Why is the Brazilian Portuguese Subjunctive Mood so Hard for English Speakers?
You’ve probably had this experience before.
You’re saying something confidently. Then you come across a sentence that makes you think, “Does it take the subjunctive?”
This tends to happen more often in classes like the ones I have with my students, but I’ve seen that happening in everyday conversations as well.
Although I always tell my interlocutor that they should not worry about when to use the subjunctive all the time (we Brazilians don’t), I also tell them that knowing when to use the subjunctive is crucial.
Not because people want to understand them, but because if they are to understand the nuances involved in what people say, they need to understand immediately when the subjunctive is used.
If a Brazilian happens to say:
- Tem alguém que fale português aqui.
- Tem alguém que fala português aqui.
This person has two different things in mind.
In the first sentence, this person speculates that someone speaks Portuguese and that this person is here.
In the second sentence, the speaker is sure that a Portuguese-speaking person is there.
You already understand the importance of knowing when the subjunctive is used in Brazilian Portuguese.
But one question you might have asked yourself is “why is it so damn hard to learn the Brazilian Portuguese subjunctive mood?”
Or worse: “is it only me?”
Well, I have to say, it’s not you. But I’ll give you more scientific facts about why this is so.
Now, some theory time
English and Brazilian Portuguese are two languages that differ greatly in their use of the subjunctive mood.
In English, the subjunctive is used mainly in hypothetical or contrary-to-fact situations. For example, “If I were rich, I would buy a yacht.” Here, “were” is used instead of “was” to indicate a hypothetical situation.
But that’s what I learned from books. My English-speaking friends hardly ever speak that way, and the only one who does (I’m looking at you, James) admits it’s a dying feature of the modern English language.
In contrast, the subjunctive mood is used much more frequently in Brazilian Portuguese. You know the drill by now: It is used to express doubt, uncertainty, and possibility, as well as to convey emotions and desires. For example, “Espero que você esteja bem” (I hope you are well) uses the subjunctive “esteja” to express a desire or wish.
But if you say “Eu não sei…” you might argue: “hey, in that case I’m expressing doubt.” Then you slap a “… se ele seja” on it — after all, you’re expressing doubt, right? Or at a very minimum, uncertainty.
Although conceptually you are right, Portuguese doesn’t work like that.
If it did, we Brazilians would be in a dire situation.
The presence of certain conjunctions and verbs also influences the use of the subjunctive in Brazilian Portuguese.
For instance, the conjunction “se” (if) always triggers the subjunctive mood when used in the past, as in “Se eu tivesse dinheiro, viajaria pelo mundo” (If I had money, I would travel the world).
Likewise, verbs such as “querer” (to want) and “esperar” (to hope) are often followed by the subjunctive mood.
And please keep in mind that we are talking about the differences in use. I haven’t even discussed the complexities of using the Brazilian Portuguese subjunctive.
And that’s what will do now.
Complexities of the Brazilian Portuguese subjunctive… for Brazilians
If you think you’re the only one who struggles to master the subjunctive, don’t worry — we Brazilians are in the same boat.
You see, some forms of the subjunctive are not strongly “marked.” And by that, I mean that some forms are weak and easily dismissed in daily conversation.
I’ll give you some examples, and you’ll probably recognize some if you’ve learned something about the future subjunctive.
- Se você quiser minha ajuda, é só pedir.
- Se você quer minha ajuda, é só pedir.
To make the analysis easier, I underlined and used boldface in the parts that are under discussion.
Theoretically, there is a difference between the two sentences.
In the first sentence, the implied message is, “If you ever need my help in the future — and I believe you will — all you need to do is to ask.”
In the second sentence, we mean, “If you want my help — and I know you want it — all you need to do is to ask.”
But please observe that I said theoretically. And that is because I know the theory.
But I challenge you to go around with those two sentences and ask ten Brazilians about the difference. I doubt whether one will know.
And I’m so sure of it because if you asked me that ten years ago, I couldn’t answer it confidently.
And I wouldn’t usually be able to do that because, practically, both sentences have the same meaning. It’s the context that is going to give me the true meaning.
Historical and cultural factors
As if life wasn’t (or weren’t?) hard enough with the information above, the subjunctive mood, a heritage from Latin, came down to Portuguese mostly untouched… if we are to compare it to what happened to our sister-languages French, Italian, and Spanish.
Some historical and cultural factors may have influenced why and how we use the subjunctive mood today.
Latin Roots and the Subjunctive Mood
Portuguese, like other Romance languages, evolved from Latin, which had a well-developed subjunctive mood. This connection resulted in Portuguese inheriting many similar forms and uses of the subjunctive as Latin.
Arabic Influence on the Portuguese Subjunctive
During the Arab occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic became significant in the region. Arabic’s complex system of mood and tense, including a subjunctive-like mood called the jussive, may have influenced some aspects of the Portuguese subjunctive.
The Role of Literary Tradition
Portuguese boasts a rich literary tradition that features poetry, prose, and drama using the subjunctive — at least, using proper, sometimes even unnecessarily complex, grammar has always been admired and approved of. This has solidified the subjunctive’s position in the language and reinforced its complex forms and uses.
Strategies for learning the Brazilian Portuguese subjunctive
Learning the Brazilian Portuguese subjunctive can be daunting, but fear not, for there are tips and techniques that can help you master it.
Think of it as a puzzle that needs to be solved, a maze that needs to be navigated, or a mountain that needs to be climbed. It may seem insurmountable initially, but with the right tools and mindset, you can conquer it.
One strategy is to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible.
This is something I always recommend to my students, and it’s one of the factors that help them succeed in using the subjunctive in Portuguese with more confidence.
This will help you get a feel for how the language is used in context and how the subjunctive is employed in everyday speech. It will also expose you to different dialects and regional variations — an invaluable practice to grasp the nuances of the language.
Another technique is to practice, practice, practice.
Don’t just write sentences in the subjunctive — though that helps, especially if you have someone to give you feedback on it. Try to use it in conversations: force yourself to use the patterns that “trigger” the subjunctive.
If you don’t know what these patterns are, here are some articles for you to check.
Now that you know the Portuguese subjunctive is hard and why it is so, what to do?
Immerse yourself in the language.
By immersing yourself in the language, practicing regularly, and understanding the rules and patterns, you can overcome the complexities of the subjunctive and become a confident and fluent speaker.
And a last note: you may have noticed that I focused on English speakers rather than speakers in general. There are two reasons for that.
Firstly, English speakers are the majority of Portuguese learners, and many people also learn Portuguese through English.
Secondly, Italian, French, Spanish, and Romanian speakers tend to have an easier time learning the subjunctive in Portuguese. If you fall into the second category, I’ll have an article just for you.
Now, if you have some time, please share with us your experience learning Portuguese and what you did to overcome the “subjunctive problem.”