Tran Phuc [ 26 NOV 2012 | Bias Mapping | 14:50 ] I’m a total geek. Who’s a geek here? That was actually a rhetorical question, because we’re all at a TED conference. I collect action figures, I know every line of the original Star Wars trilogy and my favourite book in recent memory was a book about the writing of Strunk and White’s “Elements of style”. Oh, you applaud it? For God’s sakes, I’ve read a book about the writing of a grammar book, so how’s that for geek credentials? I’m here to talk to you about something kind of geeky, I’m here to talk to you today about grammar. But I’m not here to talk to you about the ‘gotcha grammar’ of split infinitives and the misuse of ‘whom’. Because frankly, I hate it when grammar is used to belittle other people. I’m here to talk about how grammar is a tool to be used like a pair of glasses. And when it’s used at the right time, it can bring the world into sharp focus. And when it’s used at the wrong time, it can make things incredibly blurry. And this all starts with our understanding of the subjunctive. I remember talking to my dad about this, and because he’s a non-native speaker of English, he didn’t quite grasp all the nuances of the subjunctive. I’d say “Dad, listen, you can say: if it hadn’t rained, we would’ve gone to the beach.” And my dad’s response: “That’s stupid.” “Why do you wanna talk about something that didn’t happen?” Fair enough. Here’s a quick refresher for you on the subjunctive: in English there are three verbal moods, there’s the indicative, the subjunctive and the imperative. The indicative is used when we view verbal action as factual. I am speaking at a TED conference. The subjunctive is used when we view verbal action as non-factual. I might shit my pants. Might! Might… And the imperative mood is used when we view verbal action as a command. Bring me a change of clothes! The subjunctive comprises all the nuances of non-fact, possibility, potentiality and counterfactuality. The subjunctive allows us to look into the future and to see multiple, highly-nuanced possibilities which has a little sprinking of ‘coulds’, ‘woulds’ or ‘mights’. Similarly, it allows us to look into the past and to imagine what didn’t happen, but could have happened. The subjunctive is the most powerful mood, it’s like a time-space dream machine that can conjure alternate realities with just the idea of ‘could have’ or ‘should have’. But within this idea of ‘should have’ is a Pandora’s box of hope and regret. Growing up in Pennsylvania as a Vietnamese refugee, I often thought about what would have happened if my family hadn’t escape Saigon in 1975. Would we have been imprisoned like my father’s cousin who spent years in reeducation camp, being tortured and sentenced to hard labour? Or would we have simply been killed like countless other South Vietnamese who were unable to escape that April? The night that my family was fleeing Saigon, my entire family, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, were all scheduled to board a bus. And as that bus was loading passengers, I began crying, shrieking uncontrollably, so much so that my entire family decided to wait for the next bus. And as that bus pulled away from us, it was struck by artillery fire, it exploded and everyone on board was killed. As a kid, I thought a lot about our good fortune in escaping and about what would have happened if we hadn’t. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was pondering things that my parents couldn’t ponder, and it was all because of the English subjunctive. What happens then if a language doesn’t have a subjunctive and can’t express the idea of ‘could have’? And what if that language were Vietnamese? For my father there were no alternate realities in 1975, there was just what happened and what didn’t happen. Even if he did feel the pangs of loosing a life that he should’ve had, he didn’t have a language to express it. In Vietnam, my father was a lawyer and an aspiring politician, he should’ve had a career, he should’ve been somebody important. Yet there he was in 1975 in a country he didn’t know, driving a cement mixer, trying to learn English and support his family. Not only did my father not have the language to envision an alternate reality, he didn’t have the luxury. For my parents’ survival however, this lack of the subjunctive was fundamental to their resiliency. They were able to provide for me and my brother, to do what needed to be done, in part because they didn’t expend psychic energy on what could have been. In Vietnamese, there was just the naked indicativeness of the word and they met it head on. But just as the indicativeness of Vietnamese has been a source of strength for them, it’s also been an Achilles’ heel, because they’ve had such difficulty grasping concepts based in possibility. Two years ago, when my daughter was born I decided to take a half year’s leave of absence from teaching. When I shared this plan with my dad, he immediately panicked, because what he heard in Vietnamese was: “Dad, I won’t be teaching next year.” His response was: “What? You quit your job, are you crazy? Who quits their job in this economy?” Even though I assured my dad that it was just a leave of absence, he was unable to comprehend what was for him the sheer uncertainty of not having a job. What he knew were just the facts that I had had a job and that I was not going to have a job. Imagine then going from a language with no subjunctive, like Vietnamese, to a language with the subjunctive-rich fabric, like English. What happens when someone goes from the one to the other? This happens. I’ll be wearing that later. Someone like me happens. As a kid growing up, for me, the subjunctive of English was this mirage of an oasis. Through the power of the subjunctive, I imagined this amazing world, this fantastical world where my name wasn’t weird. I thought to myself: “A normal name would be amazing! Oh God, I wish I had a normal name!” As I envisioned a world of no more teasing and bullying. So I got this idea: in fourth grade I stood up in front of all my classmates and I said: “Guys, I’m changing my name. I’m gonna change my name to Peter, so from here on now, please call me Peter.” Hum, Peter, Spiderman, Peter Parker? I told you I was a geek. And my classmates’ response: “What? You’re changing your name to Peter? As in ‘suck my peter’?” So the year I tried to change my name was also the year I learned about the double entendre. Layered on top of the tangled web of languages for the racial and cultural tensions of rural Pennsylvania, I was trying to pretend that I was a typical American teenager. I played in a punk band, I skateboarded, I worked at a gas station, I ran away from home, I got in a fight, I smoked pot, it was kind of like this Asian kid had been photoshopped into a John Huges’ movie. But instead of being the punchline to a dick joke, this Asian kid wanted to be a leading man. The problem was I didn’t know what should’ve happened, I didn’t look like any of my friends and my family, full of brown immigrants and exotic smells, didn’t look like my friends’ families. As a result I didn’t know what should have happened and what my future should have looked like as I spun my wheels in a quagmire of the subjunctive, wishing that I were someone else or somewhere else. What I did know was that when I graduated from high school I wanted to double major in Art and English. So I went off to college and I showed my art professor my portfolio and I got a waiver for the 101 class. And because of my AP English class in high school, I got to sign up for a 200-level literature elective and I was ready to read great books and think great throughts. Then the unexpected happened. I hated my English and art classes. By the end of that semester, I had dropped both majors and I was undeclared, I was utterly depressed and deflated, because I hated what I thought I should have loved. Dejected, I sat down with my dad that December to tell him that I didn’t want to major in Art and English anymore, as I awaited some reprimand from him. But my father was completely calm, without a hint of disappointment. There was no ‘you should’ speech from him, because that would have required a command of the subjunctive, which he lacks. Instead, this is what he said: “You don’t want a major in Art and English anymore? That’s fine, don’t study what you don’t like, what do you like? Study that.” That was it, the answer was so simple, it was like pure, unfiltered reality delivered with the indicative. And so, that’s what I did, I went back to school, to college, and that spring I signed up, on a whim, for ancient Greek, and it was brutally hard and I loved every minute of it. I loved every clause, every accent, every participle. And so the next year I signed up for more Greek and on a whim, Sanskrit. And that was even harder and I loved it even more and by my junior year I was taking Latin, Greek and Sanskrit and on a whim, German immersion. I wasn’t restrained by ideas of what I was suppose to study or should have been studying, I simply pursued what I honestly loved, embacing the reality, the indicativeness of my passions. The subjunctive really did allow me to imagine what I could be. It allowed me to be so creative and to entertain crazy visions of ‘what if’. But even as I unpacked all those possibilities, I fell prey to the dark side of the subjunctive, the idea of ‘should have’. ‘Should have’ didn’t improve my present or my future, ‘should have’ simply blinded me to what was, because I was so fixated on what wasn’t. So much of my depression, as a teenager which verged on suicidal at times, came from how badly I wanted to be anyone else besides myself. Accepting things for what they are, accepting their indicativeness was my first step towards overcoming my depression and anxiety. More important, it was my first step towards honouring and loving who I was and pulling away from the dark side of the subjunctive. The dark side of the subjunctive is after all the more seductive. Just like in Star Wars. In Star Wars, the Sith Lords all speak in opaque subjunctives. Vader says to Luke: “If you only knew the power of the Dark Side.” Vader obviously knows how enticing a present counterfactual optative subjunctive sounds. And Yoda? Yoda speaks with the bare blugdeon of the indicative and the imperative: “Do or do not, there is no try.” Yoda knows how hard and uncompromising the indicative is, it takes real courage to embrace the indicative. And even though what Yoda says is true, Luke doesn’t stay with Yoda on the swamp, he has his own path that weaves in between the indicative truth of Yoda and Vader’s seductive subjunctive. Luke has to see the world through his own lense. And that’s what I’m offering here today. I’m just offering you one lense, it’s a grammatical lense, through which you can view your world and your experience. The subjunctive allows us to be creative, but it also allows us to become mired and regret. And the indicative doesn’t really allows to imagine at all, but it does allow us to talk about ourselves and our experiance in real terms, especially if we have the courage to embrace that reality. We take off and put on the lenses of the subjunctive and the indicative every day, and once we recognize the pitfalls of both, the indicative and the subjunctive, we can actively choose a more positive and optimistic outlook. In 2011, Gallup International conducted a survey of different nations’ feelings of optimism. What country do you think, would be the most optimistic country in the world? A country whose language doesn’t naturally have the subjunctive? A country whose language doesn’t allow its speakers to obsess over the idea of ‘could have been’? According to the results of the survey, Vietnam was the most optimistic country in the world. And what country would you expect to be the most pessimistic? France? France! This is the language with two subjunctives, and existentialism. This is about understanding and reundergstanding your languae and grammar. Go and reclaim and reappropriate your language and grammar. It’s your first and most powerful tool to experiencing and communicating the world around you. We all use the indicative and the subjunctive every day and we can be mindful of when we’re blinded by the subjunctive and when we’re overlooking the indicative around us. And this way of seeing the world, it has real force. Thank you!
Grammar & Identity