Vol. 1. No. 2 R-1 August 1994
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Relating Events in Narrative: A Crosslinguistic Developmental Study
Berman, Ruth A., and Dan Isaac Slobin, in collaboration with Ayhan A. Aksu-Koc, Michael Bamberg, Lisa Dasinger, Virginia Marchman, Yonni Neeman, Philip C. Rodkin, Eugenia Sebastian, Cecile Toupin, Tom Trabasso and Christiane von Stutterheim.(1994)
Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pp. xiv + 748. ISBN 0-8058-1435-3.
$99.95 (Available pre-paid from the publisher for $49.95).

This book has been long awaited by students of narrative development, child language acquisition, and cross-linguistic comparisons of language development. Slobin is one of the leading figures in language development in this century (e.g., Slobin, 1985) and Berman is a well-respected researcher in the area. Together with a variety of colleagues, many originally from the University of California at Berkeley, they have for a decade studied how children and adults, speaking a number of different languages, narrativize a wordless picture book (Mercer Mayers Frog, Where Are You?, New York: Dial Press, 1969). Data was collected from three-year-old, four-year-old, five-year-old, and nine-year-old children, as well as adults, in English, Spanish, Hebrew, German, and Turkish (no four- year- olds in German or Turkish). A number of other researchers, whose work is not published in this volume, have added to this work over the years. At least 150 researchers have collected frog stories in 50 languages, including signed languages; data has been collected in a variety of conditions, including in spoken and written modes, from bilinguals, and from people with various language impairments (p. xi). An appendix to the book (pp. 665ff) lists many of these additional studies. There is little doubt that this corpus of data, and the research to which it has given rise, is significant in the history of the study of language development in a cross-linguistic context.

The book starts with two chapters orienting the reader to the project, followed by two chapters focusing on function, that is, the tasks one attempts to accomplish in constructing a coherent narrative text (such as creating a time line; taking a perspective on information through backgrounding and foregrounding; connecting clauses temporally, causally, and logically; and dividing a text into coherent parts and relating them to each other). These chapters devoted to function are followed by five chapters focusing on form and giving descriptions of the various linguistic devices used by speakers of different ages and languages to carry out the narrative functions (form encompasses such things as grammatical words, inflections, interclausal connectives, and various syntactic constructions such as the passive). The next five chapters put form and function together, considering how a variety of linguistic forms interact with narrative functions. Different languages, of course, use different forms to carry out similar functions, and similar forms to carry out somewhat different functions. Further, [-1-] particular grammatical resources that are readily available (or not) in a given language influence the course of development. The book ends (minus various appendices) with three chapters discussing implications of the research, both in terms of developmental trends and crosslinguistic differences. A number of the chapters are written by the collaborating authors, though Berman and Slobin have written most of the overview and more theoretical chapters.

The book contains a wealth of detailed descriptive information on development within and across languages, both quantitative and qualitative, as well as a good deal of more theoretical pictures of the forest rather than the trees. It is organized around the theme of form interacting with function, and its motto could well be Slobins early claim that New forms first express old functions, and new functions are first expressed by old forms (1973, p. 184). In fact, Slobin and Berman claim that Essentially our narrative task is to fill in this formula with crosslinguistic and developmental detail beyond [the earliest stages of language acquisition](p. 6, see also pp. 603ff).

Slobins principle about form and function means that new functions (new communicational jobs) first take a ride on available old forms. For example, the linear order of clauses (e.g., The owl came out of the tree and then the boy fell) originally signals a temporal relationship (first the owl came out of the tree, then the boy fell), but later comes to signal a causal relationship (the boy fell because the owl came out of the tree). Eventually there is pressure to develop new forms which are more function-specific; thus, the child comes to develop connectives like because and can then vary the order of clauses. Further, new forms originally enter the language carrying out an old function that other forms already can accomplish; thus, the connective because accomplishes a function that the child has already learned to accomplish by word order and connectives such as and then. These intricate interactions between form and function essentially mean that, at each stage of development, children have different child grammars dealing with both syntax and discourse, grammars which look superficially like adult grammars, but differ from them in a variety of ways. Slobin has argued for years that these child grammars have a great deal in common across languages in the ways in which forms and functions are related, with the actual course (e.g., speed and order) of development affected by the grammatical resources of a given language. Furthermore, he and his students have always studied grammar as a combination of syntax and discourse with due respect for the complex interactions of cognitive and language development.

The various studies in this book trace out, across the languages studied, how children move from first merely encoding only individual events (pictures) to organizing these events temporally, then eventually adding causal structure at a local level, and [-2-] finally attaining more global action-structures integrated into thematically coherent plot lines. They show that this process is a complex interaction of universal cognitive and linguistic forces adapted to the particular grammatical resources of specific languages. Each language becomes a particular variation on the overall theme of this trajectory from event to time to cause to thematic development. If readers read nothing else in the book, they should not miss the chapter on Filtering and Packaging in Narrative (Chapter IVc, pp. 515-554) which studies how people, across age and language, construe experience (in terms of topic, loci of control, perspective on events, and degree of agency) and how they analyze situations into components and encode them in multiclausal constructions. This chapter is a high point of the book and a good summary of many of the themes of the whole project.

There is some room to criticize the massive research project on which this book is based. Much of language development takes place before the earliest ages studied here, including much that is relevant to narrative. The task of narrativizing a wordless picture book is artificial and hardly does justice to narratives that are deeply meaningful to people and which flow out of their ongoing interactions and lives. In such narratives, chronology and causal logic is less important than themes, patterns, and images (Gee, 1991). There is a good deal of repetition in the book, and though it deals with a wealth of topics, there is little consideration of how language is embedded in practice, society, and culture, which is, in many respects, crucial in understanding discourse in general and narrative in particular (Gee, 1990; Agar, 1994). Finally, for readers interested in bilingual, second, and foreign language issues, there is no direct discussion of these matters, though the book is an important resource for anyone who wants to study or understand narrative (form and function) in these wider settings. No project can be all things to all people. This book constitutes a fundamental and important piece of work. All the authors are to be congratulated.


Agar, M. (1994). Language shock: Understanding the culture of conversation. New York: William Marrow.

Gee, J. P. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London: Falmer Press.

Gee, J. P. (1991). Memory and myth: A perspective on narrative. Introduction to A. McCabe and C. Peterson (Eds.),Developing narrative structure (pp. 1-25). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum [-3-]

Slobin, D. I. (1973). Cognitive prerequisites for the development of grammar. In C. A. Ferguson and D. I. Slobin (Eds.), Studies of child language development (pp. 175-208). New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston. Slobin, D. I. (Ed.) (1985). The crosslinguistic study of language acquisition (Vols. 1-2). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

James Paul Gee
Clark University


Why Narrativizing A Wordless Picture Book Is Not Artificial

A Response to Jim Gees review of Relating Events in Narrative, by one of the collaborating authors.

Jim's characterization of using the wordless picture book Frog, Where Are You? to engage children (and adults) in the activity of narrativizing as artificiala comment that I have encountered several times at occasions I reported my own analyses of the frog-story datagives me the opportunity to briefly address the ideological implications of this misinterpretation.

At the core of the issue seems to be the fact that telling a story from the pictures is not about the narrators own lived experience(s). I assume it is this type of personal narrative that Jim alludes to by narratives that ... flow out of their [childrens] ... lives. As such, the frog story is typically told from the perspective of a third-person character (usually the boy as the central protagonist), and it requires the linguistic creation of this perspective. Creating this perspective, i.e. the construction of events through the subjectivity of a third person, is an activity that is as natural (as opposed to artificial) as constructing events from a first-person perspective, i.e.in Jims language making sense of satisfying patterns of themes from the perspective of the narrating self. The sociocultural and sociohistorical approach that Jim (and I myself as well) ascribe(s) to strongly argues that there is a tradition of these patterns of themes, and they often come in the form of third-person-perspective language. Thus, neither the construction of the subject of experiences from pictures, nor constructing the self as the subject of experiences, gives grounds for the assumption that one of the two lacks satisfying patterns of themes, while the other one preserves them. So, what could be the source of anyones attempts to privilege the construction of ones own subjectivity over the construction of the subjectivity of others?

It is my suspicion that privileging the construction of events through the subjectivity of a first-person [as (more) natural], over the construction of events from a third-person perspective [as (more) artificial], is a relic of a common view (that has become the shared view in the process of civilization) that celebrates the individualized agent as the originator of sense making in the form of patterns of themes. Though I wholeheartedly agree with Jims general claim (more developed in his introductory chapter to McCabe and Petersons Developing Narrative Structure [Gee, 1991], and possibly well summarized in the statement that traditional psycholinguistic research has not sufficiently been concerned with how subjects have created their perspectives on events and signaled satisfying patterns of themes, but rather, that subjects; creative forces have been canceled out of narrative activities by reducing [-5-] them to reports of a chronological sequence of events), I nevertheless want to underscore that this concern is an issue of how narratives are analyzed, and not whether narrators take (or are led to take) a first-person versus a third-person perspective in their narrative activity. Privileging subjectivity from a first-person perspective [as the (more) natural] over the third-person perspective [as the secondary, derived from the more natural, and as such (more) artificial] gives rise to the serious misinterpretation of an over-powering subjectivity of the (modern) individualized self as the social agent that flies in the face of the sociocultural and sociohistorical approach that Jim has so powerfully put forth in all of his recent works.


Gee, J. P. (1991). Memory and myth: a perspective on narrative. Introduction to A. McCabe and C. Peterson (Eds.), Developing narrative structure (pp. 1-25). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Michael Bamberg
Massey University, New Zealand


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