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Past participles and ambiguity

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Past participles and ambiguity

Postby jfontana » Sun Feb 03, 2013 1:24 pm

Hi there,

This is my first post so if I violate some unwritten norm in this forum, please be lenient.

OK, here is my question. It is pretty simple. I've seen other cases where grammarians impose categories that are adequate for their languages on the languages they study even if they might not be the most appropriate ones for those other languages.

Could this be going on with the so called "perfect passive"? Let me explain myself a bit better. Languages such as English, German or the Romance languages always express the passive by means of an auxiliary plus the past participle. For this reason, the participle is often associated with the passive reading. Aren't we being a bit biased by this when we call expressions like "captus eram" perfect passives?

In English there is a lexical difference between (a) and (b):

a) I was captive
b) I was captured

In other cases, though, there is no distinction between the adjective and the verbal passive participle:

The drawer was closed

This is ambiguous in English between a predicative construction where 'closed' is an adjective: "The drawer was closed for years and nobody dared to open it" or a passive construction where 'closed' is a verbal participle: "The drawer was closed by his father" "The drawer was closed in such a way that it broke".

Is "captus eram" ambiguous in a similar way or does it have to be necessarily interpreted as "I was captured"? What would the proper translation of the equivalent imperfect passive "capiëbar"? In English we can only say "I was captured", right?

My intuition is that we are imposing categories that might work for Romance languages or Germanic languages on Latin to describe the so-called perfect passives. So, when we have:

Captus eram

We really have an adjective (participles would be always adjectives formed out of verbs: deverbal adjectives) rather than a "passive participle" so the default meaning would be "I was captive". We can get interpretations where the state of being "captive" (i.e. "captured") is inferred to be the result of the event described by the verb "to capture" but these would be coerced or pragmatically triggered interpretations.

In modern Spanish it is rather well established that a participial form appearing with the auxiliary verb 'estar' is an adjective. So saying something like the following:

El libro está escrito
the book is written

La poesía está escrita en la pared
the poem is written on the wall

doesn't have an eventive interpretation. That is, we are talking about the "state of being written" without reference to the process of writing. 'escrito' ("written") is interpreted as a property of an object (the book or the poem).

However, in some contexts we can say:

Este libro está escrito por su padre
this book is written by his father

The basic interpretation doesn't change. Here we are saying that the book has the property of being written not that the book has been written. The underlying meaning of 'write' (the verb the adjectival participle is derived from) allows us to relate this object and state to the process that created them. Lexically, however, 'escrito' continues to denote a 'state'.

Is it too crazy to imagine that this is exactly what happens with so-called Latin perfect passive?

If this is a stupid question, don't be afraid to say so. I have a pretty thick skin and I accept I know very little Latin. I really regret not having been intellectually mature enough to have been able to appreciate how interesting this language is when I was an adolescent and was "forced" to take Latin in high school. Now I'm trying to learn Latin but I would be doing much better if I had been open minded and learned it when I was younger.

Thanks in advance for your answers,

JM
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby adrianus » Mon Feb 04, 2013 10:38 pm

The participle is ambiguous as either verbal or adjectival:
Ambiguum est participium quod aut verbum aut adjectivum

captus sum = "I was captured (verbal)"
captus sum = "I am captured/captive (adjectival/a captured person)"

captus eram = "I had been captured (verbal)"
captus eram = "I used to be [a] captive (adjectival)"
I'm writing in Latin hoping for correction, and not because I'm confident in how I express myself. Latinè scribo ut ab omnibus corrigar, non quod confidenter me exprimam.
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby jfontana » Tue Feb 05, 2013 12:06 am

Great! Thanks Adrianus. That's what I suspected.

This quote you cite "Ambiguum est participium quod aut verbum aut adjectivum". Is this your own or is this some "classic/classical" citation?

Josep M
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby Scarlatti » Tue Feb 05, 2013 8:24 pm

Babae! I was just coming here to ask a similar question, overcoming my fear it would sound stupid.

I had thought that the perfect passive participle in tandem with the present tense of "esse," always indicated the perfect passive tense. But it doesn't, does it?

Vulnerati miseri sunt. Can't this be translated three ways?

1) Present tense: The wounded ones are miserable.
2) Also present tense: "The miserable are the wounded ones / those who were wounded," if miseri is taken to be a substantive.
3) Perfect passive tense: "The miserable ones were wounded ( by someone or something )."

Is this correct?
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby adrianus » Tue Feb 05, 2013 8:51 pm

jfontana wrote:This quote you cite "Ambiguum est participium quod aut verbum aut adjectivum". Is this your own or is this some "classic/classical" citation?

It's not a quote. I always do both latin and English here as a way of learning. I make many mistakes here, too.
Non cito. Semper et latinè et anglicè hîc scribo ut melior fiam. Saepe etiam erro.
I'm writing in Latin hoping for correction, and not because I'm confident in how I express myself. Latinè scribo ut ab omnibus corrigar, non quod confidenter me exprimam.
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby adrianus » Tue Feb 05, 2013 8:59 pm

Scarlatti wrote:Vulnerati miseri sunt. Can't this be translated three ways?

1) Present tense: The wounded ones are miserable.
2) Also present tense: "The miserable are the wounded ones / those who were wounded," if miseri is taken to be a substantive.
3) Perfect passive tense: "The miserable ones were wounded ( by someone or something )."

Is this correct?

Yes, I suppose. Also in English "Having been wounded, they are depressed."
Ut dicis, ut opinor.
I'm writing in Latin hoping for correction, and not because I'm confident in how I express myself. Latinè scribo ut ab omnibus corrigar, non quod confidenter me exprimam.
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby jfontana » Tue Feb 12, 2013 8:43 pm

OK, from what I'm seeing here it looks like contemporary grammarians have done exactly what they accused traditional grammarians of doing. In so-called traditional grammars, the rules of classical languages were followed when attempting to describe (or prescribe) English (or other languages), considering that it did not have grammar of its own. And so English followed Latin grammar.

Unless Adrianus, or some other list participant who knows way more Latin than myself, make me blush by pointing out some obvious fact that I'm ignoring, it looks to me that talking about perfect or past passive participle when referring to expressions such as the ones we are discussing (e.g 'captus eram') is nothing else than an imposition of categories from English or other modern Western European languages on Latin. When you read Latin textbooks you often see statements such as:

Participles are verbal adjectives. As adjectives they can modify nouns and pronouns and can sometimes stand alone as substantives. As verbs they can have tense and voice.


Leaving aside present participles, when you look at the description of past participles you see that nothing of this seems to be true. When they say that participles have tense, what they actually mean seems to be (correct me severely if I'm wrong) that they can combine with the verb 'esse' in different tenses. So, they would imply that the participle has past tense in (a) and present tense in (b):

(a) captus eram
(b) captus sum

But really what has tense in these cases is the verb 'esse', not the participle itself! This is tantamount to saying that 'red' has present tense in "the paper is red".

Concerning voice, they say that the participle has passive voice because sentences such as the ones in previous examples (a) and (b) can be interpreted as "I had been captured (by someone)" and "I was captured (by someone)". But where is the passive 'voice'? Surely they don't mean voice morphology. The fact that these sentences can have an interpretation that is equivalent to the passive sentences in English does not mean that these examples exhibit passive verbal morphology. Unlike English, Latin DOES have passive morphology for the present, imperfect and future: cápior, capiḗbar, capiar. ... and then different forms such as cáperis cápitur, cápimur, etc. etc. for each single person and tense! In the so called perfect passive there is really no distinctive passive mark. The so called passive perfect of cápiō is always 'captus' and all that varies is the form of 'esse' for the different persons and tenses. On top of that, each one of the instances with 'esse' plus past participle can be interpreted in more than one way besides the equivalent English passive.

So, it seems that just because we express all passive meanings with the participial form of the verb in languages like English or Spanish, we are saying that (a) or (b) are also passives in Latin. I don't really think this is accurate. The Latin past participle seems to be just the adjectival form of the verb. Because of the meaning of verbs like 'cápiō', the participle 'captus' refers to the state resulting from the action denoted by the verb, and from that you get the inference that someone has done the 'capturing'. But, technically, passive voice it is not.

I'd like to know what you guys think. I know it is hard to do away with years of using a particular term to talk about these participial constructions but, as I said, I think we have fallen into the trap people accuse traditional grammarians of having fallen into. Latin does have a passive voice but these constructions are not its true representatives.

Josep M.
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby jfontana » Tue Feb 12, 2013 10:32 pm

The so called passive perfect of cápiō is always 'captus' and all that varies is the form of 'esse' for the different persons and tenses.


Sorry, I didn't mean to say this. The participial form of cápiō does have different forms for singular and plural (captus and captī) but, still, this is no mark of passive voice.

JM
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby adrianus » Wed Feb 13, 2013 7:57 pm

Et anglicè et latinè ambigua est res. "The dishes are washed [participial adjective] already" + "The dishes are washed [verb form] by me."
I'm writing in Latin hoping for correction, and not because I'm confident in how I express myself. Latinè scribo ut ab omnibus corrigar, non quod confidenter me exprimam.
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby jfontana » Wed Feb 13, 2013 8:20 pm

Yes, that's exactly my point. There is really only one participle both in English and in Latin, as opposed to two different words: one an adjective and the other one a verb. That they are two different words but they happen to sound the same is actually what some grammars tell you. I'm more and more convinced that what happens is that these constructions can be interpreted in different ways depending on the linguistic and extralinguistic context and therefore calling these participles "passive participles" is a bit of a misnomer.

JM
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby adrianus » Thu Feb 14, 2013 8:34 am

Meâ parte hoc dicere soleo: "participium perfectum vel praeteritum."
I personally am used to saying past or perfect participle.
I'm writing in Latin hoping for correction, and not because I'm confident in how I express myself. Latinè scribo ut ab omnibus corrigar, non quod confidenter me exprimam.
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby jfontana » Thu Feb 14, 2013 9:00 am

Sapiens es.
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby Alatius » Tue Feb 19, 2013 11:41 am

jfontana wrote:Unless Adrianus, or some other list participant who knows way more Latin than myself, make me blush by pointing out some obvious fact that I'm ignoring, it looks to me that talking about perfect or past passive participle when referring to expressions such as the ones we are discussing (e.g 'captus eram') is nothing else than an imposition of categories from English or other modern Western European languages on Latin.

I wouldn't put it quite like that. On the contrary, I think it does make sense to distinguish between the participle functioning as an adjective, and the participle forming a part of a periphrastic construction like the past passive, and unless I am mistaken (sorry, no sources) I also believe that the Romans themselves made that distinction. Consider Adriani first reply:
Adrianus wrote:captus sum = "I was captured (verbal)"
captus sum = "I am captured/captive (adjectival/a captured person)"

captus eram = "I had been captured (verbal)"
captus eram = "I used to be [a] captive (adjectival)"

Obviously, the temporal aspect differs depending on the role the participle plays. For example, without telling something untrue, I can use the perfect passive periphrastic construction "captus sum" without currently being captive, something that would not be possible if "captus" is just an adjective. On the contrary, "laetus sum" is of course not true unless I am actually happy right now. Doesn't this contradict your conclusion?

jfontana wrote:When you read Latin textbooks you often see statements such as:

Participles are verbal adjectives. As adjectives they can modify nouns and pronouns and can sometimes stand alone as substantives. As verbs they can have tense and voice.

(Is this an authentic quote?) I don't think the final sentence refers to constructions such as "captus sum", but to the participles themselves. ("As verbs" is a sloppy expression; what I surmise it to mean is rather "They retain these aspects of their verbal origin".) A word such as "captus" is in the past tense and passive voice: "having been captured"; a perfect participle of a deponet verb on the other hand usually retains it active voice: "locutus" = "having said". "Habens" is present active, "habiturus" is future active. (Of course the tense is relative to the surrounding finite verbs, but the same can be said of infinitives.)
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby jfontana » Tue Mar 12, 2013 11:23 pm

Dear Adrianus, Alatius, Scarlatti and whoever else wants to join in,

First of all, Alatius, please accept my apologies for not having answered or at least acknowledged your answer. I just got busy all of a sudden and things started to pile up until I even forgot that I had posted this message.

OK. I have been doing a lot of thinking about participles and passives and I think I have something to say that you might be interested in hearing. I'm going to write a separate post with a detailed answer to Alatius' observations. For now let me just say that, if I am right, what I will tell you about participles and passives might be useful for all of those who are learning Latin or just like to read and translate Latin texts. If I am wrong, ... well, at least we will have had a good time thinking about this wonderful language and using it in creative ways.

I'm sure there are people who have had such an extensive exposure and are so familiar with the language that they've come to have a feel for the language which is like that of native speakers of Latin. These people have such a good grasp of the way Latin works its magic that they can do very well without any explanation. I think, however, that there are some important problems in the way Latin is described and taught that might be hampering (and have hapered in the past) the efforts of new learners who try to get their minds wrapped around this language.

Here we all go by simple names (some with the names of their Roman alter egos) and we don't know much about each other. Let me first tell you a little bit about me so that you can see where I'm coming from and why I'm interested in all this.

OK, so I'm currently teaching at a university and my main research focus is language change and variation (a more "modern" name for what used to be called 'historical linguistics'). I've worked mainly on the evolution of the syntax of Romance languages (mainly Spanish) and now I'm working on an article about adjectives in medieval Catalan. This is how I started looking into Latin participles.

When you get into the study of languages (and Language in general) as a linguist one of the first things you have to do is distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive approaches. I'm not saying that linguists don't care about how to speak and write "properly". What I'm saying is that this might be something they do as educated citizens. As linguists, they are interested in finding out how language works; how it is learned; how it changes; how it can be taught more efficiently and many other things that people don't usually know they do. Basically modern linguistics (some say since Saussure but you could say the Neogrammarians and others before already had this kind of approach) is about the study of language from a scientific perspective. The meaning of 'scientific' can differ widely according to who you talk to and there is certainly a lot of modern "linguistics" that is very "unscientific". For me, being a linguist is about keeping an open mind and not let yourself be hindered by preconceptions or established notions when you are trying to understand how languages work. That means that one must have a healthy skepticism about what teachers and other "authorities" say about specific languages. Not because they are necessarily wrong but simply because, at least with respect to languages, so many teachers and grammarians (and linguists) have been wrong so many times that it is a good policy to take everything with a grain of salt until you are convinced that what they say makes sense and can be substantiated by empirical examination. The thing is, the more I look at Latin, the more I think the way certain aspects of its grammar are described don't make any sense at all. One of them is the notion of 'perfect passive'. This might sound crazy to you because the existence of this 'category' is supposed to be a self-evident truth.

There are a lot of things that have to do with 'grammar' that most people believe without questioning but which are patently absurd. Most, if not all, notions in grammar are constructs created by humans rather than pre-existing essential objects and this is certainly the case with the category 'perfect passive' in Latin. Certainly, as with the rest of concepts and categories, if it is useful, then we should continue to use it. This might surprise some of you, but not all the categories and constructs that grammarians have created are useful even if we have been using them for ages.

To give you a little example of "problematic" categories in grammar, try to think about what an adverb is and then tell me what the words 'very', 'fast', 'perhaps', 'knowingly', 'even' and 'nevertheless' have in common. Since I want to get to the issue of participles, I'll give you a quick answer: they have very little in common with each other and they certainly don't form a natural class; not from a morphological point of view, not from a syntactic point of view and certainly not from a semantic point of view. Why then are they called 'adverbs'? I don't really know the answer because I don't know what the first people who started to apply this label seriously to describe languages had in mind but the most likely reason is that they came up with this category so that they could classify all the words that didn't fit well in other categories such as verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc. This is the best they could come up with, I guess, and the following generations of grammarians took it for granted that this category "existed" or were not able to think of a better solution.

The story with participles is perhaps similar. There are in fact a lot of doubts as to how to analyze them even in current linguistic frameworks. There are quite a few recent papers and dissertations that question the standard views on the nature of these beasts and the issue never seems to die out.

I am now coming to think that probably Latin participles and the way grammarians have traditionally described them are a big part of the explanation for these confusions.

I see this has turned into a longer post than I had planned and it is getting late. Tomorrow I'll try to justify my criticism of the standard view about Latin participles and passives. Even if you just enjoy reading, speaking and translating Latin, I think this might make you think a little differently about this part of Latin. In fact, I will really appreciate it if you can prove me wrong by "showing off" some of your (much better than mine) linguistic skills with Latin. If you enjoy using Latin and thinking about Latin, this could be fun.

Valete,

JM
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby jfontana » Wed Mar 13, 2013 10:32 am

I still have to write the justification I promised for my "wild claims" about the problems with traditional views of perfect passives in Latin but I think this might be a good introduction. This is something I just found this morning when I was trying to find information about deponents and middle voice in Greek.
Part of my argumentation against the way the "perfect passives" and the "passive voice" in general have been traditionally analyzed is related to another sticky area in the grammatical descriptions of Latin: the so-called deponent verbs. When I examined the kinds of verbs that were supposed to have "perfect passive morphology" in Latin, I realized that most of them were the types of verbs that are associated to different kinds of verb meanings that have one thing in common: the low degree of "agentivity" of their subjects. These are categories such as 'middle voice', 'middle passives', unaccusatives, psychological verbs....

Since Latin and Greek are Indo-European languages and are supposed to have common ancestors, there was something that picked my curiosity: Ancient Greek also had deponent verbs but these verbs instead of having only passive morphology like Latin could have an additional type of morphology: middle voice. Since Latin doesn't have this category, my prediction was that most of the verbs that were middle voice deponents would be "passive" deponents in Latin.

OK, here is just a little excerpt of one of the first articles that showed up in a search with the terms 'deponent verbs' Greek 'middle voice':
New Observations on Voice in the Ancient Greek Verb
November 19, 2002
Carl W. Conrad
Associate Professor Emeritus of Classics, Washington University in St. Louis


[...]1.2. Introductory remarks: In 1997 I formulated and published on the B-Greek internet discussion list some concerns regarding what seemed to me misleading and confusing ways of teaching Greek verb voice.
Terminology and assumptions either implicit in the teaching or openly taught to students learning Greek seem to me to make understanding voice in the ancient Greek verb more difficult than it need be. In particular I believe that the meanings conveyed by the morphoparadigms for voice depend to a great extent upon understanding the distinctive force of the middle voice, that the passive sense is not inherent in the verb form but determined by usage in context, and that the conception of deponency is fundamentally wrong-headed and detrimental to understanding the phenomenon of “voice” in ancient Greek.


It seems that once again we have a confirmation of the well known principle that says that "everything has been said before". For me, seeing that someone who *really* knows a classical language such as Greek has arrived at conclusions that basically coincide with my suspicions about "the wrong-headed and detrimental to understanding of the phenomenon of 'voice' in Latin" is both a sign of hope and a great honor :-)

JM
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby Qimmik » Thu Mar 21, 2013 3:13 am

I'm not sure I quite follow you. Captus is a participle and it's passive in the sense that the noun it agrees with is the patient, not the agent. The periphrastic form captus est is passive: as a passive form, it corresponds in tense (past) and aspect (punctual) to the active perfect cepi. Captus is declined like an adjective, but even when used absolutely, i.e. not as part of a periphrastic perfect, it has relative tense, in the sense that it's anterior to the main verb, just as the future active participle capturus is posterior to the main verb and the present active participle capiens is simultaneous with the main verb. There's also a noun captiuus, which is translated "captive," so that captus wouldn't ordinarily be used to mean "captive."

And I don't see the relevance of or really understand the quotation about Greek middle deponent verbs. Many Greek verbs which are active in the present tense have a future that is middle (with the idea of intention, a kind of middle concept). Greek only has strictly passive forms (as opposed to medio-passive forms) in the aorist, future and pluperfect tenses. Most Greek deponents have a middle meaning--the subject is acting in its own interest, or on its own behalf, or on itself in some way.
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Re: Past participles and ambiguity

Postby Qimmik » Thu Mar 21, 2013 12:49 pm

Maybe this will make things clearer. If you were to describe a succession of three punctual events in Latin, you might write this: ueni, uidi, captus sum. I came, I saw, I was captured. Two of these verb forms are active and synthetic; one is passive and periphrastic. I don't see a problem with describing the third, periphrastic form as a perfect tense/aspect, just as the first two, synthetic, forms meet that description in the system of Latin verbal tense and aspect. However, I'm still not sure how you would analyze captus sum in a way that's different from the traditional analysis.

I understand the point about how alien analyses have been imposed on some languages. In fact, an argument has been made that in English the traditional Latin-derived categories of present participle and gerund, which are identical in form, should really be viewed as a single category. But I don't see how the traditional analysis of the periphrastic Latin perfect is wrong. It fills an otherwise unoccupied slot in Latin verbal morphology, i.e., the slot filled on the active side by the synthetic perfect.
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