25.3040, Review: Discourse Analysis; Ling & Literature; Socioling: Labov (2013)

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Subject: 25.3040, Review: Discourse Analysis; Ling & Literature; Socioling: Labov (2013)

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Date: Thu, 24 Jul 2014 13:37:35
From: Marta Lupica Spagnolo [luspagnm at gmail.com]
Subject: The Language of Life and Death

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-3441.html

AUTHOR: William  Labov
TITLE: The Language of Life and Death
SUBTITLE: The Transformation of Experience in Oral Narrative
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Marta Lupica Spagnolo, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano


At the time when Labov and Waletzky were asking themselves in 1967 about the
criteria for recognizing narrative in speech and the relation between the
sequence of clauses and events in a narration, narrative analysis was a quite
unexplored field of research in linguistics. In proposing a framework for
formal and functional analysis of oral narratives of personal experience, they
laid the groundwork for a linguistics approach to this issue. Fast-forward 50
years later, William Labov extensively returns to these and related questions
in the book “The Language of Life and Death: The transformation of Experience
in Oral Narrative”. Intriguingly, he shows how the transfer of the speaker´s
experience to the audience is achieved by the narration of events that concern
one of the seemingly most incommunicable topics--death.

“The Language of Life and Death” was published by Cambridge University Press
in 2013. On the one hand, the book aims to illustrate a framework for
structural analysis and comparison of oral narratives which, after the first
formulation in 1967, was further developed by the author in later essays (see,
e.g., Labov 1997, Labov 2006). On the other hand, Labov purposes the grasping
of mental processes and linguistic strategies followed and exploited by the
speakers by composing a narrative of great emotional impact on the audience.
That is, one that succeeds in transferring the experience of the speaker to
the listener/reader. Assuming that the teller transforms the narrated
experience in the interests of the self without lying, the processes of
narrative reconstruction and construction are seen as modeled by the
maximization of three principles (the first and the second inversely
correlated): reportability, credibility and tellability.


In the introduction, Labov accounts for his (first) interest in sampling oral
narratives of personal experiences that involve highly reportable topics
(death, sex and moral indignation) as elicitation technique for obtaining
vernacular data. Furthermore, he contextualizes his own approach to narrative
in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis literature. “Big stories”, as told
in sociolinguistic interviews, are chosen as material for the present book in
consideration of their “archetypical” form (p. 8). Since the speaker is not
constrained by competition for the floor, he/she can develop a narrative in
its full structure in a sociolinguistic interview. Nevertheless, the effects
of audience design are considerably underrepresented in such an elicitation
setting in comparison with what happens in ordinary conversation (see, e.g.,
some essays in Bamberg 2007 for a discussion on the topic).

The concept of “tense” is central in a linguistic definition of narrative as
discussed in Chapter 1. A narrative is a particular way of retelling past
events that actually happened whereupon the order of independent clauses
corresponds to “the order of the original events referred to” (p. 15).
Actually, really produced narratives are often a succession of narrative
clauses, i.e., independent clauses separated by a temporal juncture, and free
and restricted clauses, which cover a more extended temporal range and are
often headed by stative verbs or verbs in progressive tense. The linguistic
alternation between clause types, and the related oscillation between
recounting, orienting and evaluating sections, distinguishes narratives from
other genres which report past events. Furthermore, another empirically
observed characteristic feature of narratives is the rarity of flashbacks as a
result of the egocentric principle.

The first step in producing a narrative is the recursive reconstruction of the
chain of causal relationships that connects the most reportable event with its
initiating matrix; that is, the triggering event or situation that is
perceived by the teller as not needing any further explanation. By the
following process of narrative construction, the complicating action is
typically completed by other elements and sections: abstract, orientation,
evaluation, resolution, and coda. They normally accomplish further narrative
or communicative tasks. Apart of reporting past events, a main function of
narratives is, in fact, to assign “praise and blame to the actors involved”
(p. 35). This goal shapes the structure of a narrative. For example, it drives
the teller in the choice of the initiating event and in the placement of the
orientation. Even the omission of events or the interruption of the causal
chain of narrative clauses with postponed orientation elements, evaluative
remarks or instrumental acts can be justified in consideration of this

In the narratives of Chapters 3 and 4, the protagonists are respectively faced
with a life-threatening escalation of violence and with a traumatic
confrontation with death and dead bodies. To exemplify the previous
theoretical discussion in these and following chapters, the sequence of events
underlying each narration is rebuilt. Unclear causal connections between
narrative clauses are interpreted through inquiry into the teller´s cultural
background or through his commitment to assign or avoid assigning moral
responsibility to the actors. Very interestingly, linguistics forms that serve
polarizing or integrating strategies of the speaker are identified. For
instance, quasi-modal verbs, such as “started to”, “ready to” etc., and
zero-causative verbs, such as “drive”, are respectively ambiguous in regard to
“the presence or the absence of the activity” and to the assignment of agency
(p. 57). Thus, their use allows the narrator to avoid taking a position about
these issues by reporting a past experience without lying.

A peculiarity of the narratives about premonitions and communication with the
dead in Chapter 5 is the nature of the most reportable event. In these
narrations, the most reportable event concerns the temporal “distribution of
information” to the participants (p. 97). Moreover, syntactic and lexical
complexity is employed in a singular way so as to increase the narrative
impact. Despite the audience´s possible skepticism regarding these topics and
the related risk for the teller of “losing face” (p. 90), the narrator
succeeds in generating interest and credibility.

Each of the following four chapters (6-9) contains a single narration that the
author defines as “epic” because of its thematic and formal features. Indeed,
these narratives are “episodic in principle” and deal with the struggle of an
extraordinary person against “hopeless odds” (p. 107). Furthermore, these
narratives differ from the previous stories regarding their style and basic
strategies. Instead of achieving emotional impact and objectivity by eliding
events or by presenting objects as witnesses, the teller gives an extensive
account of the social background and resolution of the story. As the selected
epic narratives are all told by women, gender differences can be recognized in
the prototypical way of narrating personal experiences. However, a common
feature of female and male narratives, which emerges from the analysis
conducted hitherto, is the interaction of requests and responses in forming
the skeleton of narrative structure (p. 145). The reference to conversational
analysis and to the concept of “adjacency pair” suggests the profitability of
the interplay of different approaches in studying narration. Among the most
interesting linguistics features of these narratives are the particular name
and naming strategies employed, such as the use of non-anaphoric pronouns to
refer to the most important person in the context (p. 119), and the switch
between codes or the choice between local and non-local variants in order to
characterize the direct speech of a figure (p. 135) or to position the self
relating to community values (p. 128).

A multi-episodic male narrative, which is embedded in a daily conversation, is
analyzed in Chapter 10. The same structural features and similar polarization
strategies emerge as in the previous stories elicited during interviews. At
the end of the conversation, the speaker continues recounting past events, but
the report “does not take narrative form” (p. 174). As in another narrative of
Chapter 4 (pp. 82-87), the lack of narrative construction could depend on the
speaker´s attitude towards the past experience. Indeed, the development of a
personal narrative seems to require emotional control and a confident
interpretation of his past.

The style and prosodic pattern of Donald Wise´s narratives in Chapter 11
especially deserve the label “epic”. In recounting his spectacular robbery of
the gas man, Donald uses a typical rhythmic pattern of a toast´s recitation by
pronouncing a syllable extra-long in the last clause. Referring to research
that discusses the oral origins of traditional epic poems (see, e.g., Lord
1960), Labov considers in this chapter the reciprocal influences and
similarities between oral epic narratives and oral narratives of personal

Chapter 12 opens with an oral narrative of an historical fact told by an
historian in retirement during an interview. The example introduces the reader
into the long-standing dispute over the role and legitimacy of (personal)
narratives in historical writing. In the following three chapters (13-15),
Labov analyzes four historical narratives regarding the question of their
(more or less extensive) employment of the same techniques found in oral
narratives of personal experience. The four narratives are collected from
three historical books written by diverse authors in very different periods:
“The History of England” by Lord Macaulay, “Tudor England” by S.T. Bindoff and
the Old Testament. The method developed in the previous chapters proves to be
useful in reconstructing the interpretation of the past conveyed by the author
to the reader.

In the last chapter, the author proposes an “eight-point” schema for the
analysis of any given narrative or episode in a narrative that would help by
enhancing their comparability (pp. 223-224). In addition, he returns to the
crucial functions of narration. The transfer of the speaker´s experience to
the audience relies on the credibility of the causal sequence of narrated
events, i.e., on its plausibility in regard of the listener´s knowledge of
human behavior (p. 225). Furthermore, it is based on the creation of empathy
(p. 227). Thus, evaluative devices, such as the evocation of alternative
universes by means of negative sentences or verbs in modis irrealis and the
placement of the orientation, serve the transferring function of a narrative
by achieving identification and by conveying the point of view of the teller
without distorting the facts.


“The Language of Life and Death” is a comprehensive book which encourages
reflections on linguistics issues and more general topics. Labov offers a
detailed account of oral narratives of personal experiences regarding their
structures and functions and suggests a generalization of his approach to the
study of other narrative types; namely, oral epic narratives and written
historical narratives. Furthermore, he provides the reader with a picture of
people´s handling and conceiving of the end of their and other people´s lives
by discussing a selection of prototypical stories. The settings and periods of
collection of these narratives range from the sixties to the eighties, and
from the suburbs of Philadelphia to a rural area in Utah. Each of these
stories is embedded and documents the particular social and cultural
environment of the teller. At the same time, the book can also be read as a
journal of the field research of the author and his students. Indeed, Labov
describes the occasion and the participants of the interviews often by
referring to his personal relationships with them.

Language-centered strategies are recognized by Labov at different levels of
narrative generation. The ambiguities of the English language are functionally
exploited by the narrator in order to present his experience in the best light
without saying an untruth (p. 36). Moreover, the report of communicative
interactions between the figures structurally serves the construction of a
plausible and easily interpretable casual chain of events. Indeed, it provokes
prefabricated associations in the listener founded on his communicative
experience (p. 146). For its dramatizing effects, direct speech is often
quoted in a narrative, whereupon its omission and substitution by simple
mention of the speech act can function either as a polarizing or integrating
technique (pp. 172-173). Again, the expression of evaluative remarks mainly
depends on the purely verbal construction of parallel universes, thought
negation, and verbs in irrealis moods (p. 226). Thus, the generation of a
narrative relies on language in different ways. Linguistic structures and
speech are employed for constructing narratives and are also the topic of
narratives because the teller often reports speech events.

Recurrently, Labov recaps the purposes and outcomes of his analysis and
explains the concepts and grammatical distinctions he uses, addressing not
only a public of linguists. Nevertheless, the book cannot be considered an
introduction to narrative analysis in sociolinguistics, nor does it want to.
The bibliography is essential and other possible approaches are only briefly
discussed in relation to the account which the author embraces. In my opinion,
a greater number of examples that do not fit in the model of narratives of
personal experience would highlight the similarities with historical
narratives discussed in the last chapters in a more convincing way. In this
regard, the exemplification of narrative and non-narrative techniques in
Bindoff´s historical passage “The Death of Essex” and the comparison of this
“intermediate genre” with a fully developed narrative by the same author are
very useful (p. 207). In the same way, the discussion about “unsuccessful”
narratives in chapters 4 and 11 enlightens ex negativo the boundaries of the
research object.

Finally, the stories about premonitions and communication with death are
especially fascinating because of the high tension between reportability and
credibility. Interestingly, Deppermann & Lucius-Hoene (2006) also exemplify by
means of an oral narration about death premonition the controversial thesis
that narratives can be argumentatively structured. According to the authors,
the argumentative construction of the episodes becomes evident by embedding
the monologic speech of the teller in implicit skeptical questions (Deppermann
& Lucius-Hoene 2006: 137). Referring to narratives in Chapter 5, Labov notes
the struggle of the teller with a silent “although” that conditions the
delivery of the most reportable event (p. 94). As in Deppermann & Lucius-Hoene
2006, interesting research outlooks are opened by further analysis of such
narratives with a high persuasion demand and by the evaluation of their
implications on the genre theory.


Deppermann, Arnulf & Lucius-Hoene, Gabriele. 2006. Argumentatives Erzählen. In
A. Deppermann and M. Hartung (eds.), Argumentieren in Gesprächen.
Gesprächsanalytische Studien. Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag. 130-144.

Labov, William & Waletzky, Joshua. 1967. Narrative Analysis: Oral Version of
Personal Experience. In J. Helm (ed.), Essays on the Verbal and Visual arts.
Proceedings of the 1966 annual spring meeting of the American Ethnological
Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 12-44.

Labov, William. 1997. Some Further Steps in Narrative Analysis. The Journal of
Narrative and Life History 7. 395-415.

Labov, William. 2006. Narrative pre-construction. Narrative Inquiry 16(1).

Lord, Albert B. 1960. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Bamberg, Michael. 2007. Narrative: State of the Art. Amsterdam/Philadelphia:
John Benjamins.


Marta Lupica Spagnolo is a Ph.D. student at Free University of Bozen/Bolzano
and Università degli Studi di Pavia (Italy). For her Ph.D. dissertation, she
is currently working on the language biographies of people who have moved from
the Balkans Peninsula to South Tyrol. She earned her M.A. in Linguistics at
the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, with a thesis in Corpus Linguistics on the
productivity of some morphological categories in texts of non-native German
writers. Her research interests are mainly focused on sociolinguistics,
language contact, morphology and corpus linguistics.

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