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DiSCIS: A new sociolinguistic and pragmatic corpus of Plautus’ comedies

DiSCIS: un nouveau corpus sociolinguistique et pragmatique des comédies de Plaute
Chiara Fedriani
p. 219-228


This paper illustrates the crucial methodological bases for designing a corpus based on the Plautine comedies and offers some preliminary analyses and results. After a brief presentation of the tagset, I turn to the data and results of a preliminary analysis, clearly resting upon a corpus-based methodology. The case study presented here concerns the sociolinguistic distribution of Greek in the Plautine corpus. The corpus-based approach taken in this paper confirms earlier results found in the relevant literature, but also highlights some interesting exceptions to the tendencies observed, which will be discussed in detail.

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Author's notes

This paper was written as part of the National Project Linguistic representations of identity. Sociolinguistic models and historical linguistics coordinated by Piera Molinelli at the University of Bergamo (PRIN 2010, prot. 2010 HXPFF2_001). I would like to thank Pierluigi Cuzzolin, Piera Molinelli, Olga Spevak, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments on previous versions of this article. Usual disclaimers apply.

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1. Introduction

1In this paper I will introduce the structure of the DiSCIS corpus (a Diachronic Socio-pragmatic Corpus of Imaginary Speech), which is annotated (and therefore searchable) according to both sociolinguistic features and pragmatic parameters, by illustrating its theoretical background, its aims, the tagset I have developed in order to annotate the texts it comprises, and the type of searches that it enables.

  • 2 Cf. recent studies collected in Suhr and Taavitsainen, 2012; Taavitsainen et al., 2014.

2The idea behind the construction of this corpus rests on the fact that historical corpora designed to explore and describe systematically patterns of diachronic, diastratic, diatopic, and diaphasic variation are available above all for English. They have been primarily worked out by the so-called “School of Helsinki”:2 as examples, one can cite the Corpus of Early English Correspondence (Raumolin-Brunberg and Nevalainen, 2007), which collects letters that have been selected on the basis of sociolinguistic parameters, and A Corpus of English Dialogues 1560-1760 (Culpeper and Kytö, 2010), which provides information on the gender and social class of characters. Such electronic resources, however, have hitherto been lacking for Latin, a language for which the available corpora mostly provide morphological and syntactic information (e.g. the LASLA Opera Latina Corpus, the Latin Valency Lexicon, the Latin Dependency Treebank), lexical and semantic descriptions (Latin Wordnet), or concern information structure (the PROIEL Corpus); the interested reader can find an updated synopsis in McGillivray (2014). Crucially, however, the coding of sociolinguistic and pragmatic features, which cannot be identified automatically and thus require manual annotation, has generally been neglected in electronic tools developed for Latin. Therefore, the primary objective of the DiSCIS corpus is to engineer a device that provides information about pragmatic and sociolinguistic aspects with regard to Latin.

  • 3 See further Molinelli, 2008; Cuzzolin and Haverling, 2009, p. 38.

3Searching for patterns of sociolinguistic variation within a historical perspective means, first of all, selecting texts representative of varieties that deviate from the standard language. As Kytö (2010, p. 56) has written on this point: “As regards compiling new electronic materials for the purposes of historical pragmatic studies, the desiderata include the creation of more resources that contain everyday or colloquial or non-standard language, language of so far under-represented groups such as women, lower ranks and illiterate or uneducated speakers, dialectal usage and regional varieties.” With an ancient language like Latin, comedies constitute a key textual genre when gathering this kind of representative data. Comedies are literary texts subject to the influence of specific models, norms and traditions, which however contain dialogic mimetic data – what Culpeper and Kytö (2000) call constructed imaginary speech.3 In other words, comedies tend to mirror appropriate linguistic uses, aligned with the social characteristics of speakers and the realistic linguistic behaviour of the historical period that is being represented and therefore constitute a relevant starting point to explore linguistic patterns that are likely to reflect or at least approximate those found in contemporary spoken varieties. Of course, a word of caution is always necessary when speaking of written texts as plausible records of spoken varieties, since they are intrinsically influenced by literary models and metrical constraints; but this should not stop us from attempting some interesting observations.

4The remainder of this paper is organized as follows: in Section 2 I illustrate the tagset I have designed for the purpose of annotating sociolinguistic and pragmatic features. Section 3 broadens the scope of the discussion, extending it to a case study I have carried out in order to show possible correlations between the parameters that can be searched for in the corpus. Section 4 concludes with a summary of the issues discussed in this paper.

2. The DiSCIS corpus and its tagset

5The DiSCIS corpus currently comprises eight Plautine comedies, namely Amphitruo, Asinaria, Bacchides, Casina, Epidicus, Menaechmi, Pseudolus, and Stichus, amounting to a total of 82,783 tokens – i.e. the number of words. Texts are based on Lindsay’s 1904 editions. Although the School of Bologna is publishing a new updated version of Plautus’ work, it is not yet available in electronic format, whereas the edition provided by Lindsay is. I have selected the texts digitized with rich information on the textual tradition and codicological variants by the philologists working at the Musisque deoque Project, a digital archive of Latin poetry.

6One of the central issues when designing a purpose-built corpus is to define an adequate tagset capable of capturing the linguistic features one aims to render searchable. This is why, after lemmatization and part-of-speech tagging, which are automatic processes, I created a system of xml tags in order to manually annotate sociolinguistic traits and pragmatic phenomena. These are categorized at four distinct levels of analysis, namely Discourse level, Speech Act level, Sociolinguistic level, and the level of Contact phenomena. Let us look at them in detail.

7The most important category at the Discourse level is constituted by Adjacent Subacts (in the terminology of Pons Bordería, 2014), that is, non-propositional expressions that can be attached to acts and have functional and procedural meaning. Typically, though not always, these are discourse and pragmatic markers, and have three main distinct functions: interpersonal, textual, and modal.

8Interpersonal Subacts serve to modulate and express social cohesion between interlocutors and include those linguistic elements that index their social relationship and their social identities (see further Ghezzi and Molinelli, 2014). The politeness marker amabo in (1) can function as an example here, since arguably it does not carry its original lexical meaning ‘I shall love (you)’ in this context but constitutes a pragmaticalized courtesy formula used to soften a request:


De palla memento, amabo. (Plaut. Asin. 939)
‘Remember about the cloak,

9Textual Subacts index textual coherence and cohesion and display a range of related functions, such as discourse planning, discourse managing, and discourse organization. In (2), sed quid ais plays a crucial role in managing turn alternation, since it works as a floor-yielding device triggering an other-initiated turn (quid vis?). This interaction-managing function is strengthened by a follow-up request, dic mihi quod te rogo, which similarly prompts a direct involvement of the addressee, who is called upon to take the floor.


MED.: Sed quid ais, Menaechme?
Quid vis?
Dic mihi quod te rogo: album an atrum vinum potas? (Plaut. Men. 914)
But what do you say, Menaechmus? – What do you want? – Tell me what I ask you: do you drink white wine or red?’

10Modal Subacts, in turn, express the speaker’s stance, that is, his subjective attitude towards the interlocutor or towards the conveyed content. The conditional clause nisi me animus fallit in (3) exemplifies this category, since it mitigates the commitment projected by the speaker onto the statement expressed by the main clause hi sunt geminei germanei duo.


Nam, nisi me animus fallit, hi sunt geminei germanei duo. (Plaut. Men. 1082)
unless I’m mistaken, they are twin brothers.’

11It should be said, however, that things are often more complex than they appear to be in examples (1)-(3), for two main and overlapping reasons. The first is that functional and procedural elements are typically multifunctional, as the current literature on the topic has repeatedly shown. If we consider in detail different occurrences of amabo in Plautus, for instance, we find that it often functions as a politeness marker (ex. 1), but it can also function as a modalizing interrogative particle expressing impatience in urgent appeals, as in (4) (see further Rosén, 2009, p. 347):


Quo, amabo, ibimus? (Plaut. Rud. 249)
‘Whereto are we going,
for pity’s sake?’

  • 4 See further Risselada, 1993, p. 91; Müller, 1997, pp. 45-6.

12To cite another case in point, quid ais can also convey surprise and disbelief (5), besides the more typical textual function shown in ex. (2).4


PHIL.: Quin pol si reposivi remum, sola ego in casteria ubi quiesco, omnis familiae causa consistit tibi.
Quid ais tu, quam ego unam vidi mulierem audacissimam? (Plaut. Asin. 517-23)
‘I put down the oar, resting alone in the cabin, the progress of your whole household comes to a halt. –
What are you saying? You’re the most impudent girl I’ve ever seen!’

13The second reason that makes the assignment of a given tag not always straightforward ties in inherently with the first, namely that one element can carry out more than one pragmatic function at the same time. For instance, quid ais often has a commanding and typically masculine tone. Therefore, quid ais can also be used to modulate the social relationship between the interlocutors and represent the speaker as having more authoritative power over the addressee (Barrios-Lech, 2014). Along these lines, one might reasonably claim that quid ais belongs to two distinct categories of Adjacent Subacts, namely textual and interpersonal. What I have done in such cases has been to identify the main core function performed by an element in context and to assign only one tag without imposing my subjective interpretation on further pragmatic and semantic nuances. For example, since the referential meaning of quid ais points first and foremost to the textual level, I have classified it as a Textual Subact. By making such choices, the annotation system becomes simple and the data will be always be open to further interpretation by interested users. Since in some cases different values enacted by a given Subact can correlate with different positions in the sentence, they are also tagged according to the slot they occupy (initial, medial, or final), in order to retrieve possible associations between their occurrence on the right or left periphery and their interpersonal, modal or textual function.

14At the Speech Act level I have identified and tagged different types of Speech Act, relying on Searle’s (1975) classification into Assertive, Directive, Commissive, and Expressive acts, further refined into more fine-grained acts following Risselada (1993) for Directives (classified into orders, advice/suggestion, permission, and prohibition), Taavitsainen and Jucker (2010) for Expressives (including thanking, compliments, apology, greeting, accepting, rejection, and exclamation), and Searle and Vanderveken (1985) for the other classes (assertives are constituted by statements and commissives include swearing, promises, threats and offers).

15At the Sociolinguistic level, I have tagged discourse and pragmatic elements according to the sociolinguistic features of the characters who utter them, namely Gender (male or female), Age (young, as the adulescens, adult, or old – typically, the senex), and Social Rank. The latter parameter includes three possible variables: low (e.g. servants, cooks, parasites), middle (e.g. doctor), and high (typically, both young and old masters and matronae).

16Lastly, at the level of Contact phenomena I have annotated Greek words, words of Greek origin, and Latin words containing Greek morphemes in descending order of “Greekness”, partially following Maltby (1995) but also refining his classification. I have used seven tags:

  • “regular” Greek (following the text edited by Lindsay 1904);

  • transliterations: e.g. pax < πάξ (Stich. 771), bombax < βομβάξ (Pseud. 365);

  • morphologically integrated words: e.g. petaso < πέτασος (Amph. 443);

  • words which have undergone both morphological integration and phonetic change: e.g. atticissat < ἀττικίζω (Men. 12);

  • Latin derivatives of Greek words: e.g. exballistabo < ex + βάλλω + -isto (Pseud. 585), basilice < βασιλικός + -e (Epid. 56);

  • Latin and Greek hybrids: e.g. flagritribae < flagrum + τρίβω (Pseud. 17);

  • Latin words with Greek suffixes: e.g. graecissat < Graecus + ίζω (Men. 11).

17Figure 1 illustrates the relative frequency of the categories of Greek words just described as they occur in the DiSCIS corpus.

Figure 1: Frequency of different categories of Greek elements in the DiSCIS corpus

Figure 1: Frequency of different categories of Greek elements in the DiSCIS corpus

18As Figure 1 shows, morphologically integrated words – either with or without phonetic changes – constitute by far the most widely represented category in the eight comedies annotated so far (399 tokens); next come Latin derivatives (75 instances). By contrast, Latin words given Greek suffixes (5 tokens) and hybrids (3) are located at the opposite pole. It is readily apparent from this sample of data that words of Greek origin are used by Plautus with a view to mirroring the “real” Greek that he and his audience were presumably used to hearing in everyday interactions; more complex and linguistically elaborate elements, such as transliterations, hybrids, and Latin words with Greek suffixes are much rarer or even constitute hapax legomena, since they are in most cases neologisms that belong to Plautus’ invented lexical inventory.

19Frequency counts and distributions such as the one I have just discussed are one among different queries that can be done using the DiSCIS corpus. More complex searches, however, are also possible: the next section is devoted to a case study where values involving more than one parameter have been combined and explored.

3. A case study: what unexpected frequencies can reveal

20This section presents a preliminary analysis in order to show possible correlations between the parameters described above. The case study shows the distribution of elements pertaining to the level of Contact phenomena and values along the parameter of Social Rank within the Sociolinguistic level of annotation.

  • 5 See, e.g. Kaimio, 1979, p. 110; Adams, 2007, p. 16-17; Calboli, 2009, p. 73.
  • 6 See, e.g. Shipp, 1953; Maltby, 1995, p. 34-5; Jocelyn, 1999, p. 171; Adams, 2003, p. 352.

21As regards the sociolinguistic connotation of Greek in Plautus, it should be said that, as is well known, in 3rd century BC Rome Greek was a sign of the social condition of slavery,5 and Plautus mimetically exploited this fact by putting Greek into the mouths of men of low social status, such as slaves, cooks, pimps and other artisans of Greek origin, like the medicus or the paedagogus.6 Maltby (1995) has clearly demonstrated in this regard that male characters of low social standing insert Greek elements in their speech more often than any other group of speakers in Latin comedy.

  • 7 One might claim in this respect that the low-standing characters simply have more text than the hig (...)

22Along these lines, a corpus-based analysis in DiSCIS reveals that 338 Greek elements out of 529 (i.e. 64%) are concentrated in the mouths of low-standing characters.7 It is worthy of note, however, that 181 Greek words are uttered by characters of high social rank. Since this is a very high frequency, it is worth looking into this feature in more detail. Figure 2 illustrates the distribution of Greek words used by low characters in relation to the total number in each comedy.

Figure 2. Number of Greek words used by low characters relative to the total number per comedy

Figure 2. Number of Greek words used by low characters relative to the total number per comedy

23Among other things, what Figure 2 shows is that in some cases we have an unexpected ratio that clashes with the tendency outlined in the relevant literature. Particularly striking in this respect is the case of the Amphitruo, where Greek words used by high characters outnumber those uttered by low characters (39 tokens vs. 8). I suggest that this inversion is basically due to two main facts.

24First, while pretending to be Sosia, Mercurius intersperses his Latin speech with many more Graecisms than those actually used by the slave; this happens because not only does he change his appearance but also his language in order to look like Sosia and take on his identity. The means Plautus chooses to this end is the strategic deployment of Graecisms in his speech: as early as in the prologus, for instance, he depicts his father Iuppiter in terms of a moechus (μοιχός), this contrasting with the use of vir in the previous line, reflecting however Alcumena’s thinking (6). In another passage, he significantly uses the verb subparasitari, a technical term belonging to the typical vocabulary of the servus callidus (7); similar linguistic choices are designed to express a systematic change of roles.


Quae illi ad legionem facta sunt memorat pater
meus Alcumenae: illa illum censet virum
suom esse, quae cum moecho est. (Plaut. Amph. 133-5)
‘My father’s telling Alcumena what he did during the campaign. She believes he’s her husband, while she is with an


Accedam atque hanc appellabo et subparasitabor patri. (Plaut. Amph. 515)
‘I’ll go to them, address her, and
play my father’s hangeron.’

25By contrast, Amphitruo is roundly mocked and loses his identity as a powerful and virile master. In (8), while looking for Naucrates, he is ridiculously depicted as a servus currens, crucially using six Graecisms in two lines:


Nam omnis plateas perreptavi, gymnasia et myropolia;
apud emporium atque in macello, in palaestra atque in foro,
in medicinis, in tostrinis, apud omnis aedis sacras
sum defessus quaeritando: nusquam invenio Naucratem. (Plaut. Amph. 1009-13)
‘I crept through all the streets, sports grounds, and perfume shops; I was at the bazar and in the meat market, in the wrestling school, and in the square, at the doctor’s, at the barber’s, at all the temples. I’m tired from searching; I can’t find Naucrates anywhere.’

26In sum, this reversal of roles is linguistically accentuated by Plautus through the insertion of “unexpected” Greek words in Mercurius’ and Amphitruo’s speeches, thus signalling the switch to a different and transitory, interactionally specific identity which strays far from their actual socio-cultural status.

27In a similar vein, unexpected distributions of Greek can serve to temporarily change social positions in specific passages. Socially elevated characters can approximate their speech to that of slaves by inserting Greek words in their discourse, thus minimizing the distance from them, as in (9), where regular Greek is a sign of the degraded position to which Lysidamus has been reduced due to his frequent and close associations with his slave:


LYS.: Etiamne adstas?
Enim vero πράγματα μοι παρέχεις.
LYS.: Dabo tibi μέγα κακόν, ut ego opinor, nisi resistis.
OL.: ὦ Ζεῦ, potin a me abeas, nisi me vis vomere hodie? (Plaut. Cas. 727-32)
‘Won’t you stand still? – You really are giving me a hard time. – I’ll give you a hard beating, I think, unless you stand still. – O Zeus! Can’t you leave me, unless you want me to vomit today?’

28In other cases, Greek used by socially elevated characters serves to assert greater integration, as in (10), where the adulescens Calidorus defines his servant Pseudolus using two Greek words:


CH.: Sed istic Pseudolus novo’ mihist.
CAL.: Nimium est mortalis graphicus, εὑρετής mihist. (Plaut. Pseud. 699-700)
‘But that Pseudolus is new to me. – He’s a terribly
smart mortal, he’s my very own inventor.’

29Jocelyn (1999, p. 185) speaks in this context of “verbal wit” in his view of code-switching as frivolity; Shipp (1953, p. 110) and Adams (2003, p. 352-3) suggest instead that Calidorus is praising the inventiveness of Pseudolus, approximating his speech out of admiration for him. In this perspective, Greek could express here a process of imitation and identification structured by the idealization of his “very own inventor” and could be motivated in terms of “we-code”, positioning the interlocutors in an elitist in-group.

4. Some conclusions

30When devising a corpus designed to investigate pragmatic or sociolinguistic phenomenon in Latin, the first general question that needs to be addressed is: what is the appropriate kind of corpus for an ancient language? Of course, the choice cannot go in the direction of a “megacorpus”, gathering millions of words; rather, what we can do is to create a purpose-built and philologically oriented corpus with the aim of providing contextualized assessments at micro-linguistic levels (cf. Jucker and Taavitsainen, 2014, p. 13). This is precisely the primary and motivating objective of the DiSCIS corpus, which aims above all to be as neutral as possible with respect to the annotation of functional units. Hotly debated terminology, such as “discourse markers”, “pragmatic markers”, “modal particles”, “discourse connectives”, “pragmatic operators”, “non-referential indexes” (to name but a few), is intentionally left out from the tagset, which merely describes the functional meaning (interpersonal, textual, modal) expressed by such elements in a given context. Likewise, items pertaining to the Contact level are not categorized as borrowings, code-switching, code-mixing, tag-switches, and so on, precisely because phenomena of language mixing range “from the insertion of single words to the alternation of languages for larger segments of discourse” (Bullock and Toribio, 2009, p. 2), giving rise to a complex continuum with fuzzy boundaries that leads to different positions and terminologies. In addition, the DiSCIS corpus makes it possible to search not only for form-to-function but also for function-to-form mappings, focusing on sociolinguistic and pragmatic values using a specific functionalist approach.

31In the case study we have seen that one of the possible purposes this corpus can serve is to reassess from a quantitative perspective some qualitative observations found in earlier studies. Corpus-based analyses can reveal statistically significant trends in the occurrence and distribution of items and functions, and also interesting minority frequencies. An appropriate query has automatically retrieved all occurrences in which Plautus puts Greek into the mouths of people of high social status. In many of them, Plautus seems to have used Greek in order to modulate and negotiate role changes. This shows that also unexpected distributions can reveal narrative and structural principles within a given comedy: for instance, Greek is exploited to modulate temporary and interactionally specific “selves” of socially elevated characters and, more generally, to construct identity positions.

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2 Cf. recent studies collected in Suhr and Taavitsainen, 2012; Taavitsainen et al., 2014.

3 See further Molinelli, 2008; Cuzzolin and Haverling, 2009, p. 38.

4 See further Risselada, 1993, p. 91; Müller, 1997, pp. 45-6.

5 See, e.g. Kaimio, 1979, p. 110; Adams, 2007, p. 16-17; Calboli, 2009, p. 73.

6 See, e.g. Shipp, 1953; Maltby, 1995, p. 34-5; Jocelyn, 1999, p. 171; Adams, 2003, p. 352.

7 One might claim in this respect that the low-standing characters simply have more text than the high-standing characters. However, this difference is not so great as to produce such a large discrepancy in the occurrence of Graecisms between the number of words uttered by low-standing characters and the number spoken by those of higher standing (32,224 and 29,305 words, respectively); amount of text is therefore comparable (these counts are based on the data provided by Maltby, 1995).

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: Frequency of different categories of Greek elements in the DiSCIS corpus
File image/png, 45k
Title Figure 2. Number of Greek words used by low characters relative to the total number per comedy
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Bibliographical reference

Chiara Fedriani, « DiSCIS: A new sociolinguistic and pragmatic corpus of Plautus’ comedies », Pallas, 102 | 2016, 219-228.

Electronic reference

Chiara Fedriani, « DiSCIS: A new sociolinguistic and pragmatic corpus of Plautus’ comedies », Pallas [Online], 102 | 2016, Online since 20 December 2016, connection on 20 September 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/pallas.3710

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About the author

Chiara Fedriani

Post-Doc, Università di Bergamo

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Licence Creative Commons
Pallas – Revue d'études antiques est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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