Thursday, 5 February 2009

Confusion about the Future (II)

The lack of a future tense in Romance and Germanic languages is not widely known; on the tacit assumption that there must be one somewhere, people tend to seize on verb forms and modals whose function is to signal that the speaker is making not a statement of fact but a judgement in the absence of the relevant information – a function that makes them useful for discussing the future, of course, but also for making conjectures about present and past facts.

I shall not explain this further here; from the above remarks, it is obvious what is going on when, for instance, a Dutch blogger working in Cameroon writes of a friend whose time there has recently come to an end:  ‘Ze zal nu al thuis zijn, hopelijk heeft ze het niet te koud’ (‘she will already be home by now, hopefully she is not too cold’).

Instead, this is the second in a series of posts exposing the confusion that ensues when people fail to recognize that these Romance verb forms and Germanic modals do not intrinsically encode futurity.

This time my target is the common theory that the ‘future tense’, when not expressing the future, expresses probability as opposed to certainty.  This admits of a homely and a sophisticated refutation.

Firstly, there is no obvious uncertainty when a French couple, reporting on their round-the-world trip, write:  ‘On sera sans doute passé trop vite pour creuser et trouver des endroits plus sauvages, mais il y avait quand même un peu trop de tourisme a notre goût en Thailande’ (‘we will no doubt have passed through too quickly to delve deeper and find wilder places, but even so there was a bit too much tourism in Thailand for our tastes’).  Other examples abound.

Secondly, if non-future ‘will’ expressed probability, people would use it in situations where in fact they do not.  For instance, if you have just tossed two coins without looking at them, you won't assent to the claim that they won't both have come up heads – whereas you will assent to the claim that they probably won't both have come up heads.  What's worse, the same goes for any probability short of 1.

Both difficulties are avoided by the theory that what ‘zal’, ‘will’ and ‘sera’ have in common is that they signal a judgement in the absence of the relevant information – for it is of course possible to make a certain judgement even in the absence of concrete information.

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