Most Australians … volunteer

(continued from: Most Australians … gamble)

Indeed they do.  And we have much reason to be grateful.  I have visited the memorial at Hamel, where Australian troops turned back the German offensive of Spring and Summer 1918.  At great cost.  And I there learned the following.

As soon as war broke out, on a continent the other side of the known universe, men queued up to enlist.  There was no need to ever think of conscription.  The number of volunteers was so overwhelming that the authorities had to set exacting physical standards for recruits.  Even so, from a population of less than five millon, 416,809 men enlisted.  That’s nearly 10% of the population, in effect all of the fit adult males.  Australians volunteer.

They say things like this

If war is declared tomorrow, I will enlist immediately.

and they say things like this

If war was declared tomorrow, I would enlist immediately

And there is a difference. It is in times of great international tension and mobilising armies, with the outbreak of hostilities imminent, that you would find the first on the lips of Australians. In times less troubled, the second is their likely preference, and to my ear it intimates something of the Australian character, in a way that the first does not. Why?

If you have read Most Australians … gamble, you will see the answer coming. The effect of the aboriginal form in the first example is to locate the change-over point c at the present moment.  All the facts of history, including the most recent communiqués, the latest known developments, belong in the projected fantasy. So the speaker who selects

If was is declared tomorrow, I will enlist immediately

confides a resolve that is marked as taking into account the latest news (whether or not there is any, and whatever it may be).  But the speaker who selects the transported form

If was was declared tomorrow, I would enlist immediately

locates the change-over point c at some indeterminate point in the past.  And thus waives all reliance on the up-to-the-minute.

There may be more than one motive for this declension from aboriginality.  With a fantasy beginning at such a past point, our speaker does not have to contemplate in his fantasy a sudden descent into war (which is why we hear the transported form when the possibility of an outbreak of hostilities is remote).  Nor is he relying on his immediate circumstances, but presumably instead on something stable over time in his character, some trait he expects to endure (which is why we detect a sense of the Australian character).

I could continue with football, and the envisaged Arsenal-United Cup Final, but I tire.  You can read about such things, and many more, in “On Conditionals”, where Our Revered Leader has the story about Projective Messages laid out all pretty, with diagrams, as he revisits those dark days when it seemed that Hitler was on the point of invading England.

To complete this mini-series, I return to the sentences with which we began:

Most Australians won’t know the ODI result
Most Australians wouldn’t know the ODI result.

These do not encode projective messages, like our examples concerning the lottery and volunteering (where tense locates the change-over point c, and the overall message is a judgement concerning the outcome of a fantasized development).  They instead encode practical messages, judgements concerning matters of present or past historical fact.

Tense here is the temporal location of the standpoint s of the message, the standpoint from which the judgement is ventured.

Let me explain.  Any judgement will be supported by reasoning that justifies the verdict.  The reasoning may rely upon an up-to-the-minute assessment of the world and its ways, in which case s is the point of speech.  Or it may rely only upon past experience, and information gained thereby, in which case s is in the past. 

In projective judgements there is no way to encode s, for only tense could do so, and tense is allotted the more important task of identifying the change-over point c.  But in practical judgements there is no change-over point, making it possible for tense to do the weaker thing, and locate s.  And so it comes about that

Most Australians won’t know the ODI result

confides a verdict based upon an appreciation of how matters currently stand – as it might be, that the Sky transmitter broke down during the final overs, and although those of us here at the ground are celebrating, most Australians have yet to hear the news. Whereas

Most Australians wouldn’t know the ODI result

heralds a verdict based on experience assembled by the speaker en route through life – as it might be, that Australians are known to lose interest in a series when it has already been lost.  Or perhaps the ODI in question is between India and New Zealand, whereupon most Australians wouldn’t even know it was taking place. Which is why the transported form intimates to our undergraduate respondents ‘something about Australians’. 

A very subtle difference, to be sure.  But a difference nonetheless.

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