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PucksFool: But what if you don't believe in the subjunctive mood?

Yep, that would be a problem. Oddly enough, it is related to religion, beliefs, doubts, and yes, even atheism.

Is God counterfactual? This question is a huge component of the ongoing argument between religious fundamentalists, on one hand, and just about everyone else on the other.

A "counterfactual" is an idea that we express with a certain degree of doubt, or desire, or wish, or fantasy, or as a hypothesis, or as a "fact" that was told to us by a dubious source. It might be true or false or distorted, or it might be "not even wrong" (to borrow a wonderful phrase from Wolfgang Pauli).

Counterfactuals also include claims that are superficially wrong but have some deeper element of truth: metaphors, similes, hyperboles, allegories, myths, and legends.

Much of what passes for history in the Bible is legend, myth, allegory, and metaphor. The historical "facts" that it contains are subject to serious doubt, but on some metaphorical level they convey useful and even important truths about the human condition. The same can be said of all religious scripture, regardless of language, culture, or theology. All of these religious "facts" are, in one sense or another, counterfactual.

English, in common with every other human language, has a variety of ways of indicating that an idea is a counterfactual. Most of these require additional words that describe or specify the doubt:

"I have heard that..."
"She would like you to..."
"If only..."

But in addition to these circumlocutions, almost all human languages also provide a quick and subtle way to emphasize the counterfactual nature of a statement, simply by modifying the verb. Grammarians call this a subjunctive.

"When I was strong..." conveys a fact: I was once strong.
"If I were strong..." conveys a counterfactual: I am not actually strong.

The slight change in the verb, from "was" to "were", is the marker for the counterfactual. Grammarians would say that it changes the mood of the sentence from indicative (factual) to subjunctive (counterfactual). In this case the precise sense of the subjunctive "were" might be a wish, a fantasy, or a hypothesis -- we (the listeners) are not sure precisely which sense is meant, but we get the counterfactual nature of the statement immediately.

Although we call the subjunctive a "mood", the word is really just an alternate spelling of "mode" -- it has little or nothing to do with the mood of the speaker. Verbs have modes. In English there are only three:

-- indicative (simple fact)
-- imperative (command)
-- subjunctive (counterfactual)

We English speakers overload the poor subjunctive mode with a variety of meanings: doubt, desire, wish, fantasy, hypothesis, etc, etc. In other languages these different shades of counterfactuality have their own special modes, each indicated by a particular slight change in the verb:

-- conditional (hypothesis [e.g. Spanish])
-- optative (hope, wish, desire [e.g. Japanese])
-- jussive (imploring, pleading [e.g. Arabic])
-- potential (probable but not certain [e.g. Persian])

These changes in mode are especially powerful in spoken language, where they provide an independent auditory channel of subtle coloration of meaning. It is no accident, I believe, that ancient languages tend to have many more modes than modern languages.

Ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, Old Norse, and Old Church Slavonic had a bewildering variety of modes and inflections for their verbs. Storytellers used them to brilliant effect, weaving a tapestry of colorful meanings -- and coincidentally making their stories devilishly difficult to understand for modern readers.

It doesn't help that ancient orthography was quite primitive. Ancient scribes omitted indications for accents, tonal variations, and emphasis. The same symbol was often used for a variety of consonants and vowel sounds, and sometimes vowels were omitted altogether. We have very little idea what overtones and shades of meaning we are missing when we read ancient texts, even in those rare circumstances when we can actually read the originals.

Here's the thing: I am convinced that people gathered around a fire and listening to an ancient storyteller were never in doubt when they heard a counterfactual, and that they could distinguish by ear all the various counterfactual forms that we now communicate only with awkward circumlocutions. Over the last 500 years of modernity, these shades of meaning have been rapidly lost -- and with them our ability to decipher exactly what the old storytellers were really trying to say.

Gone are the optative and jussive moods. The subjunctive is barely alive in English, and many other modern languages. It is now a mere relic of a former glory of the spoken word, a shadow that leaves a mere hint of what our ancestors had available -- and heard every night around the campfire.

That's what we lose when we cease to believe in the subjunctive mood.

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