If you ask nicely

I might tell you the answer.

It’s ironic that in my final term with the programme I’m teaching parts of Book 4 that I’ve never taught before. As far as I’ve ever got is early in Unit 24 and then exams usually turn up. Not this year. We’re actually going to have completed most of the material in Book 4. Sort of. (I can’t explain “sort of” right now.)

Anyway, we got to the third conditional today (which is what they call unfulfilled conditions these days). These are sentences like “if my students had paid attention, they would’ve got better marks in the final exam last term”. In other words, the condition is about something which never happened in the past. There was the inevitable question in the book about how you make these sentences in your language, which got me wondering just how Chinese tackles these sentences.

My initial hypothesis was that Chinese might use some irrealis particle (perhaps a little like ἄν) in Classical Greek. But from the examples in Ross and MA (2006:278ff.), it appears that Chinese makes no formal distinction between real and unreal conditions. It even has six words for “if”, which are used in different registers:

Conjunction Usage
要是 yàoshi Formal and informal speech and writing.
如果 rúguǒ Formal and informal speech and writing.
假如 jiǎrú More formal speech or writing.
假使 jiáshǐ Formal written Chinese.
倘若 tǎngruò Formal written Chinese.
倘使 tángshǐ Formal written Chinese.

The conjunction occurs before or after the subject of its clause. As for the nature of the condition, that would appear to be determined by the context. For instance, one of the examples in the book is

rúguǒ nǐ shì wǒ, nǐ yě bù huì tóngyì tāde kànfa de.
If I were you, you wouldn’t agree with his viewpoint either.

It’s not impossible to say “If I am you” in English (e.g. in a wacky Star Trek/Stargate time-travel, meet-yourself episode), but “if I were you” is more plausible, I think, for this sort of utterance. But there are no extraneous particles in the Chinese to indicate that this is an improbable condition. Similarly, the following sentence is also translated as an improbable condition from context:

jiáshǐ rénrén dōu qí zìxíngchē huò zuò gōnggòng qìchē, huánjì wūrǎnde wèntí jiù róngyì jiějué le.
If everyone rode a bicycle or took a bus, the pollution problem would be easy to solve.

The only example of a sentence translated as an unfulfilled condition in the past in Ross and Ma is

rúguǒ bù shì nǐ bāngzhù tā de huà, tā shì bù huì chénggōng de.
If you hadn’t helped him, he wouldn’t have succeeded.

I don’t know whether this can also mean “If you don’t help him, he won’t succeed”.

Po-Ching and Rimmington (2006) don’t really have anything useful to say about conditionals in Chinese as far as I can find.

Ironically (that word again), TY Ancient Greek has also reached conditionals. Open conditions (which would be the so-called types zero and one in a modern grammar of English) are usually expressed by the indicative in the protasis (conditional) and the apodosis (main). Present unfulfilled conditions are similar to type two in English with the imperfect indicative in both clauses, but the verb takes ἄν in the apodosis. The aorist indicative is used in past unfulfilled conditions (type three in English) and, in the same way, the verb in the apodosis takes ἄν. But the imperfect may also represent the continuous form of past unfulfilled conditions.

Future remote conditions are formed by the optative in the protasis and the optative + ἄν in the apodosis. For this type of condition and present unfulfilled conditions, English only really has the second conditional. Morwood (2001:183ff.) has

εἰ ταῦτα ἔλεγες, καλῶς ἂν ἔλεγες. (Present unfulfilled)
If you were saying these things, you would be talking sense.
εἰ ταῦτα λέγοις, καλῶς ἂν λέγοις. (Future remote)
If you were to say (or, “If you said etc.”) these things, you would talk sense.

Of course, the distinction between continuous and non-continuous forms to translate these two types isn’t really valid because certain verbs in English are inherently perfective (e.g. verbs of knowing and perceiving). Other translations seem to disguise the situation so that Weir Smith (1920:526) resorts to “should…would”, which is, if I remember rightly, how Reading Greek did it.

εἰ ταῦτα ποιοίης, καλῶς ἂν ποοίης.
If you should do these things, you would do well.

But whether this is really any different to “If you were to do etc.” or “If you did etc.”, I don’t know. The use of “should” here doesn’t feel quite right either, having a slightly dated feel to it.

I was also curious to know how all this was handled in Old English, although all I have available to me is Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. The only information about conditional sentences is found in the section on the subjunctive. The subjunctive is used in hypothetical conditions such as gif mannes heafod tobrocen sie “If a man’s head is broken” or þas flotmen þe cwicne bindaþ, butan þu mid fleame þinum feore gebeorge “These pirates will bind you alive, unless you save your life by flight”.

When the condition is unreal, both clauses have their verbs in the subjunctive and, apparently, the preterite refers to present time. Thus, me leofre wære þæt ic on gefeohte feolle, wiþ þæm þe min folc moste hiera eardes brucen “I would rather fall in fight, provided that my people might possess their country”.

A verb in the subjunctive may express a condition without gif “if” by preceding the subject. I don’t know whether this is the source of Modern English conditional constructions such as “Had you asked, I would’ve helped you”.

Well, you didn’t ask, but I may have helped you anyway.

Po-Ching, Yip and Don Rimmington (2006). Chinese. An Essential Grammar. 2nd edition. Routledge: Oxford.
Davis, Norman (1953). Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. Ninth edition. Clarendon Press: Oxford.
Ross, Claudia and Jing-heng Sheng Ma (2006). Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar. A practical guide. Routledge: Oxford.
Weir Smith, Herbert (1920). A Greek Grammar for Colleges. American Book Company: New York. (Available from Textkit.)


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