Friday, November 26, 2010

The subjunctive from the mouthes of babes?

My six-year-old daughter told us at dinner the other day that her teacher generally allows her class certain privileges "if we be good." The first thing that struck me is that it sounds like the subjunctive. An example would be If we be faithful to Christ, he will certainly be faithful to us from the New American Standard Bible. This seems extremely unlikely since it's an archaic form, although you can see how it would have come about. Other verbs appear in the plain present tense here, which is identical in shape to the subjunctive; both use the base form; only be has a distinct first-person present-tense form. This is probably, then, a performance error stemming from mistaken analogy.

The second was that if we be good gives be a dynamic sense that if we are good simply wouldn't have. It sounds much better than, for example, if we be hungry. Consider that you can say we're being good where you can't say *we're being hungry (unless this is some kind of dramatization of hunger).

After we adults had discussed the grammatical implications for a few minutes, my daughter said, "Oh, I mean if we are good," which I found somehow both wonderful and regrettable.


Ran said...

Neal Whitman discussed something quite similar on his blog a few years back:

Faldone said...

A couple of alternate explanations.

Her teacher had said something like, "Be good and you can have certain privileges," and your daughter expanded that.


Your daughter has had some exposure to AAVE.

Brett said...

Yes, I think it's very likely the teacher said that. One of my wife's suggestions was that the expression was quotative, though it didn't have the intonation of a quotative expression. The AAVE explanation seems unlikely in our area.

Nick said...

Oh Jack, it is I, Nick again. It's beautiful and, just to let you know, I say, "if we be good", too. It is the subjunctive after all.

It's not AAVE; it's the archaic English subjunctive and it's back!

P.S. I also say, "if I be given...".

Nick said...

How is it wonderful? She corrected something she had said correctly in the first place. I still say "if you be a good boy..." or "if you be nice to them...". It's very very correct English, Jack, my dear boy.

If it be possible, perhaps she can be a posterchild for the subjunctive's return to glory lol. Ah what fools these mortals be, right?

Nick said...

No, "Hello, Nick. It's good to hear from you after nearly 2 years?" I've missed you, Jack, old boy. How have you been? I think last we spoke was March 14, 2009. It doesn't seem that long ago, eh?

Brett said...

Sorry, I'm in the thick of marking papers. Happy holidays!