Mood Swings: The Subjunctive across Literary History

The subjunctive is expressed in many different ways and forms in different global languages and may be used in as many ways to modulate a speaker’s attitude towards the facticity of what is being spoken. As one of the irrealis moods, the subjunctive is generally used to denote possibility, speculation, and desires rather than intentions – and as such identifies non-actual scenarios from a particular perspective. While what is possible, actual or not depends on the positionality and apprehension of the speaker, the subjunctive’s articulation of emotion, belief, opinion, judgment, and obligation make it a key focus in identifying these subjective positions.
The subjunctive’s strong presence in grammar constructions including conditionals (‘If I were a man’, e.g.), modal verbs (‘I should be leaving’), and reported information (‘I heard you were lonely’) mean that tracking its relative frequency and those of its constituent constructs can yield important data on a text’s relationship to reality and confidence in the information related. Using Natural Language Processing to analyze literary texts from the 19th and 20th Centuries will demonstrate that, historically speaking, not all fiction is equally fictitious and that trends in the relative composition of the subjunctive in the English language may help reveal the manner in which writers and thinkers have adapted to an increasingly mediated age – when more and more seems possible, and little seems certain. Novels by writers from Austen to Vonnegut, and from Joyce to Conan Doyle, will be displayed and discussed in terms of their modal composition with a view to investigating the relationship between grammatical mood and cognitive temperament. In the ‘post-truth age’, the subjunctive is fiction’s self-consciousness and might perhaps offer remedies toward its counterpart – the ‘fake news’ that masquerades as fact across mass media.


Henry Coburn

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Digital Humanities Tilburg