The Pragmatics of Voice in a Late Seventeenth-Century Old Believer Text

Christine Wilson, University of California, Los Angeles

This paper examines the pragmatics of voice in a late seventeenth-century Russian Old Believer text: “Povest′ o Bojaryne Morozovoj: Prostrannaja redakcija,” or PBM. The goal of the paper is to demonstrate the role of voice in the creation of a complex narrative structure in a text of this period. The paper also provides evidence that, despite the rapidly changing and often confusing linguistic situation in the seventeenth century, systematic linguistic means of creating structural coherence in a narrative were available to be exploited in accordance with the communicative goals of the author.

The present report is based on a study of 465 semantically transitive events in the PBM. Any verb that subcategorizes for a nominative subject and accusative object is included in the study. A database has been created, detailing for each verb clause in the data set: the identity of the participants; the NP type of the participants; the case of the participants; the type of voice construction; the status of the clause as episode internal, final or medial; the semantic content of the verb and the transitivity status of the clause (based on the scalar notion of Transitivity presented by Hopper and Thompson). The results of the data analysis indicate a highly systematic pragmatic usage of voice in the PBM especially in the structuring of the narrative.

The report considers three related areas of voice and discourse:

1) The use of passive and null-subject third person plural constructions to create a participant hierarchy in the text.

2) The role of the passive in the secondary and peripheral narratives in the text.

3) The function of the peripheral narratives.

The results of the study show a high correlation between the identity of the participants in the narrative and the type of voice construction with which they will be associated. The distribution of active, passive and null-subject third person plural constructions establishes a participant hierarchy in the PBM, in which certain participants or groups of participants are more likely to be associated with agentive qualities or to be promoted to subjecthood, while other participants are routinely demoted through passivization or impersonalization. In addition, voice has a related role in establishing the primary, secondary and peripheral narratives in the text. The use of the active voice and null-subject third person plural forms have a strong association with foregrounded discourse, while the passive is clearly a backgrounding device employed in both the secondary and peripheral narratives (though in different ways). (See Grimes 1975, Hopper 1977, Hopper and Thompson 1980, etc. on grounding). The paper concludes with a discussion of the function of the peripheral episodes in the PBM as “evaluation” (Labov, 1975) of the event in the primary narrative.