YOUR FAMILY IS WAITING FOR YOU

This sign appears just above the windshield inside one of  San Miguel’s many well-traveled city buses. It is a slightly edited version of the standard sign displayed on other such buses:

TU FAMILIA TE ESPERA
REPORTA AL OPERADOR
QUE HABLE POR CELULAR
ESTANDO ESTA UNIDAD
EN CIRCULACIÓN
AL TELÉFONO
1540040

[Your family is waiting for you.
Report the driver
who talks on his cell phone
while this bus is
in operation.
Call 1540040.]

As you can see, someone (quite possibly the bus driver) has edited out the second line that asks you to rat him out if you observe him talking on his cell phone while driving and has removed a generous portion of the phone number to call should you wish to do so. The injunction to not  dispose of trash [No tire basura] (“on the bus” being taken as understood) is often added to the standard message. By the way, yes, the driver could be a woman—in this context, the grammatically masculine operador could refer to a driver of either sex—but that is another subject for another day  (see the earlier viabrevis posting “Sexist Language a la Mexicana”).

 In any case, native speakers of Spanish who ride the bus probably don’t give the sign, either in its original or edited form, a passing thought. However, for those of us for whom Spanish is not a first language, the two versions of the sign are noteworthy as they provide a useful lesson in the use of the subjunctive, a feature that in the English verb system is now pretty much restricted to such linguistic mummies as Be that as it may and Till death us do part.

 In the canonical form of the sign, “Reporta al operador que hable por celular,” Reporta is the second person singular familiar () imperative form of the verb reportar [‘to report’], the “you” being enjoined to do the reporting being you, the observant rider/reader. Hable here is the third person singular present subjunctive form of the verb hablar [‘to speak’]. Why the subjunctive? The point being made is subtle: The driver might actually not be speaking on his cell phone (though it certainly may look that way), so rather than accuse him flat out by using the indicative form of the verb—habla—it’s safer use the subjunctive to suggest that you’re not absolutely sure, but he seems to be talking… Spanish makes similar use of the subjunctive in referring to events that are expected to occur in the future (but might be kind of iffy): Mañana cuando venga Victor, …[‘Tomorrow (if and) when Victor comes,…’] uses the present subjunctive form venga because Victor might not in fact come after all,  rather than the more definite future form—vendrá—as in, say, Mañana vendrá mañana [‘Tomorrow will come tomorrow’].

Given the lack of punctuation and the fact that Spanish often doesn’t require an explicit subject for a verb, allowing you to infer it, the edited version of this sign can still be read  as a grammatical utterance: Instead of “Your family is waiting for you. Report the driver who looks as though he’s talking on his cell phone while the bus is in operation,” we may now read “Your family is waiting for you. Let them talk on their cell phone while the bus is in operation.” Or, perhaps less likely but still possibly: “Your family is waiting for you (). You (usted) are urged to talk on your cell phone while the bus is in operation.”

In both readings, hable is an instance of what is known as the hortatory subjunctive, the idea being that the subject is being exhorted to do (or not do) something. In the first case, the implicit subject of the verb would be tu familia [‘your family’] from the preceding sentence: If they’re getting impatient waiting for you to come home to dinner, let them give you a call while you’re driving the bus (perhaps on your way home even as they speak).

The other reading—admittedly a bit of a stretch—takes the second person singular “polite” form (usted) as the subject of the hortatory hable, the verb forms that regularly go with the pronoun usted being those of the third person singular. (The Cliff Notes story of usted is that Spanish appropriated an Arabic term meaning ‘experienced artisan, master,’ which could be used as an honorific, as in, “Would Master be kind enough to call his family on his cell phone?” and generalized its use as a polite form of address, retaining many of the trappings of its original grammatical third-personhood.)  The only problem—well, not the only problem—with reading Que hable por celular as “May you (you are urged to) call on your cell phone” is that in the preceding sentence (Tu familia te espera) the reader is addressed with the familiar pronouns tu and te (possessive and direct object, respectively), while here the more formal usted is the implicit addressee.

 But let’s leave it at that as this is my stop.

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