3

This post is a follow-up on this and this other post.

The question concerns the last sentence of this passage from Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale.

Des arbres la couronnaient parmi des maisons basses couvertes de toits à l’italienne. Elles avaient des jardins en pente que divisaient des murs neufs, des grilles de fer, des gazons, des serres chaudes, et des vases de géraniums, espacés régulièrement sur des terrasses où l’on pouvait s’accouder. Plus d’un, en apercevant ces coquettes résidences, si tranquilles, enviait d’en être le propriétaire, pour vivre là jusqu’à la fin de ses jours, avec un bon billard, une chaloupe, une femme ou quelque autre rêve. Le plaisir tout nouveau d’une excursion maritime facilitait les épanchements. Déjà les farceurs commençaient leurs plaisanteries. Beaucoup chantaient. On était gai. Il se versait des petits verres.

QUESTION

From the other posts (linked above), I understand that Il in our sentence is an impersonal pronoun.

In this post, I want to understand that idea in more detail. I've broken my thoughts to little pieces so if I am going wrong anywhere I can find out where.

1. Voice in general.

Am I OK to understand the basic form of verser this way?

(A1) Pierre assied l'enfant. | (A2) Pierre verse un verre.
(P1) L'enfant est assis. | (P2) Un verre est versé.
(R1) L'enfant s'assied | (R2) Un verre se verse.

I am not asking whether anybody would use P2 or R2 in actual conversation or writing. I am only laying out the three forms--active, passive and reflexive (or what people sometimes call "middle" voice)--for a transitive verb such as asseoir and trying to fit verser to that layout.

2. Impersonal pronoun in general

2.1 What is the standard grammatical account given of a sentence pair like this?

Une rumeur court.
Il court une rumeur.

Do we say, for example, that the place of subject for courir is filled by une remeur in the first sentence and filled by Il in the second but "held for" une remeur?

2.2 Do we say that Il "refers to" une remeur? Or does an impersonal pronoun never "refer" but only "hold the place for" some thing or other?

2.3 In the second sentence, do we say that the subject is Il, or une rumeur, or both Il and une remeur?

(Please note that in this question 2, I am trying to get the terminology straight. I am assuming, rather as a matter of course, that Il court une rumeur "derives" from Une rumeur court.)

3. The Flaubert sentence

Am I OK to think that the relationship we saw in the sentence pair in 2 holds for the following sentence pair?

Des petits verres se versaient.
Il se versait des petits verres.

(Again I am not asking whether anybody would use the first sentence in actual conversation.)

If I am told yes to this question 3, I would be able to apply everything I learned in question 2.

For example, I may be able to say: Il was filling the place of subject but was holding it for Des petits verres, and the subject of the sentence was Il (or Des petits verres, or both, as the case may be).

4. Number

Does the verb always agree with the impersonal pronoun in number even where it holds the place for the actual substantive that is in the plural. This seems probable when you consider how fairy tales often begin, as in:

Il était une fois un bûcheron et une bûcheronne qui avaient sept enfants, tous garçons.

(I am suggesting that Il holds the place for un bûcheron et une bûcheronne and that était agrees with Il.)

BACKGROUND

All the questions on this post is based on a certain assumption about the function of Il. In the other posts (linked at the top of this post), I considered other possibilities such as Il referring to human agents (e.g. by referring to on of the previous sentence), se being a reflexive pronoun used as an indirect object (in the "dative" case), and the sentence coming out: "People poured themselves little glasses."

2

Since it's a very long and complex question, I'll do my best to begin an answer.

Short answer : In this context, your previous assumption was correct, and the sentence means "He poured himself little glasses."

EDIT: After reading Catomic comment and checking the novel, it was indeed "Small glasses were served." that was meant by Flaubert.

Déjà les farceurs commençaient leurs plaisanteries. Beaucoup chantaient. On était gai. Il se versait des petits verres.


Long answer :

Question 1 : Am I OK to understand the basic form of verser this way?

It is in fact a bit more complex. In your example you are right, but the fact that R2 though gramatically correct is absurd, will lead anybody to look for an other meaning.

Question 2 :

2.1 : Do we say, for example, that the place of subject for courir is filled by une rumeur in the first sentence and filled by Il in the second but "held for" une rumeur?

Une rumeur court.

Il court une rumeur.

In the first, the subject is "Une rumeur" and in the second it's "Il", regardless of what it stands for.

2.2 : Do we say that Il "refers to" une remeur? Or does an impersonal pronoun never "refer" but only "hold the place for" some thing or other?

Here "il" has the same value as in :

S1 Il est tard. -> It is late.

The impersonal pronoun holds the place for "The current situation is that...".

2.3 : In the second sentence, do we say that the subject is Il, or une rumeur, or both Il and une remeur?

In the second sentence, the subject is indeed il.

Question 3 :

S2 Il se prépare. -> He gets himself ready.

S3 Il se prépare une omelette. -> He cooks himself an omelette.

S4 Il se prépare quelque chose de grave. -> Something serious is about to happen.

You get that what comes after the verb can totally modify the meaning of a sentence. I do not have an comprehensive answer on why it is so yet, but it's worth trying to analyse this.

Question 4 :

Given 2.2, answering this becomes irrelevant.

  • Am I right to understand that you are assimilating the Flaubert sentence to S3? I believe the following, would you agree? In S3, se is an indirect object. In S2, se is the direct object. In S4, se is again a direct object and Il is holding the place for quelque chose de grave – Catomic Jun 2 '16 at 11:42
  • Reading the Flaubert sentence as he poured himself little glasses seems to run into this problem: Who is il? I don't know if you know the novel, but the only character we've met so far is Frederick Moreau. I think it would be a difficult case to make that il is our Frederick. – Catomic Jun 2 '16 at 11:46
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    You are absolutly right, I edited the answer accordingly. I wrongly assimilated Flaubert's sentence to S3, as you pointed out. As @NathanCoustenoble said, it's a rather old use of 'il', but it doesn't excuses my lack of researches :) – Fils Jun 2 '16 at 12:40
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    Then, Fils and @NathanCoustenoble are both giving il a usage much like that of on? If not "used nowadays," was there a time when il and on were more or less interchangeable (to mean indefinite agents)? Or is/was that usage of il limited to cases where il follows on the heels of on, as in the Flaubert passage quoted? – Catomic Jun 2 '16 at 13:45
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    I would not try to compare 'il' and 'on' because they are both really hard to use properly, and depending on the context they can or cannot be interchanged. Generally speaking, using 'il' for 'on' is an old use and is rather specific (on has to mean 'Everybody' as in 'On a jamais vu ça ici!' and not 'us' as in 'On a faim'). Then again, "il se fait tard." cannot be transformed into a sentence using 'on'. I guess I cannot help more than saying the translation to be choosed depends on the rest of the sentence. – Fils Jun 2 '16 at 15:25

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