Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Once upon a time . . . amen." --E.

How can you tell the difference between the evening news and a bedtime story? Besides the content itself, I mean. It's true that the Libyan civil war doesn't make it into most of the stories I make up for Dorie and James before they go to sleep. But if you hear the words, "Once upon a time, in a little town called Tripoli," you know it's not the news. You also know it's not a history lesson. The story you're about to hear is a work of fiction.

How do you know? It's all about the discourse markers. Every language has them: special hints that help you keep track of your place in a story, as well as what kind of story you're listening to in the first place. Usually you don't think about these makers consciously. They're just there, and they help guide stories and conversations.

Discourse markers are an important study for people who want to translate Scripture (or any other text). For example, the Bible contains a number of accounts that it claims are historical. If you use the wrong discourse markers in telling these accounts, your translation could end up sending the subconscious message that these accounts are fairy tales.

I have not had a lot of formal training in discourse analysis, but I'm always game for a little independent research. So I asked a willing participant to tell me some stories.

Here are three brief data samples:

As for the results of my study:
  • The Observer's Paradox was a clear problem in this research. The participant kept wanting to stop and see herself in the videos I was taking.
  • The participant seemed unsure as to the nature of her discourse. The openings of "Engy and Mengy" or "Ashy and Mengy" sounded like the setup to a nursery rhyme, but the second sample ends as a prayer: "and they loveded each other and amen."
  • No more data collection at mealtimes. Those eggs got so cold it's not funny.

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