LINGUIST List 25.3040

Thu Jul 24 2014

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

Editor for this issue: Malgorzata Cavar <>

Date: 25-Mar-2014
From: Marta Lupica Spagnolo <>
Subject: The Language of Life and Death
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Book announced at

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 purpose.

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 experiences.

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). 37-45.

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

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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