The Grammar of Autobiography: A Developmental Account

By Jean Quigley | Go to book overview
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Modal Grammar in the Construction of the Self

The philosophical problem "What is the self?" comes close to being definitively solved by attacking it from a linguistic point of view. Harré ( 1993a, p. 111)

There has been a tendency to take as metaphysical and/or empirical matters that are in a broad sense grammatical, for instance, the self, agency, intention and so on. Harré ( 1989, p. 24)

This section looks closely at the range of meanings and functions associated with the use of modal auxiliaries, at how they are used to frame actions, events, and perspectives in the children's autobiographical narratives. How do the children relate the "landscape of action," their agentive selves, to the "landscape of consciousness," their epistemic selves? Bruner ( 1995) describes how Greimas ( 1983) proposes an axis:

extending from inwardness to outwardness, from the subjective to the objective linguistically memorialised in the primitive system of the modal verbs. To desire is to implicate little in the world; to know what ones desires moves one outward toward the world; to feel one is able to achieve what one desires is yet another step outward. To be able, of course, implies both senses of the term: epistemic and deontic, what one is able or not able to do by virtue of skill and knowledge and what one is permitted or not permitted to do by virtue of the social world. Finally, one acts or does, and impinges directly upon the world. Self-accounting must exploit the full axis from desire to action if it is to bridge the gap between the subjective and the objective, between inner and outer. (p. 166)

Self-accounting is the main work of autobiographical discourse. The situations in which speakers manipulate perspective are those in which actions, consequences, and responsibility are at issue. These concepts are centrally at issue as we construct autobiographical narrative and are manipulated and constructed in English largely via the modal auxiliaries. The modal auxiliaries are identified as critical points in the children's life stories, which means it is also necessary to establish the other linguistic forms1 the children use at these points

This is a very difficult area. See Aarts and Meyer ( 1995) for a selection of different approaches to the analysis of constructions involving auxiliary verbs.


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