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Discourse (dis-)continuity in relative clauses: Evidence of contact-induced pragmatic expansion in Latin oratio obliqua

Sean Gleason

Yale University

When verba dicendi that take the accusative and infinitive (AcI) are passivized, there exist two grammatical alternatives in Classical Latin: the personal NcI (1); and the (Imp)ersonal AcI (2):

          (1)      primi traduntur arte quadam verba vinxisse (Cic. Or. 40)

          ‘They first are related to have joined words with a certain skill.’

           (2)      Traditum est Homerum caecum fuisse. (Cic. Tusc. 5, 4)

          ‘It was related (that) Homer was blind.’

While the NcI is well attested in Early Latin, the ImpAcI is not used productively before the Rhetorica ad Herennium (Calboli 2005: 242; a.o.), from which point they co-exist as discourse-determined variants (Bolkestein 1983). The ImpAcI is borrowed from Ancient Greek, allowing for a pragmatic expansion of the Latin passive (Gleason 2016), but a detailed examination of this morpho-syntactic borrowing and its pragmatic results is lacking. 

This paper provides that by examining the discourse contexts of both passives in Classical Latin, especially in relative clauses, where a stark contrast exists in their effects on discourse continuity. Consider the personal passive in (3):

            (3)       …quod vi hominibus armatis coactisve familia fecisse diceretur, id tametsi nullo

                       iure fieri potuerit… (Cic. Pro Tull. 39.10)

            ‘…that which a household is said to have done with men armed or by force, this could not be done lawfully…’

The NcI ‘breaks’ the discourse by shifting from the antecedent (unexpressed neuter object) of the relative (quod) to the subject of the NcI (familia), making it impossible to continue talking about the antecedent without explicitly reintroducing it (with id) into the discourse. Contrast this with the ImpAcI in (4):

            (4)       Eorum una, pars, quam Gallos obtinere dictum est, initium capit a flumine

                        Rhodano (Caes. B.G. 1.1.5)

                       ‘One of these, a part, which it was said the Gauls occupied, takes its beginning from the river Rhone’            

This usage lets the author include new information (Gallos…est) without shifting away from the antecedent (pars)—i.e. it avoids ‘breaking’ the discourse.

Identifying these syntactico-pragmatic effects advances the study of Latin linguistics in several ways. Primarily, the two passives’ difference is made more explicit than a vague notion of “focus” (Bolkestein 1983: 122), or the unmotivated tense distinction appealed to by the traditional grammars (e.g. Kühner and Stegmann 1912-1914: 522). This is a direct result of the kind of large-scale corpus study that offers exciting new directions for 21st-century classical linguistics. It also deepens our understanding of contact between Latin and Ancient Greek, strengthening the case that Graecisms (Löfstedt 1933; Coleman 1975) in Latin are not just calques or a way for Roman writers to signify their socio-cultural status (cf. Adams 2003: 762). Instead, they offer tangible benefits for the language that can have deep effects on its syntax and pragmatics, resulting in real and sustained linguistic change.  

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Greek and Latin Linguistics

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