Modes of Vernacular Discourse

[Sagmeister: not everything is a story.]

Like Johannes Climacus sitting at a cafe and resolving to make things more difficult, this paper argues that folklorists are no better: we use “story” and “narrative” for practically everything — just yesterday morning I heard Elliott Oring say that stories establish cause and effect. No, stories establish sequences of events that are, usually, significant to human beings because of certain conventions and values they, in fact, help to maintain or change, but stories do not establish cause and effect. This is, in fact, what is known as the post hoc fallacy, where because X precedes Y, it must have caused Y — for the record, propositions, establish cause and effect.

Despite Oring being wrong yesterday, it was an example from his introductory essay on folk narrative that began my quest to understand the relationship between discourse as we encounter everyday and everywhere as people create the socio-cultural worlds in which they live and the storyworlds that discourse creates:

He knew that he had been poisoned when he felt the searing pain in his stomach from draining the drink that she insisted that he taste, but which he had first refused. (Oring 1986: 121)

The goal of the current work is to attempt to develop a classificatory scheme, a typology, that gives folklorists more precise ways to describe the discourse we encounter across a broad range of activities and events. My own particular interest is in anecdotes and legends, where I have documented passages like the following:

People would gather round the old square and sit on the fenders of the old cars and they’d chit-chat for an hour. But the neighborhoods, the families that lived in that area, they’d frequent one grocery store to buy all their groceries. And they’d have a charge account. And you could go in there like on Sunday morning and get a quart of chocolate milk and a dozen donuts and put it on the tab, if you didn’t have the money. Or you could buy the Sunday paper.

It is not clear if this particular passage from a larger conversation I had with Jack Morrison many years ago counts as a text, since it really is description, but that is one of the questions I think we could be better about asking: is narrative inherently one of the best forms of making a text, a way of making it possible for human beings to snip strings of words from one discursive stream, carrying them around, and then inserting those strings into another discursive stream, a process that has also been described as de-centering and re-centering or decontextualization and recontextualization? That is, what is the relationship between narrative passages and the entextualization process they seem to enable so readily? (We know from fMRI studies where people read or watch narratives that narrative has particular effects on the human brain, largely through the mirroring process, but that does not necessarily explain all the other material that comes with narrative.)

That is, I want to explore what Meir Sternberg described in his “Ordering the Unordered” as representational functions as a subset of functions of discourse:

In all representational art, therefore, including seemingly unilinear narrative with no overt exposition, the process of reading necessarily subsumes a process of spatial reconstruction. And action and description are not so much discrete segments as functions of discourse—representational (“mimetic”) functions that relate to complementary aspects of the world, the object or locus of one progressing along the dimension of fictive time and the other’s resting in those of fictive space. As such, action and description form not givens but inferences, constructs, opposed but not divorced frames of coherence. Whether in tense or harmonious opposition, they may cohabit in the very same piece of text; and it is only according to the dominant function—or primary frame of intelligibility—that we can reasonably speak of actional or descriptive writing. (1981: 73)

One of the things folklore studies has done has been to document and analyze the remarkable variety of storyworlds that human beings create out of relatively small number of puffs of air, scrawls of pigment, or typed characters. The precision I am seeking is to understand the particular sequences of puffs, scrawls, or typed characters that spin up those imagined worlds. And, having established that precision, what more can we understand about the relationship between such sequences and human thought and action.

[Why, Oh Why?]

[Outline] (This talk itself, as this slide reveals is a hybrid between how we do things in the humanities, which is read papers, and they do things in the sciences, which is talk from slide decks. First, I read; then I slide.)

[Digging] So, for those of you less familiar with my work in general and my most recent work in particular, which is most of you, this is yet another moment of my digging into folklore’s intellectual history.

The Folkloristic Turn to Modality

For a brief period in the eighties, folklorists took seriously the consideration the permutations of discourse such that narratives as we found them in their original form were not necessarily as narrative as we imagined them to be.

Georges pointed out that folklorists have long bracketed, and sometimes dropped, those moments of discourse lead up to and away from a traditional narrative as commentary, explanation, and possibly evaluation. The underlying logic being that such comments, explanations, and evaluations were transitory and not really “a part” of the story.

In doing so, Georges was simply following up on a discussion begun by linguists William Labov and Joshua Labetzky when they asserted that, at least in so far as personal anecdotes were considered, such elements were not only far from ephemera but a part of the overall strategy deployed by performers to ground their text, to contextualize it, in the moment of the telling.

(Interestingly, Georges also chooses to measure discourse, counting words in order to establish the statistical significance of seemingly “extraneous” passages.)

He also notes that these digressive passages are often part of the interactional order of a performance, bringing an audience into the text itself.

In part, this complication of folk narrative form as an abstraction was based on the close attention to activations of that form in carefully described, and analyzed, performances of such forms. That is, the ethnography of speaking had encouraged a generation (or more) of folklorists to re-consider what is, and should be, our analytical focuse. Such a reconsideration made it possible them to re-think the forms themselves.

Georges’ conclusion was to switch from a consideration of storytelling, which, he argued, suffered from a built-in presumption of an object to be discovered – a story, to narrating, an activity. Narrating still has, in his conception, the presemuption of narration as the dominant mode of organization of texts and thus of experience. As Georges noted:

The overriding objective of narrating is for individuals involved to conceptualize, and through their individual conceptions to experience vicariously, a happening or series of interrelated happenings that somehow seems autonomous and easily segmentable from one’s total experience continuum because of the reactions that envisioning them evoke in the participants. (251)

Five years later, Ilhan Basgoz inventoried so-called breaks in folk narratives in Turkish romances and epics as catalogued in the literature. Performers, the reader is told, remark upon something *in* the story, indicating that the remark is *outside* the story, or they stop the story or depart it, reinforcing the notion that such forms have spatial or temporal boundedness which can be crossed even while in the middle of them. Basgoz’ own definition of digression in narrative is both conceptual and interactional. He noted that it is “the interjection of the narrator’s horizon and individual content into the performance” and he observed that:

[it] can easily be identified during a performance because the teller either directly addresses the audience, changes the third person narrative into the first, or alters the pitch of his voice, or speed of verbal disclosure, or gives a gesture and movement to let the listeners know that he speaks now about or for himself. (7)

But ever observant of the texts themselves, Basgoz has also observed that there was a second kind of digression, which mainly consisted of embedding other traditional discursive forms – “such as proverb, anecdote, legend, folk poetry, and quotations from written and oral sources” (7) – into a performance. For him, this second kind of digression was an indirect form, in as much as the performer was not the creator of the digressive material but a selector of already extant materials to be embedded, contextualized if you like, into the current text. Such material marks, for Basgoz, traditional forms of digression, which begins to blur the boundary about what is inside and what is outside a folk narrative as we conventionally continue to understand it.

Basgoz delineated three kinds of digression, what we will hear consider as expository, evaluative, and reflexive. Expository passages, which he terms explanatory and instructional, are used to explain information with which the audience may not be overly familiar, such as archaisms, geography, history, or even cultural references. Evaluative passages include opinions, comments, and criticism from the performer upon events, entities, or ideas contained within the overall text. Finally, reflexive passages allow performers to bring in personal information, should an audience prove receptive to such things.

The last thing Basgoz’ introduced is the most compelling one, and that is the notion that digressions are interdependent with the folk narrative forms in which they are embedded. In his usual considered fashion, he noted that the length and nature of some forms make them more porous than others, with short forms having little room for digressions, and thus limiting the opportunity and nature of them, and longer ones presenting more opportunities for more kinds of digressions to be embedded. But Basgoz upended how we might imagine the interdependence: that the digression depends upon the text. Instead, he observed that:

In every romance narration, a gap—small or big, historical, linguistic, social, or ecological in nature—develops between the past and present culture. This cultural gap, is not eliminated, upsets the pleasure and understanding derived from the story. Digression bridges this gap, making the unknown known, irrational rational, obscure, clear, incredible credible, unacceptable acceptable in the story. (13)

Digression bridges the gap between text and performance. Digressive passages are one dimension of contextualization, and, as such, as much a part of the overall performance of a text as the narrative passages themselves.

Working on a parallel path as George and Basgoz in trying to come to a clearer understanding of the relationship between narrative and exposition, Gillian Bennett examined how some stories about supernatural experiences were offered as explanations. In her work, she argued that the Labovian model of narrative was far too restrictive, suggesting that Labov and Waletzky had misunderstood the function of some of the texts featured in their analysis: Bennett described 26 stories as having been “isolated from the surrounding exposition” and that some stories had been offered by respondents when they clearly “wished to avoid expressing an opinion” (418). While I think this initial assessment is misplaced, confusing form with function, Bennett’s analysis complicates the received form of narrative upon which much of the work on narrative draws. It does not, I would argue, upend it, since the narratives contained in her work on memorates are largely told through a series of representations of events in chronological order.

Bennett’s complication is in delineating the careful mix of descriptive asides and quotation to structure and to pace their stories so that the text’s meaning is clearly established. In a later essay focused on shape and structure in storytelling, she noted:

the women whose narratives I have studied use sentence-structure, descriptive asides and reported speech (i) to paragraph their stories, creating and signalling narrative stage;14 (ii) to pace the storytelling so that special moments do not go by too quickly; and (iii) to mark climactic moments. (1989: 168).

Her interest in the long sentence is particularly compelling here because of the challenge it offers for discourse analysis. [text]

But I know a cousin of mine.
She was very old when she died.
She’s very sensitive.
We knew her mother wouldn’t last long.
She was downstairs.
They’d been sitting up with her,
and she’d gone to bed
and she said her father came and woke her
and he said, ‘Your mother wants you,’
and she got up, went downstairs,
and her brother was there,
and he said, ‘What’ve you come for?’
and she said, ‘Well Father came and said she needed me.’
‘Father?’ he said. ‘Father’s dead!’
She said, ‘Oh!’ she said. ‘He came in. I heard him cough’
and he came in and shook her
and said, ‘Your mother wants you’
and she got up,
and she said it was only when she, when her brother said, ‘Father? Father’s dead!’
and he’d been dead years!

What happened next?

Oh she died.
She died a few moments later.
She just got up
and she just got her dressing-gown on and she went downstairs.
‘Oh,’ he says, ‘I’m glad you’ve come up, I was just coming for you.’
‘Oh,’ she says, ‘My father woke me.’
I mean, anybody else, you’d think, ‘Oh . . . ’
and so … But I do know for a fact she’d had, she’d had different experiences like that.
It wasn’t that she’d been drinking.
She was very sober.
I’ve always been interested in anything like that.

In her analysis, Bennett preferred to consider a series of clauses strung together with *and* as a long sentence. I have kept her syntax here, but I have, following Hymes and others, chosen to break the text into clauses, with and’s utility as a polysyndetic chaining device made much more clear as well as the way the clauses alternate represented action with reported speech. We will return to this example from Bennett in a moment, but first we need to see if we can establish an approach that will help us understand how these small stories are structured.

Modes of Discourse

Our concern over the place of digression – and other seemingly non-narrative elements – within narrative or over narrative elements within a non-narrative structure reveals a need for describing discourse as it unfolds. To do that, we need to be able to classify the nature of each sentence, or clause, in a text. Doing so, I believe, will allow us to examine more closely the very way one group of clauses separates itself from the surrounding discourse in order to be discerned as a text.

The first step in this process is to establish a typology of modes into which clauses can be sorted. Any such classification, of course, has to be understood as unfolding dynamically: as one clause builds upon another, the nature of a passage reveals itself to be one mode or another. Like Carlota Smith, upon whose work on Modes of Discourse am building, I am starting with passages as units of analysis, because, as she noted, people already have an intuitive sense that passages do different things. The relationship between passages and texts is something that I am going to leave under-defined for the moment, allowing us time to introduce the various dimensions of analysis and to see what we can do with it. Smith believed that only two sentences were needed to establish a mode, and that will be sufficient for now.

In general, we will consider passages to realize particular discourse modes and a text to be a discoverable unit of meaning that may, or may not, be co-extant with a passage. Following Smith, I want to argue for the possibility of five modes of vernacular discourse: narrative, descriptive, reportative, informative, and argumentative. (My terms are not quite the same as hers, but they map onto the same modes.) The modes are characterized by two features: the type of situations they introduce and their principle of progression.

Situations can be events, states, generalizations, or abstractions. Events are most closely aligned with the Labovian model of narrative in which bounded events enumerated by clauses advance narrative time in a lock step representation such that any change to the clauses would change the order of events and thus the narrative itself. For Smith, as in Labov and Waletzky, events are dynamic, with successive stages that take time.

This is in distinct contrast to states which are, yes, static, and advance discourse spatially through a scene or around an object. Such states are located in time, and thus bounded in some fashion like the events in which they are often embedded.


This notion of being located or bounded in time stands in contrast with what linguists term general statives

Progression can be temporal or atemporal.

Let me sketch out quickly definitions of the modes before turning to some examples that will allow us to explore their utility in understanding vernacular discourse.

Sternberg differs from Smith on description:

What distinguishes verbal … description is thus the asymmetry between spatiality of its object and the temporality of its presentation. Oriented to the statics of the world – states of affairs, enduring properties, coexistents – it subjects them to the dynamics of the reading-process, built into a medium where elements combine and patterns emerge in an ordered succession. (61)

A Linguist Compares Narrative and Expository Prose on JSTOR

Case Study

Use: one of the Midwestern transcripts. There’s a lot of locating of things on the landscape. So a storyworld created not through story, per se. See BKG’s essay on memory objects.