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Place reference in story beginnings: A cross-linguistic study of narrative and interactional affordances

  • Mark Dingemanse (a1), Giovanni Rossi (a2) and Simeon Floyd (a3)


People often begin stories in conversation by referring to person, time, and place. We study story beginnings in three societies and find place reference is recurrently used to (i) set the stage, foreshadowing the type of story and the kind of response due, and to (ii) make the story cohere, anchoring elements of the developing story. Recipients orient to these interactional affordances of place reference by responding in ways that attend to the relevance of place for the story and by requesting clarification when references are incongruent or noticeably absent. The findings are based on 108 story beginnings in three unrelated languages: Cha'palaa, a Barbacoan language of Ecuador; Northern Italian, a Romance language of Italy; and Siwu, a Kwa language of Ghana. The commonalities suggest we have identified generic affordances of place reference, and that storytelling in conversation offers a robust sequential environment for systematic comparative research. (Storytelling, place, narrative, conversation analysis, interactional linguistics)*


Corresponding author

Address for correspondence: Mark Dingemanse, P.O. Box 310 6500 AH Nijmegen, The Netherlands


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We thank Uwe-Alexander Küttner, Jack Sidnell, the audience at the 2013 Nijmegen workshop on Place Reference, and two anonymous reviewers for Language in Society for helpful comments. We are grateful to Nick Enfield for supporting most of this work through the ERC project Human sociality and systems of language use (ERC grant 240853). Funding at later stages has come from the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, a Veni grant from NWO (to MD), and the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Research on Intersubjectivity in Interaction (for GR).



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Language in Society
  • ISSN: 0047-4045
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