View Our Catalog

Join Our E-Mail List

What's New

Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

Press Home

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

Next Page

Labov and Waletzky define personal narrative as “one method of recapitulating past experience by matching a verbal sequence of clauses to the sequence of events which actually occurred” (20). They claim that the narrative is the prototype of a well-formed speech event with a beginning, middle, and end and is composed of two types of clauses. Referential or narrative clauses describe what the story is about: events, characters, and settings. Evaluative or free clauses have to do with why the narrator is telling the story and why the audience should listen to it. The ways people structure these two types of clauses determines the overall narrative structure. Narrative clauses cannot be moved without changing the order in which events must be taken to have occurred; the two clauses “I pushed the girl and she pushed me” describe a different sequence of events than “The girl pushed me and I pushed her.” Free clauses serve other functions such as evaluation.

According to Labov and Waletzky, a complex narrative includes clauses or sets of clauses that serve the following functions and typically occur in this order: abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation, resolution, and coda. The abstract summarizes the story to come. The orientation introduces characters, the temporal and physical setting, and the situation. The complicating action, the main body of narrative clauses, relays the sequence of events leading up to the climax. The evaluation clauses state what is interesting or unusual about the story; they justify why the person is telling the story. The resolution tells what happened next. Finally, the coda provides a short summary of what happened and connects the story to the setting in which it is being told.

Labov (1972) considers evaluation clauses to be free clauses because they can occur throughout the narrative without changing the sequence of events within the narrative. They can be interspersed throughout the narrative and provide different types of information. They may make a comment about the story such as “It was just the weirdest sight.” They may also provide extra details about characters. Evaluative clauses may suspend the action and repeat or paraphrase what has happened.

Labov’s analysis of narratives that were produced in real time was groundbreaking. Whereas traditional work on narratives had focused on the structure of narratives found in literary works (Lévi-Strauss 1955, Propp 1968), Labov and Waletzky showed how stories told informally were structured and could be described. The focus of linguistic research during the late 1950s and into the 1960s was on the generative revolution introduced by Chomsky (1957, 1965) that focused on finding structure up to the level of the sentence. Generative linguists were not generally interested in how language was structured in connected talk. Labov and Waletzky’s observations about personal narrative structure opened up the possibility of analyzing other types of discourse.

Another of Labov and Waletzky’s significant contributions was the demonstration that personal experience narratives are not told merely to convey referential information; they also function to create rapport with the audience. The fact that evaluative clauses are present in narratives supports the idea that narrator uses the narrative to connect the event with his audience in some way.

This work on narratives initiated discussion of the structure of narratives told in daily interactions. Later, the work of van Dijk and Kintsch, for example, attempted to create a model for how people produce and comprehend stories (van Dijk 1977, 1980; Kintsch and van Dijk 1975). Van Dijk defines a narrative as a type of action discourse with a point. He uses the term macro-structures to refer to the notion of themes or plots in literary discourse or to Labov and Waletzky’s division of the narrative into the abstract or the complicating action. The difference, van Dijk explains, is that the determination of macro-structures derives from the analysis of action in the discourse. He observes 19 rules that people follow in the telling of a narrative. The rules include the following:

1. Names are generalized and substituted by indefinite descriptions or variables, e.g., “a man,” “somewhere in Italy,” “in an Italian village.”
2. Location descriptions are deleted or integrated, e.g., “in a (beautiful) village.”
3. Full identifying propositions are reduced to arguments (i.e., noun phrases in summary sentences), e.g., “there lived a rich man,” “a rich man.”
4. Summarizing propositions in the text are deleted, as is all redundant information.
5. All preparatory actions that are not presupposed by other propositions of the story are deleted. (van Dijk 1976, 564)
Van Dijk agrees with Labov and Waletzky that the general structure of narratives includes an orientation, complicating action, and resolution. He goes beyond this analysis to propose explicit rules to determine what information is conveyed in these categories.

Dell Hymes (1981) analyzed Native American oral narratives and discovered that they are organized in terms of lines, groups of lines, verses, and stanzas, rather than paragraphs. His work, along with others such as Chafe (1985), introduced the practice of producing transcripts that reflect how a story is told. The creation of transcripts that reflect the real-time production of a narrative has been widely adopted in narrative research. Transcripts capture the disfluencies that often occur when telling a story, but they also offer tremendous insight into their production. Hymes and Chafe demonstrate how the production of a transcript can influence the analysis. If a transcript omits false starts or other disfluencies, the analysis will omit them as well.


Narratives are never objective retellings of an event (Chafe 1994; Tannen 1989). The retelling is a recreation of the event in which some details of what happened are omitted while others are not. Some details may have been more salient for the narrator during the event than others. Imagine two people discussing a meeting they had both attended. One participant’s narrative about what transpired at the meeting may include details about how people were dressed. The second participant may never mention people’s attire but rather focus on how they were seated in the room. These differences may be attributed to what each person noticed or deemed significant. It is also possible that the differences in the two narratives reflect what the participants remember; this is another reason why narrative events may differ from the actual event. The length of time between the event and the retelling may further impact what can be remembered, as well as the accuracy of the recollection. Another influence on what narrative events are included is the point that the narrator is trying to make. In the example of the people who attended a meeting, one participant’s narrative may have included a comment on how one person’s outfit was unusual in some way. The other participant, however, may have been concerned with making the point that she felt slighted by where she had to sit.

The addressee of the narrative also has an influence (Bell 1984). A story told to a group of friends at the dinner table is often different than a story about the same event told to a coworker. The addressee has different background knowledge that impacts what the narrator must include in his or her story. The group of friends may be familiar with the narrator’s family; the narrator can use a sibling’s name and the friends will know the sibling’s occupation. A coworker would be less likely to know the names of the narrator’s siblings, much less how the sibling earns a living. This information may be significant to comprehension of the narrative. The narrator must therefore explicitly mention the relevant details in the narrative told to the coworker. It is easy to see, then, that the audience can influence the telling of a narrative.

Previous Page

Next Page