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The Temporal Interpretation of Narratives: A Case Study

Authors:
Hortènsia Curell
The temporal interpretation of narratives: a case study
1 Introduction
The role of aspect and aspectual class in the temporal interpretation of narratives is a topic
which has been studied from various points of view, as can be seen in Depraetere (1995),
Dowty (1986), Dry (1981), Hatav (1989) and Nakhimovsky (1988), to name but a few. All
these authors have tried to establish what determines whether a given verb phrase is
interpreted as moving the narrative forward or as moving it sideways. They all reach a
similar conclusion: accomplishments and achievements (i.e. telic situations) indicate a
movement forward, whereas activities and states (i.e. non-telic situations) tend to indicate a
lateral movement. Other authors, for instance Caenepeel (1995) and Lascarides and Asher
(1993), propose notions such as consequentiality and commonsense entailment to account
for the temporal interpretation of narrative discourse.
Nakhimovsky goes a little further and studies how aspectual knowledge is used in the
interpretation of extended narratives. According to him, narratives are divided into
discourse segments, and the boundaries between these segments are signalled by different
types of discontinuities, among which we can find temporal discontinuities (including
flashbacks). Within each segment, the temporal relations between the narrated events are
determined by the aspectual oppositions mentioned above.
In this paper a thorough and detailed study of a short story written in English (‘The Doctor
and the Doctor’s Wife’, by Ernest Hemingway) is carried out along these lines. First of all
the narrative has been divided into its discourse segments, using the clues provided by
Nakhimovsky, and the discontinuites that signal the transition from one segment to the
next have been identified. And second, the temporal relationships between events within
discourse segments (movements forward and sideways, elaboration and overlap) have been
established trying to discern whether it is the aspectual class that determines these
relationships or whether other factors are also relevant.
2 Division of the narrative into discourse segments and identification of the discontinuities1
According to Nakhimovsky (1988), a narrative has two main elements: in the first place a
plot, that is, a sequence of events forming a recognizable pattern, and in the second place, a
set of characters with whom we can empathize. In this paper we will concentrate on the
plot. Narratives are, as a general rule, told in the past tense, but this tense is not interpreted
against the moment of utterance, but rather with respect to a deictic centre that is
maintained throughout the narrative.
The sequence of events is bound to be affected by various kinds of discontinuities, the
result of the tension between the need to narrate the events in a given order and the
multidimensional structure that the text evokes. Discourse segments, then, are the various
parts into which a narrative is divided, and the boundary between them is signalled by one
or more discontinuities.
These discontinuities can be of different types (Nakhimovsky, 1988). In the first place,
discontinuities of topic, which can be of two kinds: introduction of a completely new topic,
1 The full text is provided at the end of the paper, right after the references.
or else the re-introduction of an old one. Secondly, temporal disconuities, which can be
divided into three subtypes: i) from a perfective to an imperfective sentence perspective,
together with a shift to a much greater time scale; it involves the introduction of
background or descriptive material, and is usually accompanied by topic re-introduction;
ii) the reverse shift from description to narration, which involves a contraction of the time
scale, and the return to the main story line; and iii) a backwards move to an earlier point in
DS Lines Type of DS Discontinuites
DS 1 1 – 7 NARRATION
DS 2 8 – 17 FLASH-BACK topic; time (backwards)
space
perspective (Nick’s father)
DS 3 17 – 20 NARRATION topic; time (back to story line)
space
perspective (author’s)
DS 4 20 – 22 DESCRIPTION topic; time (greater scale)
imperfective sentence perspective
DS 5 22 – 55 NARRATION topic; time (smaller scale)
perfective sentence perspective
back to story line
DS 6 55 – 56 DESCRIPTION topic; time (greater scale)
imperfective sentence perspective
DS 7 56 – 61 NARRATION topic; time (smaller scale)
perfective sentence perspective
back to story line
DS 8 62 DESCRIPTION topic; time (greater scale)
imperfective sentence perspective
DS 9 62 NARRATION topic; time (smaller scale)
perfective sentence perspective
back to story line
DS 10
63 - 63 DESCRIPTION topic; time (greater scale)
imperfective sentence perspective
DS 11 63 – 66 NARRATION topic; time (smaller scale)
perfective sentence perspective
back to story line
DS 12
67 – 76 NARRATION topic (new: doctor’s family)
space (doctor’s house)
perfective sentence perspective
new story line
DS 13 76 DESCRIPTION topic; time (greater scale)
imperfective sentence perspective
DS 14 76 – 114 NARRATION topic; time (smaller scale)
perfective sentence perspective
back to new story line
Table 1 Division of the text into discourse segments + identification of discontinuities
time, with or without a change in time scale, usually expressed with the past perfect or with
used to. In the third place, spatial discontinuites, based on human biology and habitat, such
one’s body, room area, house, village, etc. Finally, discontinuities of perspective, which
can be attitude reports or else indications of the spatial position from which things are
perceived.
Table 1 provides the division of the narrative into discourse segments, together with
information on the type of segment and on the discontinuities that mark the transition from
one segment to the next. The identification of descriptive segments has been done
following Chafe’s (1970:169) notion of generic situations: ‘no single, transitory event is
communicated but rather a timeless propensity for an indefinite number of events [or
states] to take place’. The great irregularity of length of discourse segments is quite
striking: some are as long as 418 words, and others as short as 5. There are no big
descriptive segments, no paragraphs totally devoted to the description of a person or an
object (or landscape), but simply small descriptive islands among the two great narrative
sections of the short story. As a result of this, what we find are a two story lines whose
temporal structures are not interrupted by the descriptions. Table 2 shows, in a highly
summarized way, the overall structure of the text.
Narration
Description
Story line Temporal focus 1
Space 1 (lake) DS 1, DS 3, DS 5, DS 7,
DS 9, DS 11 DS 4, DS 6, DS 8,
DS 10
Flash-back Temporal focus 2 DS 2
Story line
Temporal focus 3
Space 2 (doctor’s house) DS 12, DS 14 DS 13
Table 2 Overall structure of the text
3 Narrative moves
In this section we are only going to take into account narrative segments, and we will
concentrate exclusively on main verbs, because the interpretation of tenses in subordinate
clauses is an issue that falls out of the scope of this paper. Since 98 % of the total of main
verbs are past tense forms, these are the only ones we are going to consider.
For the study of narrative moves the first verb of each of the two story lines has been
disregarded, given that they are the starting point and so they do not contribute to the
movement of the narration; they rather act as a reference point, against which the temporal
reference of following verbs is established.
There are four types of moves: forward (1) (the time of the second verb is posterior to that
of the first one), sideways (2) (the time of the second verb includes that of the first), (3)
elaboration (the second verb gives more information about the situation expressed by the
first), and (4) overlap (when both verbs can be construed as a response to the same event):
(1) He turned and shut the gate. (l. 6)
(2) Dick Boulton walked around past the cottage down to the lake. There were four big
beech logs lying almost buried in the sand. (l. 17-18)
(3) Dick Boulton came from the Indian camp to cup up logs for Nick’s father. He brought
his son Eddy and another Indian named Billy Tabeshaw with him. (l. 1-2)
(4) The doctor chewed the beard on his lower lip and looked at Dick Boulton. (l. 57-58)
As for the aspectual classs of past tense verbs, 83 % are events versus only 17 % of states,
which is to be expected in a narrative text; and 65 % telic and 35 % atelic. In relation to
narrative moves: forward moves represent almost 75 % of the total, which is perfectly
logical in a narrative text, whose function is to develop a plot, that is, a sequence of events
forming a recognizable pattern (Nakhimovsky, 1988).
Since 90 % of all moves are sideways and forward, we will concentrate on them. There are
a number of theories about the temporal interpretation of narrative discourse that establish
a direct relationship between the movement of the narrated events and the aspectual class
of the verb phrases involved (Dowty, 1986; Dry, 1981; Hatav, 1986; Nakhimovsky, 1988).
This paper is clearly not the place for a thorough revision and evaluation of these theories,
and neither for a complete study of the aspectual oppositions (states, telic and non-telic
situations) that have been taken for granted here2. The basic idea shared by all these
authors is that telic situations move the narrative forward and non-telic ones tend to move
it sideways.
As was to be expected, none of the telic situations move the narration sideways (a fact that
was already found in Curell and Guasch (1996) with a corpus of 1473 tokens, in Curell
(1998a) with a corpus of 530 tokens, and in Curell (1998b) with a corpus of 107 tokens). It
would seem to be the case, although it needs to be validated with a corpus study, that in
order for a telic situation to move the narration sideways, it would have to be in the past
progressive. This is indeed claimed by Hatav (1989): according to her, in English the
progressive deprives a situation of its end-points, and so unables it to move the narration
forward.
Non-telic situations that move the narrative forward tend to be considered exceptions or
special cases, since the vast majority of them move it sideways. However, they represent
1/3 of all non-telic situations, a figure very similar to that found in Curell and Guasch
(1996), Curell (1998a and 1998b). These cases have received different explanations by
different authors. According to Hatav (1989), non-telic situations can move the narrative
forward if they are inchoative or if their duration is limited by explicit linguistic marking,
but there are no such cases in our short story. Caenepeel (1995:226) claims that it is
consequentiality rather than temporal sequence ‘that provides the principal source of
coherence between events in a narrative’. Dowty (1986) and Dry (1981) state that, apart
from inchoatives, non-telic situations can move the narrative forward with explicit marking
by means of adverbials such as later or suddenly, or else by implicature deriving from
sentence relationships.
We have selected the most illustrative of the examples of non-telic situations moving the
narrative forward:
(5) He took a plug of tobacco out of his pocket, bit off a chew and spoke in Ojibway to
Eddy and Billy Tabeshaw. (l. 22-23)
(6) They swung their weight against the shafts of the cant-hooks. The log moved in the
sand. (l. 25-26)
(7) [A few dialogue turns with the reported verb missing.] Dick Boulton looked at
the doctor. (l. 55)
(8) Dick said something in Ojibway. Eddy laughed (…) (l. 61)
2 For a good review of these and other related concepts, see Depraetere (1995).
(9) (...) the doctor (...) saw a pile of medical journals on the floor by the bureau. They were
still in the wrappers unopened. It irritated him. (l. 67-68)
(10) [A few dialogue turns with the reported verb missing.] His wife was silent. (l. 92)
(11) He was very fond of it. Then he heard his wife’s voice from the darkened
room. (l. 93-94)
(12) The screen door slammed behind him. He heard his wife catch her breath when the
door slammed. (l. 102-103)
(13) ‘I want to go with you,’ Nick said.
His father looked down at him. (l. 110-111)
Examples (5) and (11) are easy to explain: and and then act as syntactic clues indicating a
clear sequence between the two situations, as proposed by Dowty (1981) and Dry (1981).
In (6), (8), (9) and (12) the second situation is clearly a result or consequence of the first
one, so that this is the only possible order in which the two events can have taken place, as
predicted by Caenepeel (1995).
In the rest of the examples, we know that the narrative moves forward, but it is hard to say
exactly why. Dowty (1986) claims that for this kind of situations the speakers interpret the
narration as moving forward for pragmatic reasons, using their knowledge of the world, or
by means of logical deductions based on the linguistic context.
In example (7), the past tense is ambiguous, that is, there are two possible interpretations:
one, that Dick Boulton was already looking at the doctor during the previous conversation,
and two that he started looking at the doctor after the last turn. Probably the most frequent
interpretation would be the latter, because for the former English provides the possibility of
using a past progressive.
In (10) the speaker uses information extracted from the linguistic context for the
interpetation: we know from what appears earlier in the text that the doctor’s wife was not
silent before, so that the verb was cannot be indicating a movement sideways.
Example (13) is the most difficult to explain: all the speakers consulted by the author
agreed that looked indicates a movement forward, but there are no clear pragmatic reasons,
or information in the linguistic context, and neither can we resort to our knowledge of the
world to explain this interpretation.
4 Conclusion
In this paper we have shown first that narrative texts can be meaningfully divided into
discourse segments by identifying the different types of discontinuities that signal the
borders between them (of topic, of time, of space and of perspective), and each discourse
segment can be classified as narrative or descriptive.
In the second place, we have applied various theories on the temporal interpretation of
discourse to a complete text (in the majority of other cases the corpus consists of parts of
novels). We have been able to confirm the fact that telic situations in the past tense move
the narrative forward, whereas non-telic ones tend to move it sideways. As for the 1/3 of
non-telic situations moving the story line sideways, we have provided different
explanations, such as the presence of time adverbials, a relation of consequentiality
between the situations. However, for one particular case (which cannot be considered an
outlandish exception because similar cases have been found in other corpus studies), none
of the accounts studied can provide a satisfactory explanation, which shows that further
research is necessary in this area.
5 References
Canepeel, Mimo (1995): Aspect and text structure. In: Linguistics 33, 213-253.
Chafe, Wallace L. (1970): Meaning and the Structure of Language. Chicago and London:
The University of Chicago Press.
Curell, Hortènsia (1998a): La traducció del simple past anglès al català. Poster presented in
the IV International Conference on Translation. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
Curell, Hortènsia (1998b): The present perfect in narrative texts. A comparison between
English and Catalan. Paper read at the III Chronos Conference, Valenciennes.
Curell, Hortènsia; Guasch, Clara (1996): La traducción del simple past inglés al catalán.
Paper read in IV Jornadas Internacionales de Historia de la Traducción. Universidad de
León.
Depraetere, Ilse (1995): On the necessity of distinguishing between (un)boundedness and
(a)telicity. In: Linguistics and Philosophy 18, 1-19.
Dowty, David R. (1986): The effects of aspectual class on the temporal structure of
discourse: semantics or pragmatics? In: Linguistics and Philosophy 9, 37-61.
Dry, Helen (1981): Sentence aspect and the movement of narrative time. In: Text 1, 233-
240.
Hatav, Galia (1989): Aspects, Aktionsarten, and the time line. In: Linguistics 27, 487-516.
Lascarides, Alex; Asher, Nicholas (1993): Temporal interpretation, discourse relations and
commonsense entailment. In: Linguistics and Philosophy 16, 437-493.
Nakhimovsky, Alexander (1988): Aspect, aspectual class, and the temporal structure of
narrative. In: Computational Linguistics 14, 29-43.
6 Appendix: The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife – Ernest Hemingway
Dick Boulton came from the Indian camp to cut up logs for Nick’s father. He brought his
son Eddy and another Indian named Billy Tabeshaw with him. They came in through the
back gate out of the woods, Eddy carrying the long cross-cut saw. It flopped over his
shoulder and made a musical sound as he walked. Billy Tabeshaw carried two big cant-
hooks. Dick had three axes under his arm.
5
10
15
20
He turned and shut the gate. The others went on ahead of him down to the lake shore
where the logs were buried in the sand. λ
The logs had been lost from the big log booms that were towed down the lake to the mill
by the steamer Magic. They had drifted up onto the beach and if nothing were done about
them sooner or later the crew of the Magic would come along the shore in a rowboat, spot
the logs, drive an iron spike with a ring on it into the end of each one and then tow them
out into the lake to make a new boom. But the lumbermen might never come for them
because a few logs were not worth the price of a crew to gather them. If no one came for
them they would be left to waterlog and rot on the beach.
Nick’s father always assumed that this was what would happen, and hired the Indians to
come down from the camp and cut the logs up with the cross-cut saw and split them with a
wedge to make cord wood and chunks for the open fireplace. λ Dick Boulton walked
around past the cottage down to the lake. There were four big beech logs lying almost
buried in the sand. Eddy hung the saw up by one of its handlers in the crotch of a tree. Dick
put the three axes down on the little dock. λ Dick was a half-breed and many of the
farmers around the lake believed he was really a white man. He was very lazy but a great
worker once he was started. λ He took a plug of tobacco out of his pocket, bit off a chew
and spoke in Ojibway to Eddy and Billy Tabeshaw.
They sunk the ends of their cant-hooks into one of the logs and swung against it to loosen
it in the sand. They swung their weight against the shafts of the cant-hooks. The log moved
in the sand. Dick Boulton turned to Nick’s father.
25
30
35
40
45
50
55
60
65
‘Well, Doc,’ he said, ‘that’s a nice lot of timber you’ve stolen.’
‘Don’t talk that way, Dick,’ the doctor said. ‘It’s driftwood.’
Eddy and Billy Tabeshaw had rocked the log out of the wet sand and rolled it toward the
water.
‘Put it right in,’ Dick Boulton shouted.
‘What are you doing that for?’ asked the doctor.
‘Wash it off. Clean off the sand on account of the saw. I want to see who it belongs to,’
Dick said.
The log was just awash in the lake. Eddy and Billy Tabeshaw leaned on their cant-hooks
sweating in the sun. Dick kneeled down in the sand and looked at the mark of the scaler’s
hammer in the wood at the end of the log.
‘It belongs to White and McNally,’ he said, standing up and brushing off his trousers
knees.
The doctor was very uncomfortable.
‘You’d better not saw it up then, Dick,’ he said, shortly.
‘Don’t get huffy, Doc,’ said Dick. ‘Don’t get huffy. I don’t care who you steal from. It’s
none of my business.’
‘If you think the logs are stolen, leave them alone and take your tools back to the camp,’
the doctor said. His face was red.
‘Don’t go at half cock, Doc,’ Dick said. He spat tobacco juice on the log. It slid off,
thinning in the water. ‘You know they’re stolen as well as I do. It don’t make any
difference to me.’
‘All right. If you think the logs are stolen, take your stuff and get out.’
‘Now, Doc –‘
‘Take your stuff and get out.’
‘Listen, Doc.’
‘If you call me Doc once again, I’ll knock your eye teeth down your throat.’
‘Oh, no, you won’t, Doc.’
Dick Boulton looked at the doctor. λ Dick was a big man. He knew how big a man he was.
He liked to get into fights. λ He was happy. Eddy and Billy Tabeshaw leaned on their cant-
hooks and looked at the doctor. The doctor chewed the beard on his lower lip and looked at
Dick Boulton, then he turned away and walked up the hill to the cottage. They could see
from his back how angry he was. They all watched him walk up the hill and go inside the
cottage.
Dick said something in Ojibway. Eddy laughed but Billy Tabeshaw looked very serious. λ
He did not understand English λ but he had sweat all the time the row was going on. λ He
was fat with only a few hairs of mustache like a Chinaman. λ He picked up the two cant-
hooks. Dick picked up the axes and Eddy took the saw down from the tree. They started
off and walked up past the cottage and out the back gate into the woods. Dick left the gate
open. Billy Tabeshaw went back and fastened it. They were gone through the woods. λ
In the cottage the doctor, sitting on the bed in his room, saw a pile of medical journals on
the floor by the bureau. They were still in the wrappers unopened. It irritated him.
‘Aren’t you going back to work, dear?’ asked the doctor’s wife from the room where she
was lying with the blinds drawn.
70
75
80
85
90
95
100
105
110
115
‘No!’
‘Was anything the matter?’
‘I had a row with Dick Boulton.’
‘Oh,’ said his wife. ‘I hope you didn’t lose your temper, Henry.’
‘No,’ said the doctor.
‘Remember, that he who ruleth his spirit is greater that he that taketh a city,’ said his wife.
λ She was a Christian Scientist. λ Her Bible, her copy of Science and Health and her
Quaterly were on a table beside her bed in the darkened room.
Her husband did not answer. He was sitting on his bed now, cleaning a shotgun. He pushed
the magazine full of the heavy yellow shells and pumped them out again. They were
scattered on the bed.
‘Henry,’ his wife called. Then paused a moment. ‘Henry!’
‘Yes,’ the doctor said.
‘You didn’t say anything to Boulton to anger him, did you?’
‘No,’ said the doctor.
‘What was the trouble about, dear?’
‘Nothing much.’
‘Tell me, Henry. Please don’t try and keep anything from me. What was the trouble
about?’
‘Well, Dick owes me a lot of money for pulling his squaw through pneumonia and I guess
he wanted a row so he wouldn’t have to take it out in work.’
His wife was silent. The doctor wiped his gun carefully with a rag. He pushed the shells
back in against the spring of the magazine. He sat with the gun on his knees. He was very
fond of it. Then he heard his wife’s voice from the darkened room.
‘Dear, I don’t think, I really don’t think that any one would really do a thing like that.’
‘No?’ the doctor said.
‘No. I can’t really believe that any one would do a thing of that sort intentionally.’
The doctor stood up and put the shotgun in the corner behind the dresser.
‘Are you going out, dear?’ his wife said.
‘I think I’ll go for a walk,’ the doctor said.
‘If you see Nick, dear, will you tell him his mother wants to see him?’ his wife said.
The doctor went out on the porch. The screen door slammed behind him. He heard his wife
catch her breath when the door slammed.
‘Sorry,’ he said, outside her window with the blinds drawn.
‘It’s all right, dear,’ she said.
He walked in the heat out the gate and along the path into the hemlock woods. It was cool
in the woods even on such a hot day. He found Nick sitting with his back against a tree,
reading.
‘Your mother wants you to come and see her,’ the doctor said.
‘I want to go with you,’ Nick said.
His father looked down at him.
‘All right. Come on, then,’ his father said. ‘Give me the book. I’ll put it in my pocket.’
‘I know where there’s black squirrels, Daddy,’ Nick said.
‘All right,’ said his father. ‘Let’s go there.’
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La traducció del simple past anglès al català. Poster presented in the IV International Conference on Translation
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Curell, Hortènsia (1998a): La traducció del simple past anglès al català. Poster presented in the IV International Conference on Translation. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
La traducción del simple past inglés al catalán. Paper read in IV Jornadas Internacionales de Historia de la Traducción
  • Hortènsia Curell
  • Clara Guasch
Curell, Hortènsia; Guasch, Clara (1996): La traducción del simple past inglés al catalán. Paper read in IV Jornadas Internacionales de Historia de la Traducción. Universidad de León.