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Unraveling the Language of Perspective

Final Report Summary - PERSPECTIVE (Unraveling the Language of Perspective)

We always take in a certain perspective since we are located in a specific place and see the world through our own eyes. Small wonder, therefore, that perspective is crucial to the interpretation of language, too. Languages are equipped with a wide variety of linguistic means that involve perspective. Think of words like 'I' and 'you', 'today' and 'yesterday', 'come' and 'go', but also more subtle ones like expressives ('that bastard') and attitudinal particles (German 'doch', 'wohl')). It is these expressions that anchor utterances to their contexts. While perspectival elements are most of the time used from the perspective of the speaker, they can also be used from the perspective of someone else, a possibility that is fully exploited in narratives.

The central aim of the project Unraveling the Language of Perspective is to deepen our understanding of perspective shifts. We focus on attitudinal particles, evaluative expressions, reportative mood marking (subjunctive/optative), and temporal expressions such as tense and aspect. We have a special interest in Ancient Greek, a language with a particularly rich perspective system.

One of the striking things that we found in the PERSPECTIVE project concerns the role of content words in how the Ancient Greek historiographer Thucydides creates the shifts in narrative perspective that he is well-known for. Our quantitative corpus-based approach naturally fits the subtlety of the phenomenon, which is notoriously hard to tackle precisely, especially in a past stage of a language such as Ancient Greek. The basic idea was to single out those passages where Thucydides seems to speak in the narrator's voice, but where he uses expressions that are usually reserved for speeches, that is, contexts in which he reports characters' words. The use of such expressions in narrator text may indicate, or even trigger, a perspective (implicitly) shifted away from the narrator to that of a character in the story. Our methodology (using our memory-based lemmatizer for Ancient Greek among other things) identifies such passages and gives the classical scholar a tool to investigate them. As much as a study on Thucydides, this research provides a proof of concept for a method of addressing narratological questions with the use of quite simple, but powerful quantitative corpus-based techniques. On the one hand we have seen that it may provide substantial objective support to ideas already expressed in narratological literature; on the other hand, it may draw the attention of scholars to words and passages that have previously eluded their analyses. We also hinted at how a study like ours may be used in discussions about different approaches to semantics. At the very least we can point out that semantic theories of narrative perspective, so far predominantly focused on grammatical elements in Free Indirect Discourse, should incorporate the important role of content words and of broader patterns of vocabulary uses in narrative texts.