Social Interaction, Social Context, and Language: Essays in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp

By Dan Isaac Slobin; Julie Gerhardt et al. | Go to book overview
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Dell Hymes University of Virginia

This tribute to Susan Ervin-Tripp is essentially a note to a recent book ( Himley, 1991). Himley documents one young boy's writing activity. I want to show that what emerges uses patterns of oral narrative. That in itself is not surprising (cf. Dickinson, Wolf, & Stotsky, 1993). One kind of pattern, however, has seldom been taken into account.2

Gee ( 1989, 1991, 1992) comes very close. Stimulated by work in what can be called "ethnopoetics," Gee recognizes that oral narrative is built up of intonational units and lines, and groups of these. He indeed refers in one title to "the line and stanza structure of human thought" ( 1989, p. 61). The difficulty is that Gee heads straight for meaning, not pausing to consider form.

The elementary unit is an intonational unit. Gee's correct understanding of this is well grounded in work of Wallace Chafe and Michael Halliday (cf. Gee, 1991, pp. 21-22). Others working in ethnopoetics call such a unit a line. Gee calls it an "idea unit"; a line may consist of more than one, and is "something like what would show up as a sentence in writing" ( 1991, p. 22). Gee knows that narrators have choices when they shape a sequence of words into intonational units, but puts narrative on the page in a way which obscures such choices.

In the work of Virginia Hymes and myself, not all intonational units are equivalent. Some have sentence-like contours, some do not. Those which do are "verses." In a number of Native American languages, several varieties of English, and a few other languages, verses are building blocks of narrative form. In particular, they enter into relations governed by pattern numbers. Narratives are often marked by repetition and parallelism; they also involve succession. (Cf. Hymes, 1991a, 1991b, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995).

In American English, and a variety of Native American languages, succession is normally of three or five units. The relation holds among verses, among stanzas, among

Parts of this chapter are to appear in: Hymes, D. (in press). Ethnography, linguistics, and narrative inequality: Toward an understanding of voice (chapter 7). London: Taylor & Francis. Reprinted by permission.
What I can say about oral narrative in English depends on work over the years of Virginia Hymes, who joins me in this tribute. When we were at Berkeley, Virginia for a time assisted Sue (and Wick Miller) in their research on children's acquisition of language.


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Social Interaction, Social Context, and Language: Essays in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp
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