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Types of speech and thought representation in narrative within and across languages – a constructional approach

Arie Verhagen  (Leiden University)
Sunday, May 20th 

The (re)presentation of different perspectives (subjects of consciousness and the contents of their minds) is crucial to the interpretation and coherence of (narrative) discourse, both fictional and non-fictional (e.g. certain types of journalistic texts). Important traditional distinctions in this regard are those between direct, indirect, and free indirect speech and thought representation (STR). More recently, additional distinctions have been proposed, for example between the representation of communication and that of cognition within all three types, between all of the above and a plain ‘report of speech act’ (or ‘report of cognitive process’) without indication of its (propositional) content, and another ‘intermediate’ category of distanced indirect STR (in between indirect and free indirect). There seems to be a risk, then, of a proliferation of types of STR.

Moreover, it turns out that in practice, these distinctions, including the traditional ones, are often hard to apply, especially when it comes to linking them to specific linguistic elements. This problem is even bigger when one attempts to apply them consistently across languages. And theoretical approaches, for example in terms of mental spaces, suggest that other linguistic items than those associated with the traditional types may be highly relevant to STR as well, so that the traditional set seems to have been delimited somewhat arbitrarily.

An analysis of some text fragments considered typical for the differences between types of STR shows that the specific interpretive and stylistic effects involved may also be explained more directly in terms of the meanings of the actual linguistic elements involved, avoiding the problems mentioned above. But this advantage apparently comes with a cost: abandoning the idea(l) of a language independent characterization of kinds of STR. I will, however, argue, that this is precisely the consequence we should accept, and that it in fact provides us with a more plausible image not only of the way STR works, but also of the historical development of different patterns of STR.

This situation is curiously analogous to one in grammatical analysis, in the following way. Different varieties STR are realized by the (patterns of combination of) linguistic elements in discourse. An insight from (radical) constructional approaches to grammar is that profound theoretical consequences follow from the basic idea that all units of language are language specific: as there are no universal words or constructions, there can be no universal grammatical categories defined in terms of these, while grammatical categories can only be so defined. Analogously, types of STR may not constitute universal categories, but rather emerge from combinations of specific linguistic units, with different conceptual ‘centers’ and different ‘boundaries’, as well as with all kinds of ‘intermediate’ varieties, depending on the linguistic items available (or not) in a language. Similarities exist, but they have to be accounted for differently.

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