Temps littéraires / Literary tenses
What are they? Something that we have to learn from books because you certainly almost never learn them in the natural way with your French-speaking parents, relatives, and friends. They’re pretty much extinct in the spoken language, except not in literature where they’re still pretty much hanging around. Yes, it seems to be kinda silly, preserving what it’s not really used in the spoken language, but I find them rather elegant and they give a distinctive tone in literature and tales. It’s similar to using thouin English, which means that it’s considered very snobby and archaic to use them in the common speech, even in a formal setting. Unless you’re a novel writer, you almost never have to use them personally – just to know how to recognize them – and sometimes you can be really stuck how to conjugate the irregular ones without consulting the dictionary or a conjugation book. Here are several of them and I’ll be using the verb parler(“to speak; to talk”) as a model.
Le passé simple / the simple past; the preterite
Je parlai (/ʒ(ə) parle/)
Tu parlas (/ty parlɑ/)
Il parla (/il parlɑ/)
Nous parlâmes (/nu parlɑm(ə)/)
Vous parlâtes (/vu parlɑt(ə)/)
Ils parlèrent (/il parlɛr(ə)/)
Unlike in English and other major Romance languages, French in almost all cases does not make a distinction between the simple past and the present perfect (passé composé). There’s no nuance between what happened completely in the past, apart from using the the recent past/passé récent tense when needed, and what’s happened in the past that still affects the present. The context helps, yes, but it’s not really 100% obvious. However, it’s still the most common literary tense in literature and the third-person forms of être and avoir can be seen occasionally in printed media and academic papers. It started to be replaced by the present perfect in the 12th century and the transition in the oral language was pretty much complete in the 18th century, although it persisted in the printed media until the 19th century or so.
Le passé antérieur / the past anterior
J’eus parlé (/ʒy parle/)
Tu eus parlé (/ty y parle/)
Il eut parlé (/il y parle/)
Nous eûmes parlé (/nuz ym(ə) parle/)
Vous eûtes parlé (/vuz yt(ə) parle/)
Ils eurent parlé (/il zyr(ə) parle/)
It’s basically the past perfect tense conjugated using the simple past forms of the verb avoir and être instead of the imperfect forms, which make up the past perfect tense in the modern language. It’s a rarely used tense since there are very limited occasions to use it. And it pretty much died with the simple past and the past perfect (plus-que-parfait) now takes its place.
L’imparfait du subjonctif / the imperfect subjunctive
Que je parlasse (/k(ə) ʒə parlɑs/)
Que tu parlasses (/k(ə) ty parlɑs/)
Qu’il parlât (/kil parlɑ/)
Que nous parlassions (/k(ə) nu parlasj̃ɔ/)
Que vous parlassiez (/k(ə) vu parlasje/)
Qu’ils parlassent (/kil parlɑs(ə)/)
The simple past in its subjunctive form. I’m pretty sure it’s the second most common form in literature, even if somewhat limited since the subjunctive mood is very, very rarely found outside the subordinate clause in French (unlike other Romance languages). It also died with the two other mentioned tenses and has been replaced by the present subjunctive (présent du subjonctif). Oh, this is my favourite tense and I still dream to see it return one day.
Le plus-que-parfait du subjonctif / the past perfect subjunctive
Que j’eusse parlé (/k(ə) ʒys(ə) parle/)
Que tu eusses parlé (/k(ə) ty ys(ə) parle/)
Qu’il eût parlé (/kil y parle/)
Que nous eussions parlé (/k(ə) nuz ysj̃ɔ/ parle/)
Que vous eussiez parlé (/k(ə) vuz ysje parle/)
Qu’ils eussent parlé (/kilz ys(ə) parle/)
The subjunctive form of the past anterior. The difference is that it uses the imperfect subjunctive forms of avoir and être instead of the present subjunctive forms, which make up the past subjunctive mood (passé du subjonctif). Just like the past anterior, it’s rarely used and seen due to the limited context that allows its usage. Again, it died out at the same time as the above cases and has been replaced by the past subjunctive.
Le deuxième forme du conditionnel passé / the second form of the past conditional
Exactly the same conjugations as the past perfect subjunctive. It’s only used in the si clause (“if clause”) and it’s called a past conditional because previously, the past perfect subjunctive was used there before it got replaced during the merger of tenses and moods. English and other Romance languages still use the past perfect subjunctive in that context and it’s virtually extinct in contemporary literature as far as I am aware.
L’impératif passé / the past imperative
(Tu) aie parlé! (/ɛ parle/)
(Nous) ayons parlé! (/ɛj̃ɔ parle/)
(Vous) ayez parlé! (/ɛje parle/)
A very rare tense. Even in English, it’s only found in fixed phrases like “be seated” (that’s all I can think of right now). I don’t think I have personally came across this tense anywhere in contemporary literature. I just know it exists.
Le passé surcomposé / the double compounded past perfect
J’ai eu parlé (/ʒe y parle/)
Tu as eu parlé (/ty a(z) y parle/)
Il a eu parlé (/il a y parle/)
Nous avons eu parlé (/nu zaṽɔ(z) y parle/)
Vous avez eu parlé (/vuz ave(z) y parle/)
Ils ont eu parlé (/ilz ̃ɔ(t) y parle/)
This tense is rather vague and is sparingly found in some older literary works. Pretty much the past perfect takes care of that job instead of using avoir + eu (the past participle of avoir) + past participle of the main verb. To me, it’s just super weird and probably was influenced by the person’s dialect outside Paris back in the time (not that there’s something wrong with that).