Hypothetical doubt in German and Spanish

Following last month’s article on the subjunctive, a peculiarity I spotted many years ago but was never able to follow up.

As in French (but not Italian), Spanish uses the subjunctive after a verb of opinion used as a negative or interrogative (expressing a doubt, therefore) but not when used as a positive – I use Spanish as the example because the difference is clear in modern speech for all verbs.

Creo que lo tiene la pelota – “I think that he has the ball” [without subjunctive]

No creo que tenga la pelota – “I do not think that he has the ball” [with subjunctive]

There is a peculiar comparison with modern spoken (not written) German. German places the verb second in the clause in main clauses (such as “I think” above), but finally in subordinate clauses (such as “he has the ball”). However, such subordinate clauses must be introduced by a subordinating conjunction (such as “that” above); in certain circumstances in spoken German (as in spoken and written English) this conjunction may be omitted but, if it is, the word order returns to as it would be in a main clause.

Consider, therefore:

Ich glaube, dass er den Ball hat – “I think that he has the ball” [formal, written German – subordinating conjunction and word order used]

One instance where the omission of the conjunction and return to main clause word order would be allowed in spoken German is:

Ich glaube, er hat den Ball – “I think he has the ball” [informal, spoken German – subordinating conjunction and word order omitted]

However, it may not be used if the main clause is negative:

Ich glaube nicht, dass er den Ball hat – “I do not think that he has the ball” [both formal/written and informal/spoken – subordinating conjunction and word order always used]

In the case of clauses dependent on main clauses expressing opinion, this means that spoken German requires subordinate word order in the same circumstances as Spanish requires the subjunctive; but it does not require the subordinate word order where Spanish does not require the subjunctive.

It is as if there is something in the linguistic arrangement which distinguishes automatically between confidence and doubt, and shifts the grammar away from “normal” in the case of confidence (word order or verb forms) to “different” to emphasise doubt (through, in one case, a different word order; and in the other, a different verb form).

I think this is probably a complete coincidence, of course; but I do not think I sure be could…

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