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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
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The point here is that narratives cannot be described as merely a list of ordered sequences of events as they happened. The telling is not equivalent to pushing “Play” on a videotape recorder and viewing what transpired. Not all the events that occurred will be represented. Further, the narrator may add additional information that was not part of the original events. Narratives attempt to describe events for the addressee, but these descriptions are the creation of the narrator.

Various researchers have discussed how this phenomenon of recreating an event manifests itself in narratives. One common practice is the use of what Deborah Tannen calls “constructed dialogue.” In her book Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue, and Imagery in Conversational Discourse (1989) Tannen argues that dialogue presented as direct quotations is understood to be primarily the creation of the speaker, not the actual words of those to whom they are attributed. In fact, a narrator may provide dialogue for another character’s thoughts, which would be impossible for the narrator to know. For example, a narrator tells a friend what happened at a basketball game. The game was won in the final seconds when a player made two free throws. The narrator may say, “So she is standing at the line. She says to herself, ‘Just relax, you can make these.’” The narrator creates dialogue and attributes it to the player without knowing what the player was actually thinking at the moment she was preparing to take her free throw. Tannen uses examples like this one as evidence that narratives are reflections of one person’s interpretation of what transpired.


Labov and Waletzky demonstrated that narratives can be divided into parts and that these parts serve different functions. Following Labov and Waletzky, other researchers began to examine the linguistic structures that commonly appear in narratives, for example, the historical present. When telling stories about past events, people often use both past and present tense, as in, “I walked home from work the other day alone. All of a sudden, this man comes up to me and says . . .” The italicized words highlight the use of both past and present tense in describing this past event. The use of the present tense to describe past events is described as the “historical present.” Joos (1964), Palmer (1965), and Leech (1971) suggest that the historical present is a stylistic device used to report past events that are vivid and exciting. They argue that the historical present intensifies the story by making the audience feel as if it had been present at the time of the actual experience. They also assert that for the narrator, telling the story can feel as though he or she is reliving the experience.

Schiffrin (1981) demonstrated links between the use of the historical present and evaluative high points in a narrative. She analyzed 73 narratives and found that of the 1,288 narrative clauses within the narratives, 30 percent of the verbs were in the historical present. Using Labov and Waletzky’s narrative structure to identify sections within the narratives (abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation, resolution, and coda), she examined where in the narratives the historical present occurred. Schiffrin did not find the historical present in external evaluation clauses, abstracts, or codas. In orientation clauses, 3 percent of the verbs were in the historical present. In the complicating action clauses, however, 30 percent of the verbs were in the historical present. Further, she found that the historical present was used 63 percent of the time when a direct quote was used, compared to 5 percent of the time when an indirect quote was used. The excerpt from a narrative reproduced in figure 1.1 provides an example of this. The narrator, Craig, uses an indirect quote in line 77 and uses the past-tense verb said before providing the constructed dialogue. Craig uses direct quotes in lines 79–91. He precedes each example of constructed dialogue with a verb in the historical present. These verbs appear in bold.

The verbs used in the constructed dialogue itself are not counted as examples of the historical present; they are part of the original dialogue. This excerpt illustrates Schiffrin’s finding that the historical present is more often used with direct quotes than indirect quotes.

In her quantitative study, Schiffrin demonstrates how a grammatical feature of English patterns within the overall structure of the narrative. In this case she argues that the narrator uses the historical present to bring the past events into the immediate moment. In so doing, the audience can hear for itself the speaker’s construction of what happened and can interpret for itself the significance of those events for the experience.

Johnstone (1987) also explored the use of historical present tense in spoken narratives. She focused her research on the alternation between say and said in the introduction of constructed dialogue. Johnstone analyzed 13 personal-experience narratives recorded during conversations. These narratives all include clear examples of verbal interactions between the narrator and figures of authority, which are recreated using constructed dialogue. The authority figures are varied and include police officers, parents, military superiors, emergency room nurses, and people older than the speaker. Johnstone’s quantitative analysis of the data revealed that in about half of the interchanges narrators introduced the authority figure’s dialogue with a different verb tense from the one used to introduce the non-authority figure. Johnstone defines “introducers” as clauses using the verb say or go, such as “she said” or “he goes.” The exchange in figure 1.2 illustrates the use of introducers, which are in bold.

In these exchanges, the narrators always introduce non-authority figures with the past tense of the verb say. They introduce authority figures either with the historical present tense or without an introducer. Johnstone suggests that the use of an introducer such as “she says” or “she goes” conveys a less formal tone than “she said.” The narrator uses the informal tone when providing constructed dialogue for the authority figure re inforces his or her power over the non-authority figure. The driver in the excerpt would be considered the non-authority figure and the police officer the authority figure. The narrator introduces the driver’s constructed dialogue with the past tense verb said and the police officer’s with the present tense verb says. Figure 1.3 presents an example of a narrative with no introducer.

The second line, “Hey, where did you go?” is constructed dialogue for the character searching for someone. There is no introducer such as “she says” or “she said” before the constructed dialogue begins. The change in tone of the narrator’s voice indicates to the addressee that this is constructed dialogue. The use of the exclamation “hey” only occurs in real or constructed dialogue, so this would also clearly identify the utterance as constructed dialogue. Johnstone’s assertion is that in stories that involve interactions with figures of authority, narrators use present and past tense in dialogue introducers to mark status differences. In so doing, a narrator incorporates additional social information into the narrative.

Schiffrin (1981) and Johnstone (1987) demonstrate how a specific grammatical feature, the historical present tense, patterns within narratives. Schiffrin demonstrates that the use of historical present appears most often during the complicating action. She suggests that the frequent use of historical present during this part of a narrative creates the sense that the addressee is witnessing the action. This allows the addressee to evaluate the events for him- or herself and interpret them. Johnstone describes how the use of historical present with introducers patterns in narratives involving authority figures. She suggests that an introducer in the past tense is more formal than in the present. The narrator connects this more formal tone to the non-authority figure. In so doing, the narrator enhances the discrepancy of power between the narrator and authority figure. The grammatical structures used to tell the narrative provide insight into how the narrator conceives of the event or his or her role in it.

Telling stories is a means of recounting personal experience to others. In doing so narrators convey two types of information. First, the narrator describes what happened, or the core events. As Labov and Waletzky demonstrate, core events are presented in a consistent way. Second, narratives convey the significance of what happened. Is the narrator telling the story to justify a certain behavior? Perhaps the goal is to evoke a certain response. The use of specific grammatical devices such as the historical present, or the variation of verb tenses, are different ways that narrators can choose to convey this second type of information.

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