Post #4: Portuguese Irregular Verbs
A few weeks ago, while poking around Amazon.com, I came upon a book that promised to resolve all my challenges with Portuguese. It was called Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and I had to have it.
When the book arrived two days later, I ripped open the packaging and settled in for a good brain sweat. And then I read the first sentence: “Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld often reflected on how fortunate he was to be exactly who he was, and nobody else.” This was not a book about Portuguese irregular verbs, this was a novel. Oops.
The book wasn’t bad, if you go in for understated and veddy proppah British humour. Professor von Igelfeld was a professor of philology who had written a 1,200-page treatise called—you guessed it—Portuguese Irregular Verbs. The book had made him famous in his field. Trouble was, his field only had about 50 adherents worldwide. Though he flogged the book wherever he could, sales had flat-lined at 200 copies.
When he wasn’t writing treatises, Professor von Igelfeld spent his time flitting from one conference to another, where the four or five people who attended his lectures hung on to his every word. Wherever he went, disaster followed: he ordered the wrong dish, offended a hotel clerk, or missed a chance to marry a woman because his best friend proposed to her a day earlier. Never one to dwell on might-have-beens, Professor von Igelfeld took solace in the thought that his magnum opus would grace scholars’ bookshelves long after his death. By the end of the book, I wanted to give the guy a hug.
But I still hadn’t solved my problem, which was to commit the hundreds (maybe thousands) of Portuguese irregular verbs to memory.
When I first cast my lot with Portuguese, I feared the language would be too easy. It seemed awfully similar to Spanish, which I had studied in high school and could still muddle through in an emergency. I needn’t have worried. The verbs alone have been supplying all the challenge I need. Take the future subjunctive, a tense that the Spaniards wisely jettisoned many moons ago. My Portuguese grammar book instructs me to use the future subjunctive tense (as opposed to the perfectly serviceable present or future tenses) when “referring to future situations that are not certain.” Huh? Isn’t “not certain” the very essence of the future?
I wish I had Professor von Igelfeld by my side so I could pick his expert brain. I’m sure he would clear up my confusion. If nothing else, I hope that a philologist just like him will one day write a book just like his, though I’m not sure 1,200 pages would cover the topic.