I did enjoy hearing the spat between Melvin Bragg and John Humphrys on the use of the historic present.
I generally avoid the historic present in my own writing, but I am with Melvyn in this debate, in that I am relaxed about historians’ use of the present tense when writing about the past. There is a general assumption that it is a recent innovation. Some time ago I responded to a Guardian ‘Notes and Queries’ question which wanted to know when and why the BBC had started a policy of using the historic present. (Unfortunately I cannot find the online link to this question.) In my reply I pointed out that the historic present has been used for at least two thousand years. Roman historians frequently used it. To test this assertion, I opened the works of some Latin authors at random, and found the historic present on the first page I turned to each time.
From “Sallust: Bellum Catalinae” ed. Patrick McGushin, (1980) Bristol Classical Press, p35.
Igitur P. Umbreno cuidam negotium dat, uti legatos Allobrogum requiret eosque, si possit, inpellat ad societatem belli. (Present tense in the main verb, ‘dat’.)
The Penguin translator did not use the historic present. Whereas the Latin could be translated more literally as: ‘He gives to a certain Publius Umbrenus the task to look for the envoys of the Allobroges and if he could to push them into an alliance for war’, the Penguin translator has used a very free translation:
He directed one Publius Umbrenus to seek out the envoys of the Allobroges and induce them, if possible, to take part in the war …
From “Titi Livi: Ab Urbe Condita, Tomus I” eds. Robert Seymour Conway and Charles Flamstead Walters, (1914) Oxford Classical Texts, Liber I: 25,9.
Tum clamore qualis ex insperato faventium solet Romani adiuvant militem suum; et ille defungi proelio festinat. (Present tense in both main verbs) ‘Then the Romans with a shout like that of supporters associated with the unexpected, help their soldier and he hurries to finish the battle.’
Again, the Penguin translation is free and avoids (or avoided?) the present historic.
The Romans’ cheer for their young soldier was like the roar of the crowd at the race when luck turns defeat into victory. Horatius pressed on to make an end.
I am confident that the same random test would work with Tacitus, Caesar and others.
Of course, English speakers are very confused about tenses, as is clear from this item from the Guardian:
Isn’t it strange, John, that in some conditional sentences we use past tenses? “If I had known what would happen, I wouldn’t have mentioned it,” he might find himself saying, using not only the past perfect, but also a word that was originally the past tense of “will”. What a topsy-turvy world.
In this example, David Shariatmadari has confused the subjunctive or conditional moods, which we rarely need in English, with the past tense. I wonder if the historic present is used in other, non-European languages. I would not be surprised if it is universal across all cultures. Perhaps complaining about its use is also universal.