1.3.  The Linguistic Approach to Narrative



Traditionally, linguistics concentrated on the study of language forms up to the sentence.  It might concentrate on the origin and evolution of words or sound patterns, on morphological or syntactic structures, or even (more recently) on meaning and the  semantics of vocabulary and of the sentence.  The most influential schools of the early and mid twentieth century were formalist (Saussurean structuralism, Copenhague glossematics, American structuralism, generative transformational linguistics).  Even so-called "functionalist" schools (Prague School linguistics, Halliday's functional linguistics, tagememics) usually took the sentence as the upper limit of the field of linguistics. 

            But applied linguistics has always had to deal with language otherwise.  Relating language to society or perception (sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics) eventually involves dealing with the actual use of language: speech, discourse, texts.  From the late sixties on, mainstream linguistics has evolved in order to incorporate the study of textual structures and the communicative use of texts (textual grammar, speech act theory, discourse analysis, pragmatics).  Insofar as linguistics is used to the study of literature, there is a spontaneous convergence between the concerns of these new approaches and those of classical rhetoric, literary theory, narratology or hermeneutics.  In our approach we shall try to try to integrate both traditions in order to deal with narrative structures, defining narratology as a section within a general science of discourse.[1]  We shall sketch in the first place a linguistic characterization of narrative, which will be expanded in the chapters on each element or structure. 


             In a first approach it is useful to consider a narrative as an expanded phrase, which can be analyzed at the levels of description used in linguistics and other semiotic disciplines: the levels of syntax, semantics and pragmatics.





Narrative cannot really be defined syntactically if we take the term syntax at its face value, since a narrative structure is generally acknowledged to be a suprasentential phenomenon.  Syntax as we usually understand it is a formal manifestation of semantic relationships which have become standardized or congealed at sentence level (thus making possible the existence of doubled ordering structures, as in the case of the passive voice, or of theme and rheme structures).  But there are some narrative germs in syntactic structures.   We can establish some syntactic patterns which look more narrative than others: a narrative typically consists of a subject and a verb ‹"John came."  The narrative becomes more interesting if the number of actions and participants, of subjects and verbs,  increases ‹if there are objects as well (direct and indirect) and if the circumstances of place, time, cause, etc. are specified: "Against his better judgment, John forced himself to accept Cartwright's suggestion, and gave him the password."  The passive voice is like a narrative with a perceptible manipulation of point of view and action role: "Someone is watching Tom" / "Tom is being watched."    Imperatives, on the other hand, are not narratives; they are more like drama, if anything.  Impersonal constructions make boring narratives: "It is raining", so what.   And attributive sentences are not narrations, but descriptions: "The meadows look lovely today".  These linguistic analogies are of course restructured when the sentences actually work within a text, but the relative frequency of certain types of linguistic constructions can be subjected to stylistic analysis and shown to create particular effects.[2]  Likewise, whole narrative texts might be compared to basic sentence constructions and shown to be rather "passive" than "active" or more "attributive" than "predicative."  But of course from the moment we abandon the simplicity of abstract syntactic analysis these analogies become more and more metaphorical, since they are based on semantic  as well as on purely syntactic considerations. 





Semantically, the definition of narrative is a definition of narrativity.  Several issues can be raised in this connection to circumscribe an area of discussion:

- Does narrative necessarily involve animate or at least dynamic agents?

- Does it necessarily involve action or process verbs?

- What about verbs of cognition or perceptual activity, or modal verbs?  Do they provide narratives when they appear by themselves?

-  Do narratives consist of at least two propositions?  Or can there be one-propositional narratives?

- Which is the relationship between descriptive and narrative texts?

Different theorists work with different assumptions as to what is or is not narrative with respect to these or other criteria.  Several degrees of narrativity may be defined according to which of the questions we answer in the affirmative.  The highest degree of narrativity is defined by the presence of conscious agents involved in deliberate and intentional action, articulated through a well-defined temporal and causal connection.  The traditional patterns of myth or folk narrative (for instance, the hero's quest as described by Campbell or Propp), or the rules of classical stagecraft set down by Aristotle, Corneille or Freytag would serve equally well to illustrate this ideal of maximum narrativity.  The classical narrative ideal involves not only a connected sequence of actions, but also the construction of a unifying pattern which establishes a maximum of connexion between the individual actions. 






Pragmatically, narrative is a communicative phenomenon. The scheme of the communicative situation devised by Jakobson is well known: 





Sender ...........................  Message  ..................................  Addressee






From the 1960s on, the philosophy of language has extended its attention in the direction of pragmatics,  the contextual use of language and the specific norms it creates.  Language use is not a chaotic parole,  as the Saussurean model might lead us to think.  There are norms of discursive interaction beyond the level of the sentence.  The speech act is the simple language action that is effected through the communicative use of a proposition (e. g. in order to make a statement,  or give an order).  The discursive act is hierarchically structured as a web of such conventionalized speech acts, and it involves not a single proposition, but an actual discourse event ‹in the case of literature, the writing or reading of a literary text in a specific setting: reading literature for recreation is not the same as reading it as part of a course curriculum.  Literature can be loosely described as a family of discourse activities, since each genre and each use a work is given will be pragmatically relevant and create a communicative structure of its own.


            In his study of simple speech acts, Austin proposed some fundamental concepts.  The first basic distinction is the opposition between locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts.[3] 


€ In a model enunciation, a speaker utters a linguistic form, within a given context, and addressing a hearer. 


€ By uttering these linguistic forms, the speaker performs a locutionary act: he or she transmits a propositional content, a semantically codified meaning, to the hearer. 


  By performing this locutionary act within a given context, the speaker performs a socially relevant action, an illocutionary act.  The locutionary act has a meaning; the illocutionary act has also a meaning at its own level, which we call the illocutionary force.  Thus, the utterance of a given proposition "I am cold" may have the illocutionary force of a statement, or it may also be a request, depending on the context.  The performance of an illocutionary act depends on contextual requirements which are called the felicity conditions of the act. 


  A perlocutionary act is the non-linguistic result of that performance.  The hearer's reaction to the speaker's illocution is called a perlocution, and it is not conventional or formally codified in the way an illocution is.  Of course, a hearer's perlocutionary intent may be evident, but it needn't be, and anyway the effective perlocution need not follow from that intent. 


            This pragmatic approach to literature can offer a new perspective on the literary genres and modes of discourse.  For instance, we can use it to rethink one of the frontiers of narrative, the opposition between histoire  and discours.   The terms were first introduced by Benveniste in his discussion of the tense system in French.  Histoire  is impersonal narration, narration which effaces the relationship of the narrator vis à vis the story; the hypothetical limit of histoire is pure narrative unfolding without any trace of a narrative stance.  Discours  is personal narration, narration which makes clear the temporal, spatial or personal links between the narrator and the story.  In histoire,  there are no signs of enunciation ‹the narrator never says "I".  In discours  there are references to the speaking subject with first-person pronouns, to the time or place of enunciation by means of deictics, etc.  Discours   is the natural mode of speech, while histoire  is defined by a series of exclusions.  But it can never completely exclude the marks of enunciation.  The reason is not, however, that a certain quantitative proportion of enunciation always seeps in.  Every narrative text is also and primarily an enunciation, an act of discourse.  Only by means of an abstraction can we consider it as an histoire,  a story.   The conceptual distinctions we shall use in our analysis (action, story, narrative text) are to be understood in the same way: what we have direct access to are texts used in discourse situations, in different kinds of "language games" played in social life: we construct stories from them, and we construct actions from the stories. We shall now  return to our definition of narrative in order to have a closer look at these concepts.





[1]          On an expanded rhetoric as a general science of discourse, cf. García Berrio 1989.

[2]          Cf. Halliday's article on Golding's The Inheritors.

[3]          Austin 1980: 95ff. Cf. Searle 1980: 32, Van Dijk 1972: 318ff, 1980: 278ff; Schmidt 197: 59ff;  Pratt 1977: 80; Lozano, Peña-Marín y Abril 1982: 188; Leech 1983: 199ff. Here we adopt Bach and Harnish's (1979) exposition.