Narratives in Conversation
By Agatha Xaris Villa
This essay focuses on the study of the narrative most prevalent in everyday conversations – the conversational narrative. First, it discusses a definition of the narrative from a structural level based on the structure of conversational narrative presented by William Labov (1972). Next, it enumerates some of the important functions which the narrative is able to achieve both on a personal level and also on the interpersonal. Lastly, it ventures to explore the notion of the narrative based on its context – language and society, culture.
NARRATIVES: A STRUCTURAL PERSPECTIVE
In the 1960s and 1970s, William Labov developed what is now commonly believed to be the general structure of a narrative. His research involved ‘a focus on spontaneous recounting of experience’ and the capturing of vernacular, unmonitored speech. He interviewed African American youths in South Harlem and asked them whether they had ever encountered a life-endangering experience. He found that the stories which ensued from these interviews ‘reduced the effects of observation to a minimum’ (Labov, 2001) and referred to them as oral narratives of personal experience.
Through his study, Labov noted some very important structural characteristics of oral narratives. First, he observed that the events featured in narratives often appeared in the order in which they actually happened. According to his definition, the narrative was a way of retelling (i.e. narrating) the action sequence of an event that had already happened. Therefore, parts of conversation considered to be ‘narrative’ was limited to the discursive data contributing to the recounting of the turn of events. All other parts which were not directly related to the story served the purpose of backing up the story.
He claimed that these oral narratives usually had a basic structure composed of any of the following six basic parts: (1) Abstract, (2) Orientation, (3) Complicating action, (4) Evaluation, (5) Resolution and (6) Coda.
Using a transcript of ‘Sample Stories – Stories about mothers’ (CD-ROM 1, Band 6)(Appendix 1.1), we may illustrate these elements as they occur in actual oral narratives.
The data presented has two speakers: a female interviewer (A) and a male interviewee (B). The transcript also features two accounts: the first is with regards to (B)’s early memories of his mother who was training as an educational psychologist and the second of which occurred sometime during his adolescence.
By definition, an abstract is a synopsis of what the story is about. Looking at the transcript of ‘Stories about mothers’, it is useful to note that the first story offered by (B) seems to lack an abstract. This, however, is understandable as his story was elicited by (A)’s question regarding childhood memories of his mother. Therefore, the interviewer provided the abstract prior to the beginning of the narrative. In the second story, the abstract is located in line 21-22 wherein (B) cites when his mother was ‘most sympathetic’ to him – during his ‘adolescent rebellion stage’.
Typically, the orientation appears first in the narration and begins by citing the basic details of the story: that is, the ‘who’, the ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘what were they doing’ of the narrative. In our transcript we can detect the beginning of an orientation in lines 5-10 in which (B) recounts when his mother had begun studying educational psychology and some of the tests she carried out on him and his brother.
The complicating action effectively answers the question – ‘then, what happened?’ An example may be found in line 11 where (B) said recalls his mother’s reaction to a ‘slightly alarming’ result of an inkblot test. The complicating action is the only element which Labov believed to be a pre-requisite to a narrative.
On the other hand, evaluation is the only element which does not necessarily happen in sequential order in...
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Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.
Grice, H.P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In Cole, P. and Morgan, J. (eds) Syntax and Semantics. 3: Speech Acts. New York: Academic Press.
Labov, W. (1972). Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.
Labov, W. (2001). The Social Stratification of English in New York City. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Maybin, J. (1996)(Ed). Chapter 1 ‘Everyday Talk’. In Maybin, J. and Mercer, N. (eds) Using English from conversation to canon. Routledge/The Open University. pg. 21-27
Norrick, N.R. (1997). Language in Society, 26(2). pg. 199-220.
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