05 February 2014

A better past?

I´m surprised I´ve never blogged about this before.  I feel like we talk about it a lot.  You know, I compare Spanish and French to each other linguistically all the time to try to ascertain patterns.  I remember learning in French about the two future tenses: je vais aller and je irai.  Right?  Now, we don´t have this in English, (it´s kind of like I´m going to go vs. I shall go with the latter being all in one word) but those same two forms do exist in Spanish.  Yo voy a ir and yo iré

Okay, I know the verb "to go" is probably irregularly conjugated in every language, but that´s not the point here.  The point is in both Spanish and French we have I + helping verb + infinitive (the composite form) vs. I + simple future conjugation of the verb (the simple form).  In both Spanish and French, people who speak colloquially use the composite.  The simple conjugation sounds more formal in both settings.*  To the best of my knowledge these two have the same connotation and are interchangeable.

Now, what about the past tense?  This happens, too.  Spanish has yo he ido vs. yo fui.  In English we do have this.  It´s I have gone vs. I went.  Are these different?  I think, technically, yes.  They imply different things.  I have gone, to me, means I have gone possibly many times in the past.  I went means I went and it´s over now.  Now what´s funny to me about this is that in Mexico, they say yo fui to mean I went but in Spain, this simple past is nonexistant.  I mean, it used to exist, but it´s antiquated and unused now.  I´ve thought about this so much.  Is Spain-Spanish evolving (degrading?) faster than Mexican-Spanish? Can this be? The only thing I can think of is that since they´ve been speaking Spanish in Spain much longer than they have been in Mexico**, I guess it got started on its decaying process much sooner than Mexico did.  I mean, it´s an interesting question of—okay, when the Spanish settlers conquered Mexico and bestowed their language on the natives there and left, presumably the two speaking bodies had very little contact with each other henceforth and began to evolve separately from each other… but then! with the dawn of quick mass communication, maybe they started looking to each other for reference.  I know Mexicans think of Spain-Spanish as… more correct… kind of the way Americans think of British-English as more formal or correct.  Spain has their Royal Linguistic Academy, Mexico just follows suit.  I don´t know.  It´s a stretch.  Maybe in a hundred years or so Mexico will think of the simple past as obsolete, too.  Who knows.  Maybe the answer is in France!  French used to have a simple past and a composite past but the simple past is now obsolete and only the composite remains… like in Spain!  It might be interesting to see if French colonies still use the simple past as Mexico does.

Here´s what got this conversation started again.  Here´s what´s upsetting to me.  Michael is taking a Spanish 202 class right now.  His teacher is the head of the Foreign Language Department, I think,*** and she is a native Cuban-Spanish speaker.  She insists that yo fui and yo he ido are exactly the same in connotation, but that the composite past is somehow better, more correct.  Which is bullshit.  
They mean different things.  

Here´s an example of a question on his most recent test (translated into English)****.
The instructions say, choose the most appropriate response.  
In the Emergency Room, the nurse speaks with a patient who arrives with a stomachache.
A. What have you eaten today?  
B. What did you eat today?

WTF.  The correct answer is A, according to her.  Michael knew this because he had been paying attention to her preferences in class, not because it makes any logical sense.  Her weak-ass argument is that even though they have the same exact connotation, What have you eaten today is just more correct.  It´s bullshit.  They do imply slightly different things.  The first one implies what have you eaten so far today, whereas the second implies today is over.  What did you eat?  But to honestly ask, which of these is a more appropriate response to “my stomach hurts” is a bullshit question.  I´d say the only way to know which answer is more correct is to know which time of day the question was asked—I clearly don´t have enough information.  

This class is dumb and I want to argue with her but don´t know how.

*You know I never really took Spanish classes, so I´m just going on experience, here.
**Spanish was introduced to the Americas in the 16th century.  The first written standard of Spanish was written in Spain in the 13th century.
***So I think there´s really no one above her to whom it would be appropriate to complain about this.
****In Spanish, the test read as follows:
Escoge la respuesta más apropiada.  
En la sala de emergencia, el enfermero habla con un paciente que llega con dolo de estomago.  
A. ¿Que ha comido hoy?  
B. ¿Que comió hoy?


Kate said...

from Kate:

So, unfortunately, I'd agree with the teacher, as much as your logic is sound to me as well (I've actually had this conversation with a Spaniard explaining why you should use the composite past in more instances than we do in English). I would agree that when I learned French I was struck by how Spain-Spanish is similar in their verb forms. I believe Italian is also similar in that way. Something to note: the simple past still exists in Spain. They use it anytime for a one time event in the past THAT DIDN'T HAPPEN TODAY. Anything that happens today uses the composite past, as Michael's teacher says. There are areas of Spain that use the imperfect and preterite interchangeably ( iba vs fui), but I haven't heard of never using the preterite. As the Iberophile (is that a word, haha) I hope this helps clarify!

Andw said...

A few interesting points here! First, the future tenses used in most (all?) Romance languages today (the je irai form) which we look at as inflectional were at one time, like je vais aller, composed of separate words. Notice how only the future and conditional forms add onto the infinitive - in older forms of Spanish, the word now written and pronounced "iré" would have been analyzed as "yo ir he," like a conjugation of "haber" - oddly similar to perfect tenses. The need to distinguish these tenses from one another may account for the difference of word order. The point is, this particular tense paradigm is by no means common and is in fact particular to languages derived from Vulgar Latin - literary Latin did not have this distinction. In the same way, the irregularity of "go" verbs isn't widespread - that's an Indo-European theme.

In the same way, the perfect tenses in English, Spanish, etc. are composed from logical means of describing objects that have received an action. Imagine "I have a cake baked," then reorder that to "I have baked a cake" (English syntax used to be more flexible than today) and you can begin to see how perfect tenses formed. Perfect tenses imply completeness, as Latin "perfectus" means "finished." Later the function broadened so that you could eliminate the object - "I have baked" - or use this structure to describe objects you no longer can really be said to "have," e.g. "I have eaten a cake."

And though rate of change can vary, linguists don't talk about language change in terms of improvement or degradation since these are value-laden terms and there is no objective way to identify one language or one phase of a language's history as "better." But geographic divisions definitely allow languages to diverge, as we have seen with the many descendents of Vulgar Latin today. The loss in Spain of the simple past could just be the result of its no longer providing a clear distinction from the present perfect, just as the simple past in French has yielded many of its functions to the passé composé and taken on formal and literary tones. The idea that Spanish has been "decaying" longer doesn't hold up with the study of historical linguistics - if anything, periods of social tumult (like being colonized!) encourage rather than discourage linguistic change - and in Central and South America they did exactly that! People went from speaking indigenous languages to speaking Spanish primarily, and many of the surviving indigenous languages of Mesoamerica lean heavily on Spanish vocabulary. (My Nahuatl conversation partner at Tulane translated "It's no good anymore" into Nahuatl as "ya xbueno," "x" meaning "not.")

Finally, as for the teacher, I have to defer to her expertise on Cuban regionalisms, but I do find her terminology (if "more correct" is her phrasing) pretty irresponsible. Correctness is always contextual unless a form is just completely wrong for any register of use in the language (like the kind of grammatical mistakes a second language speaker in the learning process might make). So while I have to yield to her sense that the perfect tense is more - mainstream? casual? vernacular? something - I agree with you that as a test question, it is very poorly chosen, doesn't provide enough context and encourages the textbook-centric, rote memorization style of learning that is so harmful to language learners. He could probably learn as much or more just from talking with you and receiving corrections, and that learning would translate into conversational skill much more quickly than a multiple choice test.

That's all :)