Notes on Semantics & Grounding in Narrative I

When we talk about the concepts of background and foreground, it needs to be emphasized that we are not merely discussing aspect. Grounding is about the structure of communication rather than about any one grammatical form. Background and foreground information are each defined in accordance with a particular set of conceptual features. The background provides durational and descriptive structure to that storyline. Foreground communicates sequentiality, temporal progression, and change in the narrative. Polanyi-Bowditch (1976) describes it in this manner:

“Narrative .. . is composed of two kinds of structures: temporal structure, which charts the progress of the narrative through time by presenting a series of events which are under- stood to occur sequentially; and durative/descriptive structure, which provides a spatial, characterological, and durational context for which the temporal structure marks time and changes of state.”

The background of a narrative provides descriptive structure and sets the scene. The foreground storyline tends to involve a linear or sequential temporal structure.

Our interest here, for the moment is Polanyi-Bowditch observation of foreground storyline as involving, “time and changes of state.” What does she mean when she says “changes of state”? What does that refer to linguistically? This little phrase refers to a situation or event involving a participant that undergoes a process such that the participant is different than when it was at the beginning. Changes of states involve two components. The first is that they must be events (i.e. something must happen). The second is that they must have a distinct, well-defined endpoint. Let us examine these two components in turn.

Events vs. States

Thinking about events, consider the following four of sentences.

  • John was healthy.
  • John became sick.
  • John was sick.
  • John died.
  • John is dead.

These sentences in some ways present a progression of situations that pertain to John. That is, they function together as a sequence. However, only two of them could be reasonably expected to appear within the foreground storyline. That’s because being sequential, by itself, is not sufficient for the foreground. Only the sentences John became sick and John died actually move the story forward. These two sentences involve the events that happened to John. The other three sentences are merely the states the existed between the progressions of the narrative. This is an important point: foreground sentences involve things that happen. They do not involve states.

There is an easy test for determining whether a sentence is an event or not. Simply ask the question: “What happened?” (Van Valin 2005, 33) If the sentence can be used to answer it, then that sentence is an event rather than a state. John was healthy/sick/dead cannot function as an answer to the question “What happened?” On the other hand, the above three state predicates (healthy/sick/dead), would all make for effective background material for other possible events that might have taken place. They could function as participant orientation for the narrative or provide explanation for why certain other events happened in the story.

Telic vs. Atelic

All of this brings us to the second component of changes of state. While all verbs and predicates that denote a change of state are events that happen, not all events that happen involve a change of state. Let us look at a few more sentences.

  • Margaret walked in the park.
  • Margaret walked to the store.
  • Henry ate ice cream.
  • Henry ate the entire container of ice cream.

All four of these sentences could readily be used to answer the question, “What happened?” Nevertheless, there is still a fundamental semantic difference between them. The second sentence in each of these pairs (the second & fourth sentences) include within their respective clauses a specific and definable endpoint. They are telic. The other two sentences (the first and third) are atelic. They lack a specific endpoint. We can test this claim with a temporal prepositional phrase that refers to the completion of an event after an interval of time.

  • *Margaret walked in the park in an hour.
  • Margaret walked to the story in an hour.
  • *Henry ate ice cream in an hour
  • Henry ate the entire container of ice cream in an hour.

The asterisk (*) denotes that the sentence is ungrammatical or otherwise ill-formed. The sentence *Margaret walked in the park in an hour is contradictory: walks in parks are inherently open ended. Margaret walk could have walked in the park for an hour, but not in an hour. The same is true of *Henry ate ice cream in an hour. This sentence is also open ended. Without a clearly specific and definable quantity of ice cream, the predicate conveys no endpoint. Verbs and predicates that lack a definable endpoint are called activity predicates. But because they lack definable endpoints, they cannot be described as involving a change of state.

It ought to be emphasized, here, that while it is possible that in the real world, Margaret reached a goal in her walk in the park and that Henry did eat a defined specific quantity of ice cream, the only thing that is that the author/speaker chose to present an event as lacking an endpoint. It is the presentation of the event that counts for the structuring of the narrative.

The other two sentences, however, do denote changes of state. In Margaret walked to the store, Margaret undergoes a change of location: from not being in the park (state #1) to being in the park (state #2). Likewise, while Henry is not presented as any different at the end of the ice cream, the object of Henry ate the entire container of ice cream undergoes a change of state: from full of ice cream (state #1) to empty (state #2).*

*Note that with this transitive clause the object participant undergoes the change rather than the subject participant. Moreover, it is the individuatedness of the object that defines the predicate as telic, see Foley & Van Valin (1984, 372).

So then, with these two semantic features: Events vs. States and Telic vs. Atelic, we have three types of verbs & predicates:

  • States Predicates are non-events and do not undergo any process or change.
  • Activity Predicates are events, but do not undergo any process or change.
  • Change-of-State Predicates are events that induce a change of state on one or more of their participants.

While we will discuss more types of predicates in coming units, these three basic distinctions go a long way in helping us understand how clausal semantics can be used to structure the background and foreground of a narrative.

On Wednesday, the second half of this discussion will be available here: Notes on Semantics & Grounding in Narrative II

Works cite:

Foley, William A. and Robert D. Van Valin Jr. (1984) Functional Syntax and Universal Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Polanyi-Bowditch, Liva. 1976, “Why the whats are when: Mutually Contextualizing Realms of Narrative.” Berkeley Linguistics Society 2: 59-77.

Van Valin Jr., Robert D., Exploring the Syntax-Semantics Interface. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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