22 May, 2006

Want / like: a note

English indicative, 'I want [to have] an orange'.

English conditional, 'I would like [to have] an orange', ie. 'If I had an orange, I would like it'.


French indicative, 'Je veux [avoir] une orange': 'I want [to have] an orange'.

French conditional, 'Je voudrais [avoir] une orange': 'I would want [to have] an orange'.

Italian indicative, 'Io voglio [avere] una arancia': 'I want [to have] an orange'.

Italian conditional, 'Io vorrei [avere] una arancia': 'I would want [to have] an orange'.

Spanish indicative, '[Yo] quiero [tener] una naranja', 'I want [to have] an orange' (note that Sp. replaces L. velle, habere with quaerere, 'to seek after', tenere, 'to hold')

Spanish conditional, '[Yo] querría [tener] una naranja'—or better, Spanish subjunctive, '[Yo] quisiera [tener] una naranja', 'I would want [to have] an orange'.

The idiomatic Romance conditionals literally state that 'If I had an orange, I would want it'. This apparently makes no sense: for if I had an orange, I wouldn't want it. (To want, cognate with L. vanis, E. vain, really means to lack: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.") The behaviour of to want is here at subtle variance with the behaviours of velle and quaerere. Does this demonstrate that English conceives the semantic like/want distinction differently than the Romance languages, which can produce 'I would want'? NB, the French can use 'j'aimerais' for 'I would like', though I'm not sure about the other Romance languages on this point.


Sir G said...

No, Conrad, it's just a matter of usage. There is conditional in English, and it could be used here: "I would want to". In fact, it often is when speaking conditionally.

The use of "I would like to" is largely intended for social situations, namely for making requests.

Requests everywhere in the world are formed in ways which are indirect -- we dont want to be seen as putting pressure on the person we are putting pressure on.

"Je voudrais" feels to the speaker of French just the way "I would like to" feels to the speaker of English -- it is a polite, indirect request.

It's a ready made formula.

What matters is that the formula feels polite to the speakers of the language -- the fact that in English one uses a form of a different verb is completely accidental, just as it is accidenal that the word "must" has lost its past tense and uses the verb "to have" for its past forms. ("I had to go to the bathroom"). That in romance languages one uses conditional or subjunctive forms of "want" is also accidental. (What matters is that people don't say "I want", which is a sure way to offend and therefore not get it).

"I would like" as a request is a copula (i think that's what it is called) -- a ready made phrase. The exact meaning of "like" or the tense don't matter at all. Speakers -- whether native or second-language -- learn it that way, as a fixed formula. It works like this:

"When you ask for something, and want to get it, say X."

I guess this is a long way to say that I don't think these phrasesd reveal a great deal about "conception" of the relationship between likes and wants in different languages. It only shows that at a certain fundamental level all human relationships work the same way.

Asking nice goes a long way in France, England -- and Thailand. :)

Conrad H. Roth said...

What you say is correct, though I think you misunderstood my point. Yes "I would like to" / "Je voudrais" are stock expressions (not copulas, which are "to be"), but they did evolve out of a non-stock expression. The English conditional "I would want to", as you say, is only used in contexts that retain the fully conditional sense ("If I were younger, I would want to go hiking")--but the English "I would like to have a coffee" makes literal sense--as I put it, "If I had a coffee, I would like it"--even though the force of the conditional has been lost. French etc. don't, when translated according to the normal meaning of 'vouler' etc. The exact meaning of like/want doesn't matter now, and doesn't reveal anything about our *current* conceptions, but it did originally, and perhaps indicates an original force or distinction between 'to want' and 'volere'. These idiosyncrasies interest me.

Sir G said...

The correct way to parse the romance expression is not:

"if i had an apple, i would want it"

but instead:

"if it were agreeable to all present, then i would allow myself to want X (but until I hear otherwise, I do not even go so far as to allow myself such a thought)"

(its a convoluted way of talking).

again, it's a particular structure of politeness, not a difference between wants and likes.

i guess this interest of yours goes along with your interest in GB -- it's a sort of "occult" knowledge, isnt it? i guess i don't belive in occult knowledge -- either its usefulness, or even possibility. :)

formulas can arise in all sort of ways and they dont have to be very deep -- there isn't very much metaphysical thought to these things -- people will take the first thing that comes to hand.