Would Key – Frank McNally on the mystery of the ‘Irish Conditional’

Past, present and future

Food writer Russ Parsons, a regular contributor to this newspaper but still adjusting to Irish ways after moving here from California, was wondering on Twitter/X recently about one of our linguistic eccentricities: “the use of the conditional tense as the past tense”.

An example he has heard involves people saying that they “would have done” something in the past, meaning they did do it; even though, elsewhere in the Anglophone world, saying you would have done a thing implies you were in some way thwarted from that aim.

Appealing for an explanation of this “mystery”, he added: “perhaps Frank McNally would take a crack at it?

Well, funny you should ask, Russ, but I would have written – and in fact did – about this thing as long ago as 2010. It was back around the time of the bank crash, which I thought shed light on it. But we’ll return to that shortly.

First let me record what Terry Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English has to say about our “vastly extended use of would”, quoting a linguist from the University of Liverpool who had also noted the phenomenon:

“Among HE speakers there is a pronounced tendency to replace the simple present tense with the conditional (would) and the simple past tense with the conditional perfect (would have), for example: ‘Are you concerned what your children eat?’ – ‘Yes, I would be’; ‘We would have been very close’ (meaning we were, in fact, very close); ‘He would have gone to school with me’ (meaning he did in fact, go to school with the speaker) ...”

The dictionary/Liverpool man goes on to mention the confusion this causes to the initiated: “[A]n English person hearing an utterance like [the last one] is at first inclined to wonder what prevented ‘him’ from going to school with the speaker.”

Beyond noting the construction, however, neither Terry Dolan nor the linguist elaborated on why we do it.

Whereas back in 2010, I speculated that the “Irish conditional” arose, in part, from the Irish condition. In which case, deliberate confusion of outsiders could not be ruled out.

Readers will have to excuse me while I quote myself:

“Maybe it’s just Hiberno-English reflecting sub-currents from the mother tongue. But I suspect that the Irish (Past) Conditional is a vestige of the 800 years of oppression, during which we learned, while commenting on historic events, not to do so in a way that could be used in evidence.

“For example, during the War of Independence, my grandparents would regularly have sheltered members of the local flying column, hiding them in a secret compartment under the hayshed. I’m not saying they did do that, mind you. Only that they would have done it. Regularly.”

Going further than the dictionary, however, I also identified – from personal use – a form of the Irish Conditional that sometimes replaces the future tense.

I often used this myself back then, typically in restaurants, where I was in the habit of scanning the menu, making a choice, and then saying to the watier, eg: “I might have the steak, please.”

The habit still lingers even today and still means that I have in fact decided to have the steak, that this is my last word on the matter, and that the waiter is free to proceed on that basis with immediate effect. Yet I can still see how it could confuse the uninitiated.

Back in 2010, amid national depression over the banking disaster, I thought this too might have been a vestige of history:

“The Irish (Future) Conditional, while expressing a firm purpose to have the steak, also covers the multitude of possibilities that may prevent this ambition from coming to pass. These include a tacit appeal to the waiter that if he knows any reason why I shouldn’t have the steak, he should speak now.

“It also evokes the fatalism in the Irish psyche. By saying we might have the steak, we insure ourselves against all possible disappointments: that the kitchen will be out of steak when the waiter gets there; that, even if it isn’t, the chef’s attempts at char-grilling will burn the restaurant down; and so on.

“I suspect the simple future tense gained ground here during the boom years, when we lost the run of ourselves to the extent that we thought we only had to order things to receive them. But now that everything has turned out badly, which deep down we knew it would, we’re back to hedging.”

As admitted earlier, I still use the “might have” construction in restaurants even today. Indeed, on recent visits to Russ’s former home of California, I used it there too from habit.

It drew confused looks on occasion. And yet, somehow, in a country rife with mass shootings, and a state built on tectonic fault lines, where tangible tremors were frequent and a major earthquake overdue, saying things like “I might have the house burger” always seemed a sensible enough precaution.

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