Jussives in Rosetta Stone ad: “Let it schnee, let it sneeuw, let it snö”
From Our Mechanical Brain:
That’s the song “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow” with “snow” translated into German, Dutch and Swedish, respectively.
[…] they’ve taken the noun form of snow in all three languages, rather than the verb. Which is embarrassing enough for a company trying to sell you language learning software. But it gets better: the press release for the campaign has now been corrected for one word (“sneeuw” > “sneeuwen”), but not the other two:
Stop and think about that for a second: someone at the Rosetta Stone (or more likely their “Brand Action agency” MBA) found out that the Dutch word was wrong and went to the trouble of correcting it, but didn’t even check the others.
The other thing that bothers me about this is that I’m not even sure if the semi-corrected version (where they use the Dutch verb for snow instead of the noun) is really actually that parallel.
Background: English “let” in this context is functioning as a jussive, which is a way of commanding in the first or third persons. If you want to command someone you’re talking to directly, i.e. second person, you use the imperative, like “Listen! Pay attention!” But in English you can’t use the same construction to talk about what a third person(s) should do, or what you should do as a group that you’re part of. So you use the jussive instead.
Jussives are formed in English with “let” + object pronoun + main verb etc.
You can make first person jussives in the singular, although rare (“let me see…”), and in the plural (“let us investigate this mystery!”). Although the first person plural jussive is almost always contracted to “let’s” in modern usage (“let’s go!” “let’s investigate!”).
You can also make third person jussives. Singular: “let him/her suffer!” Plural: “let them eat cake!”
(Some sources also call first person commands (co)hortatives and/or say that jussive is only for third persons. I’m using it for both first and third because I want a word that covers this whole category and other sources do use it like this).
But crucially, “let” in a jussive is different from the other type of “let”, the type of let that has a subject. If I say “I let them eat cake” or “she let us go” this has quite a different meaning than “let them eat cake!” or “let’s go!” (Although there is still a permission-obligation kind of idea here, so I’d assume they’re historically related).
What does this have to do with the Rosetta Stone ad? “Let it snow” is clearly a jussive. It doesn’t mean “I allowed the weather to snow” (“I let it snow”), it means something like “it ought to snow” or “hey sky, you should snow now please!”
Other languages don’t necessarily form jussives in the same way that English does. In particular, this let + pronoun + main verb construction is pretty idiomatic. And attempts to shoehorn one language’s words into another language’s constructions are almost always…interesting. I was immediately suspicious. So using my remembered-knowledge of German from a few years of study a while back, I decided to go check and see if German actually makes jussives using a “let it”-type construction. (I don’t know any Dutch or Swedish.)
As far as I can tell from various links (some of which are in German, sorry! There seems to be a terrible lack of highly technical explanations of German grammar on the internet), German can use a “let” construction for first person plural jussive. The German wp article calls it the cohortative/adhortative. For example, “lasst uns gehen” is possible and structurally parallel to “let us go”. However, “gehen wir” (subjunctive) seems to be preferred for a group-command-type meaning in at least some contexts.
In the third person jussive, however, German does not seem to use a “let” construction. The example that I have is “Es werde Licht” which would be freely translated “Let there be light”. Notice lack of “lass” or similar word: the German construction uses the subjunctive here, which involves modifying the verb itself.
When I look for translations for the actual song, I get one result with “lass es schneien” (basically, “let it to snow”) and another version with “soll’s doch ruhig schneien!” (something like “it should be quiet and to snow”).
Morals of the story. 1) There are more German versions of “Let It Snow” on the internet than there are explanations of the jussive. I probably shouldn’t find this surprising.
2) I guess a German substitution into the English frame as “let it schneien” (although bear in mind that Rosetta used the noun, even though there are translations of the whole song there for the googling) would be pretty tolerable. Probably aided a lot by the fact that German and English are really quite closely related. You’d never be able to do this in French even (“Allez il neige”/”Qu’il neige”), let alone in a less-related language.
3) Still wondering if jussives are expressed using parallel constructions to “let…” in Dutch and Swedish. Although these are also Germanic languages, so possibly. I wonder why they picked three Germanic languages…I’d guess because their words for snow sound similar to English (because they’re all from the same root anyway). Anyone speak any of these languages and want to weigh in?
4) Now I’m interested in jussives in general. Anyone speak another language that expresses first- and third-person commands using a similar or different construction?