The conjunction “whenever” as a modal marker to convey the future subjunctive in some varieties of American English.

Because I teach a language (Portuguese) and am endlessly fascinated by linguistic variety—whether differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese or British and American English—I tend to have an ear for certain spoken quirks (e.g. – regionalisms, etc.).

I’m a native of Massachusetts, so I’m used to hearing people speak like this, and I also ask for jimmies on my sundae, drink soda (or water from the bubblah), and know what a “packy” is. Yes, my English language default is pretty much this. (Except we don’t actually call them “directionals,” but rather “blinkahs.” I’m aghast that they got that one wrong in the video.)

Anyway, since moving to St. Louis I’ve become obsessed with certain linguistic variations used in this area and further south, including the pronunciation of the “ai” dipthong as “u” (“Furrview Heights” instead of “Fairview Heights,” and “hurr” instead of “hair,” and so on), as well as the extremely Southern family of expressions that seems to have branched off from “you all” to include the brilliant and delectable:

“What all”
“Where all”
“When all”
“Who all”

….and so forth. The first time I really began to notice any of these was while watching episodes of the new TNT series Cold Justice, starring fierce-as-hell former prosecutor Kelly “Giant Killer” Siegler (love her). Siegler, a native of Texas, very naturally produces utterances like: “So tell me what all you found.”

Other examples:
“Now where all did you go?”
Who all was with you?”

The modifier “all” emphasizes the plurality of the pronoun. In Siegler’s case, the request can be parsed as: “So tell me all the things [emphasis on the fact that she believes there are many things as opposed to simply one thing] you found.”

Similarly, “Where all did you go?” suggests that the person asking the question is assuming you went to more than one location and would like you to answer by listing the multiple locations to which you went.

We do not have this up North. These same sentences in Massachusetts would be: 

“So tell me what you found.”
“Now where did you go?”
“Who was with you?”

Not only am I enchanted by the sound of “what all,” “who all,” “where all,” etc. but I actually prefer the precision they offer. One can ask “What did you find?” (suggesting that you found only one pertinent thing) or “What all did you find?” (suggesting that you actually found more than one pertinent thing).

Lovely.

Equally as fascinating to me is the use of the conjunction “whenever” as a modal marker of the future subjunctive in English. I’d tentatively identified this usage as “Southern,” but have since been told it’s also used in some parts of California and possibly also in the Pacific Northwest. I am no linguist, so perhaps someone with expertise on North American dialects can answer this definitively; I just know what I hear and I’ve only ever heard this used in the Midwest and in the South. It is most definitely not used in Massachusetts (or, from what I recall, in New England as a whole).

The future subjunctive is a tense that exists in few languages but remains alive and well in Portuguese. Because of this, it can be difficult to teach (having no real equivalent in English and being basically unused or nonexistent in other Romance languages). The subjunctive in general is not especially uncommon and is typically used in sentences containing 2 clauses and 2 distinct subjects where there is also some element of doubt, desire, emotion, attempt to persuade, etc.

Remnants of the subjunctive still exist in English, like: “The professor insists that Charles go to class.” The third person present indicative of “to go” is “goes,” as in “Charles goes.” But here, because we have 2 clauses (“The professor insists…” and “Charles go…”) and 2 distinct subjects (the professor and Charles) separated neatly by the conjunction “that,” along with a verb of desire (“to insist”), the subjunctive comes into play.

Another example which is sadly fading from everyday speech is the expression: “If I were you…” Of course, the first person past form of the verb “to be” in English is “was,” as in “I was.” In this case though, the clause introduces a “contrary-to-fact statement” in the form of “If I were you….” [but I am NOT you] and hence employs the past subjunctive. [1]

Here are some sentences featuring the future subjunctive in Portuguese, with my extremely literal translations into English (shown to better illustrate the function of this verb tense despite being less-than-elegant as translations):

  1. “Quando eu for grande, quero ser médico.” 

    “When(ever) I shall be grown up [the implication being that I don’t know precisely when in the future that will be], I want to be a doctor.”

  2. “Faremos o trabalho logo que pudermos.”

    “We will do the work as soon as we shall/will be able [and we don’t know exactly when that will be].”

  3. “Telefona-me quando chegares.” 

    “Call me when(ever) you shall arrive [and I’m not sure when that will be].”

Again, these translations are intentionally over-academic because I want to illustrate a point about how the future subjunctive works to readers who have likely never encountered this tense before. The sentences could be more gracefully rendered as: “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor”; “We’ll do the work as soon as we can”; and “Call me when you arrive,” but doing so would erase all vestiges of the future subjunctive mood and so defeat my purpose. 

Now, being the nerd that I am, imagine my curiosity when I began hearing utterances such as:

Whenever I text you, I’ll let you know.” 

Or: 

“Well, we’ll just pick you guys up whenever we get there.”

The reason why these caught my attention is because “whenever” is not used in this fashion in Massachusetts—at least not that I’ve ever heard in 30+ years of living there. Nor, from what I recall, is it generally used in the Northeast (New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and so on) at all. We would say: “When I text you, I’ll let you know” or “Well, we’ll just pick you guys up when we get there.”

It occurred to me that what I was hearing was the ingenious leveraging of the conjunction “whenever” to convey not just the subjunctive mood in English, but the ever-elusive future subjunctive mood.

Behold:

Whenever I text you, I’ll let you know [and I don’t know when in the future I will be texting you.]

“Well, we’ll just pick you guys up whenever we get there [and I’m unsure precisely when we will be arriving, even though we may already be on the road.]

Has anyone else noticed this? Is anyone aware of the precise regional origins of this phenomenon and/or has anyone mapped the regional usage of “whenever” as a modal marker of the future subjunctive in some dialects of North American English? I’m unaware of any existing studies on the phenomenon but would be keen to read any literature that might exist. 

Notes

1 – I cringe every time I hear “If I was you….”, but unfortunately this is becoming the accepted norm.

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8 Responses to The conjunction “whenever” as a modal marker to convey the future subjunctive in some varieties of American English.

  1. Tad says:

    Okay, I dunno if this complicates further, but Southwest Ohio with WV and Tennessee roots, and I would ABSOLUTELY say “Well, we’ll just pick you guys up whenever we get there,” but NEVER say “Whenever I text you, I’ll let you know.”

    I use whenever in this way, but never to begin a sentence.

    • The first one is definitely more striking and I believe is the kind of (introductory modal) usage that first drew my attention to the phenomenon. I hear “whenever” used as in the first utterance frequently here. It’s really interesting.

  2. This reminds me of the “positive anymore,” something I learned about in a Linguistics class and have been fascinated with ever since.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_anymore

  3. Luís says:

    Very interesting. I think the connotation of epistemic inacessibility or uncertainty in “whenever” actually generalizes beyond the subjunctive (and so it’s not peculiar to it). “Whenever I first saw” is a common expression for instance (at least according to Google – as a non-native-speaker I always have to double check), and I think it differs from “when I first saw” just in the same way “whenever I text you, I’ll let you know” differs from “when I text you, I’ll let you know” – the first clearly picks out an instant whose exact location in time I’m unsure of. Whether this instant is located in the past or in the future is given by the tense of the relevant verb – “saw” in the first case, “will let you know” in the second. So I suspect that “whenever”‘s role as a marker of the future subjunctive might just fall out of a more general usage of the word as denoting an instant of uncertain location in time.

  4. pmdello says:

    Wonderfully nerdy, I love it.

  5. Gillooly says:

    You should not have to let people know when you text. The recipient’s phone should take care of that automatically with some sort of alert. Who is their carrier?

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