May 6th 2013

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Alternate Realities: The Subjunctive Mood

Phuc Tran speaking at TED

In his Ted Talk, “Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive,  Phuc Tran discusses the subjunctive and how this verbal mood can impact the way in which we see the world.  

 “What would have happened if…”

How many times have you asked yourself this question? Phuk Tran often spends time thinking about what would have happened if his family had not escaped Saigon in 1975. Before boarding a bus to flee, Tran began crying and shrieking uncontrollably. His family did not get on the bus, which minutes later exploded. What if he had not cried? What if his family had not made it out of Saigon?

These type of “what if” questions are known as the subjunctive. The subjunctive mood is used for expressing hypothetical statements such as “what if,” “I wish,” “I would,” “I could,” etc. As opposed to the indicative mood, which is used for stating facts, the subjunctive mood expresses potential and alternate outcomes.

Subjunctive: Time/space dream machine

According to Tran, the subjunctive is a “time/space dream machine that can conjure alternative realities.” Since Vietnamese lacks the subjunctive mood, Tran had the ability to imagine alternate possibilities to various actions whereas his parents did not. For his parents, reality was simply what happened. There was no sense of what could have happened.

Many of us get brought down by wishing we were someone or something else, and this Tran refers to as the “dark side of the subjunctive.” Tran believes his parents’ resiliency to deal with their difficult situation stems from the lack of the subjunctive in Vietnamese. Without a linguistic way to express the concept, his parents did not waste time worrying about alternative realities.

Vietnamese optimism

In a 2011 Gallup International poll, Vietnam was considered the most optimistic country, a fact that Tran attributes to their lack of a subjunctive mood. Without the ability to linguistically express what could have happened, Vietnamese do not spend time pondering over what they “should have” done, and instead, live with what happened or did not happen.

While the subjunctive can cause us unnecessary anxiety by worrying “what if,” it also allows us beautiful creativity in our thoughts and language. Use the power of the subjunctive correctly – choose to have an optimistic outlook like the Vietnamese, but continue to dream the lovely dreams of “what if.”

Check out Tran’s TED Talk here: http://tedxdirigo.com/speakers/phuc-tran/

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