Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Confusion about the Future (I)

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, an Italian, commenting on Obama’s denial of reports that he uses a Zune instead of an iPod, writes:  ‘E comunque lo Zune sarà già stato sepolto nell’Area 51’ (‘and anyway the Zune will already have been buried in Area 51’).

Instead, this is the first 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.

My first exhibit is from the Bristol Classical Press edition of Borges’ Ficciones.  The third sentence of ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (1940) is ‘El hecho se produjo hará unos cinco años.’  Translating word for word, this reads: ‘The event took place it will make some five years.’  The editors explain that ‘hace [‘it makes’] would be more common but the future indicates a certain vagueness: ‘some four or five years ago’.’  Of course, the future is nowhere in sight; this is simply a judgement in the absence of the relevant information.  A more faithful translation would be ‘it will be some five years ago that the event took place’, or ‘the event will have taken place some five years ago’.

There's a close parallel in William Morris’ The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897), part 6, ch. 7:  “But Birdalone spake, hardening her heart thereto for very need: ‘Belike then there is a change of days here, for when I last knew of the land there was little peace therein.’  ‘And that will not be so long agone,’ said a townsman, smiling, ‘for I doubt we should see no grey hair in thine head if thy sallet were off it.’  Birdalone reddened: ‘It will be some five years agone,’ said she.”

Here Borges’ editors would presumably explain that ‘it is’ would be more common but the future indicates a certain vagueness, so that what Birdalone meant was that it was some four or five years ago.  But while the latter is obviously something that she could have said if she had wanted to, it is equally obviously not what she actually said.

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