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Discourse reporting in African storytelling

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - SPEECHREPORTING (Discourse reporting in African storytelling)

Reporting period: 2021-02-01 to 2022-07-31

Reported speech is a universal feature of storytelling, yet we still do not understand all the aspects of its functioning across languages and cultures. Words and constructions appear in reported speech that are not attested in other types of discourse. Some of the strategies characteristic of reported speech are grammatical: for example, a language may develop a special set of logophoric pronouns to refer to a reported speaker – to distinguish the “I” of the story’s characters from the “I” of the storyteller; or a language may use special verb forms or specialized clause-introducing markers to signal that the clause is part of reported speech (cf. reportative or renarrative verb forms and quotative markers). Other strategies may be lexical or more broadly rhetorical: speech of certain characters may be associated with characteristic words, prosodic patterns, even ungrammaticalities and elements of a foreign language. The project addresses this diversity based on a collection of oral narratives from a number of under-described languages spoken in two very different cultural areas: West Africa and Russia.

Our samples of data allow us to assess differences and similarities in the way reported speech is introduced by storytellers from different cultures and explore their use of linguistic and extra-linguistic strategies to integrate speech of different characters in its surrounding context. Systematic comparison of speech reporting strategies sheds light on the structure and limits of cross-linguistic diversity in this universal aspect of language use. It allows us to see which grammatical devices develop in which languages and how, and to address the role of culture-specific storytelling conventions and performance context in the evolution of grammar. The study also helps us identify discourse practices and linguistic devices that are critical to successful storytelling and characteristic of disappearing oral traditions in a number of underexplored cultures.
The project has been focusing on the development of the empirical foundation, and has only recently passed to the stage of analysis. Data has been collected during multiple fieldtrips in Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, and Russia. Analysis is underway for most of the data sets.

An annotation scheme has been developed for systematic classification of constructions involving reported discourse. The scheme has been implemented for a sample of data and first pilot studies have been run comparing the languages of the sample along a number of parameters. Preliminary results were reported in conference presentations and publications.

A number of issues were identified as particularly promising from the theoretical point of view, including: the (non-)universality of the distinction between direct and indirect speech; the functioning of logophoric pronouns in discourse; asymmetries in the distribution of word classes within vs. outside reported speech; and the interaction between grammatical and extra-grammatical means in marking stretches of discourse as reported speech.
We expect that our data will allow us to demonstrate that the distinction between direct and indirect speech is not universal, and that the principles underlying that distinction in European languages are different from the principles that underlie the choice among reported speech constructions in other languages. In particular, the traditional notion of indirect discourse is, on closer inspection, a complex one involving a rather peculiar combination of parameters pertaining to different levels of linguistic structure (such as syntactic subordination and special use of deictic elements); the different parameters often operate independently in non-European languages.

Our exploration of the phenomenon of logophoricity in its “natural” environment has helped us identify a number of issues with prior characteristics of logophoric pronouns, challenging in particular the notion of logophoric pronoun as an element of indirect discourse and the assumption that constructions with logophoric pronouns share properties with both direct and indirect speech.

Another set of results emerged from a systematic statistical analysis of distributions of words and constructions within and outside reported speech. Word classes are distributed unevenly between reported speech and other portions of narrative. Interjections, in particular, are especially prone to appear in reported speech, while ideophones only rarely do so. Asymmetries in the distribution allow us to identify subtle meaning distinctions between word classes and grammatical categories. Interjections, for example, may be used by storytellers to signal the beginning of reported discourse in much the same way as grammatical markers such as specialized quotatives.

Data collected for the project will serve as a valuable source in the further study of discourse and grammar of the understudied languages explored in the project.