Toward a Typology of Ranking Elements of Narrative Discourse in Languages and Cultures: A Cross-Linguistic Survey


  • Marla Perkins



It has been noted (Perkins, 2009; Zwaan, 1999; Zwaan & Radvansky, 1998) that causality, character, location, and time are the four main aspects of narrative discourse, even if not attended to by listeners or readers in equal ways. For example, character is highly ranked, and the locational/spatial components have often been underestimated for English narratives (see Perkins, 2009, for a review). Relative to the ranking, there is no inherent reason why character needs to be highly ranked, and locational/spatial information is in fact important in English narrative discourse (Perkins, 2009). I instead suggest that there are linguistic and cultural factors in the ranking of these aspects of discourse. Specifically, I suggest that causality is (probably) the highest ranked component, in languages that have a ranking, with the other three elements being linked to causality more or less strongly, depending on linguistic and cultural factors; it is possible that some languages do not rank narrative elements or that some elements are ranked as highly as others. In English, the strongest link is between causality and character. However, this is not universal.

In a survey of fifty-eight languages from thirty language families, including an in-depth study of Hobongan, an Austronesian language spoken by approximately two thousand people on the island of Borneo that I am in the process of describing, it is found that there is a great deal of cross-linguistic variation, to the extent that it is possible that each logically possible combination of narrative elements is present in the world’s languages.