Selecciona una palabra y presiona la tecla d para obtener su definición.

  —235→  

ArribaAbajo -Ra Vs. -Se Subjunctive: A New Look at an Old Topic

George DeMello


University of Iowa

Abstract: This article studies frequency of usage of the -ra and -se verbal forms by educated speakers of Bogota, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Havana, Lima, Madrid, Mexico City, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Santiago (Chile) and Seville. In general, the -ra form was found to be far more commonly used than the -se form, both in Spain and in Spanish America. It is shown that the -se form has not entirely disappeared from Spanish American usage and that its use is greater in Puerto Rico than in Spain. The -ra indicative form is rarely encountered; no examples of -se indicative forms occurred. In the conditional, both -ra and -se occur very infrequently as simple tense forms. However, usage of -ra far outweighs that of -se or -ría in the conditional perfect tense.

Key Words: Spanish linguistics, subjunctive, -ra vs. -se, Spanish language


This study focuses on the frequency of usage by native Spanish speakers of the -ra and -se verbal forms, as reflected in contemporary educated spoken Spanish. The corpus for the study consists of extensive samples of the educated speech of ten cities: Bogota, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Havana, Lima, Madrid, Mexico City, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Santiago (Chile) and Seville57.

It is commonly reported that the -se form has virtually disappeared from the speech of Spanish America. Cuervo, for example, states that «En América es de raro uso la [forma] en se en el habla ordinaria» (1874, §94)58. Dale reports that usage of the -ra and -se forms in Spanish America, as encountered in three issues of the magazine Inter-América, reveals «an enormous preponderance in favor of the form in -ra (1925, 127). He surmises that «In the course of time the form in -ra... will be the sole imperfect subjunctive form in common use in Spanish America» (129)59. Similarly, Kany feels that «in most Spanish-American countries -ra has practically ousted -se in the spoken language... -se has become all but lost in most Spanish-American speech» (1945, 182-83)60. This opinion continues to be expressed by contemporary linguists, including Butt and Benjamin: «The -ra form... in some parts of Spanish America has all but ousted the -se form» (1988, §16.1.1), Zamora and Guitart: «Las formas en -se ... casi han desaparecido de la lengua hablada americana, desplazadas por las formas en -ra» (1988, 171), and Moreno de Alba: «En América se prefiere casi siempre y en prácticamente todos los dialectos y registros la forma en -ra sobre la forma en -se» (1988, 180).

The present study supports these affirmations. Usage of the -se form in the eight Spanish American cities represented is, with one exception, very low, ranging only from .6% to 6% (Table 1). The one exception is San Juan, whose 20% usage of -se forms is higher even than -se usage for Madrid (16%) and Seville (13%)61.

TABLE 1
USE OF -RA AND -SE VERBAL FORMS
CITY -RA FORMS -SE FORMS
BOGOTA 408 (98%) 9 (2%)
BS. AIRES 393 (94%) 4 (6%)
CARACAS 511 (94%) 32 (6%)
HAVANA 227 (96%) 9 (4%)
LIMA 165 (99.4%) 1 (0.6%)
MADRID 188 (84%) 36 (16%)
MEXICO CITY 362 (98%) 9 (2%)
SAN JUAN 249 (80%) 61 (20%)
SANTIAGO 299 (96%) 13 (4%)
SEVILLE 110 (87%) 16 (13%)
TOTAL 2912 (93%) 210 (7%)

Traditionally, usage of the -se form is seen as typically peninsular. Cuervo, for example, states that Spaniards use the -se form almost exclusively (1874, §94)62. Keniston also finds   —236→   the usage of the -se form of high frequency in Spain, though not as high as Cuervo had indicated, and declares that in subordinate clauses «the -ra form and the -se form are of approximately equal frequency, except in conditional clauses, where the -ra form is more frequent» (1937, §32.73). Gili y Gaya states that while in general the -se form is preferred in peninsular usage, the -ra form is a common feature of the speech of educated speakers in Spain (1964, §137).

Several studies indicate that usage of the -se form is gradually becoming less predominant in peninsular Spanish. Kany, for example, describes the -se subjunctive as a tense which in Spain «has apparently been losing ground» (1951, 182). Lemon reports that in three Spanish plays he encountered 172 -ra forms (87%) and only 26 -se forms (13%) (1925, 300-02). Ramsey and Spaulding (1956, §23.36) and Butt and Benjamin (1988, §16.1.1) also report predominance of the -ra form in Spain. Similarly, but much more precisely, Lamíquiz (1987) reports that in Seville the -ra form is ten times more commonly used than the -se form and that 16 of his 24 Sevillian informants used the -ra form exclusively63. He places educated Sevillian usage somewhere between that of Madrid and Spanish America: «El habla culta de Sevilla se sitúa sintomáticamente entre la conservadora presencia madrileña del -se y la mayoritaria preferencia hispanoamericana por -ra» (735)64.

These statistics are corroborated by the present study, in which usage of the -ra form in the combined corpora of Madrid and Seville is 85% (Table 2)65.

TABLE 2
SPANISH VS. SPANISH AMERICAN USAGE OF -RA AND -SE VERBAL FORMS
REGION -RA FORMS -SE FORMS
SPAIN 298 (85%) 52 (15%)
SPANISH AMERICA 2614 (94%) 158 (6%)

However, contrary to what Lamíquiz implies, frequency of usage of the -se form in the corpus for Madrid (16%) does not differ significantly from that of Seville (131/6).

These frequency ratios for the -ra /-se forms confirm findings by Salaün that in Madrid usage of the -ra form far surpasses that of the -se form (1972, 14-17). Salaün also states that certain verbs tend to favor one form over the other. Thus, she finds fuese and hubiese more commonly used than fuera and hubiera, and estuviera more popular than estuviese. The present study substantiates Salaün's findings with respect to Madrilenian preference of estuviera over estuviese, but very strongly contradicts her findings for the preference of fuese and hubiese over fuera and hubiera. In the Madrid corpus for the present study fuera is favored over fuese four to one and hubiera is favored over hubiese seven to one (Table 3)66.

TABLE 3
RELATIVE FREQUENCY OF USAGE IN MADRID OF ESTUVIERA /FUERA /HUBIERA VS. ESTUVIESE /FUESE /HUBIESE
-RA -SE
ESTUVIE- 8 (100%) 0 (0%)
FUE- 23 (79%) 6 (21%)
HUBIE- 38 (88%) 5 (12%)

Salaün investigates the use of indicative -ra /-se forms in Madrid speech67, and reports finding a frequency of usage of 14% to 37% for the indicative -ra form (cantara = canté) and 2% to 6% for the indicative -se form (cantase = canté). However, Salaün recognizes that her method of investigation, based on a written questionnaire, quite likely does not faithfully reflect natural speech «a causa del momento de reflexión que puede introducir» (14). Kany has stated -correctly, I believe- that the -ra indicative form «is not used in familiar conversation» (1951, 172)68, and, similarly, Wilson points out that although «the -ra indicative is widely used at present by Spanish-language writers (especially in Latin America), it is almost never found in ordinary conversation» (1983, 2). Perhaps the strongest statement made to this effect is that of Mallo: «En ningún país de habla española... se emplean las formas en "ra" con significación de tiempos de indicativo para la conversación ni para la correspondencia» (1950, 137)69.

With respect to use of the -ra indicative form in Mexico, Lope Blanch states that this form is found only in pedantic or oratorical style (1983, 147). Moreno de Alba echoes this judgement, stating that Mexican usage of the -ra indicative form is limited to the written language, particularly to journalistic style, and to the mode of speech at times employed by radio   —237→   and television announcers, as in the following example: «El equipo de fútbol América, que derrotara el pasado domingo al Guadalajara, se enfrentará mañana al León» (1985, 83-84). He found no examples of this form in his corpus of spoken Mexican Spanish: «De ninguna manera se oye en la lengua hablada informal. No tengo documentado caso alguno, en mi material de lengua hablada, coloquial (no esmerada)» (83)70.

With respect to the speech of Argentina, Donni de Mirande reports that in the city of Rosario usage of the -ra indicative with values of a pluperfect or simple past tense is frequent, as illustrated in the following examples: «Esa es la casa en que naciera (nació, había nacido) el poeta». «No podía recordar el aviso que me diera (dio, había dado) ayer» (1968, 159). In such sentences the -se form, she states, is never used.

In the corpus utilized for the present study the -se indicative did not appear, and only eight examples of use of the -ra indicative were encountered, four in a single informant from Havana, and four in a single informant from Santiago. In both cases the speaker is delivering a formal lecture in rather oratorical style; several examples follow:71

«Heredia, aquel compatriota... que en versos inaccesibles, expresara el dolor del destierro» (HAV-37-8: 673). «Fue él quien le apuntara el estilo brillante de la forma, y le señalara las rimas pobres en sus composiciones» (HAV-37-8: 674). «Se puede destacar de Blest Gana alguna otra preocupación teórica a través de las cartas íntimas que entregara a alguno de sus amigos» (SANT-55: 506). «Aquello que comenzara como un episodio de telón de fondo... se convierte en una culminación amorosa».


(SANT-55: 514)                


Use of the -ra form as a conditional tense, on the other hand, does exist in contemporary spoken Spanish, though only to a very limited degree, except for the very common usage of hubiera + past participle to form the conditional perfect tense, which is the norm, far surpassing in frequency the use of habría + past participle72. A comparison of these two compound conditional tenses in the present corpus reveals usage of hubiera + past participle to be 82% or higher for all but one of the ten cities, with three cities registering 100% usage of hubiera (Table 4).

TABLE 4
HABRÍA + PAST PARTICIPLE VS. HUBIERA + PAST PARTICIPLE
CITY HABRÍA + P. P. HUBIERA + P. P.
BOGOTA 5 (18%) 23 (82%)
BS. AIRES 9 (17%) 45 (83%)
CARACAS 0 (0%) 44 (100%)
HAVANA 0 (0%) 9 (100%)
LIMA 1 (5%) 19 (95%)
MADRID 1 (6%) 17 (94%)
MEXICO CITY 3 (7%) 41 (93%)
SAN JUAN 0 (0%) 7 (100%)
SANTIAGO 38 (100%) 0 (0%)
SEVILLE 2 (14%) 12 (86%)
TOTAL 59 (21%) 217 (79%)

The one exception to this pattern is the Santiago corpus, in which 38 of the 39 examples of the conditional perfect tense are constructed with habría, and one with hubiese73. It should be noted, too, that usage of conditional hubiera+ past participle is equally common in Spain and Spanish America, with the two Spanish cities represented in the corpus, Madrid and Seville, revealing a frequency usage of 91% for hubiera and only 9% for habría, which is exactly equal to that of the Spanish American cities, if the anomalous Santiago is omitted (Table 5).

TABLE 5
HABRÍA /HUBIERA + PAST PARTICIPLE: SPAIN VS. SPANISH AMERICA
AREA HABRÍA + P. P. HUBIERA +P. P.
SPAN. AMERICA 56 (23%) 188 (21%)
SP-AM. W/O SANTIAGO 18 (9%) 188 (91%)
SPAIN 3 (9%) 29 (91%)

As mentioned previously, the -ra form does occur as a substitute for the -ría form in the simple conditional tense in contemporary Spanish, but this usage is very limited in educated speech, with the exception of the so-called -ra «polite» forms debiera, pudiera and quisiera, which occur commonly in Spanish speech in all geographical areas74. If one excludes these forms, only seven examples of the -ra simple conditional tense occur in the present corpus, one from Mexico City and two each from Caracas, Havana and Seville; some examples follow75.

«Si no fuera por los V., fueran una pila de isleños todos»   —238→   (CAR-22: 433). «El judo a mí me interesaría. Yo lo aprendiera porque es una forma de defenderse» (HAV-10: 278). «-Si no estuviera grabando ¿qué estaría haciendo? -Yo, estuviera tejiendo» (MEX-22: 313). «Que preguntaras a una mujer donde estaba la calle tal y te dijera «Sí, sí..., yo mismo te llevo».


(SEV-13: 159)76                


The corpus of uneducated Mexico City speech, on the other hand, yielded five examples of the simple conditional tense, which would lead one to surmise that in uneducated speech this construction would be more common:

«Que yo estoy así, esperando, en otra ocasión, pues, fuera un bochorno para mí, ¿verdad?» (MEXP-19: 265). «Está con un tío... Si no, tú la vieras ahorita» (MEXP-27: 372). «Si no fuera por la bicicleta..., ¿cómo estuviera?».


(MEXP-27: 379)77                


Usage of the -se conditional is much less common and much more regionally restricted than is the case for the -ra conditional, especially with respect to the simple -se conditional tense, only two examples of which were encountered in the entire data base for the present study:

«Ah, bueno, lo que es, si tuviese toda la razón del mundo, porque si son como papá y mamá» (BA-21: II: 37). «Pudiese haber un museo mucho mejor de existir este tipo de cosas».


(SANJ-6:134)                


Apparently, the -se conditional tense was at one time much more common than it is at present. Cuervo (1874) censured its use in Spain: «Es increíble el cuerpo que ha tomado en España el abuso de la forma en se en la apódosis de oraciones condicionales; raros son hoy los escritores, aun de alguna nota, que no yerran en este punto» (§994)78.

Dale, on the other hand, indicates that usage of the -se form in Spain had greatly decreased from the time of Cuervo's writing: «This form is not commonly used in the result clause by peninsular authors. It occurs with greater frequency in the works of Spanish-American writers» (1925, 128).

Bejarano, however, classifies usage of the -se conditional perfect tense by Spanish writers as not at all uncommon: «No es raro encontrar en la apódosis la forma en -se del pluscuamperfecto de subjuntivo: «De haberla visto, la hubiese tomado por chiflada» (1962, 79). He goes on to say that, contrary to popular belief, Spanish usage of this construction, is not restricted to Madrid.

With respect to use of the -se conditional perfect tense in Spanish America, grammarians report varying degrees of frequency. Toscano Mateus (1953, 265), for example, states that in Ecuador the use of -se in the compound tense (hubiese comprado) occurs rather frequently in both educated and uneducated language. Three of the four examples he gives are conditional tenses which occur in the apodosis of a conditional sentence, e. g., «Él hubiese sido un hombre muy rico si la suerte no le hubiera herido con un golpe brutal» (265). Similarly, Donni de Mirande (1968, 159) reports with respect to Rosario, Argentina that use of the -se conditional in the compound tense is found there, although less frequently than the -ra conditional perfect tense, which is preferred to the -ría conditional perfect, especially in uneducated and semi-educated speech. Moreno de Alba (1985, 162), on the other hand, states that the -se conditional perfect tense is not used in Mexico79.

In the present study examples of the compound -se conditional tense occur in all but three of the ten cities represented and account for some 10% of the 210 -se forms encountered (Table 6).

TABLE 6
-SE CONDITIONAL PERFECT TENSE VS. TOTAL -SE FORMS
CITY TOTAL -SE FORMS HUBIESE + P. P.
BOGOTA 9 0
BS. AIRES 24 2
CARACAS 32 2
HAVANA 9 6
LIMA 1 0
MADRID 36 3
MEXICO CITY 9 0
SAN JUAN 61 5
SANTIAGO 13 1
SEVILLE 16 1
TOTAL 210 20

This usage is by no means frequent if one compares the number of -se compound conditional forms (20) to that of comparable -ra forms (217). A comparison of the two forms reveals a high level of usage of the -se conditional perfect in only two cities, Havana (40%) and San Juan (42%, Table 7). In the other Spanish American cities in the study use of the -se conditional perfect form varies from 0% to 4%80.

A comparison of peninsular usage of the   —239→   two forms reveals the -se conditional perfect to be more frequently used in Spain (Madrid: 15%, Seville: 8%) than in any of the Spanish American cities except San Juan and Havana. This is to be expected, since, generally speaking, and with the exception of San Juan, usage of the -se form occurs more commonly in the corpora of Madrid and Seville than in those of the Spanish American cities81.

TABLE 7
HUBIESE + PAST PARTICIPLE VS. HUBIERA + PAST PARTICIPLE
CITY HUBIESE + P. P. HUBIERA + P. P.
BOGOTA 0 (0%) 23 (100%)
BS. AIRES 2 (4%) 45 (96%)
CARACAS 2 (4%) 44 (96%)
HAVANA 6 (40%) 9 (60%)
LIMA 0 (0%) 19 (100%)
MADRID 3 (15%) 17 (85%)
MEXICO CITY 0 (0%) 41 (100%)
SAN JUAN 5 (42%) 7 (58%)
SANTIAGO 1 (100%) 0 (0%)
SEVILLE 1 (8%) 12 (92%)
TOTAL 20 (8%) 217 (92%)

As has been pointed out, the degree to which -ra and -se forms occur in Spanish American usage varies among the cities which make up the corpus of the present study. Butt and Benjamin state that although the -se form is little used in contemporary Spanish, it is more commonly found in Argentina (1988, §16.1.1). The present study shows usage of the -se form to be higher in Buenos Aires than in the other Spanish American cities with the exception of Caracas, where frequency of usage is equal to that of Buenos Aires, and San Juan, where, as we have already seen, -se usage is abnormally high.

Lenz points out that with the possible exception of some of the southernmost provinces, usage in Chile of the -ra form is exclusive (1920, §289). He does admit, however, that in educated Chilean usage the -se form is heard, albeit only to a small degree. In direct contrast to this statement, Oroz relegates usage of the -se form to the uneducated, stating that it is encountered only among the «servidumbre», who consider its usage to be more elegant, since it is infrequent (1966, 306).

The Santiago corpus utilized for the present study reveals that usage of the -se form is, in fact encountered in educated Chilean speech, although the number of examples is only 13, or 4%, of the 312 -ra /-se Santiago forms, and they occur in the speech of only seven of a total of 45 speakers.

The -ra /-se contrast in Mexican speech has been commented on rather extensively. Donnell, for example, reports significant usage of the -se form in Mexican spoken Spanish of the early nineteenth century, represented in his corpus by 335 examples of the -ra form (86%) and 56 examples of the -se form (14%) (1950, 70-71). This usage of -se had all but disappeared in Mexican speech a century later, if one accepts as accurate the following statement made by González Moreno with regard to this form: «Apenas si se usa en la conversación familiar» (1926, 180). Donnell reports with regard to Mexican usage of the 50's that he has never heard a Mexican use the -se form in natural, everyday speech, attributing the few instances he has heard it used to the result of «influencia escolástica y no fue del todo espontáneo» (69). Lope Blanch agrees, stating that the -se form is no longer used and, when encountered, is considered to be the result of affected speech (1953, 53). Moreno de Alba, too, describes use of the -se form as an affectation, and points out that only seven, or 3%, of the 210 -ra /-se forms he encountered were -se forms, and that four of these seven forms were from a single speaker giving a formal lecture (1985, 148).

With respect to the Mexican speech of areas other than Mexico City, studies reveal usage of the -se form to be even less common, if not entirely lacking. Wright («Subjunctive forms» 1926) refers to the almost exclusive use of the -ra form in the spoken Spanish of Guadalajara, reporting that five issues of the daily newspaper showed «not a single case of a verb in -se in 200 columns of news and editorials» (171)82. Similarly, Cárdenas found the -se form to be completely lacking in the speech of 51 Jalisco informants (1967, 153). Boyd-Bowman reports exclusive usage of the -ra form in Guanajuato (1960, 226-27). The most complete study of the -ra/-se contrast in Mexican Spanish, however, is that of Wilson, who shows that, although in the early sixteenth century the -se form was very strongly predominant in Mexican speech, the -ra form gradually and continuously increased in usage   —240→   until, in contemporary Mexican Spanish, the -ra form has supplanted the -se form «almost entirely» (1983, 2).

The present study shows this to be so. Percentage of usage of the -se form in the two Mexico City corpora, 2% for educated speech and 0% for uneducated speech, is among the lowest of the ten cities which form the basis for the present study. Only one other city, Lima, reveals a lower level of -se usage for educated speech (0.6%).

There is some reason to believe that usage of the -se form occurs more commonly in uneducated speech, at least in some areas, notably, Argentina. Butt and Benjamin refer to use of the -se form in «the popular dialog» of the novels of the Argentina writer Manuel Puig (1988, §16.1.1). Vidal de Battini states that in the rural language of the province of San Luis, Argentina, -se forms are used indiscriminately, albeit less commonly, alongside -ría and -ra forms in the protasis of conditional sentences (1949, 389). Tiscornia states that in several works which reflect the colloquial, uneducated language of the Argentine Gaucho, he encountered a total of 140 forms in -se in contrast with 429 forms in -ra (1930, 174). This would place the usage of the -se form as compared to the -ra form at 25%, which is much higher than the 6% level of -se usage encountered in the Buenos Aires corpus of educated speech utilized in the present study, and, in fact, is higher than the percentage of -se usage in any of the ten cities represented83. On the other hand, in the volume of uneducated Mexican speech referred to earlier, not a single example of an -se form was encountered (in contrast to 304 -ra examples in that volume), while in the corpus of educated Mexican speech nine -se forms were encountered.

To summarize the salient points of the present study, it has been seen that, with respect to present-day educated spoken Spanish, the -se form, while little used in most of Spanish America, has not entirely disappeared from the scene, and that in the corpus for one city, San Juan, Puerto Rico, it is still very much a part of contemporary speech, accounting for 20% of the -ra /-se examples from that area, a percentage which is higher than the 15% of -se examples that occur in the peninsular speech represented by the Madrid and Seville volumes. At the other end of the spectrum would be Lima, in whose entire corpus there occurred only one -se form. The remaining six Spanish American cities included in the corpus vary in -se form frequency from 2% to 6%. The study reveals that usage of the -se form in Spain, contrary to a commonly held belief, is much less frequent than that of the -ra form, with the -se form accounting for only 15% of the -ra/-se forms from the Spanish peninsular corpus.

With respect to the -ra indicative form with a pluperfect, preterit or imperfect indicative tense meaning, it was found that usage of this form in spoken Spanish is extremely limited. In the corpora of the ten cities represented, only eight -ra indicative forms of this type were encountered, all of them in formal lectures. There were no examples of -se indicative forms.

Usage of the -ra /-se forms as conditional tenses was found to be extremely restricted with respect to simple tense forms, especially as regards the -se form, only two examples of which appeared in the entire corpus. Usage of the -ra form as the equivalent of a simple conditional tense was also very rare, with only seven examples encountered. However, the presence of five such -ra forms in the Mexico City corpus of uneducated speech suggests that this conditional tense usage might be significantly higher in uneducated speakers.

Use of -ra conditional perfect tense forms, on the other hand, was found to be the norm in most countries, far outweighing usage of the -se or -ría conditional perfect tense forms. Exceptions to this were encountered in the Havana and San Juan corpora, in which distribution between the -ra and -se conditional perfect forms only slightly favored the -ra form, and in the Santiago corpus, in which, with the exception of one -se form, only the -ría conditional perfect appeared.

Generally speaking, the present study reveals that the -ra form is by far more commonly used than the -se form in contemporary spoken educated Spanish, both in Spain and in Spanish America. Whether or not the -se form will finally be supplanted entirely by the -ra form remains to be seen, but, consideration   —241→   of the process through which an almost exclusive use in earlier centuries of the -se subjunctive form has led to the present-day nearly absolute predominance of the -ra form, indicates strongly that the final outcome of this process might well be elimination of the -se form.

  —242→     —243→  
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