Scribe, ut possis cum voles dicere: dices cum velle debebis (Pl. Ep. 6.29)

Monday, February 06, 2006

Fabio, part 3

So, are you curious to know what that Italian syntax paper was about? It was about defining borderlines between different kinds of narratives. "Narrative" is a fancy name for "story". Here's what it means: In any given story we can see that the storyteller - especially if it's in first-person, like in this case - sometimes tells about a character's thoughts ("She was in a bad mood and wondered what happened"), sometimes about actual physical happenings ("He went to buy groceries and crossed the street"), sometimes about dialogues ("He said that he loves her and she replied that she did too") etc. Now - anyone who understands the language can identify different kinds of narratives and most people don't care about the big difference between them - they just care about the plot. Question is - are these different types of narrative marked by different grammar? And where is the line between a dialogue and a happening, for example? That's where linguistic analysis comes in. Not literary analysis - it deals more with style, metaphors etc., but there is a certain connection.

So i tried to find those borderlines in that Italian book. I analyzed the first chapter - it's especially interesting as it is the introduction to the whole book, the exposition. Francesco, the protagonist, who's also the story-teller, introduces himself, tells about his life, his family, his thoughts about writing, bits of his life philosophy, a dream he had once, and a visit to the doctor. He jumps back and forth from theme to theme quite wildly, which is, of course great material for analysis.

Here's the most interesting excerpt, the one that my professor loved the most:

Quella notte ho sognato mia nonna. A parte i primi giorni dopo la sua morte, non l'avevo più sognata.

That night I dreamt about my grandma. Except for a few days after her death, I haven't dreamt about here any more.

Ero davanti una porta, bussavo e qualcuno mi apriva. Entravo con le valigie in mano. [...]

I was in front of a door, I knocked and someone opened for me. I entered with suitcases in my hand. [...]

Mia nonna mi diceva: "Sono contenta che mi vieni a trovare [...] e ho preparato la stanza." [...]

My grandma told me: "I am happy that you come to find me [...] and I prepared a room." [...]

Io non ci volevo andare a vivere da mia nonna [...]

I didn't want to go to live with my grandma [...]

"Non ci voglio venire a vivere da te, nonna, mi piace la mia casa. [...] Come, non ho mai avuto una casa? Ho anche comprato il frigo nuovo. Blu."

"I don't want to come to live with you, grandma, I like my home. [...] Like, didn't I ever have a home? I also bought a new fridge. Blue."

Lei ha iniziato a ridere e poi mi ha detto: "... Credi che ti possa salvare un frigorifero? Ah ah ah".

She started to laugh and then she told me: "... Do you believe that a fridge would be able to save you? Ha ha ha".

In quel sogno cominciava a diventarmi antipatica.

In that dream she started to become antipathic.

Strano, però.

Strange, however.

Avevo sempre avuto un bel rapporto con mia nonna. [...]

I had always had good relationship with my grandma.

Notice the emphasized verbs. In Italian all the verbs that describe the happenings in the dream are in a tense called Imperfetto - not including the direct speech in quotes, but direct speech is a different kind of narrative. Imperfetto is described in grammar books as the tense that's supposed to tell about incomplete or continuous actions (was doing) as opposed to Passato prossimo which is used with an auxiliary verb and describes completed short actions (did). Now, Linguistics teaches us that this definition is primitive bollocks, and the text above is a proof. Entering the door, as in the example above, is a completed short action, but an exact translation would be "I was entering"; the same goes for most of the other verbs here. The only exception is the last thing that the grandma says; notice that it looks the same as in the beginning: Grandma/She + verb + : + opening quotes + direct speech + closing quotes. But in the beginning there's dicevo and in the end it's ha detto - it's the same verb, dire, to tell, in Imperfetto and in Passato prossimo.

Now the explanation is that in Italian - and, as my professor says, in many other languages - Imperfetto is the prefered tense for describing dreams and the usage of Passato prossimo marks the end of the dream. My professor accepts it ... He even said, "This is so beautiful." I suppose that he referred to this Italian idea of tense usage, not directly to my paper. But go figure. Some people are easy to impress if you press the right buttons...


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