Subjunctives

13 02 2008

A little while ago, I had the following question:

How does a native Israeli Hebrew speaker express a subordinate clause in the subjunctive? Take a statement, for example, like: “That is what she would have wanted”. It would seem that the subjunctive virtually doesn’t exist at all in Biblical Hebrew (excepting certain remnants of older “energic” and cohortative-looking forms) but surely Hebrew speakers today have developed a means of distinguishing it from purely declarative statements?

I asked two people: my friend, Daniel, and my undergrad Hebrew teacher, Dr Shani Berrin. They both gave me the same response:

You do it using a strangely English-translated sounding method – and your sentence comes out as: זה מה שהיא היתה רוצה
(Daniel)

I’m not coming up with anything in Classical Hebrew, but modern Hebrew would use perfect plus participle: היתה רוצה
(Shani)

It seems interesting to me that Biblical Hebrew lacks a specific means of conveying the subjunctive (at least, the phase of “Biblical” Hebrew that is represented by the MT), and it also seems interesting to me that the Israeli Hebrew collocation is indistinguishable from the habitual (“that is what she used to want”) and from the iterative (“that is what she wanted from time to time”). Just thought I’d open that up here, and see if anybody has any alternative suggestions for the subjunctive – both in Classical, as well as Israeli, Hebrew.

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One response

27 02 2008
Isaac M

The Modern Hebrew method is not very different from the Modern English: In English too, “she would want” can be either present or imperfect subjunctive or imperfect (habitual or iterative) indicative. The difference is that the Hebrew subjunctive, like the Hebrew indicative, has fewer tense possibilities than English, so that “she would want” and “she would have wanted” are expressed by the same words.

Even the highly subordinative language of Greek expresses present contrary-to-facts with imperfect indicatives (plus the particle _an_). I wonder why this makes sense.

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