Toward a socionarratology: new ways of analyzing natural-language narratives

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Herman, David. “Toward a socionarratology: new ways of analyzing natural-language narratives.” In: Narratologies: new perspectives on narrative analysis. Ed. David Herman. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1999. Pages 218-246.


In this rather technical piece of linguistic and narratological theory, David Herman uses two oral Lumbee ghost stories to demonstrate some advantages to integrating post-classical narratology with Labovian (modified- or post-Labovian) sociolinguistics to open up aspects of narrative meaning that are currently under explored and under appreciated.

The first half of the article gives a concise and detailed overview of various strands of narratological and sociolinguistic theory and the second half shows in detail how these can be applied to oral tales in order to demonstrate the working principles of sociolinguistic narratology and to show how they can bring out subtleties of technique and meaning in non-literary tales.

The tales themselves are ghost or “toten” stories told to academic collectors by an 81-year-old female Lumbee informant identified only as LL. Collected by Herman and several assistants, they are part of the material being gathered as part of a longer, comparative study of story-telling among different regional populations of North Carolina.

In the first narrative (both are reprinted verbatim in the Appendix), LL explains her use of the word “toten” by telling of a time in the past when her sister and she saw jack-o-laterns going up and down in the moonlit evening. The second narrative is of a strange whistling voice heard the night a Pembroke police officer named Harvey Bullard died. LL explains that her husband had done some moonshining and that the voice was that of the spirit-Bullard saying “I'll see you again.” 

This annotation cannot do justice to the complexity and interest of Herman's formulations for those with the theoretical background to appreciate them. The stories, though brief, have an art and atmosphere that any reader can appreciate. Professor Herman's textual commentary clarifies the linguistic processes by which this art operates and briefly but effectively makes certain thematic contents visible.

Annotation by Roger J. Stilling, Professor Emeritus, English Department, Appalachian State University.

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