Review of Constituent Order in Classical Latin Prose
AUTHOR: Olga Spevak
TITLE: Constituent Order in Classical Latin Prose
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Language Companion Series 117
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Dr Joseph Reisdoerfer, Professeur à l'Athénée, Professeur associé à l’Université
This book on constituent order in Classical Latin prose by Olga Spevak (OS)
comes from a 2006 habilitation supervised by Professor Michèle Fruyt (University
of Paris IV Sorbonne). The volume is characterized by clarity in structure and
formulation of ideas.
The book is divided into eight parts: an introduction, six chapters on word
order in Classical Latin prose, and a conclusion.
The introduction (pp. 1-12) sketches different approaches to Latin word order:
the traditional approach, related to comparative grammar; the typological
approach based on research done by Greenberg (1966) -- Latin is characterized by
a basic SOV order; the generative approach adopted by Devine and Stephens
(2006); and finally, the pragmatic approaches illustrated by Panhuis (1982)
based on Firbas (1992) and especially by Dik (1997) -- Functional Grammar. The
last distinguishes between two main pragmatic functions, topic, 'what is being
talked about' (pp. 6-7) and focus (pp. 7-8), the ''salient, or most informative,
element of a sentence'' (pp. 7-8).
Starting from a pragmatic framework the author provides a systematic description
of constituent order in Classical Latin prose highlighting the information (i.e.
the pragmatic value) contained in a sentence (pp. 1, 11-12, 27). The study is
based on different corpora (as discussed below).
The first chapter (pp. 13-26) deals with freedom of and constraints on Latin
constituent order. It focuses, for example, on the position of subordinators --
often first position -- or enclitics, as in Lat. enim, autem, vero, which are
found in second position.
In the second chapter (pp. 27-114), the author details the key concepts of her
1. topic, 'what is being talked about', often found in first position in a
sentence (pp. 28-31; on different kinds of topics, cf. pp. 56-73);
2. the focus, the salient, or most informative element of a sentence (pp. 39-56);
3. situational and contextual dependency, a notion borrowed from Firbas (1992)
and Panhuis (1982); according to Spevak p. 32 ''a constituent is dependent if it
is inferable from the discourse situation or is mentioned in the preceding
4. placement of pronouns (pp. 73-96);
5. ellipsis (pp. 96-106), which usually affects elements without pragmatic function;
6. theme constituents which specify an entity on which relevant information will
be given in the subsequent clause, e.g. *That guy*, is he a friend of yours?
7. tail constituents which stand at the end of a clause and add some information
to elements of the clause or to the whole content of the clause, as I didn't
like it very much, *that book of yours* (pp. 111-114).
The third chapter (pp. 115-193) analyses verb position and its mandatory
arguments in declarative sentences. It is arranged around different verb
valencies: bivalent transitive verbs and trivalent verbs.
OS makes many stimulating observations; but a particular pragmatic value doesn't
seem to be attached to a given structure (e.g., p. 125) and no general rules
emerge from the cases studies. It is, however, noteworthy that the verb is often
found at the end of a sentence.
The fourth chapter discusses different types of interrogative sentences: word
questions, sentence questions and disjunctive questions (pp. 195-204). This time
the author formulates a set of clear position rules: questions words are
generally found in initial position; interrogative particles (Lat. ne, num,
nonne) usually occupy initial position, Lat. an always does; sentence-questions
without interrogative particles present three structures: initial position may
be held by the verb which represents the focus, by a contrastive element or an
emphatic word such as Lat. tantus.
In chapter five (pp. 205-222), OS examines imperative sentences. She qualifies
the commonly accepted theory of sentence-initial position of imperatives by
observing that topic constituents may occupy this position (p. 221).
The last chapter is devoted to noun phrases (pp. 223-281). OS examines among
others the placement of a series of modifiers such as adjectives,
demonstratives, indefinites, genitive complements; the last section deals with
the discontinuity of noun phrases, the hyperbaton.
In her conclusion (pp. 280-281), the author observes that in a neutral context
adjectives are found after the head noun, whereas determiners are usually placed
before it. Noun phrases which function as topics often have pre-nominal
adjectives and determiners. Genitive complements expressing contextually given
information are in pre-nominal position, whereas those providing new information
are usually placed post nomen.
A general conclusion (pp. 283-285), a bibliography (pp. 287-297), locorum and
rerum indices (pp. 299-301) and an appendix (pp. 305-318) presenting three texts
commented on from a pragmatic perspective conclude the book.
My overall impression of this volume is quite positive. The very complexity of
the subject does of course leave room for discussion or may explain certain
The most disappointing pages in my view are those devoted to declarative
sentences (pp. 115-193). The conclusions often remain too general and vague as
e.g. on page 159: “To sum up … the placement of verbs of thinking before or
after the AcI clause they govern is difficult to explain. In a more general way,
there is a tendency for postposition of the verb, even if it does not have Focus
function. … More detailed research in the domain of complex sentences needs to
be done in order to formulate more nuanced conclusions.” (see also pp. 125, 144,
160 ...). The author sometimes makes interesting remarks or gives an accurate
and fine description of some particular points (the study of the Lat. verb
mitto, to send, pp. 132-141), but she never succeeds in identifying the general
principles that underlie the system: “I will not … try to determine the
so-called 'basic order' of the Latin sentence, for it is difficult – indeed
impossible – to reduce the complex facts to a simple formula. … My aim is to
describe which pragmatic values correspond to the syntactic patterns one finds.
In fact, there is no one-to-one correspondence between syntactic patterns and
pragmatic values; …” (pp. 115-116). The pragmatic approach, focusing too much on
the text, on parole and not on langue, may show its limits here. A mixed
approach, based not only on pragmatics but also on typological considerations
(Greenberg 1966; Adams 1976), as it has been successfully applied in a study by
Brigitte L. Bauer (2009), would probably have yielded more satisfying results.
The use of linguistic corpora is also problematic. The author bases her study on
four corpora: Corpus 1 (Cicero, Caesar, Sallust) and 2 (same authors, for
details, cf. pp. 12, 287) compiled by the author herself, along with two
external corpora, the BTL 1 and the LASLA corpus of the University of Liège,
Belgium (http://www.cipl.ulg.ac.be/Lasla/descriptionop.html). Corpora 1 and 2
are limited (84,000 and 92,010 words) and heterogeneous. For Cicero, e.g., we
have the language of philosophical treatises, of orations, but also of letters,
which is often closer to spoken Latin. These corpora are not adequately
described: what editions were the texts taken from, why were those texts chosen
and others excluded, what software was used to compile, manage and investigate
the corpora, etc.?
A consistent implementation of protocols governing corpus building would have
enabled the author not only to refine but also to differentiate the results from
the point of view of literary genre -- does the formal language of philosophical
treatises display a different word order than the informal language of private
letters? -- and, most importantly, time, -- does the word order of the Classical
Latin written by Cicero and Caesar remain the same in the postclassical language
of Seneca the Philosopher and Pliny the Younger ?
These criticisms, however, do not detract from the overall quality of this
study. I mentioned at the outset the clarity of structure and formulation of
ideas found here, e.g. in chapter four (pp. 195-204) dealing with interrogative
sentences. OS's approach, which insightfully combines a modern methodology,
pragmatics, and traditional linguistic-philological scrutiny, makes the volume
original. The author tackles a word order problem by compiling a corpus of
sentences analyzed in a statistical table; structures and figures recorded in
the table are interpreted from a pragmatic perspective and these interpretations
are explained and illustrated by a set of examples judiciously selected and well
annotated. The pages devoted to the placement of juxtaposed attributive
adjectives (pp. 229-237) are a perfect example of this procedure.
Dr. Spevak has written a readable and well-structured book on a challenging
subject. It would be interesting to complement the pragmatic approach by the
inclusion of diachronic and typological considerations. The author of
Constituent Order in Classical Latin Prose is well equipped to undertake this
broader research agenda.
Adams, James Noel. 1976. A typological approach to Latin word order.
Indogermanische Forschungen 81: 70-100.
Bauer, Brigitte, L.M. 2009. Word Order. In: Baldi, Philip, and Pierluigi
Cuzzolin. New Perspectives on Historical Latin Syntax. Berlin: Mouton de
Gruyter, 2009, 241-316.
Devine, A. M., and Laurence D. Stephens. 2006. Latin word order: structured
meaning and information. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Rec. by E. Torrego in
Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.09.33
<http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2006/2006-09-33.html>, O. Spevak in Mnemosyne 60
(2007) 497-501 and A. Mahoney in Versification 5 (2010) 39-45
Dik, Simon C., and Kees Hengeveld. 1997. The theory of functional grammar. 2
vols. 2nd revised edition. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Firbas, Jan. 1992. Functional sentence perspective in written and spoken
communication. Studies in English language. Cambridge. Cambridge University
Press. (The book is a synthesis of the author’s previous work.)
Greenberg, Joseph H. 19662. Some universals of grammar with particular reference
to the order of meaningful elements. In : Universals of Language, Joseph H.
Greenberg (edit) 73-113. Cambridge MA : MIT ; on line (19631) :
Panhuis, Dirk G. J. 1982. The communicative perspective in the sentence: a study
of Latin word order. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins.
Spevak, Olga. 2010. Constituent Order in Classical Latin Prose. Amsterdam: J.
Benjamins Publ. Co. (Link LC : http://lccn.loc.gov/2009048325; Link Google
Rec. by J. G. F. Powell in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.30 <
http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2011/2011-06-30.html> and R. Hoffmann in Gymnasium 118
/ 2 / 2011, 192-194)
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Joseph Reisdoerfer studied Classics and French in Heidelberg, Angers Reims,
Nancy, and Paris and holds doctorates in French literature (Nancy 2),
linguistics (Nancy 2) and Latin (Paris X Nanterre). He teaches Latin and
French at the Athénée grand-ducal in Luxembourg and at the Université du