Thursday, May 6, 2010

Subjunctively Speaking, Habeas Cura

Now and again that damnable phrase, habeas corpus, comes into my view. Most recently I came across, again, Dorothy Sayers’ novel, Have His Carcase, which renders that phrase into the English with a mystery-novel twist—with a twist because the Latin corpus suggests a corpse, hence carcass, though Sayers spells it in the British style, but what the Latin means is body. The Latin for corpse is cadaver.

On more than one occasion I’ve looked up the formal translation but did not, as it were, follow it into the thickets of its grammatical origins. For a person as interested in language as I am—and knowing more than one rather well—I’m abysmal in grammar. This time I went further and explored the meaning of the subjunctive mood, which is the mood of habeas. I realize now where my problems have been—and why it is that I’ve always characterized this as a damnable phrase. It comes from the fact that the subjunctive mood in English has almost disappeared—whereas it’s alive and well in German. Maybe I’ll remember this the next time.

The subjunctive mood is a form of the verb that “represents a denoted act or state not as fact but as contingent or possible or viewed emotionally (as with doubt or desire)”—thus, according to Webster’s, with emphasis added. I note here particularly the juxtaposition of “not yet” and “possible” and of “desire.” Further investigation tells me that this combination is sometimes called “mandative,” thus carrying the sense, but only the sense, of a politely expressed command. And that cluster of meanings, finally, tells me the underlying flavor of the habeas corpus. If the court really wanted to command that the accused be presented in person before the court, thus using the imperative mood, the writ would have been called habe corpus or, addressed to a plurality, habete corpus. But no. Politeness required a slightly less confrontational request: Please have the body present in court. Of this we only retain the “have body” from the Latin. And we don’t have a subjunctive form for that sort of “have” in English—or, rather, we use the same word for the indicative, the subjunctive, as well as for the imperative moods. And very often we add words to signal the subjunctive mood—words like ought, should, would, may, etc. When the same word is used, and auxiliaries are excluded, we are required either to sound out or, in written form, to “understand” an implied intonation here. In German, by contrast, the verb form habe, meaning “have” as in “I have,” thus in the indicative, does have a subjunctive version. It is habest. And when you hear that, you know that a mild command is present in the invitation.

Live and learn. And have care as you read, which the Latin would render as habeas cura—and now let me out of this camera obscura.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting; I've never really thought about it, but you're right of course. If we were to render it into English the way we usually render such requests, it would have to be something like "Let the body be had," which would be odd; I suppose English doesn't make it easy to think of the action of having in a subjunctive way -- you either do or you don't, and you just directly command people to have when it comes up ("Have your payment by the first" rather than "Let your payment be had by the first"). We could do it differently, but we don't.