Schwarzenegger’s “when”

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California appeared on ABC’s "This Week" on Sunday, and he got some press attention for his stated willingness to serve as an energy and environment czar in a hypothetical Obama adminstration, even though he has endorsed his fellow Republican John McCain. In the recaps of his interview, I was struck by one sentence in particular: "I’d take his call now, and I’d take his call when he’s president — any time." This use of when instead of if struck me as unfortunate, and my first thought was that it might be the result of interference from Schwarzenegger’s native German, where wenn can serve as the equivalent of English if or when. To check up on my hunch, I emailed the perspicacious polyglot Chris Waigl (who has bailed me out before on German-English translation conundrums), and she replied in her typically thoughtful and nuanced manner. Her response follows below as a guest post.


Ben wonders if Governor Schwarzenegger’s curious choice of "I’d take his call when he is president" might be an L2 issue, and asked me how I’d translate "I’ll take his call when he is president" and "I’d take his call if he is president" in German.

I think Ben’s right, at least partially.

Both if and when are wenn in German. German learners of English have to wrap their mind around English working differently from German here, and usually undergo a great deal of drills on the so-called "if sentences" — "I will take his call when he is president / I would take his call if he was president / I would have taken his call if he had been president" — learning only later that these can be mixed and matched.

Another difference between the two is that in German, both the matrix and the conditional clause are likely to use the same verbal construction. So "when/if he is president" could mean "wenn er Präsident ist" (present tense) or "wenn er Präsident sein wird" (future tense), whereas *"if he will be president" is ungrammatical in English. Indeed, using will or would inside if clauses is a common mistake German native speakers make. Schwarzenegger doesn’t, at least not here. But it has happened to me, when very tired and inattentive, despite being aware of the pitfall.

In English, "when he is president" implies that his being president is a (future) fact. In the German equivalent "wenn er Präsident ist" this is generally true, too, but since if and when fold into wenn, not much is needed to give the phrase enough of a conditional flavour to allow the possibility that it may never happen. This is certainly the case for "wenn er President wird" (gloss, *"when/if he will be president"). With just the single option wenn, there’s a blurring between the temporal and the conditional sense in German that just doesn’t exist in English. (It is possible to get around this blurring by opting for the more formal falls, which only means "if").

Another possible aspect of Schwarzenegger’s choice, though, is that he may have got stuck with the temporal reference from the start of the sentence, "I’d take his call now." There’s nothing grammatically wrong with this first part, and now being temporal, it has a parallel in "when he is president". So maybe this is not not simply a symptom of a struggle with if vs. when, but of a degree of linguistic insecurity and imprecision in English.

I’m glossing over the difficulties of translating "take his call". The telephone sense sounds quite clumsy, almost unidiomatic in German. I looked into the German online media, but there’s very little, and no one quotes the entire passage. What is being quoted is the "any time" reinforcement. Some quote Schwarzenegger on one end of the continuum between "be open to the idea" and "accept Obama’s offer", others on the other. In general, the German papers are more interested in whether Obama will get to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate when he visits Germany later this month (apparently only heads of state are usually offered the opportunity, and the chancellor’s office is said to have been unenthusiastic, with the opposition being unhappy…). Other topics of interest are that Schwarzenegger’s wife seems to be supporting Obama, and comment threads usually drift off towards his movies. I do not think that the German-speaking public manages to take him very seriously as a politician, or for that matter has a good grasp of the role of a governor of a state.

The only longer treatment in German of the passage comes from a dpa wire quoted by an Austrian regional news site: "Der republikanische Gouverneur von Kalifornien sagte dem TV-Sender ABC, er könne sich vorstellen, eine Obama-Regierung als Energie- und Umweltexperte zu unterstützen, falls Obama die Wahlen gewinnen sollte." Translation: "The Republican Governor of California told the TV network ABC he could imagine supporting an Obama administration as an energy and environment expert should Obama win the election." That’s rather far from what Schwarzenegger actually said.

Back to Ben’s questions, weighing all the difficulties, and in context, I’d say the following go with each other:

"Ich werde sein Angebot erwägen, wenn er Präsident ist." (I’ll take his call when he is president)
"Ich würde sein Angebot erwägen, wenn er Präsident wird." (I’d take his call if he is president)

(Choosing "consider his offer" as a way out of the "take the call" dilemma.)

However, as alluded to above, the second option has a last twist: Translating "wenn er Präsident wird" back to English, I’d come out closer to "if he becomes president": the verb become in German is werden, the same that’s used as an auxiliary to construct the future tense.

Maybe this is what Schwarzenegger was aiming for. Or maybe he’s betraying, involuntarily, a conviction about what the election’s outcome will be.


[Guest post by Chris Waigl]



25 Comments

  1. Jonathan Lundell said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 1:27 am

    All this strikes me as overanalysis.

    In English, “when he is president” implies that his being president is a (future) fact. … With just the single option wenn, there’s a blurring between the temporal and the conditional sense in German that just doesn’t exist in English.

    But that’s not right. “When” in English, it seems to me, can carry the same ambiguous “if and when” sense. “When you’re pregnant, you crave strawberry ice cream” doesn’t imply a (future) fact; it’s conditional. Usw.

  2. Timothy M said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 2:35 am

    Jonathan Lundell: That looks like a third sense of “when” to me. What your sentence basically says is “People who are pregnant crave strawberry ice cream” – it’s not a statement about the future, or a conditional.

    But I think the point of the post stands either way. “When he is president” and “if he becomes president” mean two different things. In German, however, they would be said the same way. Therefore, it is unclear whether Schwarzenegger actually meant what he said, or simply chose the wrong wording.

    This remains true regardless of what other senses “when” can have in English.

  3. Chuck said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 2:42 am

    You also have a not-necessarily-asserting-soon-to-be-fact inflection on the verb in the matrix clause… Arnold said “I’d [I would] take his call when he is president” — not “I *will* take his call when he is president”; the former allowing some sense of “if it became the case that he is president, I would take his call” vs. the latter which essentially asserts that he will be president. Perhaps I’m putting too much weight on the conditional nature of a possibly-soon-to-be-fact as a component of the matrix clause, but it seems that the subjunctivish(? all right, this is why I’m reluctant to comment here) mood in the matrix clause lets Arnold get away without implying the certainty of an Obama administration.

  4. Alexander Gajic said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 2:59 am

    I would like to point one thing out that seems to missing from Chris Waigls guest post, just so it doesn’t get lost. There is a German word for “if” that can be used synonymous to “wenn” (which has both the temporal and the conditional sense) that only has a conditional sense. That word is “falls” which literally means “in case”. I recall that in school, when we had to identify subordinate clauses and we wanted to determine whether a clause was temporal or conditional, we could check by replacing the “wenn” with “falls”. If it still made sense, it was conditional.

    So Waigl’s proposed sentence

    “Ich würde sein Angebot erwägen, wenn er Präsident wird.” (I’d take his call if he is president)

    is still ambiguous, because it could mean “I’d take his call as soon as he becomes president”. The most unambiguous version would result by replacing the “wenn” in Arnie’s head with a “falls”:

    Ich würde sein Angebot erwägen, falls er Präsident wird. (I’d consider his offer, if he becomes president.)

    Or did I miss the point of the post?

  5. Chris Waigl said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 3:33 am

    Regarding Jonathan’s comment, I nearly included the frequentative sense of “when” (also “wenn” in German): “When(ever it is true that) I eat strawberries, my nose starts itching. So I try to avoid them (and may never eat them again in my life)” indeed doesn’t imply a future fact, just an imagined one. Combined with the indeterminate “you” you get as Timothy points out in the second comment a statement of a general rule. This, however, is different from a conditional.

    It looks unlikely to me that Schwarzenegger was aiming for this sense. For an uttering along the lines of “I’d take his call now. I’d take his call when he’s president. Heck, I’d take his call when he’s stone dead and a zombie — I’m just a fan of the man and he can call me any time” that would have been a possibility. But also extremely odd, given Schwarzenegger’s political allegiances.

    Of course it’s possible to over-analyze. But speakers produces odd things sometimes, and others find it rewarding to think about them. Most of the time, these speakers are native speakers, but I find it does second-language speakers honour to treat their glitches as seriously as you would a a native speaker’s.

  6. dr pepper said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 3:39 am

    “I’ll take his call when Hell freezes over” doesn’t seem to express an expected future or a conditional.

  7. Mark Etherton said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 5:08 am

    A small point, but “if he will be President” isn’t unthinkable in English: it could be used in the sense of “if he wants to be President”. An example might be “If he will be President, he must expect to work weekends”. Of course this is not a case of “will” looking to the future and is not true for *”when he will be President”.

  8. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 6:23 am

    (This is a very interesting and thorough discussion of the German, and I hope that Chris can be persuaded to become a regular poster on Language Log.)

    @ Chris: you say, I find it does second-language speakers honour to treat their glitches as seriously as you would a a native speaker’s It’s not so much that anyone is trying to honour the speaker (though they are admittedly inadvertently doing so), but it is quite important to rule out ‘when’ as some sort of of sly aside by Schwartzenegger, as if it were certain that Obama is going to win. This circumstance would be more likely with a native speaker of English than with Schwartzenegger, it seems to me now.

    @Alexander Gajic

    Chris Weigl is clearly too modest to say, but you’ve missed this: It is possible to get around this blurring by opting for the more formal falls, which only means “if”.

  9. James Wimberley said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 9:04 am

    The German press report shouldn’t be criticised. It accurately covered what Schwarzenegger was obviously trying to say. His mis-statement, while newsworthy, is far less important. Putting such gotcha! moments first is a distortion of proper journalistic practice. Yes, I would distinguish this from Bushisms: because repeated parapraxis raises questions about general mental competence.

  10. Kate said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 10:34 am

    Another German and English speaker weighing in here: The “I’d” indicates more of a “ich würde” to me as well. What a great analysis!

    Also, geez. Remind me never to go into politics in a country where I’m not a native speaker. These kind of “gotcha!” quotes would be so easy to get…

  11. Jonathan Lundell said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 11:20 am

    I take Timothy M’s point re my pregnant example, and propose in its place “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” which has a strong suggestion of conditionality.

    I like Chuck’s point that “I would” vs “I will” tends to reinforce the conditionality of the following “when”.

    Especially given Schwarzenegger’s somewhat ambidextrous politics, it’s certainly possible that he was simply being sly. And it’s true that, were that not the case, his phrasing was ill-advised in that it opened the door to a perverse “gotcha” reading of his statement.

    The point remains that his “when” can be read as a straightforward, idiomatic-English conditional (and that the ambiguous wenn would be an appropriate translation in this context).

  12. Steve Harris said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

    What about German “wann”? If I recall correctly, that denotes “at this point in time I’m referring to”. If Schwarzenegger had been thinking something like “I anticipate an Obama victory; and when that time comes, I hope he’ll call me, and I’ll take his call,” could he have not said, for a German version, “Ich werde sein Angebot erwägen, wann er Präsident ist.”? Or is wann used only for specific past times?

    (This isn’t intended to explicate what he did say in German, but just to fill out the German alternative constructions.)

  13. Alex Gajic said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    @Alexander Gajic

    Chris Weigl is clearly too modest to say, but you’ve missed this: It is possible to get around this blurring by opting for the more formal falls, which only means “if”.

    Apologies. Darn. Reading does help after all.

    @Steve Harris. No he couldn’t. “Wann” is the translation for “When” if you want to phrase a question: “Wann wirst du Präsident?” (When will you be president?”). The only sense I could think of would be in connection with “immer”, thus becoming “whenever”. “Ich würde sein Angebot annehmen, wann immer er Präsident wird” – “I would take his call, whenever he becomes president.”

    Darn again. First Comment. And right into the pot of fat – to use a German idiom.

  14. nprnncbl said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

    Although Chuck proposes that the “I’d” rather than “I will” expresses conditioning on Obama becoming president, he overlooks that it is a parallel construction with the previous sentence, in which the conditional event could only be the call: “I’d take his call now.”

    James Wimberly- I don’t think Chris Waigl is criticizing the German (language)/Austrian (regional) press report, merely pointing out that they did not report what he actually said, which is true. And you are probably correct that they are reporting what he meant to say. But the two are different, and divergence between the two, and which version is reported (or attributed as a direct quotation) seem to come up frequently here.

    And at the risk of thread drift, which Arnold Zwicky outed me for in a previous post– Kate: but isn’t it great that a non-native speaker (not to mention immigrant) can go into politics and succeed?

  15. Ulrich said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 9:42 pm

    I’m new to this blog, I’m German, I have been living in the US for the last 30 years, and I am very impressed by the quality of the comments, given what I have seen elsewhere. I only respond b/c I believe nprnncbls’s point did not get enough attention. What struck me, too, was the parallelism in the sentences. To me, the immediate reading of Arnie’s response is this: I would talk to him now (when he is not president) and I would talk to him when he IS (or should he become) president, i.e. I would talk to him anytime. In other words, the temporal and conditional readings really merge into the same thing, and any speculation about differences in shading due to his being a non-native speaker appear somewhat beside the point.

  16. JJM said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

    Arnold Schwarzenegger! One of the biggest names in Hollywood!

    Fourteen letters!

    Sorry, that had nothing to do with the discussion at hand but it’s late and I couldn’t resist.

  17. Aaron Davies said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 1:08 am

    @Mark Etherton, that use of “will” is seriously archaic in standard English, AFAIK, and I doubt it would be understood properly by most people.

  18. Mark Etherton said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 4:50 am

    @ Aaron Davies

    As a native speaker of speaker of UK English I would say that use of ‘will’ is perhaps old-fashioned, but far from archaic. It was immediately understood by a random sample of five people in my office in Central london.

  19. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 6:27 am

    Schwartzenegger

    And fifteen if you spell it right!

  20. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 6:29 am

    (Sorry, I couldn’t resist either.)

  21. S Onosson said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 8:14 am

    @ Aaron Davies and Mark Etherton:

    I can get that reading pretty easily, but only with specific emphasis on “will”.

    “If he will be president…”

    It does suggest some unwillingness on the part of the person spoken of, or at least uncertainty on the part of the speaker as to whether that person is willing or not. That’s my sense of it, as a mid-30s native English speaker from western Canada.

  22. David Marjanović said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 8:37 am

    “wenn er President wird” (gloss, *”when/if he will be president”)

    Er… no. “Wenn er Präsident wird” = *”when/if he becomes president” = either “when he’ll become president” or “if he becomes president”.

    There is no way to shorten “wenn er Präsident sein wird” (“when he will be president” into “wenn er Präsident wird”. All that can be done is to use the present tense instead of the future: “wenn er Präsident ist”. This is done much more often in German than in English, perhaps because German can’t express the future in less than one syllable the way English can by “-‘ll”.

    Native speaker of German here, living in Austria.

    “When he is president” and “if he becomes president” mean two different things. In German, however, they would be said the same way.

    No: “wenn er Präsident ist” vs “wenn/falls er Präsident wird”. If “wenn” is chosen in the latter case, which is commonly but not always done, it can also mean “when he becomes president”.

    But also extremely odd, given Schwarzenegger’s political allegiances.

    Is it really? I think when the good man joined the Republicans he simply didn’t know what he was doing. He would fit quite nicely into Austria’s conservative party, so he probably figured he’d fit into America’s conservative party, too… without noticing how far the US political landscape is shifted to the right with respect to Europe or apparently anywhere else. For perspective, John Kerry would fit quite nicely into Austria’s conservative party.

    “I’ll take his call when Hell freezes over” doesn’t seem to express an expected future or a conditional.

    Sure it does. It expresses the expected future that Hell will freeze over. It’s sarcasm.

    To me, the immediate reading of Arnie’s response is this: I would talk to him now (when he is not president) and I would talk to him when he IS (or should he become) president, i.e. I would talk to him anytime. In other words, the temporal and conditional readings really merge into the same thing, and any speculation about differences in shading due to his being a non-native speaker appear somewhat beside the point.

    Agreed.

    Schwartzenegger

    And fifteen if you spell it right!

    Wrong. There is no t. Z alone is pronounced [ts]; tz is only used behind short vowels. Sure, many surnames and geographic names flount this rule, but Schwarzenegger doesn’t. Fourteen letters.

    ——————–

    But, actually, is there anyone here who thinks Obama has a serious chance of losing? There are already so few undecided voters left, according to polls, that Obama even now has all necessary electoral votes and then some.

  23. Bob said,

    July 17, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

    I learned my German a long time ago at the Defense Language Institute (as it was then called), and used it daily for almost 3 years in West Berlin (as it was then called). Thus (a) my German is perhaps a bit rusty, and (b) my use of it tends to swerve in, uh, a military direction. But when Arnold said, “I’d take his call when he’s president,” wasn’t he perhaps going toward something like “I’d take his call if her were president”? And if that was his meaning, wouldn’t it come out in the subjunctive in German — e.g., “”Ich würde sein Angebot erwägen, wenn er Präsident sei” (or “wenn er Präsident wäre”)?

    Just askin’

  24. Kate said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 2:49 am

    Bob: I don’t think “sei” is used that way. At least it’s not in the vernacular. And “Wenn er Präsident wäre” pushes the idea of Obama becoming President farther out of the realm of possibility. I might say that about you, since you’re not currently *running for* president, but for Obama it sounds strange.

    nprnncbl: Well, I do think it’s great that Schwarzenegger managed the feat of success in politics despite having to navigate these kinds of difficult conversations in a second language. Personally I can’t imagine the stress!

  25. Mark Etherton said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 5:34 am

    @ S Onosson

    Interesting. I agree that the “will” is stressed, but I understand it as implying determination on the part of the person spoken of to do the action: something like “if he will insist on being President, then ..”.

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