The Dark Side of the Subjunctive

Ashley Davidson



Does linguistic determinism shape how we see the world? In this TED talk, teacher/tattoo artist/refugee Phuc Tran talks about the differences between Vietnamese and English (and other languages); mainly, the idea that the subjunctive (being able to construct words/thoughts/ideas in the should-would-could frame) is present in one (English, and also other European languages) and not in the other (Vietnamese, and many others). Not only did they not have the words to describe this idea, they didn’t have the idea itself. This lack of imagining different outcomes, Tran says, was the driving force that kept his parents sane as refugees trying to scrape out a life in a foreign country.  

Obviously, American English dialogue is full (both internally and externally) of the could/would/should ideas. We could make more money, we should buy a better car, we would be happier if we had a bigger house, etc. What would our society look like/how would it change if we couldn’t conceptualize the subjunctive?

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