Indirect Discourse

by William Harris
(the text is published with the permission of the author)


The next important topic which we should discuss is something traditionally called Indirect Discourse, which may sound very odd, perhaps something like "Evasive Speech". In briefest definition, when you think or say something in the Latin language, and go on to tell about that subject, what is related is put into a special structure, in which the subject of that quoted statement is in the object case, the verb is an infinitive, and the object if there is one is in the object case also. This sounds impossibly confusing, so let's go back over it again:

When I think or say or think something, and tell what I thought to someone else, that is not in the same class of reality as a Fact. This structure of Indirect Discourse, which is nothing more than quoted quotation, or something someone is said to have said or thought, distinguishes between Fact and Hearsay, a distinction which is still of prime importance in our present legal proceedings.

But in Latin I can make a direct quotation too, such as:
Dicit, non ibo "He say, I will not go".

That is simple statement of fact, actually Direct Discourse,and not like what we are just talking about here, so it does not come within the grammatical purview of Indirect Discourse.

In our indirect quotation structure, we can see it this way:

Dicit se non abire "he says that he (himself, as signified by the se) isn't going away"

Dicit eum non abire "he says that he (another one) is not going away.

And naturally we can change tenses:
Dicit eum non abisse "he says that he (the other one) did not go away". And all reasonable substitutions of persons and tenses can be made.

The single most incomprehensible things about Indirect Discourse, which we are defining as the "The Quoted Quote", it that the subjects AND the object of this formula are both in the Accusative /Object case, e.g.:

"Dixit iudici Marcum Julium occidisse "He told the judge that Marcus had killed Julius, or conversely Julius had killed Marcus."
Don't be fooled into the first interpretation by your English word order, in Latin there is no way to tell. (Oracles used this for centuries in prophecy, for obvious reasons....Horace even uses it in one of his Satires humorously.)

In quoted thought or speech coded information in Latin, we strip away a great deal of the detail of the stated material intentionally...failing to distinguish subject and object, reducing the huge inventory of verb forms to a mere infinitive with basically only present and past forms. And why do we go to all this trouble? Because, as the legally minded Roman knew even before be began creating the framework of the legal system of the Republic, there is a world of difference between a fact and a stated opinion of that fact. And the Roman insisted on noting that discrepancy in the structure of his language.

In English we also use a "that.... " clause after verbs of saying and thinking, and it is typical that English speakers have difficulty separating fact from thought. "The New York Times says THAT a humanoid primate was recently discovered alive in a remote mountain district of China... ". We are left with one clue word to mark the indirectness of the quotation:"that", but the sentence has a factual ring to it to trick the unwary. Latin would have clipped the whole quoted clause down to bare essentials:

"It is reported monkey like animals American scientists to have been discovered.. in remote China". You could never confuse this with a statement of real fact, which is precisely what the moulders of the Latin language wanted to convey. But on the other hand you have lost the distinction between the subject and the object. You assume the report says that American scientists have discovered monkeys, but it could equally well be the monkeys which have discovered American scientists. (Common sense prevails, of course.)

Reading this construction, you cannot translate word for word, intelligibility demands that you fill something in and construct a subclause, for English usage. The subject of the indirect clause is not the subject of the original sentence unless specifically stated. Subject and object are both In the object case, which means that only common-sense can differentiate, and that is often about as helpful as intuition in the Paris subway system. The ancients used this structure In both Greek and Latin to make oracular reponses, which were always found to be one hundred percent correct, since they can be read in both directions. (Palindromes like "madam i m adam" off the same possibilities.)

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