Chapter 9. Promoting patients in narrative discourse

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Languages provide speakers with a number of structural options for manipulating the expression of events in narrative discourse. Underlying narrative competence is the capacity to view events as dynamic actions composed of a bundle of elements such as, agent, patient, affectedness, etc. (Hopper & Thompson 1980). This study examines the grammatical constructions used by children (5–6, 7–8 and 10–11-year-olds) and adult speakers of Amharic, English, French and Hungarian to manipulate the expression of agent and patient participants in the linguistic formulation of events. The narrative task used to elicit the data is composed of a series of pictures which recount the adventures of two principal characters (a boy and a dog) in search of their runaway frog (Frog, Where are you? Mayer 1969). Over the course of the story the boy and the dog encounter a host of secondary characters (a gopher, an owl, a swarm of bees and a deer) and change participant status, going from controlling agent to affected patient of a secondary character’s action. Our interest lies in the structures available in the languages studied and their use by children and adults in narrative discourse. We detail how children and adult native speakers of the four languages use topicalising constructions to promote the patient participant in an event to the “starting point” (Langacker 1998) of the recounting of that event.


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