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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Uses of the Subjunctive in the Modern Day

I ended my post "Trayvon Martin: The Descent into Madness and the Laws of Heavy Stones" with the sentence:

We, however, be reborn!

The questions have been posed, (1) was I talking in African-American Urban dialect, or Ebonics or what not, and using the verb accordingly, saying "be" instead of the standard "are", or (2) did I make a basic grammatical error?

First, I do not do dialect. The closest I get to dialect is when I write about Tea Party Republicans, when I use "wuz" instead of "was" and "scientifical" instead of whatever the standard adjective about having-science-on-the-brain is. I realize that this is in itself a Deliverance type of stereotype, but I find it hard to control myself, since I have personally known Tea Party operatives who used to be friend-like-objects, and have gone over to the dark side.

I would never employ the so-called "Ebonics", since I remember the discipline when it was brand new, and I complained about using an ancient Greek word stem " ebon-", meaning "black", to name the study. To my ivory-tower mind, it was way too much like pandering to the elite, and was a sideways praise to the generations of scholars who ignored the contributions of the non-white races, as well described in Black Athena by Martin Bernal, volume I... and all that.
Well, you get the idea.

Second, "be" is a subjunctive form of the verb "to be", and we would properly say, following the grammatical examples of The Beatles, "let it be!", not "let it is!"
Such was one use of the subjunctive, all of which have pretty much fallen into disuse because of Kindles  (??!) these days.

"We, however, be reborn!" is another way of saying "Let us, however, be reborn!", or "We should be reborn!"

As I write this, I wonder about the urban use of "be" itself...
I have come to the conclusion that the use of "be", as in something like "I be going to...", is not so much a dialect change, but is a re-invigoration of the ancient subjunctive that was invoked for times of stress and change.
 If I were in a convenience store and had just purchased some nonce items, upon my departure I might say "I be going home.", but that is not a mere statement of fact using a dialect form of an indicative verb, but a new form combining the indicative factual with the subjunctive wish for the future:

"I am going home, and, O Lord, grant that I would be safe and arrive there safely!"

In this usage, we see that language comes close to poetry and music.
I will look for other examples.



Baysage said...

Ain't our language grand? I find myself wondering just how many of your hundreds of posts bear the label "subjunctive" as this one does? I did not try to find out.

Labeling posts is a constant challenge.

Montag said...

I did not know what I was going to say until I started. Then, the use of the indicative-subjunctive "be" seems to be "right" in every sense of the word.
If it is not strictly grammatical, it should be.