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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Extraordinary from the Ordinary: Personal Experience Narratives in American Sign Language

Kristen Jean Mulrooney

Chapter One
Narrative Analysis

Personal narratives are one way people code their experiences and convey these experiences to others. Given that narratives simultaneously express information and define a social situation, analyzing how and why people structure the telling of personal narratives provides insight into the social dimensions of language use.

Stokoe (1960) clearly demonstrated that American Sign Language (ASL) is a natural language. A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles (Stokoe, Casterline, and Croneberg, 1965) further documented this language. Since this groundbreaking work was published, linguists studying ASL and other signed languages have demonstrated that sign languages express the same kinds of information or ideas spoken languages convey. It should be possible, then, to analyze ASL narratives and identify how ASL users structure their stories to similarly express social dimensions. That is the focus of this volume.


The backdrop to discourse analysts’ work on narrative begins with Vladimir Propp’s examination of Russian fairytales. Morphology of the Folktale, published in Russian in 1928 but not translated into English until 1958, describes the structure of these tales. Propp found that although folktales are about different incidents, they all have a similar under lying theme. He identified 31 different plot elements that consistently occur in these tales. These plot elements have been simplified by scholars (e.g., Gilet, 1998) to the following six fundamental meaningful actions:

1. Protagonist has initial harmony.
2. Protagonist discovers a lack.
3. Protagonist goes on a quest.
4. Protagonist finds helpers/opponents.
5. Protagonist is given tests.
6. Protagonist is rewarded or a new lack develops.
Propp’s technique for demonstrating what all fairytales have in common and how they differ constitutes a linguistic analysis of narratives. He points out that although tales differ in detail, the themes they convey are similar. One tale may describe what happens to a prince and another the adventures of a frog. The prince may search for a mate and the frog a lily pad, but both are on a quest. Propp shows that although characters and details vary from one fairytale to the next, the more abstract plot components are similarly structured.

The work of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1955, 1964, 1966) also contributed to the understanding of narrative structure. Lévi-Strauss was interested in describing the abstract elements of meaning expressed in myths. He argued that while myths told in different languages vary widely, all deal with a limited number of basic themes that are based on binary pairs: male and female, life and death, raw and cooked. He argued that the existence of these opposites provides the basis of the structure of myths. Barthes (1966) later applied the work of Propp and Lévi-Strauss to the analysis of literary narrative.

Labov and Waletzky (1967) furthered the goal of describing underlying structures in narrative, but they differed from Propp and Lévi-Strauss in two significant ways. First, they analyzed personal experience narratives rather than fairytales. Second, they focused on the functions of individual clauses rather than larger chunks of text. They argued that folktales codified themes and structures that exist in the narratives people tell each other in daily interactions. To understand how humans organize their thought, they undertook an analysis of the source of these themes. Labov and Waletzky’s work has been the most influential in American studies of narrative structure because it demonstrates how personal narratives have consistent and analyzable structure. Labov and Waletzky shifted analysts’ focus from literary text to narratives produced in everyday speech.


Labov and Waletzky first identified personal narratives as a type of discourse while conducting research on African American Vernacular English in South Harlem. They found that one of the most successful ways to elicit examples of vernacular speech was to ask subjects to tell stories about their personal experiences.

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