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If I understand correctly, congiuntivo imperfetto is the imperfect tense of subjunctive mood. Judging by conjugation table (ending in -sse), I suppose it comes from Latin subjunctive pluperfect table. Then in Latin, pluperfect is like past perfect and not past continuous (in English), and I think it's closer to congiuntivo traspassato, as is currently formed with "avessi + participio passato". So why is the pluperfect table picked instead of the imperfect table (which would have turned cantessi into cantarè)?

For the record, Spanish retained both tables (it has subjuntivo imperfecto 1 and subjuntivo imperfecto 2)

Can anyone tell me what is the history behind this?

  • P.S. Can anyone make congiuntivo into a tag synonym of subjunctive-mood? – iBug Nov 12 '18 at 15:35
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    If I recall correctly, tags in SE sites need to be in English. BTW great question. – Denis Nardin Nov 12 '18 at 15:50
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    @DenisNardin If you visit Spanish Language, you'll find that they have all tags in Spanish and English version as synonyms. But anyway, making a localized version of tag synonyms would be helpful. – iBug Nov 12 '18 at 15:55
  • That seems sensible. Would you like to write a meta post about it? If not I can do it (after I finish researching the answer to this question :P) – Denis Nardin Nov 12 '18 at 16:17
  • @DenisNardin: Ho pensato molte volte che sarebbe utile creare dei sinonimi in italiano dei (delle?) tags (altri siti StackExchange sulle lingue hanno tags o sinonimi dei tags nella propria lingua). Mi sembra un'ottima idea fare la proposta sul Meta perché può diventare un lavoro molto impegnativo e sarebbe utile poter contare sulla collaborazione di un gruppo di utenti sufficientemente grande. – Charo Nov 18 '18 at 9:59
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Great question! This answer is going to be heavily based in the discussion in chapter 7 of

Alkire, Ti, and Carol Rosen. Romance languages: A historical introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2010


The verbal tense system went through a reorganization in the passage from Latin to Romance. Of the original categories (roughly speaking pairs of mood and tense) only four survive with only regular sound changes (present indicative present, perfect indicative, imperfect indicative and present subjunctive), while other forms were repurposed (e.g. imperfect subjunctive) or replaced with completely new forms (e.g. indicative future, most of the perfectum family, the whole conditional mood).

This often happens when, after regular sound changes, the "old" forms cannot be distinguished anymore from other verbal forms (e.g. the indicative future cantābit becomes identical to the perfect cantāvit after the regular sound change turning intervocalic b into v, and so it had to go). This is exactly the case of the subjunctive imperfect.

The imperfect subjunctive of the verb canto has the form cantāret. After regular sound changes, in most of the persons the verb becomes indistinguishable from the infinitive cantāre. Indeed, except from Sardinian that has mantained it, the only reflex of Latin's imperfect subjunctive is in Portuguese inflected infinitive forms!

To fill in this vacuum, the speakers coopted two verbal forms: the pluperfect subjunctive and the pluperfect indicative. These tenses were in the process of being muscled out of their niche by the synthetic perfect (i.e. the perfect formed by an auxiliary verb followed by the past particle) and were ready to find a new home in the infectum system. We have an indication that they were somehow associated to this role from an early period in this example from the first century BC

seque paratos quaecumque imperasset [instead of imperaret], et libenti animo facturos pollicentur (De bello africano, 33)

they pledged themselves ready to do willingly whatever he commanded (and not he had commanded, since Caesar had yet to issue any command)

Italian (as most of the other Romance languages) decided to use exclusively the perfect subjunctive for this job and went through a relatively aggressive push of regularization, eliminating the trace of the perfectum stem from all the verbs but three: essere, stare and dare (imperfect subjunctive fosse, stesse and desse). For example, today we say mettesse and not *misisse from misīsset. This is similar to the situation for the indicative perfect (passato remoto) for which however more verbs retained their original strong stem.


As a slight digression I would like to say a couple of words about Spanish, since you name it in the question (however, I do not really speak Spanish so I'm going to trust my source for the examples). You say that Spanish has retained the Latin imperfect subjunctive, but that is not the case. It is true that Spanish has two forms, but the other comes from the Latin pluperfect indicative, not from the imperfect subjunctive. For example cantāret would give *cantare (that later presumably becomes *cantar) and not the current form cantara, coming from the pluperfect indicative cantārat. It's not 100% clear to me why Spanish retained both forms (as far as I know it is the only Romance language to do so), but that would probably be a question for Spanish.SE (or possibly Linguistics.SE), so I'll have to stop here.

  • +1 for the normalization of B and V – iBug Nov 13 '18 at 3:49
  • That's refreshing. I used to think all Iberian languages retained the indicative pluperfect, but it turns out to be Spanish-only. – iBug Nov 13 '18 at 5:41
  • @iBug Actually written Portuguese has conserved the pluperfect indicative, but in its old grammatical role, not as a subjunctive. I don't know what happened in Catalan or the other Iberian languages (unfortunately my reference does not mention them) – Denis Nardin Nov 13 '18 at 13:49
  • I see you wrote two answers based on the book. May I ask how much it cost you? I'm looking for one. – iBug Nov 18 '18 at 10:04
  • @iBug Right now it looks like the ebook version is ~20€ on Amazon, I don't remember how much I paid but it was in that neighborhood. Be warned, it is fairly dry reading, I read it through as much stubbornness as interest :). – Denis Nardin Nov 18 '18 at 11:11

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