When I’m at home in the United States, I can tell a lot about you the minute that you open your mouth–any native speaker can. In broad terms, I can guess your social class, how likely it is that you went to college, and maybe what part of the country you’re from. Speaking French, I can’t do any of that–the deranged street person who walks up to me on the sidewalk and asks me what the tennis scores are sounds pretty much the same as a research scientist to me. However, even I can recognize that my office mate Brigitte speaks incredibly elegant French.
The French language has a number of past tenses, some of which are used in the written language almost exclusively. (For example, the only time that I’ve ever heard the passé simple spoken was while listening to a former government official being interviewed in a documentary movie. I am told that it has a pedantic, hyper-formal flavor to native speakers.) These allegedly-unspoken tenses include the past subjunctives.
My French tutor back in the States assures me, whenever I ask about the subjunctives of the past tenses, that I don’t need to know them, on the basis of the fact that French people don’t actually use them–not in the spoken language, certainly, and probably not in the written language, either, with the possible exception of the occasional professor of French, and then only in writing. As Jean Dutourd says in the preface to Alain Boussière’s Le bar du subjonctif (“The Subjunctive Bar”–on the cover, he is standing behind a bar in front of a bunch of liquor bottles, holding a handbook of verb conjugations) “L’imparfait du subjonctif est d’un autre âge. Il n’a pas le costume de notre temps. Il a une façon d’être lui-même, sans discrétion, avec un naturel que l’on pouvait trouver charmant jadis, mais qui paraît aujourd’hui le comble de la pose.” “The imperfect subjunctive is of another age. It doesn’t wear the clothing of our times. It has its own manner of being, without discretion, with a character that one could find charming in days of old, but that seems today the height of posturing.“ Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when my office mate used the past imperfect subjunctive in conversation yesterday!
The past imperfect is a tense (technically, an aspect) that corresponds to English temporal expressions like I used to do something, I habitually did something, I was doing something (when something else happened). We were discussing software bugs when she said …que je ne crusse pas… Not only is that a past imperfect subjunctive, but it’s a highly irregular one–I had to look it up in my Bescherelle to be sure of what I had heard. Linguists love a good subjunctive–this was a delightful one. I would love to be able to explain (even to myself) how to form the conjugations of the imparfait du subjonctif. However, when I looked it up, the instructions begin by noting that those conjugations are based on the passé simple. This is ANOTHER tense that they don’t teach us Americans in school! (Seriously–in my very large, expensive intermediate French textbook, there’s one page on the passé simple, in an optional appendix.) Naturally, there are lots of irregulars. Let’s just start off with regular verbs, because their imparfait du subjonctif is delightful enough. The first person and second personal informal singulars of er verbs are cool, because they both end with a sound that you don’t find in any other tense. Here are some examples from About.com:
Here are some examples from Le bar du subjonctif:
Il faudrait que j’étudiasse. “I would have to study.”
Il serait très opportun que tu m’aidasses à lever la table avant que nous n’allasions regarder la télé. “It would be timely if you help me lift the table before we watch TV.”
As I mentioned above regarding the passé simple, there are tenses that have a perhaps pedantic flavor for native speakers, and the imparfait du subjonctif seems to be one of them. This tweet probably demonstrates well the general French attitude towards the imparfait du subjonctif:
Here’s another heartfelt expression of the poster’s attitude towards the imparfait du subjonctif:
As a non-native speaker, I don’t get it—Americans love a good subjunctive, even if we’re not very good at producing them ourselves. But, enough with the sociolinguistics that I don’t have native speaker intuitions about—let’s get back to the morphology.
The third person singular is less cute in that unlike the first and second person singular, it doesn’t end with an unusual sound, but it does have one nice, and very French-orthography, complication: although it sounds the same in the passé simple and the imparfait du subjonctif, it is spelt totally differently, and with a circumflex accent in the imparfait du subjonctif. Here is how it works—bear in mind again that in the third person singular, these two tenses are pronounced the same:
|passé simple||imparfait du subjonctif|
|aimer||on aima||qu’on aimât|
|manger||on mangea||qu’on mangeât|
|lancer||on lança||qu’on lançât|
|aller||on alla||qu’on allât|
OK, that’s enough for one day–believe it or not, I’ve been working on this post for weeks. Let’s return to the imparfait du subjonctif another day—now it’s time to get out of the apartment and enjoy a beautiful day in Paris. A plus tard! (Whether or not there should be an accent grave on that preposition is a subject that we will also leave for another day.)