Grammar, Identity, And The Dark Side Of The Subjunctive: Phuc Tran At TEDxDirigo

Presented by Guest Contributor Phuc Tran

I am total a geek. Who’s a geek here? That’s probably a rhetorical question at a TED conference, right? I love Star Wars, I collect action figures, and my favorite biography is the biography of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style–for God’s sake, I read a book about the writing of another grammar book. How about those geek credentials?

I’m here today to talk about grammar, but not the “gotcha” grammar of split infinitives and the misuse of “whom” because frankly, I hate it when grammar is used to belittle others. I am here to talk to you how grammar is a tool, to be used like a pair of glasses. When employed at the right time, grammar can bring the world into sharp focus, and when used at the wrong time, it can make things incredibly blurry. And this all starts with the subjunctive. I remember talking to my dad about the subjunctive, and because he wasn’t a native English speaker, he didn’t understand all the nuances of the subjunctive. “Listen, Dad. You can say something like ‘If it hadn’t rained, we would have gone to the beach.’” And his response? “That’s a stupid thing to say. Why are you talking about something that didn’t happen?” (A staunch reader of non-fiction, my father has a similar opinion of fiction. “Why do you want to read books about people who never existed doing things that never happened?”)

Here’s a quick refresher of the subjunctive: in English, we have three moods: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. If we use the indicative mood in writing or speaking, we view the verb’s action as factual: “I am talking at a TED conference.” And the subjunctive mood is used when we view the action as nonfactual: “I might shit my pants.” The imperative mood is used when we view the action as a command: “Bring me a change of clothes.” The subjunctive comprises all the nuances of non-fact: potentiality, possibility, and contrafactuality.

The subjunctive mood allows us to look into the future and see multiple, highly nuanced possibilities with just a little sprinkling of could’s, would’s and might’s. Similarly, it also allows us to look into the past, to envision a world that didn’t happen but could have happened. The subjunctive is the most powerful mooda time-space dream machine that can create alternate realities with the idea of “would have been” or “should have been.”

And within this idea of “should have” is a Pandora’s box of regret and hope.

Growing up in Pennsylvania as a Vietnamese refugee, I would sometimes think about what would have happened if my family hadn’t escaped Saigon in 1975. Would we have been imprisoned like my father’s cousin, who spent years in re-education camp being tortured and sentenced to hard labor, or would we have been killed like countless other South Vietnamese unable to escape that April? The night we were fleeing Saigon, my entire family–grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles–were scheduled to board a bus. As the bus was loading passengers to go to the airport, I begin crying, shrieking uncontrollably–so much so that the entire family decided to wait for the next bus. And as that bus pulled away, it was struck by artillery fire, exploded, and killed everyone on board. As a young kid, I thought a lot about our good fortune and about what could have happened. I didn’t know it then, but I was pondering things that my parents couldn’t ponder–all because of the English subjunctive.

So what happens if a language doesn’t have the subjunctive? What if a language can’t express the idea of something that could have happened? And what if that language were Vietnamese? For my father, there were no alternate realities in 1975. There was just what happened and what didn’t happen. There were no sustained moments of contemplating what could have been for him because Vietnamese didn’t allow it. In Vietnam, he was a lawyer. He should have had a career. He should have been someone important, yet there he was in 1975, in a country he didn’t know, driving a cement mixer, trying to learn English and support his family. Not only did he not have the language to envision an alternate reality, he didn’t have the luxury.

For my parents’ survival, however, this lack of the subjunctive was fundamental to their resiliency. They were able to provide for me and my brother, able to find the strength to do what needed to be done in part because they didn’t expend psychic energy on what could have been. In Vietnamese, there was just the naked indicativeness of the world, and they met it head-on. But just as the indicativeness of Vietnamese was a source of strength for them, it has also been an Achilles’ heel because they have had such difficulty grasping ideas based in possibility.

When my daughter was born two years ago, I decided to take a half-year’s leave of absence from teaching to stay at home with her. When I shared this plan with my dad, he immediately panicked because what he heard in Vietnamese was “Dad, I won’t be teaching next year because I’ll be staying at home with the baby.” His response was, “What?! You quit your job? Are you crazy? Who quits their job in this economy?” Even though I assured him that it was just a leave of absence, he was unable to comprehend what was, to him, the sheer uncertainty of not having a job. What he knew were just the facts: that I had had a job and that I wasn’t going to have that job. Imagine, then, coming from a language that has no subjunctive (like Vietnamese) to a language that has a superbly rich subjunctive fabric (like English). What happens when someone comes from the one to the other?

Someone like me happens.

I came from a language where I could only talk about the factuality of something to suddenly being able to talk about multiple possibilities in the present, past, and future. This was an incredibly potent and powerful awakening. But equally dangerous was my ability to consider what should have been. There I was, hovering between two very different worlds: Vietnamese with its stark indicative, and English with its mirage of the subjunctive.

The subjunctive was the mirage of an oasis when I was young. Through the power of the subjunctive, I longed for a world where my name wasn’t weird and prone to mockery (Phuc you. Get the Phuc out of here. Shut the Phuc up.). I thought, “What if my name were normal? Yes! A normal name would be amazing.” At the beginning of 4th grade, I announced to my classmates that I was changing my name. I stood up and proudly said, “My new name is Peter; from here on out, please refer to me as Peter.” I envisioned a future of no more bullying and teasing. My classmates? They said “WHAT?! Peter? As in suck my Peter?” That year that I tried to change my name to Peter was also the same year that I learned about the double entendre.

Layered on top of the tangled web of languages were the cultural and racial tensions of rural Pennsylvania. Here I was, trying to pretend that I was a typical American teen. I skateboarded; I got into fights; I ran away from home; I played in a punk band; I smoked pot; I worked at a gas station. It was like this Asian kid got photoshopped into a John Hughes movie, but instead of being the punchline to a dick joke, this Asian kid wanted to be the leading man.

I had no idea what should have happened. In my small Pennsylvania town, I didn’t look like my friends. My family, full of brown immigrants and exotic smells, didn’t look like my friends’ families. As a result, I didn’t know what my future should have looked like as I spun my wheels in the quagmire of the subjunctive, longing to be someone else or somewhere else. When I graduated high school, I was intent on pursuing a double major in art and English. At college, I showed my portfolio to my art professor and got a waiver for the 101 class, and because of my AP English class in high school, I got to sign up for a 200 level English class that first semester. I was ready to read great books and think great thoughts.

Then, the unexpected happened. I hated my English and art classes.

By the end of that first semester, I had dropped both majors and was undeclared. I was utterly deflated and depressed because I hated what I should have loved. Dejected, I told my dad that I didn’t want to study English and art anymore as I awaited some reprimand from him. My father, surprisingly, was completely calm and without a hint of disappointment. There was no “you should” speech from him because that would have required a command of the subjunctive, which he lacked. His response was simple. “You don’t like English and art? Well, that’s fine. Don’t study something you don’t like. What do you like? Study that.” That was my father’s response–pure, unfiltered reality delivered with the indicative. So that’s what I did.

That spring semester of my freshman year, I took Ancient Greek on a whim, and it was brutally hard. I loved every minute of it: every accent, clause, and conjugation. The following year, I took more Greek as well as Sanskrit. That was even harder, and I loved that even more. And that following summer, I studied Latin, and by my junior year, I was studying Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit while also taking German immersion. I wasn’t restrained by ideas of what I was supposed to study or should have studied. I just pursued what I honestly loved. I embraced the indicativeness, the reality, of my passions rather than lingering on what I thought I should have been studying. The subjunctive helped me envision what I could be; it allowed me to be creative and to entertain crazy visions of “what if.” But as I unpacked all those possibilities, I also fell prey to the dark side of the subjunctive, the idea of “should have.” The idea of what “should have” didn’t improve my present or my future–it clouded my ability to see what actually was because I was fixated on what wasn’t. So much of my depression as a teenager, which verged on suicidal at times, came from how badly I wanted to be someone else. Accepting things for what they are, accepting their indicativeness, was my first step to overcoming my depression and anxiety. More important this was my first step towards honoring and loving myself and pulling away from the subjunctive’s dark side. The dark side is, after all, the more seductive–just as Star Wars has shown us.

In the Star Wars saga, the Sith Lords speak in opaque subjunctives. Darth Vader says to Luke, “If you only knew the power of the Dark Side.” Vader obviously knows how enticing the use of a present contrafactual optative sounded. And Yoda? He speaks with the bare bludgeon of the imperative and indicative. “Do or do not. There is no try.” Yoda knows how hard and uncompromising the indicative is. It takes courage to embrace the indicative–it takes real courage. And even though what Yoda says is true, Luke doesn’t stay with Yoda in the swamp because he has his own path to weave in between Yoda’s indicative truth and Vader’s seductive subjunctive. Luke has to see the world for himself through his own lens. I am presenting just one lens–a grammatical lens–through which we can all view our experience and our world. The subjunctive allows us to innovate, but it also allows us to become mired in regret. The indicative does not allow us to imagine at all, but it does allow us to talk about ourselves and our experience in real terms (especially if we have the courage to engage that reality). We all, as English speakers, put on and take off the lenses of the indicative and subjunctive everyday, and once we recognize the pitfalls of both the subjunctive and the indicative, we can actively choose a positive and more hopeful perspective.

In 2011, Gallup International conducted a survey that ranked different nations’ feelings of optimism and pessimism. What country would you expect to be the most optimistic? A country that has no subjunctive in its language? A country whose language doesn’t naturally allow its speakers to obsess over the idea of could have? According to the results of the survey, Vietnam was the most optimistic country in the world. And what country was the most pessimistic? France, of course, with its subjunctive-rich existentialism. (This is the language with two different types of subjunctives!) This is about understanding and reclaiming language and grammar, and it’s not a new idea. As a teenager living in rural Pennsylvania, I listened to the Sex Pistols hundreds of times, but I didn’t hear the nihilism of their music. When they sang their chorus of “no future for you,” I didn’t connect to the alienation of British punk. The refrain of “no future” for me meant that my future was unwritten and that many possibilities lay before me. I had re-interpreted that song of despair into a song of hope.

Go reclaim and reappropriate your language and grammar.

It’s your first and most powerful tool to experiencing and communicating the world around you, and it’s a tool that we all have. We all use the indicative and subjunctive everyday, and we can be mindful of when we’re blinded by the indicative and when we can’t see the subjunctive around us.

And this way of seeing the world? It has real force.

  • kabbakick

    I don’t think using linguistic determinism/relativity theory as means of substantiating a claim of differences in cultures has ever been all that well received. Your use of it did make me uneasy but you went into the nuances of what you really meant and didn’t lay down a “White american culture = X and Vietnamese culture = Y” claim so I guess it’s okay.(and you did only have 15 minutes) I only 3 words of Vietnamese so I just kind of have to trust you on this for now.

    But your recap of your personal and family story was heart breaking and heart warming. Even if I completely disagreed with the foundation you tried laying I don’t think it takes away from the life lesson you were driving home. Overall I thought it was a great presentation. I would love to hear you go into Vietnamese syntax further someday, Maybe I’ll stop by your tattoo shop next time I’m in Portland.

    • Phuc Skywalker

      Thanks for wading into the conversation and thanks for clarifying the point about syntax and vocabulary up above. Most of what I’ve read about Whorfianism/determinism is nominal based, and I haven’t read much that addresses verbal systems (but I am NOT a real linguist, so I can’t claim to have done much research/reading in that area). All I have is personal/anecdotal evidence and my own experience in bilingualism and how that has played out in my family’s history and experience. It’s no secret that Vietnamese and Chinese have limited verb systems (in comparison with, say, IE languages), so this might play out in some meaningful way. Maybe determinism hasn’t fared well because of the “outsider looking in” perspective? I’m curious how bilingualism might affect one’s perspective on determinism. As I said in another comment above, I’m excited about starting a dialogue, and obviously, I am not saying anything definitive about determinism in one YouTube talk. Thanks again for your thoughts!

  • kabbakick

    Well grammar and vocabulary are internalized differently. ‘Schadenfreude’ is a borrowed word for a cultural element that we share. The presentation was about differences in syntax and how that plays out in the respective group’s thought patterns. (or how differences in thought patterns plays out in the respective group’s syntax)

  • RetroA

    I’m Vietnamese Australian, I found this article confusing (and a tad bit white supremacist if I’m not mistaken) considering that Vietnamese does have words for “If” (Nếu ma), “If not” (Nếu không), “possibility” “would be” (Có thể), for example” (Thí dụ).
    I use it all the time to see the world in ‘subjunctive’ ways. My parents are both Vietnamese refugees and they use this language all the time. Even if Vietnamese does not have subjunctive mood (verbs), imaginative un-realities are conveyed through the use of words with that meaning.
    For example: “Nếu không có mất nước Việt Nam, cuộc sống tôi sẽ khác”. If Vietnam (South Vietnam) was not lost [that's what Vietnamese people call the Fall of Saigon 'lost of country'], then my life would have been different.
    This article comes across as though Vietnamese people are not capable of being ‘conceptual’ and that is just blatantly incorrect.

  • uzeemee

    a-freaking-mazing!!

  • Beth_in_Mpls

    What a brilliant, original take on a somewhat obscure linguistic feature. I love how you combined identity consciousness with language analysis, and how you spoke of your own experience and then extrapolated to an inclusive vision. Thank you so much for sharing your creative insights. Much food for thought here.