Kristín Jóhannsdóttir – University of Copenhagen

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Danish voices > WILA8 2017 > Workshop programme > Kristín Jóhannsdóttir

Time transitions in North American Icelandic narratives

Kristín Jóhannsdóttir (University of Akureyri)

When telling a story, the speaker uses various transitional words to connect e.g. events, times, characters, locations, and point of view. Time transitions, such as meanwhile, afterwards, next day, tell the reader how the story unfolds in time; they move the story from one logical point to another. Additionally, they show the relation between events, whether the events take place simultaneously or sequentially. The importance of time transitions is particularly relevant when temporal information is not easily available through aspect. Consider the examples below in (1) and (2):

(1) The boy looked down the hole while the dog checked out the tree. (simultaneous)

(2) The boy looked down the hole. Then the dog checked out the tree. (sequential)

This paper presents the results of a preliminary investigation into the use of time transitions in North American Icelandic narratives. It contributes to our understanding of how heritage speakers locate their events in time and how they move the storyline forward. By comparing the results to narratives of fully competent speakers of European Icelandic, we gain further understanding of what makes heritage speakers’ narratives different, if anything.

As Aarsen (2001) has pointed out, the concepts simultaneous, before, and after are core notions of temporality. Furthermore, children find it easy to understand the idea that two things happen at the same time, or that one happens after another, and North American Icelanders who mostly spoke Icelandic in their childhood should therefore have acquired an adequate knowledge of the concept before English more or less took over. However, simultaneous events are more marked than utterances that express sequential order and it is therefore possible that the speakers avoid them (di Luzio 1994:249). In a study such as this one, it is also of importance that both simultaneous and sequential events can be expressed in several ways.

The results are based on interviews with 28 North American Icelanders (NAmIce) telling the Frog Story (Mayer 1969), both in Icelandic and English, and five Icelanders telling the story only in Icelandic.

Preliminary results show that the heritage speakers do indeed avoid expressing simultaneity; only one time transition was used by only one speaker, á meðan ‘meanwhile’. Instead, the NAmIce used the conjunctions og ‘and’ and en ‘but’ to indicate simultaneous events:

(3) Hann byrjar að horfa í skónum í og hundurinn fe- setur hausinn í flöskuna.
‘He starts by looking into the shoes and the dog puts the head into the bottle.’

These conjunctions can also indicate sequential events and usually do so when there is only one agent. However, the two separate agents (usually the boy and the dog) give rise to the simultaneous reading.

There is more variety in the speech of NAmIce when the story needs to move forward. The most common ones were:

a. Indicative pronouns: hér/hérna ‘here’ and þar/þarna ‘there’ while pointing, (see 4).

b. Time adverbials: svo ‘then’, þá ‘then’, næst ‘next’, skyndilega ‘suddenly’, and þegar…þá ‘when…then’, (see 5)

c. Verbs of motion used as inceptices, particularly fara ‘go’ and koma ‘come’, (see 6)

(4) Ó, hérna er stráksi farinn að sofa.
‘Oh, here the boy has gone to sleep.

(5) Jæja þá allt í einu fyrir aftan steinn kemur regndeer how do you say that? Reindeer.
‘Well then suddenly behind the rock comes a regndeer, how do you say that? Reindeer

(6) Ja hann fer út til þess að ganga líklegast og kalla og reyna finn froskinn.
‘Well he goes out to walk probably and call and try to find the frog.’

The high use of indicative pronouns is partly a problem with the method; the pages of the story act as a crutch that the speakers can use to locate their events in time. This was in fact also common among the Icelandic speakers and the NAmIce speakers when telling the story in English, and should, therefore, not be considered particularly characteristic of the NAmIce language. However, the fully competent speakers, both the Icelanders and the NAmIce speaking English, used a greater variety of transitions overall, as well as using more varied ways to show overlapping events or move the storyline forward.

The main conclusions are that the heritage speakers’ narratives mostly consisted of simple structures and a limited number of ways to express these temporal concepts which indicates a significant reduction in the temporal forms used by the NamIce speakers. As the preliminary results don’t seem to indicate any kind of rise in the number of English-based tokens emerging in the Icelandic narratives by the NAmIce speakers, the overall temporal inventory has been reduced.

Abbreviated references

  • Aarssen, J. (2001). Development of temporal relations in narratives by Turkish-Dutch bilingual children.
  • di Luzio, A. (1994). Temporal reference and narrative structures in Italian and...
  • Mayer, Mercer. (1969). Frog where are you.