Who hides behind «se»?

Passive and impersonal reflexives have long been a focus of interest in our approach to grammatical variation as form and meaning. They are among the most recurrent initiator-defocusing constructions in Spanish discourse, appearing across most communicative situations and textual types, in contrast with ser ‘be’ passives, which are largely restricted to written or highly planned informational discourse. Se clauses with an underspecified agent are also notable in their capacity to prompt a variety of pragmatic interpretations according to the context, including modal deontic ones when the content of the utterance is presented as something that is generally done in some way – whether it actually is or not. They have been shown to be powerful resources for stylistic desubjectivization in covariation with other defocusing constructions such as uno ‘one’.

In this sense, we may wonder what kinds of initiators are referentially defocused through se, that is, whom speakers intend to ‘hide’ through reflexive constructions – and for what reasons. The paper “La interpretación referencial del iniciador en las construcciones desfocalizadoras con se: análisis del discurso de la prensa digital” by Miguel A. Aijón Oliva, just published in Lengua y Habla, discusses the possible referential interpretations of this participant with passive and impersonal se in a corpus of local digital news and readers’ comments to them. Referential interpretation is considered to be an inferential process based on mental space builders in a sense similar to that developed by Fauconnier and others, i.e. as features establishing discourse viewpoints and conditioning the way utterances are to be interpreted. A variety of elements are shown to be cues left by writers that may guide inferences about the initiator. Among the most evident cases are apparent locative adjuncts that help demarcate the reference to a certain extent, by indicating the (geographical / temporal / social…) domain where the content applies:

El joven quiere pagar [la multa] en efectivo en ese momento, pero le explican que en Salamanca no se sigue ese protocolo. <suc-RTV-101021-tex>

‘The young man tries to pay [the fine] in cash at that moment, but they explain him that in Salamanca no such protocol is followed.’

Two semantic dimensions are proposed for the characterization of references, namely (non)specificity – whether the referent is understood as one or more individual people, or rather as an internally undifferentiated group ‒ and (non)accessibility ‒ whether there are contextual elements that make it possible to infer some traits of the referent, such as their geographical origin or professional sector. Each of the dimensions is primarily associated with certain space builders, e.g. perfective verbal aspect is usually a clear indicator of specificity, while verbal semantics often makes the referent accessible to some degree by indicating actions typically carried out by certain social groups. Their description as binary dimensions results in four combinations that are subsequently analyzed across the corpus. Here is an example of a specific, non-accessible reference; it is understood that the attack was carried out by one or just a few people, but no space builders prompt any inferences about their identity features – at least, none that are imputable to the author of the text:

Los agentes acudieron en primer lugar a una pelea en Comuneros a las 00:50 horas, que finalizó sin presentar denuncias. Una hora más tarde, sobre las 01:55 horas, se agredió a un portero en un bar en San Justo. <suc-RTV-250921-tex>

‘The agents first attended to a quarrel on Comuneros St. at 12:50 a.m., after which no complaints were filed. An hour later, about 1:55, a doorman was attacked in a bar on San Justo St.’

Perhaps most interestingly, a quantitative analysis conducted on the materials shows that the four referential categories are rather unequally distributed across the two main types of textual sequences considered, namely news discourse and comments. While the former has 79.2% of accessible referents, either specific or (more often) non-specific, in comments 94.7 % are non-specific, either accessible or (somewhat more often) non-accessible. The data are interpreted as reflecting the pressure on journalism professionals to provide sufficient information about the participants of the events they inform about – even when resorting to a construction whose most evident pragmatic function is to ‘hide’ the initiator ‒ while anonymous commenters almost invariably use passive and impersonal se to generalize their views and experiences to wider groups, often non-accessible ones that are basically equivalent to the whole of the community or even of mankind. There are also largely lexicalized – thus scarcely referential – expressions with an epistemic or evidential value, such as se ve ‘it is apparent, lit. it is seen’:

se ve que hay mucho multado por mascarilla y como se calla cuando hay autoridad, luego tiene que desfogarse por aquí. <suc-S24H-180421-com>

It is apparent that many folks here have been fined for not wearing the mask and, as they dare not complain before the authority, they need to get it off their chest here.’

These results show that not only grammatical constructions and their inherent meanings, but also their possible referential intentions and pragmatic repercussions, are a matter of socio-stylistic variation that can and should be scientifically analyzed. They are part of the construction of textual genres as interactional formats, as well as of the contextual identities adopted by speakers within them. The kind of analysis proposed can be extended to the study of se and other defocusing constructions in this and other communicative domains.

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