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De l'emploi du subjonctif passe/On the Use of the Past Subjunctive.

De l'emploi du subjonctif passe/On the Use of the Past Subjunctive. By EVA HAVU. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. 1996. 240 pp.

The study starts with the premise that 'in the narrative register the Subjunctive Imperfect as well as the Subjunctive Pluperfect are still used, whereas in the discursive register only the Present and Past Subjunctive are to be found'. However, can the past subjunctive have the functions of the imperfect subjunctive when the event expressed in the subordinate is in the past? The study is supported by text and oral corpora and there is also a diachronic survey of the changing values of the past subjunctive. The book, a thesis, was inspired by Eva Havu's questions from students. Knowing that the imperfect subjunctive is used nowadays only in the narrative register, her students tend to use a past subjunctive instead (in subordinates whose main clause is in a past tense), thus assuming that the past subjunctive is a less formal alternative for the imperfect subjunctive. This confusion arises from the fact that there is no subjunctive in the Finnish language (either the indicative or the conditional are used instead). Another source of confusion is apparently the corpus itself, where authors seem to follow the same reasoning regarding a would-be sequence of tenses, whilst ignoring basic questions of aspectual differences.

There follows a section on the sequence of tenses in French, applied to main and subordinate clauses in the indicative. This is fine as far as it goes, except that the way it is presented is somewhat confusing. Then comes a discussion of the sequence of tenses, taking into consideration 'background' and 'foreground'.

Quite a few good points are made, but the whole somewhat lacks rigour. There is no attempt to question even some of the (contradictory) rules quoted from other grammarians. Instead, it is the reader who is left to jump up and down crying 'but!' For instance, on page 19, we find: 'Il y a par exemple des conjonctions de temps qui, dans certains contextes, ne peuvent pas etre suivies de tous les temps du passe'. The example given is '?Quand il ecrivait une lettre, le telephone sonna', as opposed to: 'Comme il ecrivait une lettre, le telephone sonna'. But then what about 'Quand il ecrivait, il pleuvait' or 'Comme il devint pale, elle s'arreta de parler'? It is the meaning of the conjunction, rather than the 'context', that is at play here. Indeed, we find that 'les conjonctions influencent le choix du temps' (p. 20).

It is claimed that when simultaneity with the main clause is expressed by the same tense, the tense of the subordinate is one of 'background': that is, imperfect. The example given is, 'L'homme qui me saluait toujours m'aimait bien' (p. 43). However, in 'L'homme qui me saluait toujours clignait de l'oeil en meme temps' (my example), 'clignait' does not express 'background' anymore than 'saluait' does.

It is claimed that whilst the perfect is possible in 'Quand Marie a fait la vaisselle, Paul a fait ses devoirs', 'L'emploi d'un passe simple serait bien moins probable' (p. 43). This is followed by '?Pendant que Marie ferma les portes, Paul sortit la voiture'. Since we have now a different conjunction, it is difficult to see what point is being made, particularly as if we keep 'quand', we can have 'Quand Marie ferma les portes, Paul sortit la voiture'.

On page 49, we learn that 'la 3e personne du singulier du passe simple est souvent confondue avec celle de l'imparfait du subjonctif (il fut/il fut; il vint/il vint)'. Since they are homophones, the 'mistake' cannot be heard orally, and at most would be considered as spelling mistakes in writing. But then we learn 'ce qui explique pourquoi la valeur aspectuelle de l'imparfait du subjonctif n'est plus toujours tres claire', which sounds like a somewhat wild assumption! 'Vouloir' is quoted as an example (p. 87) to express both anteriority with the pluperfect and simultaneity with the imperfect, but with two different meanings 'desirer' (3.15) and 'declarer' (3.16)! Exceptions to rules are given without saying why or how (2.24, p. 23). Conversely, a rule is given ignoring obvious exceptions (2.25a).

Eva Havu seems reluctant to take a stand. Her account goes out in all directions, reading like a draft, the work of someone who has gathered a lot of information but does not quite know what to do with it. In short, everything and its reverse is said, without backtracking in an attempt to refine a previous statement. The problem is that one does not know what all this is for: if it is the result of research, then it has not yet been fully digested. If it is meant as a pedagogical tool (as the introduction suggests), then we have a right to wonder how students are meant to use it. In short, a number of cas de figure are described, but there is little rationalization or conclusions. We feel we are in the presence of 'justifications' a posteriori rather than principles allowing the generation of examples. The study of the temporal, modal, and aspectual values of the subjunctive are interesting, but wanting at all costs to find their 'indicative equivalent' is of rather limited interest. Since, according to Eva Havu, 'il est evident que les paraphrases a l'indicatif ne correspondent jamais entierement a la phrase d'origine du point de vue semantique' (p. 108), one may indeed wonder why we should bother.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:L'Huillier, Monique
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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