Georgetown University Roundtable (GURT 2008) - Report

‘Telling stories: building bridges among language, narrative, identity, interaction, society and culture’
Each year people gather to GURT to present research on various topics, usually sociolinguistic or linguistic in nature. This year GURT addressed telling stories and narrative analysis. Although I did not present a paper at GURT, I felt the topic too relevant to miss. The presenters by and large did a great job analyzing narratives from many aspects of life, personal narratives, immigrants, people affected by types of dementia and neural disorders, the law, culture, gender, age, identity and religion. I appreciated when the presenters shared the recorded stories with the audience. The sessions ran from 9 to 5, Friday through Sunday. The keynote speakers were William Labov form U Penn, Richard Bauman from Indiana, and the widely acclaimed Jerome Bruner. References cited frequently were: Labov, William and Joshua Waletzky, 1967, ‘Narrative analysis’, Labov 1972, ‘Language in the Inner City’, Claire Kramsch, 2006, ‘The Multilingual Subject’, Ochs and Capps ’96 ‘Narrative Authenticity’ and 2001, ‘Living Narrative’, Schiffrin and De Fina, ‘Discourse and Identity’, and various writings of Mikhail Bakhtin.

Keynote speakers
William Labov – ‘Where should I begin?’ Labov kicked off the plenary addresses with ‘Where should I begin?’ Labov has taught sociolinguistics at Penn for years and has authored books and articles. He’s known for studying language variation in American English dialects. Labov told four stories from those he had collected over the years. Thinking back on the choice of stories, they were what professional storytellers would call ‘on the edge of your seat’ stories. The first involved a Norwegian sailor who ends up with his throat being cut after an argument in a bar. Labov even embedded another bar story in order to further explain the first one. He is a brilliant phonetician and storyteller. The second story involved a near death fight between brothers. The third narrative involved a fight between two young women in Philadelphia, over a boyfriend. The last story was of a different motif, a ‘contact with the dead’ story, involving friends who hadn’t talked for over 30 years. He left the audience on the edge of their seats at the end of each story. Entertaining as the stories were, his focus was on what makes a good story and how to analyze narratives. Generally good stories involve a Most Reportable Event (MRE). This event is in the mind of the narrator and you can identify what causes the MRE by going backwards in the story and answer the question ‘Why did this happen?’ I tried finding the MRE in some simple narratives and sometimes found it difficult to choose between several options. In some ways it depends on the listener’s point of reference.

GURT 2008 Report – Jim Stahl
Labov started analyzing narratives back in the 60s and coauthored a seminal paper in ’67. Many presenters used his schema to analyze their narratives. Basically it follows this structure of six parts (I’ve described these simply): 1. Abstract – an introduction, point of the story 2. Orientation – setting or background information 3. Complication – problem arising, or something out of the ordinary 4. Evaluation – the point of the narrative 5. Resolution – how complication is resolved 6. Coda – end, close of narrative Labov has his own home page connected with Penn. You can find out more of his research with links available there. Richard Bauman – ‘The remediation of storytelling: Narrative performance on early commercial sound recording’ Bauman, from Indiana University, looked at three stories from noted storytellers in the early 1900s showing how they performed without audience interaction. These storytellers had to imagine the audience present, and succeeded in involving the listeners as noted by their popularity. Bauman’s background is in studying folklore. Jerome Bruner – Culture and mind: Their fruitful incommensurability’ Bruner is famous for many things, such as his work in education, psychology and the law. The one thing he stated in his speech was that stories are never neutral. In other words, there is always something the narrator is trying to convey when telling them. In the courtroom, the power of good storytellers is evident in their ability to persuade the jury to vote in their favor based more on their storytelling competence and less on their recounting the facts. Stories do not have to be true to convey a truthlikeness. And actually (citing Robert Cover), law is derived from stories, jurisgenic stories that come from a shared community. Culture too, is maintained through stories.

Individual sessions
Malavika Shetty – ‘Identity building through narratives on a Tulu call-in TV show’ As a result of TV call-in shows in various parts of India, a wide range Tulu speakers other than traditional storytellers are able to tell traditional Tulu stories. In this presentation, Shetty (UT - Austin) studies her own language area of India, Tulu. Although Tulu is spoken by over 1.5 million people it is not recognized officially by the government, neither does it have a standardized orthography. At one time, Tulu had its own script, but fell into disuse and was forgotten. In light of this, it was amazing to me that the 2

GURT 2008 Report – Jim Stahl
moderators of this TV show asked the viewing audience to submit their written stories and that they were willing to give airtime to people calling in and telling their stories orally. Previously in Tulu society, traditional stories were told by traditional storytellers, in this case, who are all men from a specific caste. However, with the anonymity provided by the call-in TV format Tulu speakers from any caste, including Adivasis and women are able to participate in traditional storytelling. We watched some clips during which the show’s moderators praise women tellers for their style and language, something unheard of in traditional Tulu society. This show also allows people the opportunity to challenge the integrity of the story. On one such occasion, an expert told and explained a traditional story in Tulu and was challenged by a woman caller, claiming that he got parts of the story wrong. I found this study to be fascinating, in that it documented collective memory and how important traditional stories can be shared in a language community. Mirjana Dedaič (Georgetown) presented ‘Dakle, here is my story: The organizational role of the Croatian discourse marker ‘dakle’ in narrative’. Some of the individual GURT presentations centered on very specific discourse markers, such as ‘dakle’ in Croatian. ‘Dakle’ has many uses in Croatian narratives. It can start a narrative, resume a narrative where someone has left off, and also functions in abstract, orientation, evaluation and result. In some instances ‘dakle’ functions like ‘so’ in English or ‘pues’ in Spanish. When the listener interjects with ‘dakle’ it serves to clarify what is being said, like ‘so, you mean to say that…’ ‘Narrative development among Spanish-speaking Latino children’ panel The next session I attended was a panel of researchers who’ve studied narratives among America’s Spanish-speaking people. Unfortunately, questions were left to the very end of these 5 presentations. However, they all had some interesting findings. Allysa McCabe – ‘Mestizaje: Afro-Caribbean and indigenous Costa-Rican children’s narratives and links with other traditions’ McCabe, U Mass – Lowell, used Labov’s narrative model, and found that Dominican participants, who are living in the US and learning English, and Costa Rican from three morbid language groups told stories that did not match what they heard in US schools. The stories they heard at home and told to each other centered on murder, death and snakes. They mixed fact with fiction and magic with realism. Gigliana Melzi – ‘Cultural variations in mother-child narrative discourse style’ Melzi (NYU) used a constructivist view of narrative development. I found her study very interesting because she added to what I had heard about the importance of a language-rich environment for children from ages 0-3. Parents (Anglo-Americans) who interact verbally and frequently with their children and ask probing questions are stimulating the children’s language and cognitive development and are encouraging their success in academics. The same is true for East Asian populations. The question being asked is ‘Does the same hold true for the Latino community?’ The findings based on a 3

GURT 2008 Report – Jim Stahl
mother-child (only one child per family) suggest that Latino parents are more elaborative with their children when they tell stories to them, but in a different way than Anglo-Americans. Basically, AngloAmerican mothers are story-builders and Latino mothers are storytellers. The storyteller tells the story and models storytelling to their child. The story-builder helps the child to construct a story through probing questions. The population samples came from Peru, Puerto Rico (not US mainland) and the US. Peruvian mothers in this study behaved the opposite to US mothers in this respect to storytelling. Melzi also mentioned that generally, Peruvian mothers told oral stories and were more creative when telling stories, and included local participants and settings. Anglo-American mothers tended to stick to a set of written stories with fewer adaptations and contextualizations. Some in the audience disagreed with this finding of Anglo-American mothers not creating stories. Perhaps the finding was a generalization. The Puerto Rican mothers represented a mix; some were story-builders and some storytellers. The next step for further study would be to do an ethnographic analysis of mother-child narrative style in these populations. Boyd Davis – ‘Narrative in bits and pieces: Reassembling identities from the lifelong non-literary journal of a man with Alzheimer’s disease’ I listened to a different set of papers dealing with narrative and people affected with types of dementia, Alzheimer’s and Asperger’s syndrome. Davis referred often to M. Bakhtin’s works and themes of ‘rhetorical pointing’ or ways to point to specific places in a text. She analyzed a non-narrative diary of someone who wrote entries for most of his life, including the last 25 years of which he suffered from Alzheimer’s. His diary reflected the style of the day, which was non-prose, somewhat mundane, rote, and in the moment. This particular diary was annotated with marginalia written by the author while reviewing and commenting on past entries. Toward the end of the diary the author underlined more common events, but continued with rhetorical pointing. What remained steady with this author was the need to tell his story. In telling his story, he expressed his identity. Kim Davies – ‘I am online: The discursive construction of identities online by young people with Asperger’s Syndrome’ The second presenter, Kim Davies commented on the dominant narrative of Asperger’s patients as being hopeless and dehumanizing to those who suffer from it. Asperger’s patients are characterized as having no self-conscious. Kim’s outlook was to try to change the dominant narrative of Asperger’s sufferers focusing on their narratives as building a positive identity. She pointed to various forums and websites for Asperger’s sufferers. Lars Hyden – ‘Interaction and narrative structure in dementia’ The third presentation in this series, focused also on not what dementia patients are unable to do, but on what they can do. The study that Hyden presented involved videotaping Alzheimer’s Dementia (AD) patients in Sweden telling stories to each other and with staff. One patient told the same story on three different occasions and so they decided to focus on her narrative. At one point in the narrative of her learning to drive and buying a car, she uses the proper structure to transition to another part of the story, but instead starts another story. When telling the story to staff, she was kept on track with 4

GURT 2008 Report – Jim Stahl
probing questions. When telling her story to AD patients, these patients tolerated the temporal incongruity and change, and continued with their positive listening. In conclusion, the researchers recommended that a limited set of narrative themes helps as a resource for AD patients’ ability to tell their stories and express their identities through them. Natalie Schilling-Estes – ‘Variation approaches to narrative’ What I found interesting in her presentation was that during interviews at times, despite tightly engineered sociolinguistic questionnaires, narratives are elicited. I did not understand whether eliciting a narrative is secondary to the interview, a welcome byproduct or an intentional outcome. She mentioned that sometimes the respondent forgets the interview and is totally drawn into their own narrative, revealing vernacular language use. Narratives tend to generate the unexpected as in her examples from Robeson County, NC where birds and bells were omens to a relative’s demise. She cited something I’d like to read by Debbie Schiffrin, ’98, ‘Stories as answers to questions in research interviews’. Evelyn McClave – ‘Telling stories with the body: how narrative structure is expressed through gesture’ In the process of learning to tell stories well, it is vital to be aware of what is being communicated with gestures of narrator and audience. Evelyn focused mainly on head gestures, showing video clips of various narrators and their audience, signaling with head turns change of topic, change of speaker and orientation. Some head gestures are culture specific. Head gestures aid the listener’s understanding and help the narrator to interpret feedback. Lengthy narratives do not change the normal style of head gesturing. Sabina Perrino – ‘Cross-chronotope alignment in oral self-narrative’ She collected narratives dealing with medical topics in Senegal and eventually became interested in studying the Wolof narratives. Chronotope, a term coined by Bakhtin, refers to narrative time-space relationship. In the particular narrative presented by Sabina she is transported into the narrator’s story and past, what she refers to as ‘coeval alignment’. This type of narrator audience inclusiveness is referred to (at least in Senegal) as ‘démarche participative’. The narrator addresses Sabina, in the vocative during the story as though she were present when the story took place. Mamarame Seck – ‘Structure of Wolof religious narratives’ Seck, from U Florida, also spoke on Wolof narratives, but focused on religious narratives from Sufi preaching. What I found interesting in this presentation was that he found that religious narratives did not follow Labov’s six-stage analysis. They lacked resolution and coda. Robert Longacre’s discourse analysis focusing on action peak was more helpful to understand these narratives.


GURT 2008 Report – Jim Stahl
Barbara Johnstone – ‘They immediately know you’re from Pennsylvania: linking dialect and place in narratives of linguistic encounter’ Johnstone, a sociolinguist at Carnegie Mellon University, discussed her findings on Pittsburghese and how it is viewed by outsiders. Due to outmigration in the 1960s and later immigration later a type of social leveling occurred that provided opportunities for Pittsburghese to be dispersed and compared as a language variety. One point that resonated with me, having compared language varieties elsewhere, is the importance of narrative in drawing dialect boundaries. Johnstone suggests that the narrator often exaggerates their language variety differences and thereby highlights their group identity. The coherence of the story is in the place, the temporal, and not necessarily in the chronology of the events. Basically, language features of Pittsburghese are more Appalachian, than European, as some think. The development of Pittsurghese as a language variety and identity is an example of an historical unfolding of enregisterment, where items can be heard elsewhere in other locales, but taken together as a collection, they form Pittsburghese. Jacqueline Messing – ‘Using narrative to convey competing ideologies of indigenous identity, social change, and language shift: Examples from Tlaxcala, Mexico’ Two presentations were given based on studies in Mexico. In the first presentation, Messing studied two competing individual narratives from members of this language community. One narrator promoted the use of the indigenous language in the community and in schools. The second narrator was more concerned with forging ahead, ‘life wasn’t always so great in the olden days’. Messing asked if language revitalization could happen through vernacular language use in the local schools. Jacqueline Lopez – ‘Indigenous roots of Spanish speakers in the United States: The case of the Cora’ Lopez’ parents are Cora and have immigrated to the United States. Like her parents, not all Mexican immigrants to the US are primarily Spanish speakers, but are also speakers of indigenous languages in Mexico. Lopez presented her research documenting the issues dealing with language maintenance in Cora society. The Cora are calling themselves, Nayarit, which is a positive step in proclaiming their identity. Language shift is a real and perceived issue among the Nayarit and who see answers to be found in language use in homes, neighborhoods and in bilingual schools. Teaching Nayarit identity and culture in bilingual schools can also help those who immigrate to the US by giving them a sense of their roots, what Lopez referred to as transnationalism. Although this was an interesting sociolinguistic study, I’m not sure how it was related to narrative studies. Mercia Flannery – ‘Reference and identity in narratives of racial discrimination’ Flannery, U Penn, conducted a study in her home area in Brazil. She highlighted competing narratives from two individuals at the same workplace, which focused on racial issues. While collecting other narratives for her study, she allowed the respondents to categorize narratives using their own parameters, which resulted in 136 different categories. I thought their classification system was one of the more interesting parts of this presentation, especially considering attempts to distinguish


GURT 2008 Report – Jim Stahl
parameters of genre. How are genre defined, by a literary standard, linguistically or statistically? What genre grids or paradigms exist in the minds of the language community? Aneta Pavlenko – ‘When our stories fall apart: Storytelling and bilingualism’ Pavlenko, of Temple University, focused her study on twice-told stories by bilinguals. Usually, bilinguals tell one story in one language and not the same story in both. It does happen though that the same story is told in both and she asks what happens on such occasions. Much of her research is from wellknown authors such as Julian Green and his memoirs originally written in French. Green later rewrote his memoirs in English and in doing so, produced something very different from the originals. Nikolai Tudorov is another bilingual author cited by Pavlenko who produced something other than expected in his first language. In this case, he was not able to get a message across to people in his native Bulgaria. If I remember correctly, the reason for this failure in communication had to do with his years living outside of Bulgaria and although he knew the language he did not share the context of his audience. Pavlenko then asks what causes the failure of renowned authors, who are bilingual, to reproduce their stories in different languages. There are a variety of reasons that she cites, such as: the author’s other language proficiency or lack of; adding too much detail – a sign of ‘linguistic insecurity’; and cognitive frames. Pavlenko then showed how people from similar language and cultural backgrounds can have different interpretive frames based on their unshared experiences. Respondents, who represented various stages of immigration to native citizens, viewed a video segment of a man walking and then sitting next to a young woman on a park bench. Native citizens of the language community interpreted the scene as an invasion of privacy. Those who had migrated out interpreted the scene as a failed pickup. The language of narration can also be linked emotionally with the speaker and the context. In psychoanalysis, language is often a key to bringing back suppressed memories. Some patients want to narrate their experiences only in one language, because to do so in another would bring back undesirable memories. On the other hand, narrating an experience in a second language allows one a sense of ‘emancipatory detachment’, and allows for expression otherwise too emotional in the first language. In conclusion, Pavlenko noted that people choose to use languages in their repertoire based on links to domains, allegiances and feelings. Retelling a story, in this case for bilingual authors, involves recall, renarration and re-conceptualization. For me, Pavelenko’s presentation begged the question ‘Is translation possible?’ (I have heard experienced translators ask the same question.) Certainly, what is narrated in one language can be perceived as different conceptually and emotionally in another. Can a narrative experience ever be the same in one language and in another?


GURT 2008 Report – Jim Stahl
Thanks to The Seed Company for their support in sending me to this session of GURT. These presentations gave me a good idea of what is being done in narrative studies and what could help further vernacular language development.