September 16, 2012 | Portuguese

Future Subjunctive?!

In which I come face-to-face with another grammatical phenomenon I didn't know existed.

Last month I encountered for the first time in my life—as far as I know and can remember—something called the future subjunctive.

Sources of Grammatical Drama

Sources of Grammatical Drama

Seeing it for the first time prompted in me a highly intellectual response. I wrote in the margin of my grammar book, “Yikes. What is this?”

Complicating things for me was that this was introduced in passing in a chapter on verb tenses, without any acknowledgment that future subjunctive is an unprecedented event for the average language student. I was told simply that for first-, second-, and third-person singular, I should use the infinitive form as the future subjunctive; that for first-person plural, I should add mos to the infinitive; and that for vocés (“you” plural) and “they,” I should add an em.

So I guess you end up with the following conjugations for the verb trabalhar (to work):

  • eu, vocé, ele, ela (I, you, he, she) trabalhar
  • nós (we) trabalharmos
  • vocés, eles, elas (you plural, they masc., they fem.) trabalharem

Without a context, I can’t translate the verbs themselves, because there’s no direct equivalent in English.

These forms happen to be the same as the personal infinitive for this verb, but I am only just now realizing that as I write this entry. I had a vague sense of duplicativeness when I first read about future subjunctive, but it didn’t fully register until this moment. (The two conjugations are different for irregular verbs, though.)

It can feel strange, sometimes bordering on unbelievable, to language learners to cross paths with a construction they have never, ever seen before. I am talking especially about those people who have their native language down and also, to a reasonable degree, at least one additional language. When you learn a second language fairly well, and really examine its grammar closely, I think it is common to get used to things being done in a certain way.

For example, when I studied Latin very briefly about 13 years ago, I was amazed to come across the vocative, ablative, and locative noun cases. Through German I had learned about the nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative cases, which also exist in Latin, but I had trouble adapting to the three new cases.

I had to overcome some hurdle in my mind to accept that they could even exist, because I had already somehow divided my world up into four grammatical cases. 

The same with future subjunctive. I couldn’t at first conceive of it, because in Spanish, you would (sometimes? always?) use present subjunctive in cases where Portuguese would use future subjunctive. Here’s an example from—once again—John Whitlam’s Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar:

Não vou dormir enquanto ela não chegar em casa. (I’m not going to bed until she gets home.)

Chegar is the future subjunctive, which for first-person looks just like the infinitive anyway. (Which, by the way, is pretty confusing in itself! Who uses infinitive forms as conjugations? Infinitives are like anti-conjugations!)

In Spanish, I believe this same sentence would be:

No voy a dormir hasta que ella llegue a casa.

Llegue is present subjunctive, from the verb “llegar” (to arrive). I confess, when I think it through, it makes sense to me to go with future subjunctive in this case, as Portuguese does. After all, the thing hasn’t happened yet.

But the subjunctive in Spanish tells me that, even though it’s present-tense. And here’s another thing: Portuguese is just so similar to Spanish that my instinct is to follow the same verb pathways I have followed before.

Otherwise it’s like walking down a road I have walked down many times before, and I think I know the route, and then all of a sudden there is a sign labeled “Future Subjunctive” and “Personal Infinitive,” pointing off to the right.

Down a dark twisty path.

With a precipitous drop and sharp boulders below. And poison oak everywhere.

Nah, not really. Please pardon the grammar hyperbole.

It’s just a little surprising, is all. So for me there’s some mental resistance.

While we are on this particular path, though, please note that in the English version of the above sleeping-deferral sentence, the verb form in the subordinate clause is neither future nor subjunctive; “gets” is just plain old third-person singular indicative.

I always thought of English as difficult, but in the past couple of years I have been realizing that some things about it are really rather simple!

Comments (6)

josé luiz serafini • Posted on Mon, September 17, 2012 - 1:47 pm EST

1. Still concerning the personal infinitive, I was going to tell you, trying to settle all those musings the other day, “Ellen, maybe just a nodding acquaintance with the personal infinitive would be sufficient for the time being…” Now I find you bewildered by that other (minor) stumbling block, the “futuro do subjuntivo”...
2. Often,as of writing something in English, I am overcome with misgivings. Is that ‘echt’ English I am using, or some awkward contrivance of mine? Why is language learning so exacting a task, so time-consuming? I started with English some fifty years ago, as a child,  out of sheer joy. Every day I learn one, two, three new words, somehow forget part of them, and relearn them. So how can I ever claim speaking that awesome, interminable language of yours? And how, for that matter, can anyone dare to speak not 17, but one single foreign language? (Incidentally, should I say “dare” or “dare to”? I daresay I forgot that stuff, and don’t care too much…) And why is it that I, after years of plodding & wading through many a foreign field, can ultimately feel comfort and depth only within the confines and warmth of my cherished, improbable,obscure mother tongue?...

3. But then there is that poem by the great Brazilian poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which begins

    Lutar com palavras
    é a luta mais vã.
    No entanto, lutamos
    mal rompe a manhã.

4. Old Latin had, just as Indoeuropean, two more cases, the locative and the instrumental…

5.Yes, the English verb is a real blessing…

6. Rather than José or Ishmael, you can call me José Luiz (= Joe Louis).

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, September 17, 2012 - 5:23 pm EST

Obrigada pelo poema, José Luiz. E gosto da sua filosofia de línguas. Eu diria “dare” ou “dare to.” Você pode escolher!

Gus Ferracci • Posted on Wed, September 19, 2012 - 3:57 pm EST

Hello Ellen, great to see you’re still plowing along with your adventure. How’s the maintenance of the existing languages going?

Always nice to see pics of your new books, a great part of the journey. Have you ever tallied the cost of all of your language learning materials over the - how many languages is it now? You know how it goes, some people have kids, some have pets, some have languages!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, October 04, 2012 - 6:24 pm EST

Hi, Gus. I’m sorry for the slow response! Because of a technical glitch, I didn’t see this comment until today.

I have never totaled the cost, but I can tell you I have gotten comps for the more expensive stuff such as Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone. That made a huge difference, obviously. I do pay for the majority of the books. I sometimes get review copies, but even where it is possible, it is often not worth the trouble to do so. The good news is I don’t have to buy any cat litter or dog food (referring to your pet comment)—and paperback books don’t cost that much.

Ah, maintenance. Hmm. It is probably as one might expect when one studies a language for three months and then moves on to another one. I don’t dwell on that much, to be honest. I am trying to keep up my European languages as much as I can, but otherwise I just enjoy the journey.

Kimberly • Posted on Wed, July 10, 2013 - 9:31 am EST

I enjoyed reading that I am not the only one who finds the future subjunctive to be a complete anomaly! I am really hoping that eventually it will just become normal and I will get used to using it at the correct times.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, July 13, 2013 - 12:37 pm EST

Thank you, Kimberly. I am looking forward myself to restudying Portuguese this fall and seeing whether future subjunctive will become more comfortable during my second examination of this language!

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