CHP: The Conversational Historical Present in American English Narrative 9783110851694, 9783110133608

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CHP: The Conversational Historical Present in American English Narrative
 9783110851694, 9783110133608

Table of contents :
Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Internal analysis. CHP alternation and the organization of discourse
Chapter 3. Field methodology. Consequences of rules of speaking on the collection of data
Chapter 4. Sociolinguistic analysis. Interactional factors as they affect the occurence of CHP
Chapter 5. Conclusion

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The conversational Historical Present in American English Narrative

Topics in Sociolinguistics New series in sociolinguistics aiming at the publication of works which take as their unifying theme the interplay between linguistic, social and cultural factors in human communication. Items to be published will range widely from, for example, coverage of ways of speaking a m o n g diverse groups in a large geographical area, to a detailed study of a single feature of conversational narratives in American English. Contributions will include monographs, collections of papers, and previously unpublished dissertations. Editor Nessa Wolfson University of Pennsylvania


The conversational Historical Present in American English Narrative NessaWolfson


1982 FORIS PUBLICATIONS Dordrecht - Holland/Cinnaminson - U.S.A.

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ISBN 90 70176 61 0 (Bound) ISBN 90 70176 60 2 (Paper) © 1 9 8 2 Foris Publications - Dordrecht No part of this book may be translated or reproduced in any form, by print, photoprint, or any other means, without written permission from the publisher. Printed in the Netherlands by Intercontinental Graphics, H.I. Ambacht.




Chapter 1. Introduction


Chapter 2. Internal analysis CHP alternation and the organization of discourse


Chapter 3. Field methodology Consequences of rules of speaking on the collection of data


Chapter 4. Sociolinguistic analysis


Interactional factors as they affect the occurence of CHP Chapter 5. Conclusion









My thanks to John Fought for supervising this dissertation and for all of his support and encouragement, and to William Labov for encouraging my first efforts in socio linguistic fieldwork as well as for his continued interest. My special thanks to Dell Hymes whose conception of the relationship between language and society forms the foundation for this research. His careful criticism of this dissertation has been invaluable. One can, of course never adequately thank one's teachers. My thanks to David Depue, Jenny Glusker, Kenneth Hymes, Virginia Hymes, Susan Kaminow, Joan Manes, Susan Thomas, Harvey Wolfson and Barry Zimmerman for their help in collecting data. Access to additional data was kindly provided by David Depue, William Labov, Martha Pennington and Roger Shuy. My gratitude to Jenny Glusker, Daniele Godard, Virginia Hymes, Joan Manes and Susan Thomas for their constant intellectual and emotional support throughout the writing of this dissertation and for the many discussions and insightful comments which aided my understanding of the problem. Finally, more than thanks are due to my husband, Harvey M. Wolfson, for his patience, encouragement and support throughout.

Chapter 1


The historical present tense, known also as the dramatic or the narrative present tense, is the use of the present tense, in narrative, to refer to events which began and ended at some time previous to the moment at which the narrative itself is told. The subject of this dissertation will be the way in which the historical present tense functions in contemporary American conversational narrative, both within the context of the narrative itself and within the context of the speech event in which the narrative occurs. Nowhere has this use of the present tense been satisfactorily distinguished from other uses. The definition of my subject just given is based upon two characteristic properties of the conversational historical present, hereafter to be known as CHP; these are sufficient to distinguish this feature from other occurrences of the present tense which have sometimes been confused with it. (1) The occurrence of CHP is restricted, by definition, to conversational narrative. (2) CHP alternates with the simple past tense in such a way that (a) The simple past tense is always substitutable for CHP without change in referential meaning and (b) CHP is never found in all verbs where it could have been used. Thus it appears clearly from the beginning that the subject under consideration is not CHP by itself, but rather the alternation set, simple past + CHP, which together constitute what has been called a variable. It is common for a language to have many alternate ways of saying "the same" thing. Some words like car and automobile seem to have the same referents; others have two pronunciations, like working and workin'. There are syntactic options such as "Who is he talking to?" vs. "To whom is he talking?" or "It's easy for him to talk" vs. "For him to talk is easy." In each of these cases, we have the problem of deciding the place of this variation in linguistic structure. Labov (1972: 188)

The CHP alternation set comprises not only the simple forms of the past and present tenses but also their aspectual variants, the past and present progressive froms and the past and present perfect forms. Taken together, these three substitutions make up a symmetrical substitution set. The simple present tense, used as CHP, may substitute, as we have said, for


CHP in American English Narrative

the simple past tense in conversational narrative. Simple CHP is, therefore, referentially equivalent to the past tense when used in this way. The present progressive, when it substitutes for the past progressive, is used to express duration and/or imperfectiveness, just as the past perfect is. Referentially, there is no difference between the italicized verbs in the following excerpts: 1.

"It came about six months later and the guy is picking up one hundred pounds now and he's already built like this (gesture) you know . .

and 2.

"So about a year went by. I was picking up two hundred pounds off the floor, you know, one hand snatch right up over my head."

or 3.

"I was at a club not too long ago with my wife and Don Rickles was appearing. Went to see him and I'm sitting there having a wonderful time and ah, I was wearing a sport jacket kind of like that- -not that wild but something like that- -something he would notice. And ah, he's doing his show and I see him look at me and he does this (gesture) and he starts on me. Really pickin' on me, and he's givin' it to me. Now I'm having a terrific time because I think- -I'm nudging my wife . . ."

In example #3 it is clear that the past progressive forms could easily be substituted for the present progressive forms with no change in referential meaning, just as the verbs in simple CHP could be substituted for by the simple past tense form. A sentence like the following is in CHP progressive: 4.

"A couple of years ago I'm goin' to Miami from New York."

may be transformed into past progressive with no change in referential meaning: "A couple of years ago I was goin' to Miami from New York." The third member of the CHP alternation is the CHP perfect. An example of the CHP perfect will serve to show that like the simple and the progressive presents, the present perfect is the equivalent of its past form:




"Johnny, he sends a letter to the United Weight Lifters of America or something like that. Enters me and himself in a contest to be held in Philadelphia. All of a sudden I get a letter that I've been accepted."

If we substitute the past tense for the verbs in the last sentence of the above example: "All of a sudden I get a letter that I've been accepted." we have "All of a sudden I got a letter that I'd been accepted." Clearly, the present perfect in the example simply follows the sequence of tense rule in CHP instead of in the past. It should be pointed out, however, that CHP perfect is a rare form in conversational narrative and that the reason for its rarity has to do with the fact that the past perfect tense for which it may substitute appears to be very unstable in present-day conversational English. Although an analysis of the use of the past perfect tense is outside the scope of this study, it should be noted that the simple past tense is frequently used where traditional grammar would lead one to expect past perfect. It is not at all unusual to find simple past tense in a subordinate clause following a head clause in which there is a simple past tense. Since there is a great deal of fluctuation between simple past and past perfect, and since the past perfect tense is seldom in conversational narrative, it is not surprising that the CHP present perfect is also very rare. The first property of CHP alternation, that of substitutability with the past tense, has been exemplified above. The fact that substitutability is truly a defining characteristic and limitation on what we are calling CHP is shown also by the fact that there are other present tense forms in narratives which are not CHP and which do not have the characteristic of substitutability. The point is that the present tense has many uses; CHP is only one of them. What sets this feature off from other uses of the present tense in narrative is that the verbs which may be classified as CHP refer only to the time at which the narrated event took place and not to the moment at which the narrative is being told. In his article entitled "Shifters, verbal categories, and the Russian verb" (1967) Jakobson makes it clear that a narrative text contains two processes to which he refers by the terms 'proces d'enonce' and 'proems d'^nonciation'. The term 'procös d'£nonc£' would be more or less equivalent to the reported actions or what Jakobson calls the narrated event while the term 'procös d'enonciation', originated by Benveniste (1956) refers to the speech event which includes the action of reporting. Thus Jakobson sees verb tenses as having two possible reference points: that inside the narrative and that of the moment of narration. Benveniste, who stressed the systematic distinction between the two reference points, exemplifies his statement with such pairs as last night/the night before, tomorrow/the following day, and so on. Clearly


CHP in American English Narrative

the members of these pairs are not interchangeable with each other. In a narrative the speaker may use the adverbial phrase 'the night before' 'where 'last night' would be meaningless or would refer to the night before the moment of speaking and not to the night before the event which is the subject of the narrative. For Jakobson, who refers to Benveniste, this contrast forms the distinction between what he calls shifters'and connectors, ('last night' is a shifter while 'the night before'is a connector.)1 With respect to CHP, the problem is that the same present tense form can be related referentially to either the moment of speaking (proces de l'enonciation) or to the time period during which the events being narrated took place (proces de Γέηοηοέ). In the following example we will see that not all presents belong to the category which we have labelled CHP precisely because some of them are related to the moment of speaking rather than to the moment being spoken about. 6.

"Yeah, we were the typical American tourists (laugh) and you know, we don't even carry cameras for that reason, (laugh) And here they are, you know, and they're looking down at us like they're looking down on us because, you know, we're dressed decently and they're there in like rags with the back packs and the whole bit, and the hair's down to here, (gesture) And they were funny because they were talk- -Larry started- -he talks to anybody. You know, he goes up and starts- he likes to listen to everybody's stories, their hang-ups you know. And he starts talking to them and talking about, you know, the struggling middle class and the whole bit, you know, and how they dislike their parents-what their parents stand for- -and all this business, and all of a sudden they turn around and the guy says, "Next", and he says he's writing home for money, you know, (laugh) That was okay, you know. Send me a thousand dollars, or send me five hundred dollars, that was okay. The parents are home breaking their necks makin' the money and they're sittin' over Europe spending it!"

Although there are a number of CHPs in this passage, there are also a number of present tense verbs which are not CHP. The verb in line two, 'and we don't even carry cameras for that reason.' is not CHP, it is a statement of general truth. In line seven, 'he talks' and in line eight, 'he likes' are asides in which the narrator is telling something about her husband which is true not only at the moment of the story but generally. Thus, inside the narrative, there are many occasions when the speaker simply gives an opinion, makes a comment, explains something which is generally true, 1. The term shifter, of course, involves reference to code and message both.



etc. These present tense uses are not considered CHP precisely because they refer to the moment of speaking. They are, in Jakobson's terms, shifters, while CHP is never used except in reference to the time of the story. Conversely, not all past tense verbs which occur during the narration refer to the time of the narrated event. Some past tense verbs express the judgment of the speaker and are therefore related to the moment of speaking; that is, to the speech event taking place between the speaker and his audience. An example of a past tense form whose reference is not to the narrated event is the following: "She was standing in the rain which wasn't smart." The past tense form in the relative clause clearly expresses the opinion of the speaker toward the behavior of the subject of his narrative. As we have seen, HP (historical present) contrasts with other uses of the present in narrative in virtue of substitutability with the past tense. In addition, CHP (conversational historical present) contrasts with other uses of the historical present in narrative in virtue of never being used in all cases where substitution for the past tense might occur. Together the two properties indeed might be taken as a defining feature of performed conversational narrative- -selective stylistic substitution of present for past tense (stylistic, i.e., with referential meaning invariant). These two properties show the form of the device. For this reason, the restriction of this study specifically to conversational historical present should not be seen as an arbitrary one. The fact that the criteria which define CHP have to do with genre is to be expected and fits a general hypothesis about what language is and how the form-meaning relationships that constitute it are to be discovered. As Hymes has said: . . . the essence of a functional approach is not to take function for granted, but as problematic; to assume as part of a universal theory of language that a plurality of functions are served by linguistic features in any act and community; to require validation of the relationships between features and functions, and of their organization into varieties, registers, ways of speaking, ethnographically within the community; and to take functional questions, a functional perspective, as having priority, that is, as being fundamental, both in general theory and in specific accounts, to whatever can be validly said as to structure, competence, universals, etc. (Hymes 1974, p. 198)

Thus, data cannot be considered outside of its situational context; the speaker, the addressee, the goal, the time and place of the interaction, the channel. Only this approach will permit us to investigate validly the way(s) in which language structure is related to language use. Genre here is understood as a categorization which allows us to consider language in


CHP in American English Narrative

context since it is defined on the one hand by the formal properties of the discourse appropriate to it and on the other by situational properties. For this reason, narrative itself cannot be considered as a single category; it enters into many genres and serves many goals. Although it is true that a use of the present tense which could be classified as historical present occurs in many genres, this fact does not give us the right to assume that it functions in the same way as the historical present tense which we find in everyday conversational narrative (CHP). The historical present tense occurs in novels and plays, for instance, but whether it is used in the same way in these genres as it is used in conversational narrative is an empirical question. It is always possible for an artist to use a linguistic feature as a stylistic device but this does not mean that he uses it the same way he (or anyone else) would use it in speech. With respect to novels, there are at least two common uses of the tense under consideration. One is the so-called 'concommitant present' in which large parts of the story are narrated in the present tense; the other is a much more restricted use wherein the author seeks to create 'realism' by using this feature in the conversational narratives of his characters. Obviously, the first lacks the property which we have found to be characteristic of our CHP, namely the alternation with the past tense. The second use may or may not contain such alternation. The existence of this alternation is, in fact, relevant to sociolinguistic findings concerning the degree to which native speakers are aware of the way in which variables are used. Plays, like novels, frequently contain dialogue in which one of the characters tells a narrative. Again, the historical present tense may be employed by the author to lend realism to his dialogue, but we cannot assume that the author will use this feature in just the same way he might if he were, in fact, engaged in telling such a narrative to his own friends. The point is that authors intentionally use certain linguistic features for stylistic effect but since they, like all speakers, have certain conceptions about the way these features are used which may not quite correspond to the linguistic facts, we must not confuse the issue by taking an artistic recreation of dialogue as primary data for its study. Some authors do, of course, have the ability to reproduce dialogue with great accuracy, but even an author who is very successful in this way may choose to overgeneralize and to use the feature with far greater frequency than is found in everyday conversation in order to create an effect. An example of such a use of the historical present tense occurs in several narratives told by characters in the play "Mert and Phil" by Ann Burr. Here the author has her characters tell narratives in which every verb that could have been in the historical present is realized in this tense. This usage violates the rule of CHP alternation which has been found to operate in all narratives containing CHP which we have recorded from actual con-



versations. When I interviewed the author and asked her why she had used the historical present tense in this way she said she had done so because she felt that this was the way people of this social class used it. Therefore, in addition to the hypothesis that CHP is characteristic of the speech of a certain social group, which we will discuss in a later chapter, the author has also worked on the mistaken assumption that CHP may be used for every verb in a story. She was certainly not aware that she had overgeneralized the use of this tense. Novels and plays are, therefore, genres in which the historical present tense frequently occurs but which themselves cannot be viewed as sources of data for the study of CHP. As Labov points out: . . . we find many kinds of data used to provide information about language in actual use: census data, questionnaires, extracts from plays and novels, psychological tests, ethnographic reports of community norms. No matter how insightful or productive these studies may be, they do not bring us much closer to the fundamental data of language in use than we were before. There are many open questions which we simply cannot answer. What is the relationship between the novelist's stereotype and the language behavior of the people in question? . . . (Labov 1972, p. 201)

There are other genres in which the historical present tense frequently occurs such as travelogues, sportscasting and reviews of books and plays. In each of these genres the historical present tense is the conventional tense for narration. Each is a separate genre with rules for the use of linguistic forms, including verb tenses, which are different from each other and different in turn form those which obtain in conversation. Each of these genres may make use of writing or of speech as channels, but when spoken they constitute speech events or are included in speech events which have rules of their own, not shared by the rules for the speech events in which conversational narratives occur.2 It follows that the data upon which the analysis of CHP is based must come from narratives told in real life situations. The work which is reported in this study is, as we will discuss in detail in chapter 3, the result of an ethnographic approach toward the collection of data and its analysis, an approach which has never before been applied to the study of this feature. Because of the effectiveness of this method of investigation, I have been able to discover a great deal about the way in which this verb tense functions which has hitherto not been known. The fact that the historical present tense is a linguistic variable, in that it alternates with 2. Henry Home, Lord Kames (1867: 50-57) thought that the historical present, which he terms "ideal presence" was an excellent literary device but did not hesitate to criticize writers of his own day and of the classics for using it incorrectly.


CHP in American English Narrative

past tense in narratives, is well known. That it is a sociolinguistic variable, in that the occurrence of this alternation in conversational narrative is determined by factors within the speech situation, became clear to me when I did a pilot study using interviews to collect narratives. This first study, reported in my master's paper, showed that men and women who represented a cross-section of the Philadelphia speech community all used the historical present tense when telling stories, but that their use of this form was very seriously constrained by the presence of the tape recorder and by the interview situation. I found that while I could occasionally collect stories which contained CHP alternation within the interview itself, people were far more likely to use CHP outside the interview situation. It very often happened that when I turned off the tape recorder and walked to the door with the person whom I had just interviewed, a conversation would ensue in which the subject would introduce stories, something which he had not done during the actual interview. It seemed reasonable to hypothesize that CHP was a sociolinguistic variable, not because my data showed that its use was socially stratified, but because its occurrence seemed to depend upon norms of interaction within the speech community (Hymes 1972, p. 63). On analyzing both types of stories, those told within the interview context and those told outside it, it became evident to me that the CHP had both a textual and a contextual function. That is, its function within the text seemed to have to do with the organization of the story, but it had, in addition, a function which depended upon the speech situation. The very fact that the interview situation served to inhibit the use of this feature was strong indication that its use was determined by the context in which the story was told. In order to test this hypothesis, I listened to tape recorded interviews collected by other linguists who very generously permitted me access to their data. I found that there was indeed comparatively little occurrence of CHP in interview narratives, particularly those which were part of large surveys in which questionnaires or interview schedules had been used; moreover, the rarity of this form did not correlate with social or educational background, age or sex of the speakers. There was, however, a striking contrast between the narratives collected by means of questionnaire interviews and those collected in interviews in which questionnaires were not used. There was, in fact, a very high incidence of CHP alternation in stories collected in interviews in which no questionnaire was used. From the interviews which I collected and from those collected by others, and from my observation of men and women of varying backgrounds telling stories in many different settings, it became clear that the use of the CHP is conditioned, to a very large extent, by the speech situation in which the story is told. That is, in addition to its function



within the text of the story, it clearly has an interactional function which causes it to be used in some settings and not in others. It became obvious to me then, that an ethnographic approach would be the only reasonable one, since in order to learn how CHP functions it would be necessary to collect samples of its use over a broad range of speech situations of which the interview is only one type. If narratives collected in interviews differ from those found in other speech situations, both differ radically, as we have pointed out, from those found in literature. Nevertheless, previous analyses of the historical present tense have taken the literary use of this feature as their only data and have frequently classified both written and spoken uses of it under the same heading and attempted to explain all the uses of this form on the basis of an analysis of its occurrence in a single genre. The traditional explanation of the function of the historical present tense, both in literature and in speech, is that the present tense is used to make the narrative vivid. According to some analysts, the use of the present tense causes the action being recounted to appear to the listener (or reader) as if it were happening at the very moment of the telling. Other analysts have made the claim that the speaker, in telling his story, becomes so involved in it that he imagines himself reliving the events which he is narrating and recounts them as if he were at the scene of the action. Before we can consider the merits of the explanations given in the literature, we must first look at the analyses more closely to see how the historical present tense is defined, what data has been used and what sort of interpretation has been given. A sample of descriptions from grammars containing explanations of the English verb system will suffice to show how the historical present tense has been treated: In his book called Grammar Simplified; or, an Ocular Analysis of the English Language, J. Greenleaf (1828) gives the following account: In animated historical narrations, the present tense is sometimes substituted for the imperfect tense: as, "He enters the territory of the peaceable inhabitants; he fights and conquers; takes an immense booty which he divides among his soldiers, and returns home to enjoy an empty triumph."

Here, except for the qualifier 'animated', we have no interpretation of the use of this feature, but rather a simple statement to the effect that the present tense may be used in this way. The example is literary and there is no mention of the use of this feature in conversational narrative. There is, of course, no explanation of what constitutes 'animated' narration, although this term is often employed in discussions of the historical present tense. Writing in 1880, for instance, Goold Brown, in his Grammar of English Grammars has this to say:


CHP in A merican English


In animated narrative, however, the present tense is often substituted for the past, by the figure enallage. In such cases, past tenses and present may occur together; because the latter are used merely to bring past events more vividly before us: as, "Ulysses wakes, not knowing where he was." - -Pope. "The dictator flies forward to the cavalry, beseeching them to dismount from their horses. They obeyed; they dismount, rush onward, and for vancouriers show their bucklers." - -Livy. In the above statement we have an interpretation based, it appears, on literary usage. What is confusing about the examples given, however, is that they come from literary works not of the author's own period, but far removed in time in the case o f the quotation from Pope, and from a different language as well as era in the case of Livy. Thus, there is the implicit assumption that a linguistic feature has just the same function throughout history and even from one language to another; an assumption which is problematic to say the very least, but which nevertheless recurs frequently in the literature. In her Studies on the Syntax of the English Verb, Charleston ( 1 9 4 1 ) takes as her corpus periodicals and novels of the eighteenth century: The simple present tense-form is frequently used for the logical past tense in order to render an account more vivid or emotional or to centre the attention of the hearer(s) on the event as an important turning-point in the account. This so-called "historic present", "dramatic present" or "imaginative present", is generally used unconsciously by the speaker, who sees the past so vividly that it seems actually present before his eyes, and the passage and relationship of time are lost. This historic present may alternate with the preterite. To back up her interpretation, Charleston gives several passages from Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, stories which appeared in The Tattler, etc.: They were so little concerned at this dangerous man of mode, that they plotted ways to perplex him without hurting him. Varnish comes exactly at his hour, and the lady's well acted confusion gave him opportunity to repeat some couplets very fit for the occasion with very much grace and spirit. (Tattler, V. 3, p. 117). or Xury, whose eyes were more about him than it seems mine were, calls softly to me, and tells me that we had best go farther off the shore; for says he, look yonder lies a dreadful monster . . . I looked where he pointed and saw a dreadful monster indeed . . . (Robinson Crusoe, V.l, P. 30).



In addition to using eighteenth century literature to illustrate her point, Charleston further confuses the issue by stating unequivocally that the historical present tense is "generally used unconsciously by the speaker, who sees the past so vividly that it seems actually present before his eyes.. ." It is difficult to reconcile this sort of statement with the serious factual analysis which the author clearly intends. Obviously, there can be no real foundation for such a pseudopsychological interpretation. Nevertheless, the historical present tense is a feature which, perhaps because it seems to represent a somehow deviant usage, appears to invite exactly this sort of explanation. Certainly, the literature is full of similarly unprovable 'analyses' of the historical present. Jespersen (1931, Vol. IV: 19) for instance, takes note of the fact that this tense is common in conversation but then goes on to base his interpretation of it on what can only be supposition: Next, the present tense is used in speaking of the past. This is the case in the "dramatic present" (generally called the "historic present") which is pretty frequent in connected narrative; the speaker, as it were, forgets all about time and imagines, or recalls what he is recounting, as vividly as if it were now present before his eyes. Very often this present tense alternates with the preterite.

Jespersen is, of course, perfectly correct about the alternation between past and present but it is hard to see how such an analysis about what goes on in the mind of the speaker can be justified. Curme (1931: 355) says that: The historical present is much used to make more vivid past events and bring them nearer the hearer.

while Palmer (1965: 69) accepts without question that: The traditional explanation of this usage- -that it recalls or recounts the past as vividly as if it were present is adequate.

The majority of explanations to be found in the literature use adjectives like vivid or animated to describe the kind of narratives in which the historical present tense is found. In a sense, this attribute is seen as both cause and effect since the narratives are said to contain the historical present tense if they are animated and also to derive this quality from its presence. In spite of the fact that such explanations are very vague and often linked with pseudopsychological claims as to the state of the narrator's 'involvement' in his story, it is nevertheless very interesting that the quality of animation should be so frequently associated with descriptions of the use of this tense. If animation may be taken to mean the detailed


CHP in A merican English Narrative

account of action and interaction, then such an explanation is quite consistent with the findings of this study. Apart from the sort of brief descriptions just exemplified, very little has been written about the historical present tense; studies of its occurrence in English are very rare, and of its use in modern English and·specifically in conversation, virtually nonexistent. One of the few analyses of this tense as it occurs in modern English is that reported by Martin Joos (1964). The data upon which the analysis of the English verb system rests is a novel by Sybille Bedford called The Trial of Dr. Adams which is in turn based upon a combination of court transcripts of a murder trial in Great Britain and the novelist's own eye-witness account of the speech behavior of the various participants in it. Joos, after examining the use made of the historical present tense (which he has labelled the 'narrative actual tense') says that this tense is used for those verbs in the narrative which have the effect of furthering the plot. He compares the use of the simple present (which he labels the 'generic aspect') to the present progressive (which he calls the 'temporary aspect'). When both are used as historical present, Joos says that the choice between them: . . . can be stated as a simple transformation rule, thus: Every generic aspect of here and now reference remains generic with real past reference; but the temporary aspect is changed to generic aspect for each event that advances the plot of the narrative and remains temporary for each event that is rather background to the plot-advancing events without itself advancing the plot.

Since, as we have already noted, the simple historical present substitutes for the simple past tense as the historical present progressive substitutes for the past progressive, this dichotomy seems to be a reasonable one in that the simple tense usually denotes a single act while the progressive is used to refer to continuing, repetitive or unfinished activity. As to Joos' statement that the simple historical present (or the generic aspect) is used for those verbs which advance the plot, there seems to be a bit of confusion since Joos, although he recognizes that the historical present alternates with the simple past tense, bases this statement only on the contrast between the historical present and the historical present progressive. His point is that between the two, it is the simple tense which describes events which advance the plot- -he makes no statement as to the alternation between simple historical present and simple past. For Joos, the choice between these has to do with the speaker's involvement in his narrative: Even more than in European languages generally, past tense is the normal narrative pattern in English; in Trial it is the pattern for detached narrative . . .



But when the speaker gets so deeply involved that he forgets where he is as he speaks, and tends to place himself rather at the scene he is narrating, the actual tense may be used with the exact meaning of the past tense . . . the narrative actual tense has a firm basis in speech, where the use of actual tense for past events comes naturally to the Ups of a man who gets himself involved in what he is talking about. This does not mean that the narrative past tense is identical with the man's performance; for that man will always uses enough past tense forms, mixed in with his actual tense forms, to reassure the listener that he is "keeping his feet on the ground"--something that has a high value in English-speaking cultures. One could wish that Joos himself had 'kept his feet on the ground' before making a statement of this kind for, as we will see in the analysis to follow, both members of the alternation set, past tense and historical present, are used to describe events which have the effect o f advancing the plot of the story and furthermore it is not necessary to rely upon notions of speaker involvement to understand the function of the alternation between them. Another difficulty which arises in the analysis presented by Joos is that although he claims to have based it upon speech which actually occurred and was transcribed by a court stenographer, he does not, in fact, remain consistent to this principle and his failure to do so poses a serious problem. The problem is most clearly seen in Joos' own review of a study on the English verb system by Akira Ota ( 1 9 6 2 ) in which Joos faults Ota for claiming that the historical present tense is a very rare form, and says that Ota's failure to collect examples o f this feature has to do with the source of his data: My last block of criticism refers to tense and time. It is an unfortunate lacuna in the corpus of spoken material that has led Ota astray here, and the explanation of it is in something that he has said about it, no doubt correctly, with particular reference to the radio "conversation text." "The speakers seem to be usually conscious of the listeners, and that seems to put some constraint upon them." The inevitable result was that they could not lose themselves in their narrations. . . . This is the beginning of a chain reaction in the book under review, "The first contention is that historical present is rare. There is no example in the core material." Ota's conclusion is that the "present tense" is not "timeless" as Twaddell said, but specifically refers to the time of speaking, ocassionally to a distant future time. The chain reaction would never have gotten started if the corpus had contained examples of such unconstrained conversational American English as this one which I have manufactured: "We're having our picnic when this policeman drives up to the place, stops, and asks what we're doing." [emphasis added] It is true that Ota's corpus, which comes from radio shows, is as Joos sug-


CHP in American English Narrative

gests, biased, and that he would certainly not have considered the historical present a rare form if he had analyzed a sample of narratives from what Joos calls 'unconstrained conversational American English'. However, Joos, in suggesting that one can 'manufacture' examples, has put himself in a far worse position that the scholar whose work he is criticizing. Ota's data may have come from speech events in which unconstrained conversation does not occur but he does base his analysis on actual speech and it is absurd for Joos to compare such material unfavorably with his own manufactured examples. It is especially absurd in this case since the sentence Joos gives as an example of the kind of data Ota should have had is of a type which probably does not even occur in speech. Certainly there are no samples in my data which bear any resemblance to it, and, in fact, it violates a constraint upon CHP which I have found to operate in all cases. That is, CHP does not occur in a time clause with when. For the rest, Ota's analysis does seem to suffer from a poor sampling of American English speech. And unfortunately, Joos and Ota are the only analysts who have based their comments on the historical present on data which comes from spoken English. Very few scholars have made the historical present the particular object of their research and of these only Steadman (1917) has worked specifically on its origin in English. His work is not directly related to the use of this form in present-day English conversation but since it deals with the history of the feature under study it seems appropriate to digress briefly in order to summarize his findings. According to Steadman, the interesting thing about its history is that although the historical present occurs in the Latin writings of Englishmen of the eighth to the eleventh centuries, it is very consistently avoided in translating from Latin into Old English and there are no occurrences of it at all in Old English literature. It is not until the beginning of the thirteenth century that the historical present appears in written English and by the end of the century it had become common; by the middle of the fourteenth century its use had increased greatly. Steedman notes, for instance, that the historical present is very common in Gawayne and the Green Knight, in Piers Plowman, and most especially in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Steadman goes on to explain that there have been six separate theories advanced to account for the origin of the historical present in English: that it developed from presents which were closely related to it (Wunderlich), that it is a borrowing from Old French (Grimm, Maetzner, Brinkmann, Einenkel), that it is colloquial in origin (Maetzner and Jespersen), that it is bound up with the origin of the periphrastic future (Grimm), that it is bound up with Aktionsart in Germanic (Behaghel, Wilmanns), and that it did not occur in old English because "the Old English poets lacked the vivid imagination necessary to the use of this tense" (Maetzner). Although there is no con-



elusive proof to support one theory over another, Steadman clearly favors the theory that the historical present is connected in origin with the beginning of the periphrastic future. The idea here is that since the perfective verb in Old English generally expressed future time, the present tense could not also have been used to refer to past time. The theory is supported by the fact that it was not until after the periphrastic future had arisen that one finds any examples of the historical present tense in English although the tense was clearly known to Englishmen who wrote in Latin and used it. Thus, Steadman sees the origin of the historical present tense not as an isolated phenomenon but as interwoven with the development of other verb tenses in English. Steadman restricts his study to the origin of the historical present and makes no attempt to analyze the reason for its use. He simply says that from his study it is clear that: . . . the present and the preterit were easily interchanged. Since this interchange does not bear directly on our study of the origin of the historical present, it cannot be discussed here. The interchange seems to be for no particular reason. The use of preterit or present is probably determined by the choice of the individual writer . . . A glance at the examples will show that the preterit and the historical present occur side by side with apparently no difference in meaning. In some cases the preterit precedes, in others it follows, the historical present.

The fact that Steadman notes that the historical present may precede as well as follow the preterit is of particular interest with respect to a study of the historical present made by Kiparsky (1968) in which he examines texts in Greek, Old Irish and Old Norse and concludes that the use of the historical present in earlier stages of Indo-European languages is due to a syntactic rule: It functions syntactically as a past tense, as shown by sequence of tenses, it is semantically indistinguishable from the past tenses, and it alternates with these in conjoined structures. Everything points to its being an underlying past tense, and its conversion into the present tense in the surface structure must be governed by a syntactic rule, evidently some form of conjunction reduction, which optionally reduces repeated occurrences of the same tense to the present . . . Schematically, then, the sequence . . . P a s t . . . and . . . Past . . . is reduced to . . . P a s t . . . and . . . zero . . . and since it is the present which is the zero tense, the ^educed structure . . . Past . . . and . . . zero . . . is realized morphologically as . . . P a s t . . . and . . . Present...

The problem with this analysis is that we do not always find past plus present in the way that Kiparsky claims. What Steadman points out for English, namely that the present may precede or follow the past tense, is also true for the other languages. According to Daniele Godard (personal


CHP in A merican English Narrative

communication) the facts for Greek are that outside the indicative mode you find an aspectual difference between the use of present and past (duration or no duration, for instance) and when there is no such aspectual difference, one has both past and present or present and past, a fact which Kiparsky does not take into consideration. It should also be noted that Kiparsky takes his evidence on the historical present in Greek from the work of just one author, Thucydides. As McKay (1974: 247) says in his critique of Kiparsky's theory: . . . but in relation to Greek he completely ignores such passages as Thucydides 7143.3-4, where a series of historic presents occur with no alternation of marked forms, just at a critical point in the narrative. The traditional view of the historic present, however unsatisfactory it may be, is more credible at this point than Kiparsky's theory . . . [emphasis added]

Again, in criticizing Kiparsky's choice of evidence upon which to base his theory, McKay points out that for Greek the selection of examples is very unconvincing: I realize the problem of seeking general linguistic principles by comparing the details of a number of languages. It is necessary to rely on the material assembled by specialists in the various languages, and there is never time to reinvestigate every phenomenon thoroughly. Nevertheless, it should be apparent that in spite of the revolution in the study of ancient Greek grammar over the past 150 years most of the reference books available are based at least partly on concepts derived from the all-pervading influence of Latin grammar. Moreover, the reference books that furnish lists of examples to suit one pattern (e.g., alternation of narrative aorist and present indicatives) usually also provide reference to other patterns (e.g., series of historic present). Whatever they supply needs to be checked against context, to avoid the perpetuation of misconceptions. If laws valid from Greek are to be formulated they must be based on what happened in Greek rather than on the fragmentary sentences quoted by grammarians, [emphasis added]

Although Kiparsky does not use examples from Latin, it is worth mentioning in this connection that one frequently finds coordinate verb structures in which the historical present precedes the past tense in Latin writings. Kiparsky, is, of course, dealing with the use of the historical present tense in the literature of ancient languages and there is no reason to expect, as he himself recognizes, that the function of this feature should be the same in modern languages. The subject of this study is the use of the historical present in modern conversational English while Kiparsky is dealing with its occurrence in different languages, from a period far removed in time from the present and in literary rather than conversational usage. Therefore, although there seems to be some doubt as



to the validity of Kiparsky's analysis of the historical present, it is not a problem which can be dealt with profitably in the present study. What is interesting from the point of view of this study, is that Kiparsky, while he appears willing to accept the traditional explanation of this feature for modern Indo-European languages, has so clearly rejected it for the languages of which he has made a study: The "historical" or "dramatic" present tense used in narrating past events, which is common in many Indo-European languages, has always been interpreted in essentially semantic terms. A typical traditional formulation is that in using the present tense the narrator becomes closely involved in the story and relates it as if he were an eyewitness to the action, or wished to convey to the listener the dramatic feeling of being an eyewitness. While this is undoubtedly a correct intuition about the historical present as found in the modem European languages, I shall argue that it is quite mistaken to transfer it to the earlier stages of Indo-European. In Greek, Old Irish, and Old Norse, for example, the historical present has quite different syntactic and semantic properties, to which the traditional idea, or any of its variants, must utterly fail to do justice, [emphasis added] Kiparsky is not alone in finding that the traditional explanations of the historical present are inaccurate for the languages which he has looked into closely. Von Fritz, for example, in his article entitled "The Historical Present in Early Greek" ( 1 9 ) says: Most modern grammarians agree that the so-called historical present is used in "vivid narrative" to produce a "dramatic effect" and emphasize the rapid progress of the action. It is generally assumed that the historical present produces this effect because it ignores and annuls the time which has elapsed between the events narrated and their reproduction in the mind of the listener or reader so that the latter, in his imagination, participates in these events as if he were an eyewhitness. Von Fritz then goes on to say that while such an explanation is: . . . undoubtedly correct if applied to the way in which the historical present is very often used in Latin literature and in most modern European literatures as well as in oral everyday practice . . . it is not true for the literature in Early Greek. V o n Fritz, after investigating the way the historical present functions in Early Greek literature, concludes that: It is then easy to see what the function of the present tenses is. All the main events and actions of the narrative that are not definitely related to conditions still prevailing at the time of the reader are given in the


CHP in A mericart English Narrative present tense. The effect is certainly not that they become contemporaneous with the reader, nor is the pace of the narrative quickened in this way. Quite to the contrary the main events are, so to speak, removed from the time coordinate on which the reader occupies a point at the time of reading, or from the actuality of his time and, as the events unfold one after another like the pictures in a picture book, the pace of the narrative is slackened.

Whatever the merits of Von Frit's analysis, the interesting point is that he is unable to accept the traditional explanation of the way the historical present functions when he analyzes its use in the material which he has examined carefully. From the point of view of this study, it is very important to recognize that it is only the scholars who have not worked on the historical present who are unanimous in their opinions as to its function. In his article called "The historical present in narrative literature, particularly in modern German Fiction", John Frey (1946) has some extremely interesting things to say about the way this tense functions in literary German. Like the other scholars mention, Frey readily accepts the conventional explanation that the historical present is a device for presenting past events as if they were taking place in the present: That the historical present does lend a dramatic and thereby animating effect to the narrative is, of course true . . . nor is it too far-fetched to say that by means of this dramatic form of relating the listener is taken onto the stage, so to speak, to observe the particular scene as a personal witness... But, like other scholars who have clung to this explanation, Frey finds it very difficult to reconcile it with the facts of its use in the literature which he is examining. He is confused but much too honest not to admit that there is a problem. In the works of every writer we encounter instances in which the reason for the use of the narrative present suggests itself readily and other instances where no particular reason is discernible. Besides the dramatic situations given in the present there are those without any suspense whatever. Also the seemingly arbitrary oscillation of tenses can be observe sooner or later in almost any narrator's works, even in Goethe, [emphasis added] Although he does not arrive at any conclusions, he notes that the use of the historical present may have a very different effect: Often it is simply a case of the narrator's focusing on a particular scene. The change from the past to the present tense accomplishes that. The effect is similar to the change in lighting on the stage. For the narrator, it is a matter of visualizing a scene as something standing by itself. The



elements of surprise, suspense and personal experience need not enter at all. In fact, the elements governing such a scene may be the very opposite of those just mentioned . . . Again, in Thomas Mann's restrained use of the narrative present- -in the entire Buddenbrooks there are altogether about twenty-five pages of it, in the other novels much less- we encounter several examples of perfectly ordinary situations being depicted in the narrative present. It is difficult to say why these, more than others, should be given in the present. Frey notes example after example of writers who have used the historical present in relating events which are not at all dramatic. He is amazed that a writer like Mann should have used this feature in a way which has nothing to do with the accepted theory: Thus, even with Mann's painstaking attention to style and form it must be acknowledged that he too has used the narrative present simply for variety, not in the sense of indiscriminate use, but for reasons other than those primarily determining the use of the narrative present. The same observation can be made in the works of any writer who uses the narrative present at all. The fact that Frey himself does not see where this evidence points takes nothing away from the usefulness o f his observations. He has noticed some extremely interesting facts about the way the historical present is used by the novelists he has studied, for example: Interesting in these descriptions is the fact that sooner or later the word "plötzlich" bobs up so that it appears as if the part preceding the word "plötzlich" had merely been the prelude to the sudden development in the story that calls for the present. This is a fascinating comment since the same expression, if we translate it as 'suddenly' or 'all of a sudden', is found to co-occur with a switch in tense in many o f the conversational narratives I have collected in American English. Even more interesting, from the point of view of the argument of chapter 2, are Frey's repeated observations to the effect that the change in tense occurs when an author comes to a new episode or scene in his story: Now, the technique often employed by Kolbenheyer . . . is this: he effects a change in setting; the section just ended was given in the narrative present; then, the new section starts off in the past tense. and: The bringing together of two or more persons seems to induce the narrator particularly to use the narrative present.


CHP in A merican English Narrative

The intriguing aspect of Frey's work then, is that although the assumption upon which he bases his analysis does not permit him to take his observations to their logical conclusion, he does notice a great many things about the way that alternation between past and historical present tense functions in narrative and these, as we will see, correspond very closely to the findings of this study. In sum then, although many scholars have recognized that the historical present tense is used in conversation, virtually nothing exists in the literature which is based on data taken from actual conversational English. Joos and Ota both worked on transcriptions of spoken data, the latter from radio broadcasts and the former from a courtroom trial but neither worked on narratives as they occur in conversational settings. All other analyses of the historical present were based on literary data, often from a period far removed from the scholars' own time. The use of excerpts from Latin literature to exemplify its occurrence in English is prevalent in early grammars- -another example of the way Englishmen viewed their language through the perspective of Latin. A large number of scholars did notice that the historical present tense alternates with the past tense but attached no particular importance to the fact. Rather, what impressed everyone who wrote about the historical present was that it has a dramatic effect. This belief is so widespread that it deserves some special attention and the facts behind it will be investigated more closely in the following chapter. For the rest, the most interesting finding about the attitudes toward the historical present shown in the literature is that although the traditional explanation is generally accepted, not one scholar believes it is accurate as an explanation of the data he himself has worked on.

Chapter 2

Internal analysis CHP alternation and the organization of discourse

The conversational historical present, hereafter to be called CHP, appears primarily in conversational narrative but since narratives can be and often are told completely in the past tense, it is necessary to investigate the types of narratives in which CHP is likely to be found. According to Labov et al. (1968) a narrative is: One method of recapitulating past experience by matching a verbal sequence of clauses to the sequence of events which (it is inferred) actually occurred . . . we can define a minimal narrative as a sequence of two clauses which are temporarily ordered: that is, a change in their order will result in a change in the temporal sequence of the original semantic interpretation. (Labov et al. 1968: 287-88)

According to this definition a narrative is basically a recounting of a past event. Certainly not all such recountings are stories. Indeed, the most basic distinction to be made among narratives is that between reports and stories. A report is, very simply, a recounting for the purpose of conveying information. Ί left for work at seven o'clock this morning and I got there at eight' is an information bearing report but could hardly be categorized as a story. Some reports are very lengthy, some are extremely short, but the important feature which stories share and reports lack is the fact that stories are told for the purposes of presenting an individual's experience and a judgment on that experience. Events can be told in the order in which they occurred but if there is no central point, if the speaker is only relaying information and not expressing a theme, or judgment or ideology, then the telling remains no more than a report. If, on the other hand, the speaker does structure the recapitulation of the past event in such a way as to allow his own way of looking at the world to come through, the recounting becomes a story, and it is in the story that we will find CHP. All this, of course, may be seen as a refinement on the pioneer work on narrative done by Labov. While I agree with his definition of the category, it seems necessary for our purpose to draw a distinction between the terms narrative and story. Labov sees the point of the story, which he calls evaluation, as an important aspect of the narrative.


CHP in American English Narrative (Evaluation is) the means used by the narrator to indicate the point of the narrative, its raison d'etre, and what the narrator is getting at. There are many ways to tell the same story to make very different points or to make no point at all. (Labov et al. 1968)

According to Labov, a pointless story meets with indifference from the audience. We would rather say that the difference between a narrative with a point and one which is pointless is not that between a successful and an unsuccesful narrative, but rather that making a point is the distinguishing feature of that category of narrative which we will label story. Not all stories contain CHP and we must go a little further in our categorization of narrative before we can distinguish those stories which may contain CHP from those in which it will not be found. When a speaker acts out a story, as if to give his audience the opportunity to experience the event, and his evaluation of it, he may be said to be giving a performance. It would seem that these performances are only given when norms for evaluative interpretation are shared. And this sharing then depends on the social histories and identities of the participants in the story-telling event- -a subject to be discussed at length in chapter four. A speaker's responsibility for the veracity of a story, then, rests on the extent to which he may be called to account for it by his audience. As Dell Hymes has proposed, the speaker thus takes the responsibility for the audience's evaluation of his performance: Most important for the present purposes is the showing that performance, as cultural behavior for which a person assumes responsibility to an audience, is a quite specific, quite special category . . . there is behavior, as simply anything and everything that happens; there is conduct, behavior under the aegis of social norms, cultural rules, shared principles of interpretability; there is performance, when one or more persons assumes responsibility for presentation. (Hymes 1973: 5)

In contrast, the speaker may merely summarize the event he is recounting and state or imply its significance to him. The term performance is here used in a rather narrow sense, close to its theatrical meaning: a story is the recounting of a past event enacted as a play with the setting up of scenery and the distribution of roles. This is not to say that all human interactions bear a resemblance to role-playing but that the speech situation and subject matter of story-telling approximate, in themselves, theatrical conditions. We can give an operational definition of performed stories based on certain structural features which are common to all. The number of performance features present in any one story and the amount with which each is used will determine the degree to which the story may be said to

Internal analysis


be performed. We do not expect to find every one of these features present in any one story, but rather we find that at least some of them are present in all. 1. Direct Speech 2. Asides 3. Repetition 4. Expressive Sounds 5. Sound Effects 6. Motions and Gestures The function of a story and the characteristic which distinguishes it from other kinds of narrative is that it is told to get across a point of view. The function of performance is to structure the experience from the point of view of the speaker and to dramatize it. As Goffman points out: A tale or anecdote, that is a replaying, is not merely any reporting of a past event. In the fullest sense, it is such a statement couched from the personal perspective of an actual or potential participant who is located so that some temporal, dramatic development of the reported event proceeds from that starting point. A replaying will, therefore, incidentally be something that listeners can empathetically insert themselves into, vicariously reexperiencing what took place. (Goffman

1975: 503) In this sense a story may be seen as theatrically staged and the performance features which are employed in its telling are quite similar to those we find in actual theatrical performance. In order to see how each of these features works in a story, it is necessary to look at some examples from the data in which they occur. The following story, given in its entirety, is a typical example of the way in which a speaker may dramatically structure his story through the use of performance features. The speaker had just announced that he had 'made a very good deal' on the purchase of a new house. The addressee, who had seen the house in question, expressed astonishment and asked how the house had come to be sold for such a low price. The answer was the following: 1.

A. "What happened?" B. "She's a widow. She's a widow, she put the house up originally during the winter for forty-five--with Langsdorf. She couldn't move it. Came summertime, she handed it over to Larry Snyder at - thirty-seven five. So they had a couple people in-the bids were- she had a bid for thirty-five and got tubborn and didn't take it. So as the summer went, she got sick and she's in the hospital now, and she's living in an apartment and uh- -they- -when I went to see it, the guy says to me, says,

CHP in American English Narrative 'We got a bid for thirty-three- -thirty-four,' says, 'If you bid thirty-five,' he says, 'You'll get it.' I said, 'Okay, let me think it over.' And I went home and I called up my wife's cousin who's a realtor. Well, his partner knows Snyder very well, so he called him up. The bid was for twenty-seven, five! So I figured they could do the same thing I was going to do. So he he calls me up the next day and I figure, 'Look, I could always bid a little higher than the guy and work my way up.' So he calls me the next day and I told my wife exactly what to say. So he gets on the phone and so my wife says, 'Look, we're not talking land, we're talking house. The house isn't worth it and it needs a lot of work.' You know, and we made up a lot of things . . . 'We have to paper and paint it.' So he says, 'That you have to do in any house.' So she says, 'Yes, we have to lay down new floors, the rugs are no good (the rugs happen to be in good shape), we have to- -there's too much shrubbery, we have to tear out some of the shrubs.' (The shrubbery aroung the house is magnificent if it's done right, if it's done right.) So really we made up everything. So he says to my wife, he says, 'Well, what would you bid?' So she says, 'It's stupid for me to talk,' she says, 'You got a bid for thirty-three, thirty-four,' she says. 'Why should I even talk to you? It ain't gonna be anywheres near.' So he says to her, he says, 'Well,' he says, 'the person at thirty-four backed out.' So she says, O h , yeah? He says, 'Yeah,' he says, 'What would you bid?' So she says, 'Twenty-eight.' He says, 'Oh,' he says, 'No, that she'll never go for.' So she says, Okay, that's my bid, Mr. Smith. You want it, fine; you don't, fine.' Got a call that afternoon. It was accepted! So I go to see the house- -I go to sign the contract, I look at the contract and I says, Ί ain't signing this.' He says, 'Why?' I says, Ί want a plumbing certificate, I want an air conditioning certificate, I want a heating certificate and I want a roof certificate!' So he says, 'Really, we won't guarantee . . . ' I says, Ί don't want guarantee, I want certificates, from certified people that it's in good shape, and I want the right to bring in any of my guys.' So he says, 'She won't go for it . . . this, that .. .' So I says, 'Aah, don't be silly,' I says, 'Look, you just take it to her.' So I get a call back about a day later, 'Okay, she's accepted.' So then I get a- -now what I do is, I pick up this thing, I take it to my cousin, he goes to someone, he says, 'Settlement's no good. She's got us for fortyfive days.' In October she wanted to settle. So I says, Okay, I'll try to get January and I'll play around with that.' So I walk in and I

Internal analysis


sign a check for twenty-eight hundred dollars and I says to him, I says, 'Now,' I says, 'take this back to her. So he picked up the agreement- -all of a sudden he looks at the agreement. He says, 'Well,' he says, 'This uh date was changed.' I says, "That's right. Settlement.' I says, 'Now you take it and show her the check. She wants to play around fine. Deal's off!' So he took it back to her and she called the deal off. She wouldn't accept January. So then my next date was December and she went to November and I finally pushed her to November 18th and that's where we got it, and uh, she did back off. I didn't expect her to back off, though, with a check of twenty-eight hundred dollars. Cause she knew it was settled, you know, the deal was there. She finally went- -we settle at November 18th. And I got to sell my house now- -three weeks now." The most noticeable performance feature in the above narrative is the use of direct speech. Here the narrator plays the roles of the various participants in the drama, making it seem more authentic by invoking the words of others. Another device which allows him to give added drama to the dialogue which he is acting out is the aside, in which the narrator steps out of his role of performer and suspends the action for a moment while he explains to his audience what is going on behind the scene. The narrator manipulates his characters but at the same time lets the audience into the secret of how one of the characters is tricking the other. The dialogue between the wife and the real estate agent is punctuated by asides which produce a pointcounterpoint effect. The contrast between the dialogue and the asides is strengthened by the use of the same lexical items in sentences which are in semantic opposition to one another: "the rugs are no g o o d " - - ( " T h e rugs happen to be in good shape.") . . . "There's too much shrubbery, we have to tear out some of the shrubs"- -("The shrubbery around the house is magnificent . . . " ) . The narrator in interpreting the dialogue for his audience, also makes it very clear which character he identifies with and how he wants his audience to judge the participants in the story. The audience response is, of course, conditioned by cultural and social standards such that the narrator may unwittingly evoke just the opposite reaction from the one he intended and this negative evaluation is directed not only to the behavior of the characters in the story, but to the narrator himself as author of it; a good indication that we know he is expressing his own viewpoint. In this story, the narrator obviously regards himself, and by extension his wife and cousin, as very clever people to have outwitted the widow and her real estate representative. By his own standards he has


CHP in A merican English Narrative

pulled off a good deal and is to be praised for his business acumen. He performs the story fully and it is so convincing that an audience which does not share his set of values may come away feeling that he is a really despicable individual. The last of the performance features which appear in this narrative is the use of repetition for emphasis. This is similar to an authenticating convention in the theatre. Repetition may be of a single lexical item or an entire syntactic phrase. In the house story given above, the narrator says, "I want an X certificate" to hammer in the point of his own force of character in bargaining. "I says, I want a plumbing certificate, I want an air conditioning certificate, I want a heating certificate and I want a roof certificate . . . I don't want guarantee, I want certificates from certified people . . ." The analogy between story performance and theatrical performance is even more striking when we examine two more features which are common to both: gestures and sound effects. Examples of the use of sound effects such as the following are to be found in a number of performed stories: 2.

"I get in, turn the key, BRRRMM, and I drive home."


"The guy in the next apartment bangs his door--BANG--and as he bangs his door . . ."


"And this guy comes over and he knocks my hand down and POW! he lets me have it . . . then I came around and POW! with my left hand and that was the end of the fight."


" . . . she went out in the hall and we could hear it . . . SMACK, SMACK."


" . . . all of a sudden I turn aroung- -KAPOW!- -my head's in the window."


" . . . and with that, BOOM, she steps in the boat."

Motions and gestures, or what Birdwhistle (1970) calls kinesic markers, are a very frequent feature of performed stories, although without videotape, it is obviously not possible to record them. It is not uncommon, however, to find that verbal expressions containing deictic markers co-occur with motions and gestures, and these traces bear witness to what we can no longer see. Examples are the following:

Internal analysis



"And as he's coming back, he stands up in the boat and he waves his hands this way (gesture)- -you know what this (gesture) is? That's the signal for distress."


" . . . I'm crying and I'm laughing and my eyebrows are doing this and my lips are doing this (gesture)."


" . . . and there's Lou, he's going like this here (gesture) . . . "


" . . . I see him look at me and he does this (gesture) and he starts on me."


" . . . everybody just keeps going like this (shakes head no), 'No speak English'."


"He looks over at me and smiles and looks like this here (gesture)."

From the examples given above it is clear that motions and gestures and sound effects, like the other features, are means of acting out details of the story instead of describing them. That is, the audience is not merely asked to envision the act but it is repeated for him. All the performance features which we have described and exemplified thus have the double function in stories of enabling the listener to see the events being recounted through the eyes of the narrator and of making these events seem more authentic, thereby supporting the narrator's viewpoint or the moral judgment which is the central theme of the story. Having examined the features which serve as the components of a performed story, we may return to the problem of defining where the historical present tense occurs and what its function is. The first thing which must be said is that CHP is limited to performed stories as we have defined them. It is possible that not all performed stories contain CHP (although in my data they do) but where CHP exists, it will be found in performed stories. That is, CHP is limited to performed stories as opposed to reports, and the more fully a story is performed (i.e., the more performance features there are) the more likely it will be to contain CHP. However, it is never true that a story, no matter how fully performed, will be told entirely in CHP, and it is therefore necessary to define the area of variation within the story in which CHP may occur. CHP always alternates with the past tense in conversational narratives. These are usually so organized that they have two time orientations (cf. Jakobson, 'Proces d'inonciation vs. proces d'enounce): the time of the actual moment of telling the story and the time during which the events of the story occurred. CHP is used only when the orientation of time is related to the story events. Thus, CHP and


CHP in American English Narrative

the past tense verbs which are related to the time of the story must be seen as distinct from the present and the past tenses which are related to the time of telling the story. Some examples from the data will help to clarify this distinction. The following story was told at a faculty meeting where one of the members said to another faculty member: 14.

"This morning he came by and waved and he never comes by and waves but this morning he comes by and waves."

Here, in this minimal recounting of a single event, we have a perfect threeway contrast of past tense, general present tense and CHP. As in most cases, this narrative opens with the past tense to orient the listener to the time (and/or place) of the event to be recounted. Then the speaker explains the general background against which this event is to be viewed by changing the time orientation to the moment of speaking and telling her listener that 'he never comes by and waves.' Finally, she goes back to the time of the story and used CHP to say, 'but this morning he comes by and waves.' Here we can see very clearly that while the morphological forms of the second two utterances are identical, the adverbs 'never' and 'this morning' with which they co-occur, produce totally different time orientations such that they are semantically distinct from one another. The first and third utterances, although morphologically distinct, are semantically equivalent with respect to tense since they appear in identical context and have the same time orientation. The important point here is that CHP can be used only when the time orientation is related to the time of the story. All the background information is related to the time of the telling and must be given in the past tense or in the general present, as must any comments directed to the listener. That is, all verbs which are part of the speech act of telling the story will be in the tenses normally used for conversation or for any nonnarrative situation. The only framework in which CHP may occur is that in which the time reference is to the time of the story. In addition to the simple conversational historical present tense (CHP), we must also include in our analysis the present progressive form of the historical present and, although it is much more rare, the present perfect when it is used in this way. The time framework in which these may occur is exactly the same as for the simple CHP. An example of a story in which all three occur will serve to give a clearer idea of the area in which variation may occur: 15.

"Two years ago we were in Mexico, at Acapulco, and I called Mexico City and I asked for Juan. Now I've got to go through operators and I make it person-to-person. And the maid tells the

Internal analysis


operator in Spanish, and the operator tells me, 'He's not there.' I said, 'When will he be back? and the maid and the operator are having this great big conversation. I keep getting the same answer. And finally the operator says to me, 'He's dead. He died. That's- -he's not here. He died.' Well, I tell you, I was so upset. I said, 'Thank you,' and I hung up. I must have made that personto-person call three times before the maid and the operator got together to try to explain to a person-to-person call that he was not there because he wasn't. But I was so upset and I couldn't find Maria's phone number in the telephone book." Here we see that the first three verbs are given in the simple past tense and serve as the introduction to the story, locating it with respect to time and place, and telling the listener something about the event which is about to take place. Once this is accomplished, the narrator gives a blow by blow account of her experience, beginning with the adverb 'now' which relates to the now of the story, not of the telling. She uses the CHP perfect aspect with 'now' and then simple CHP and CHP progressive: "And the maid and the operator are having this great big conversation." Where the progressive is used in CHP it takes the place of the past progressive and has the meaning of action continued over a certain period of time as opposed to a single finite action which is expressed in simple CHP. It is important to notice that although it would have been possible for the narrator to use CHP wherever a past is called for within the story, CHP actually occupies only half of the positions technically open to it within the time orientation of the story. That is, out of the fourteen verbs which might have been in CHP, only seven were actually realized in this tense. The above story is quite typical in this respect. Proportions vary depending on a number of factors to be discussed later, but there appear to be no cases in which CHP occupies the entire area of variation. In the following diagram, the horizontal line represents the time period during which the above story took place and the vertical lines represent individual verbs. Those vertical lines below the time line are in the past tense and those above are in CHP. Only those verbs which could have taken part in the alternation are represented. For example, the verb tell in the sentence beginning, "I tell you, I was so upset. . . " is directed to the listener at the moment of telling the narrative and not part of the time orientation of the narrative itself. Therefore it could not have been CHP and it is not represented in the diagram. Having examined the performance features and seen how they work to give validity to the story and to cause the listener to see the events being recounted from the viewpoint of the narrator, we must now look more closely at CHP to see how it functions. It would be very easy and, on the


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