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I have heard time and again that languages will reject words and structures that are redundant. That is, for example, if though two words may seem like they are perfect synonyms (e.g., rotund and corpulent), we will find that they actually differ slightly in meaning or register.

This seems to make sense: Redundancy would be troublesome. But is it really impossible? I present a case where I think there is redundancy. Perhaps there are also others.

Spanish imperfect subjunctive. In Spanish, there are two forms for the imperfect subjunctive, one using the morpheme -ra (e.g. contara) and the other using -se (e.g. contase). They seem to be exactly equal in meaning and register, with -ra being more common.

  • This question confirms this: Is there any subtle difference between the two forms of the imperfect subjuntive?
  • as well as the article "-Ra vs. -se Subjunctive: a New Look at an Old Topic," which appeared in Hispania in 1993
  • and more recently "The Semantic Value of Verbal Forms in -ra and in -se of Past Imperfect and Pluscuamperfect of Subjunctive in the Spanish of Venezuela," which appeared in Nucleo in 2005.

Is this an example of redundancy?

If so, could it be the case that the -ra form is becoming more popular as a form of differentiating the two forms? After all, when the -se form is rarer, its sociolinguistic properties change (it may be more prestigious, feel more antiquated, etc.). But if this is true, why did the -ra form get chosen and not the -se form?

What can we make of this?

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I'm not familiar with using the word redundancy to describe this phenomenon. Look up free variation. –  Colin Fine Oct 4 '12 at 21:36
I agree with @ColinFine. And, I don't think it's true to say that redundancy in language is impossible--there are many examples of it occurring. Finally, your specific question re the Spanish imperfect subjunctive is discussed in this paper. –  Gaston Ümlaut Oct 4 '12 at 22:32
Question: how old are those imperfect subjunctive forms? Redundancy does tend to be eliminated (or the meanings specialize), but it takes time. There are also plenty of cases where two things with originally different meanings converge, become redundant, and eventually one is eliminated. –  Justin Olbrantz Oct 5 '12 at 5:08
@GastonÜmlaut The link has rotten, can you please update? –  bytebuster Jan 2 '13 at 13:48
If I say "las perras blancas comían carne" (the white bitches were eating meat), the feminity and plurality of the white dogs is stated thrice in the article, noun and adjective respectively, and the plurality is expressed yet again in the verb ending - redundancy galore! I believe "redundancy" is not the most appropriate term for what you're noting. –  Joe Pineda Jan 5 at 11:21

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

These two forms are not equivalent. It is true that anywhere the -se forms are used in Spanish, the -ra forms can be used, but the opposite is not true.

So while both these pairs are fully equivalent:

  • No estaba seguro de que viniera/viniese. [both imperfect subjunctive forms freely interchangeable]
    (I wasn’t sure he was coming.)
  • Después de que llegara/llegase, nos dijo que no podía quedarse. [both imperfect subjunctive forms freely interchangeable]
    (After he arrived, he told us he couldn’t stay.)

BTW, notice how in those two examples, even though Spanish requires a subjunctive form there, you do not use a subjunctive when translating it into English. Other places you do, but not here.

There are two places where you cannot use an -se form. These are when the -ra form is acting as something other than an imperfect subjunctive; to wit, as either a literary pluperfect indicative or as a polite conditional.

  1. Although it is a learnèd, literary tense, because the -ra forms exactly map to the Latin pluperfect indicative, they can also fulfill that same rôle in very formal written Spanish. This is interesting because it allows the old “purely inflectional” tense to replace the now-standard “analytical tense”. [reference]

    • Apenas había cerrado la puerta cuando me llamó. [analytic tense; standard form]
      (Hardly had I closed the door when he called me.)
    • Apenas cerrara la puerta cuando me llamó. [inflectional tense; very formal written form]
  2. The -ra form can serve as an alternative to the conditional when used for polite requests.

    • ¿Querrías cerrarme la puerta, por favor? [conditional form]
      (Would you like to close the door for me, please?)
    • ¿Quisieras cerrarme la puerta, por favor? [alternate polite conditional]

    This form is most often used in strong verbs like quisieras, pudieras, debieras — basically would you, could you, should you.

In both those two situations, you cannot use the -se form, because the -se form functions only as an imperfect subjunctive. It never functions as a pluperfect indicative or as a conditional, whereas the -ra form can.

Another rarely seen literary tense sometimes occurs with the conjunction apenas. This is an analytic tense composed of the auxiliary in the preterite rather than in the imperfect. This is called the pretérito anterior, and occurs only after certain conjunctions, and even then almost only ever in writing. It is used when the other clause is in the preterite, and you need something that is more preterite, so that it happens before — and in practice, usually right before.

However, the normal pluperfect is an imperfect tense, not a perfect (completed) one, so the auxiliary is placed into a real preterite, making a new analytic tense. For example:

  • Una vez que me hube quitado la camisa, me sentí muchísimo más cómodo.
    (Once I’d taken my shirt off, I felt way more comfortable.)
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In Spain, Argentina and Uruguay -se forms are pretty common. They don't sound particularly formal or bookish (unlike in Mexico or some other countries). It's like dreamed/dreamt variation in English...

-Se and -Ra forms are not completely interchangeable (in normative Spanish): 1: -ra forms function as a pluperfect: ''Después de que pagaran la cuenta, me fuy.'' (=Después de que habían pagado la cuenta, me fuy). 2. -ra forms can replace the past conditional: ''Me habría/hubiera gustado mucho si hubieras venido a la fiesta).''

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fuy?? Do you mean fuí? –  hippietrail Jan 3 '13 at 8:45
That’s mostly correct, but in después de que pagaran, that is a true imperfect subjunctive, not a substituted literary pluperfect indicative, for the simple reason that después de que mandatorily takes the subjunctive in Spanish, never the indicative. –  tchrist Jan 7 '13 at 3:00

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