Friday, April 6, 2007

Verbs of vague application 2

Wright concludes the chapter as follows:

§8: 18. Since the differentiation between a verb of specific application and one of vague application very often resides simply in a difference of short vowels, the beginner reading unvocalized material will often face a problem in deciding which is intended. Here again (as with the case of the ambiguity over the status of a prepositional phrase mentioned in §2: 11) the overall structure of the sentence is the deciding factor. When a verb is of such a nature that it implies the participation of two entities, then it can only have a specific application if either the sentence itself or the context in which it is placed mentions two entities: if mention is made of only one, then the reader must assume that the other entity is unmentioned and that the veb is a form of vague application. Take the following example:

قتل بعضهم اللُصُوص الذين هجموا على القَرْية فى تلك اللَيْلة

mentions two entities, and the verb is therefore of specific application, and the sentence is capable (according to contextual likelihood) of standing for either 'the robbers who attacked the village on that night killed some of them' or 'some of them killed the robbers who attacked the village on that night'; but if قتل بعضهم is a complete sentence, then it may represent 'he killed some of them' provided that the context suggests the participation of a previously mentioned 'he' in the action, but if this is not so then the verb must be assumed to be of vague application, and the statement represents 'some of them were killed'.


Alexander Ostroff said...

If the verb is of specific application due to the mention of two entities, why is there ambiguity with regards to whether the robbers or "some of them" are the actors in question? Is "some of them" a specific designation as well, rather than an example of the mysterious, unmentioned actor?

The prospect of tackling the intricacies of Arabic grammar in the new novel sounds intriguing. Sorry to hear that you found the Wright book too late, but it's a joy to discover that the book has been sent out (to publishing companies? printers? local FBI agents?)

Helen DeWitt said...

Yes, 'some of them' counts as a specific entity. If the sentence were vocalized we would know whether 'some' was in the nominative or accusative, and we would also know whether 'the thieves' was in the nominative or accusative, but instead we wander in a Borgesian fog.

My agent has sent the book to three editors. Whether they will see it as their patriotic duty to enlighten the FBI remains to be seen.

Unknown said...

As an introductory student of Arabic, I have been taught (possibly at great injustice to the language) this concept as a passive voice construction. While I would greatly enjoy hearing about how both Al-Kitab and Ahlan wa Sahlan are wrong, I am having trouble coming up with any examples where this is not the case, other than in seemingly idiomatic phrases. Is "verb of vague application" another term for the passive voice, or is there more nuance here than I am grasping?

Anonymous said...

I was delighted to come across this entry from a very enthusiastic review of The Last Samurai by Jenny Turner.

I suspect Mr wright is simply toying with potential ambiguities to "pad out" his oeuvre to meet publishing requirements. ("Padding" being a notorious compositional element in Arabic writing). Anybody writing or publishing this sentence would simply vowelise the final ص of the robbers in order to clarify whether they were the killers or the killed.

(there's a typo in the sentence as well, it should read هجموا not هجمول)

This is not something speakers or even students of Arabic lose sleep over, any more than ambiguities in any other language.

Helen DeWitt said...

CMS, thanks for pointing out typo, my index fingers get alif and lal mixed up sometimes.