Re: Perfects

Jonathan Robie (
07 Sep 96 06:39:28 EDT


> In preparing intensely right now for my doctoral French exam, it
> is being emphasized to me anew that even understanding the possible
> senses a given tense may have, let alone how best to express them in
> English can be challenging, and it's possible to ask a Frenchwoman or
> man what a past indefinite meant when they used it.

Good point. I speak German quite well (I lived there for 8 years), and I really
do think that people think differently when they speak different languages. When
I lived in Germany, I often asked Germans to explain what they meant by this or
that construction, and they would often give detailed explanations, parallel to
the level of detail that Carl or Carlton give in their exegesis (but not as
painfully detailed as my beginner's attempts on the same passage!). Although a
German can toss off a German sentence fairly easily, it may contain meaning that
is difficult to convey by a straight translation into English, and Germans
themselves attest to this meaning. Would this be true of French?

> I think that before we could "see" a lot in a given tense, we would
> need to know what the author intended, did he deliberatley pick the
> verb tense with great forethought, or was it simply the customeary way
> to say that? Unfortunately, there's no way to recover authorial intent
> at that level

Even if the author did not spend hours poring over it, if the author would say
that the sentence contains every bit of that meaning, it is legitimate for us to
see it. I'm reminded of some poems that I wrote recently, written very quickly
at a crisis state, which contain a great deal of depth which was not achieved by
conscious pondering. And I can imagine myself trying to explain one of these
poems to a German friend -- my explanation would be quite detailed.

Of course, to some extent this is like explaining a joke to someone who didn't
get it in the first place. The explanation may convey why it was, in fact, a
joke, and what the point of the joke was, but it takes much longer than the joke
did, and it rarely helps someone appreciate the joke as fully as they would have
if they had just understood it in the first place. Ideally, we should simply
understand jokes in the first place, and ideally, we should all be native
speakers of hellenistic Greek. Incidentally, I spent 6 years learning German
before I moved to Germany, but my real understanding of German came when I lived
there for 8 years. I still don't speak German as my mother tongue. I suspect
that there are some real limitations to our ability to understand a dead
language. But we have to try, don't we?

> (and I do presume we're calling BDF BDR, are we not)

Actually, I don't have BDF (Blass-Debrunner-Funk), I have BDR
(Blass-Debrunner-Rehkopf), which is in German. I was living in Germany at the
time I bought it, and it was the grammar recommended to me by a minister in my
church who was also a theology prof.