Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Barack Obama's pick for the Supreme Court has been characterized by right wing rabblerousers as a racist and a militant femme. She has caught a lot of flak, particularly for one statement she made in a 2001 speech at the University of Berkeley entitled, ‘A Latina Judge’s Voice,’ during which she elaborated upon her experience on the bench as a woman of Hispanic background. Her critics have interpreted the statement as racist and biased against white males (some of them are backtracking now).
Reader Narayan Acharya, who has contributed several interesting opinion pieces here, speculates that Sotomayor was not making a political statement at all when she brought up her race, gender and life experience. The much reviled, awkwardly worded sentence was the result of thinking in Spanish and speaking in English. The grammatical differences of the two languages may have crossed wires in her brain, according to Narayan. Specifically, Sotomayor was tripped up by the "subjunctive!"
What Sotomayor said was :
"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness o f her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life."
This is a daunting sentence to analyze. By now we know all the negative meanings and implications that have been imputed to the speaker by those with an axe to grind. But is there something more subtle going on in the rendering of the sentence? I think so, although I find it difficult to clearly identify it. Simply parsing the sentence is futile because mere structure is not what I’m after – deconstruction is needed. Let me strip it to its skeleton anyway :
“I would hope that X would U than Y who hasn’t V” where X is ‘a wise Latina woman’, U is the verbal phrase ‘reach a better conclusion’, Y is ‘a white male’, and V the verbal phrase ‘lived that life’.
One cannot quarrel with the sentence except to quibble that a strict grammarian of a generation or two ago would take issue with the opening verbal phrase saying that ‘I should hope that’ is the only admissible form. I recall being shown a typescript of a primer that claimed that ‘should’ also signals the subjunctive mood, but have not been able to confirm the validity of this claim from other sources. Fowler states that the pairing of ‘I’ and ‘would’ is an “invasion from the other side of the Atlantic”, and that ‘should’ is the correct word to use with the verbs like ‘like’, ‘prefer’, ‘care’, ‘be glad’, ‘be inclined’ etc.
The crux of the matter, I believe, is that Sotomayor is bilingual, and though she may be a native English speaker, her mother tongue is Spanish. We can agree that she is also a native Spanish speaker without debating which came first. Undoubtedly she learnt both languages at an early age when speech is established through imitation rather than formal learning. At that age one learns to speak correctly memetically, without knowing the whys and wherefores. I maintain that Sotomayor must have learnt the use of subjunctive verb forms well before she knew why they were needed.
I do not recall being taught about the subjunctive in English and didn’t know of its significance until I embarked on a course in Spanish. Since then I have discovered that, except perhaps for the uneducated, Spanish speakers use the correct verb forms when the subjunctive mood is called for. English speakers, even the best educated, are sloppy in this respect, using the indicative where the subjunctive is called for, arguing that the meaning is understood anyway by the context.
From “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage”, H.W.Fowler,1965
“Subjunctive … a verb-form different from that of the indicative mood in order to ‘denote an action or a state as conceived (and not as a fact), and [expressing] a wish, command, exhortation, or a contingent, hypothetical, or prospective event’ – OED. About the subjunctive, so delimited, the important general facts are : (1) that it is moribund except in a few easily specified uses; (2) that, owing to the capricious influence of the much analysed classical moods upon the less studied native, it probably never would have been possible to draw upon a satisfactory table of the English subjunctive uses; (3) that assuredly no one will ever find it either possible or worth while to do so, now that the subject is dying; and (4) that subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are either deliberate revivals, especially by poets, for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals giving a pretentious flavour to their context, or new arrivals possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial.”
From “The American Language”, H.L.Mencken
1936 ed : “…virtually extinct in the vulgar tongue”
1948 ed : “On higher levels, of course, the subjunctive shows more life, and there is ground for questioning the conclusion of Bradley, Krapp, Vizetelly, Fowler and other authorities that it is on its way out.”
From “Modern Spanish Grammar – A Practical Guide”, J.Kattán-Ibarra & C.J.Pountain, 1997.
“Sometimes the subjunctive is automatically required by another element in the sentence such as a verb or a conjunction. Sometimes there is a choice between subjunctive and indicative, in which case there is always a difference in meaning between the two. The subjunctive is not ‘avoided’ in Spanish, and is not in any way old-fashioned or unusual.”
Enough digressions! These citations are apt in examining what Sotomayor said. Had she expressed herself in Spanish she might have said it more precisely.
‘I should hope that’ – ‘espero que’ or, better still, ‘ojalá que’ clearly flags the subjunctive mood. While the indicative makes a direct statement of fact, the subjunctive is called for in a variety of other situations. Important among these are emotion, doubt, supposition, conjecture and hypothesis, all of which properly pertain to what Sotomayor was saying. In the construct “I would hope that X would not U than Y who hasn’t V”, Spanish recognizes that X and Y are both hypothetical entities and therefore U and V need to reflect that by their special subjunctive conjugations. One grammar text states that “the principal use of the subjunctive is after verbs that cause another person to change his/her behavior”. Clearly the rational Sotomayor has no basis for saying that all hypothetical Xes would not U; nor can she exhaustively compare them with all hypothetical Ys who haven’t V; nor can she definitively make assumptions about whether an X would or would not U, or whether a Y has or has not V. All these combinations of uncertainty and negation are covered by the subjunctive forms demanded for U and V in Spanish.
English, alas, has no counterpart. A simple example should suffice to illustrate. ‘Is there anyone here who speaks English?’ makes perfect sense and there is no hint of the subjunctive – it is all indicative. Correct Spanish would have ‘Hay alguien aquí que hable Ingles?’ – where the indicative requires ‘habla’. The differences can be more pronounced with irregular verbs. In general, English opts for simplicity at the cost of subtlety. In Sotomayor’s case, her English education may have betrayed her Spanish instincts.
Doubt, emotion, supposition and uncertainty are all embraced implicitly by Spanish. Through personal experience I have come to the conclusion that these are, to various degrees, anathema to Anglo culture and, specifically, to the Norte Americano ethos. Small wonder that the unconsidered critics of Sotomayor should take such umbrage with what they think she said.
As fine a language as English is, it never had, or perhaps has lost, its ability to convey situational subtleties without being verbose. To make matters worse, English, unlike many other languages, has been allowed an unfettered evolutionary ‘growth’ that has led inevitably to the acceptance over time of sloppiness and imprecision – to the detriment of the language, I believe. Seemingly educated people in the public eye routinely commit grammatical vulgarities and syntactical solecisms that make me wonder at the efficacy of English education in the country. In important ways, the state of the language mirrors the state of the culture and vice versa.