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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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Constructed Dialogue and Constructed Action

Metzger (1995) examined the occurrence of constructed dialogue and constructed action in ASL narratives. In her study she uses Tannenís (1989) 10 types of constructed dialogue to see if ASL makes use of the same categories. These categories are listed in figure 1.5.

Tannen defines constructed action as depictions of both physical and mental events. For instance, a narrator telling a story about a letter he wrote may demonstrate this by moving his hand as if writing on a piece of paper. Metzger analyzed both personal experience narratives and narratives elicited from informants describing comic strips. She transcribed the data using English glosses and conventions for transcription of nonmanual signals that included body posture, eye gaze, head placement, and mouth, cheek, and eyebrow movement. Metzger proposes that ASL use of constructed action parallels eight of the 10 categories of constructed dialogue in figure 1.5. The two exceptions are constructed action as inner action and constructed action as inner actions of others.

Metzger found examples of six of the 10 categories of constructed dialogue in the narratives she examined. She also found examples of seven of the eight constructed action categories in the same narratives. Table 1.1 summarizes the types of constructed dialogue and constructed action that she found in the ASL narratives she examined. An X indicates that an example of this category was found in the data. A ? marks the two categories that Metzger states are not possible in ASL, action as inner action and inner action of others.

Metzger then examined two narratives and compared the number of instances of constructed action and constructed dialogue. She found 25 instances of constructed action and 15 instances of constructed dialogue, which she suggests is evidence that constructed action is more common in ASL than constructed dialogue. She also notes that constructed action and constructed dialogue may co-occur. Her analysis demonstrates that constructed action is a grammatical device that is used often in ASL narratives and that constructed dialogue may be a form of constructed action.

Rayman (1999) provides additional evidence that grammatical features help shape discourse structure. She elicited stories from five native users of ASL and five native users of English. Participants viewed a two-minute silent cartoon based on Aesopís fable The Tortoise and the Hare. Each participant was then asked to retell the story to the researcher in their native language. Rayman selected two of the 10 narratives to examine, one using ASL and the other English. Trained actresses produced the two narratives she selected. Rayman states the following reason for comparing these two narratives:

Looking at examples of stories that exploit linguistic resources to the fullest, we can truly examine the differences in storytelling in the visual mode and how these impact the form and content of the stories. (Rayman 1999, 66)
Her comparison of the English and ASL narratives reveals some interesting differences. The first difference she identified was that the English speaker told the majority of her story in the narrator mode while the ASL signer told the majority of her story in character mode. Rayman does not provide a definition of narrator mode or character mode. She also does not describe how she determined when one or the other mode was being used. However, I interpret narrator mode to mean that the narrator is not using real-space blends to depict the events of the story. When Rayman refers to character mode, the narrator does use real-space blends. (Chapter 2 defines real-space blends and how they are used in ASL narratives.)

The two narratives also differed in the description of action. The ASL signer provided more elaborate description of actions than the English speaker; she often inserted depictions of actions that were not in the cartoon itself. Additionally, the ASL signer indicated the manner of movement and the spatial relationship of the tortoise and the hare through the use of role shifting and depicting verbs.[1] The English story left this underdeveloped or relied on words such as behind, after, and in front of to describe these details. Rayman concludes that the grammatical devices available in ASL allow ASL signers to more easily represent concepts involving physical motion or movement in space.

Gestures and Real-Space Blends

In Liddell and Metzgerís (1998) study of elicited narrative, a native ASL user produced a 22-second narrative based on a cartoon. Liddell and Metzger divided the narrative into nine episodes based on the spatial conceptualizations used by the signer. Each episode corresponded to a line in the transcript.

Liddell and Metzger argue that the narrator relied not only on grammatically structured arrangements of signs, but also on spatial conceptualizations involving both the signer and the space surrounding the signer, as well as gestures making use of these conceptualizations. They describe how the narrator uses constructed action to represent charactersí behavior through visual demonstration of their actions. In the eighth episode of the narrative, for example, the signer does not produce any ASL signs. Instead he flails his arms to demonstrate what the character in the story did. The interpretation of the story relied on gestures produced by the head and eyes, hands and body, and facial expressions in addition to lexical signs. This examination points to the need for analysis of ASL narratives to include conceptualizations of the signer and the space surrounding the signer, as well as gestures.[2]

The analyses of ASL narratives reviewed above address different aspects of the structure of ASL. Some describe how to identify individual lines. They show that eye gaze and pausing mark breaks in signing that can help identify lines. The narrative may also be divided into sections based on the type of information being conveyed. The research has also described the use of different grammatical devices such as constructed dialogue and constructed action in the narratives. Finally, it is now clear that an analysis of narratives must also include gestures and spatial conceptualizations.


1. Rayman uses the term classifier in her work. She does not provide a transcript of the narratives, but it is likely she is referring to what Liddell (2003) calls depicting verbs.
2. A description of these conceptualizations in terms of mental space blending will be provided in chapter 2.
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