanation from my copy of Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik (Rankin and Wells):
In both English and German, indirect discourse is usually introduced by a frame that includes a verb of speaking or thinking, such as sagen [to say] or meinen [to think/mean]. In English, this frame must be repeated each time an indirect quote is given—"Mary remarked..., and then she said..., and finally she noted..."—in order to make it clear that it is Mary's speech which is being reported, not the opinions of the author. In German, a writer can simply state the identity of the source at the outset, and then proceed to use subjunctive I verb forms (or subjunctive II substitutes when necessary) throughout an extended passage with no further frames necessary.
In many cases of indirect discourse, especially in spoken language, the indicative is a viable alternative "when mediating speakers have no need or desire to distance themselves from the message being conveyed." But by using the Konjunktiv I, "the message bearer can accentuate the indirect nature of the message." As such, it is particularly common in print media and formal writing, "where journalists must take pains (often for legal reasons) to dissociate themselves from what someone else says."

If the advantage of the German present subjunctive is not immediately clear to you, here's a passage from Der Besuch der alten Dame, a tragicomic play by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt that we read in Frau Svec's German class at Andover (with Konjunktiv I verbs bolded), followed by the much less efficient English translation:
In der langen Tischrede des Bürgermeisters beteuerte er, man habe sie nie vergessen. Schon damals habe jeder den Zauber ihrer Persönlichkeit gespürt. Unvergessen sei sie geblieben. Ihre Leistungen in der Schule würden noch jetzt von der Lehrerschaft als Vorbild hingestellt. Sie sei im wichtigsten Fach—Pflanzen- und Tierkunde—erstaunlich gewesen. Ihre Gerechtigkeitsliebe und ihr Sinn für Wohltätigkeit habe schon damals die Bewunderung weiter Kreise erregt. 
(In the mayor's long after-dinner speech, he stressed that people had never forgotten her. Even back then, [he said,] everyone sensed the magic of her personality. [He stressed again that] she had remained unforgotten. [He mentioned how] her achievements in school were still held up by the faculty as a model. [He noted that] she was astonishingly good in the most important subject—plant and animal studies. [He said that] her love of justice and her sense of generosity had, even then, led to widespread admiration.)
Practical, nein? The only other language I'm familiar with that has a verb form analogous to Konjunktiv I is, believe it or not, Korean. In Korean, the verb suffix 고 + 해(요) is used for reported speech, eliminating the need to repeatedly emphasizing the third-person perspective, much like the present subjunctive in German.

I'm not sure exactly where over the North Sea the English language lost Konjunktiv I, but it was a sad day for typesetters and legalistic minds alike. Anyone want to join me in petitioning Congress (or the Queen) for the reintroduction of the present subjunctive? With the reduction in printing costs for all government documents, it could be a first step toward reducing the national deficit. At least until the country's ink makers decide to form a lobby.