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ArribaAbajo Tense and Cohesion in Brazilian Portuguese Oral Narratives
Dale April Koike

University of Texas at Austin

1. Introduction

Oral narrative discourse, particularly when it involves the recounting of past events, is often comprised of smaller units defined by van Dijk as «episodes». «Episodes» are characterized as «coherent sequences of sentences of a discourse, linguistically marked for beginning and/or end and further defined in terms of some kind of 'thematic unity' -for instance, in terms of identical participants, time, location, or global event or action» (van Dijk 177). While episodes can be identified as separate units, they must be related in a cohesive manner to larger «macropropositions», or topics or «gist» of the narration. A macroproposition, derived from a «sequence of propositions», gives unity to the overall discourse (van Dijk 180). By relating episodic sequences to a macroproposition, the speaker is able to maintain cohesion and coherence throughout the narrative.

I will discuss the use of verb tense in the episode as a device to mark certain utterances which play a cohesive function in that they relate the episode to a more global proposition that was stated earlier, as well as to the overall purpose for which the episode was recounted. In such cases, verb tense is marked, or expressed in a form unlike those around it. Thus, these utterances are more salient both in semantic and syntactic terms.

In a recent study, Erlich claims that semantic factors and pragmatic implicature only partially explain the interpretation of certain English predicates in the simple past tense. She states that one must consider reference to units larger than the sentence to account satisfactorily for their meaning. To illustrate her points, she shows how a predicate in the simple past tense is understood either as an event of the narrative present, or as part of a representation of the characters' speech and thought, as in the following example:

(1) He was really, Lily Briscoe thought, in spite of his eyes, but then look at his hands, the most uncharming human being he had ever met. Then why did she mind what he said?

(To the Lighthouse, p. 99; cf. Erlich 61)                

The underlined portions of this excerpt show the point of view of the female character, Lily Briscoe, to reveal an almost verbatim rendering of the character's speech and thought, referred to as «represented speech and thought».

Erlich distinguishes between those predicates that coincide with the main time-line of the narrative, e. g.,

(2) «Oh, he has his dissertation to write» said Mr. Ramsay

(To the Lighthouse, 77; Erlich 61)                

and those that do not, e. g.,

(3) Minta, Andrew observed, was rather a good walker. She wore more sensible clothes than most women... She knew she was an awful coward about bulls, she said.

(To the Lighthouse, p. 86; cf. Erlich 61)                

In example (3), the use of said reflects the inner thoughts and memories of another character, Andrew, and does not coincide with the main temporal and/or events sequence of the narrative.

Thus, Erlich shows one means by which the larger discourse context affects the function of the simple past tense in English, suggesting that one must consider discourse units beyond the limitations of the sentence to obtain a cohesive reading.

Extending her idea on the ways in which units larger than the sentence influence the interpretation of certain past tense forms, I apply this notion to the context of Brazilian Portuguese (BP) oral narratives to account for some uses of verb forms which, on a more superficial level, do not correspond to those around them. Some data from several BP oral narratives are presented which show the selection of tense as a cohesive device. These specially marked utterances call upon the hearer to refer back to previously stated information, and thereby understand   —648→   their cohesive functison. This relationship between the message, tense, and cohesion, or in other words, between the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic systems, extends beyond the level of the single utterance and beyond the episode itself to the actual intent of the narrator in uttering this segment of discourse.

2. Cohesion in the Narrative

Before proceeding, the term «cohesion» in narrative should be discussed. Reinhart groups three cohesive devices -anaphora, substitution, and lexical repetition- into a category she calls «referential link». The terms will not be discussed here since they are not central to this study, and instead the reader is referred to the original work. Aside from referential linking, the other type of cohesive device mentioned by Reinhart are «semantic connectors», which include markers for semantic relations such as cause and effect, comparison (similarity), contrast, temporal relations, and exemplification. These more global types of cohesive devices are of the type found in the BP data to be examined. More specifically, the episodes examined are used to exemplify, contrast, or elaborate (expand) on something that was said previously.

Cohesion in the data is also achieved through another device-circularity. Fleischman (13) states that a feature of narratives in oral cultures is that their telling is not so much linear as circular, in that narrators often return to events previously narrated and new meanings emerge cumulatively through their repetition. I agree with this claim, on the basis of what can be observed in these data. However, the circularity in my data is found not only on the level of repetition of entire events, but also on a more local level of the repetition of propositions. This circularity is another cohesive device which helps the listener infer the macroproposition(s) of the discourse. In the examples that follow, circularity will be examined as it is manifested in episodes which serve to exemplify, contrast, or expand, according to the speaker's intent. The circularity in these data is usually expressed in the form of a single utterance which refers to some idea expressed previously and links the episode cohesively to the previous discourse. It is a means of facilitating the listener's understanding of the sequence of discourse units as well as inference of the point of the episode, which is specifically the speaker's intent to exemplify, contrast, etc.

3. Tense Marking in the Narrative

As episodes are representations of past events, the verb forms used most in Spanish and Portuguese narratives are the preterite and the imperfect. Silva-Corvalán points out that, in Spanish, either form is more likely to appear according to the different parts of the narrative, such as the imperfect in the orientation section and the preterite in the complicating action sections. This usage coincides with the aspectual differences expressed through the preterite as opposed to the imperfect. That is, the perfective aspect of the preterite conveys processes and states as single, self-contained units, while the imperfective aspect of the imperfect allows for a breakdown of the internal temporal structure of a situation (Comrie). In Bull's characterization of the imperfect, it is an aspect which represents a process or state with no beginning or end points. These descriptions for Spanish also apply to Portuguese.

Since episodes in oral narratives usually focus on a sequence of actions or events that took place in a given place and time frame, most of these actions are represented through the preterite. Fleischman (55) calls the preterite in the narrative the «pragmatically unmarked tense of narrative language». In turn, whenever any form other than the preterite is used in the narratives, the narrator's objective is to «neutralize» the properties of the preterite and define new terms for the verb tense or aspect used. Fleischman (74) says that the imperfect expresses the situation as process, and is «antithetical to narration» since narrating is a verbalization of experience that has been transformed in the speaker's mind into «events», or «chunks of completed action». These chunks, with beginning or end points, are expressed through the preterite form.

Thus, the changes of verb form seen in narrations of past events from the preterite to any other form can be viewed as markers that signal that attention should be paid not only to the message but also to the narrator's intent for the new form. Such an understanding of intent must be inferred from the message of the marked utterance(s), as well as their relation to the rest of the discourse context.

4. The Data

The data in Episodes 1 through 3 were gathered from a Brazilian male informant, 35 years old, who was born in a small town in the interior   —649→   of the state of São Paulo. He had a university education, was very well read, and occupied a high administrative position in one of the government agencies. Although his parents were immigrants from Japan, his Portuguese was completely native and his command of Japanese was limited to that of language used in family interaction. The tape recordings were made in the informant's home, and the relationship between the informant and the investigator was very familiar. In Episodes 1 through 3 discussed below, the informant was simply recounting memories of his childhood.

In Episode 1, the speaker's intent is to convey an experience that he personally had as a child with snakes, to exemplify this topic, which had been briefly discussed immediately prior to the episode.


I = Interviewer


H: Eu não posso garantir que tipo de cobra, mas, uh...

I: Aqueles pequeninhos, ou aqueles...?

H: Eu não sei...


H: Não. Não sei que tipo de cobra teria sido. Mas sobre cobras, todo mundo tem várias experiências. Todo mundo que mora na zona rural tem experiências fantásticas, né? Jarará, por exemplo, que é uma cobra muito grande...


Eu me lembro uma vez a minha irmã teve uma dor de cabeça, né? Aí, eu e o meu irmão tivemos que buscar remédio pra ela. Tinha um rio, só que era uma época de muita chuva, e o rio transbordou. Nós atravessamos a nado o rio. A noite, voltamos com o remédio e tal. E daí, há bem pouco tempo, mataram uma jarará que aquela era capaz de, de engolir qualquer um de nós dois. De fato que dentro dessa jarará tinha umas galinhas etc., etc. Então, coisa de louco...

I: Eu não conheço o mato, a selva.

H: 'I can't guarantee what kind of snake, but uh...

I: Those small ones, or those...

H: I don't know...

I: Rattlesnake?

H: No. I don't know what kind of snake it might have been. But about snakes, everybody has several experiences. Everyone who lives in the rural areas has fantastic experiences, right? The jarará, for example, which is a very big snake...

I remember once my sister had a headache, right? So, my brother and I had to go get some medicine for her. There was a river, but it was a very rainy season, and the river overflowed. We swam across the river. At night, we returned with the medicine and all. And then, a little while later, they killed a jarará that that one was capable of, swallowing either one of the two of us. In fact inside that jarará there were some chickens, etc., etc. So, a crazy thing...

I: I don't know the jungle, the wilderness'.

The use of the imperfect as opposed to the preterite in this excerpt can be traced to the relationship of the global intent of the speaker in recounting the episode. The first verbs are in the preterite be cause the speaker is conveying a series of «chunks» of action -i. e., having a headache, having to get medicine, crossing the river, returning, and most important to the episode, killing one of those giant snakes, jararás, mentioned earlier.

When the narrator comes to the part of the story in which he describes the capacity of the snake to swallow little boys and chickens, he changes to the imperfect to switch from action to description, and effectively slows down the reporting of the sequence of events to focus on the snake. The snake is introduced into the story via a predicate expressed in the preterite form (mataram uma jarará), a chunk of action in which they kill a snake, after which the snake is described via the imperfect as life-threatening (era capaz de matar). In effect, the snake is «revived» through this verb tense. Moreover, the listener has to infer that the snake was in or near the river the boys had to cross and draw the connection between the snake and the speaker by the information that it was «capable of swallowing either one of the two» of them. This key utterance is marked by the «slowing down» of the sequence of actions through the imperfect, and the listener must dwell on it to infer the relevance of the focus of the sentence -the snake- to draw its connection to the overall topic of experiences with snakes, for which the entire episode serves as an example. In drawing this connection, the episode is cohesive to the hearer within the larger body of discourse.

Immediately preceding Episode 2, the narrator describes how lucky the family was that only two of eleven children died.




H: A nossa família, diria que tem assim, teve... teve sorte, né? Porque o índice de mortalidade, na família, foi na proporção de dois pra onze. Nós somos nove irmãos vivos, né? Mas, você podia, você poderia imaginar, que isto, foi um lance também de sorte. É claro que isto vai um pouco da cultura, do papai, de mamãe, etc., que evitou a mortalidade maior, né?


Mas, uh, por exemplo, mamãe, capinava, e me deixava amarrado com obis. Obi é aquele pano que carregam as coisas. Amarrava assim, 'tá certo, e amarrava num pé de árvore por um tempo pra a gente não ir, não ir pra muito longe. Então, aparecer uma cobra lá, certamente morreria. Eu, heim. E se não, ela me largava de vez em quando. Ela, ela é que conta no, num buraco feito por cachorro e tal, largava a gente lá dentro enquanto ia capinar. Numa rua botava, e aí dava de mamar pra gente, etc., capinava de novo. É, a vida foi muito difícil. A vida foi muito dificil.

H: 'Our family, I would say that it has like, it was... it was lucky, right? Because the mortality rate, in the family, was in the proportion of two to eleven. We are nine living siblings, right? But, you could, you could imagine, that this, was also a stroke of luck. It's true that this comes a little from the culture, of dad, of mom, etc., that, that avoided more deaths, right?

But, uh, for example, mom, used to hoe, and she left me tied up in obis. Obi is that cloth [in] which they carry things. She wrapped [us] like this, right, and she tied [us/it] to the foot of a tree for a time so that we couldn't get away, couldn't go very far. So, [for] a snake to appear there, I/we certainly would die. Me, huh? And if not, she left me from time to time. She, she is the one who says, in, in a hole made by a dog and such, she would leave [us] there inside while she went to hoe. She would leave us on the street, and then she would breastfeed us, etc., she would hoe again. Yes, life was very difficult. Life was very difficult'.

He goes on to say that it was not all luck, and that credit should also be given to his parents. He then gives an anecdote preceded by the word mas'but', which signals that what follows will be a contradiction to what was said earlier. The first part of the episode provides a description of how the mother used to wrap him up with cloths and leave him tied to a tree. One does not see the contradictory value of the episode until the utterance,

(4) Então, aparecer uma cobra lá, certamente morreria. 'So, [for] a snake to appear there, I surely would die'.

which seems somewhat out of place in this series of descriptions. This utterance not only breaks the sequence of thoughts, but also its predicate differs in form from the other utterances. The preceding sentences, which describe how he used to be wrapped in the cloths, are in the imperfect, whereas this utterance is expressed with an infinitive, or zero tense, and the conditional.143 The rest of the episode is again a description of how the mother used to leave the children while she went to work, all expressed in the imperfect. Therefore, this key sentence, which stands out syntactically through tense forms, is related to the previously discussed topic of snakes. It is tied much more to the larger discourse function of the entire episode, which is (a) to contrast with something that was said previously (i. e., that his life may not be due entirely to his parents' care but rather to luck); and (b) to relate the episode to a previously discussed topic. The hearer is called upon to infer these connections to understand their cohesive link to the rest of the discourse.

Episode 3 deals with the topic of the level of cultural sophistication of the narrator's father.



H: Culturalmente, papai não é evoluído. Ele é capaz de ler jornais em japonês, por exemplo. Então ele é alfabetizado por completo. É capaz de fazer contas. Mas não tem nenhum refinamento cultural, 'tá certo?


Mas, por exemplo, na época que tinha que arar, na, em 1952, papai tinha trator. Que significa que, que ele era um lavrador já muito esclarecido. Mas eu me lembro que tinha um trator e, e, existe uma época certa de arar. A extensão de terras que papai tocava era muito grande. Então às vezes ele levava a gente, eu me   —651→   segurava na, no paralelo do trator, papai colocava lá de frente, e eu ia assim dormindo.

H: 'Culturally, dad is not sophisticated. He is capable of reading newspapers in Japanese, for example. So he is completely literate. He's able to do basic arithmetic. But he doesn't have any cultural refinement, right?

But, for example, in the season that he had to plough, in, in 1952, dad had a tractor. Which means that, that he was already a very enlightened grower. But I remember that he had a tractor and, and there is a certain season to plough. The size of the fields that dad took care of was very large. So, at times, he took us, I held onto the, side seat of the tractor, dad placed it in front, and I went along sleeping.'

The speaker begins by stating that his father was not a culturally refined man. He then goes on to give a counter example to state the opposite, signalled by the words mas, por exemplo, exactly as in Episode 2. In this example, he begins by saying that his father had a tractor, which meant that he was a worker of above average intelligence. However, the speaker goes beyond this example to describe another memory invoked of his rides on this tractor with his father. This second memory is marked by two clauses in the present tense Mas eu me lembro 'But I remember' as well as the conjoined existe uma epoca certa de arar 'there is a certain season for plowing'. While it is not surprising that the first clause is in the present tense, it is rather surprising that the second is expressed as such. I believe it is communicated this way due to the speaker's attempt to tie what follows to his original intent in narrating all these episodes. That is, the speaker changes from giving a counter example, i. e., a narrower purpose, to a more global one -that of recounting memories of his childhood.

These episodes illustrate how tense is used as a device to lend cohesion to the narrative by marking certain utterances which refer to previously discussed macropropositions. These utterances are thus circular in content and facilitate the listener's understanding of the entire discourse. However, circularity alone is not enough to create cohesion, as illustrated in Episode 4. This episode was recounted by a 30-year-old man born in Bahia who had lived most of his adult life in various urban centers of Brazil. He did not have a high school or university degree but prided himself on being a «self-made man», in that he taught himself to be a professional journalist and was named to a directorship of publicity within a government agency. He was very intelligent and communicative, and his wide range of experiences with different walks of life helped him to be an interesting conversationalist. The tape recording represents an informal conversation between the informant and the investigator in a familiar setting.

In Episode 4, the informant had been speaking generally about his ideas on the freedom of women in Brazil. To show how he believed in equality in the workplace, he gave an example of how he sometimes divided up assignments between his male and female subordinates. He quoted a saying, loosely translated as «Journalism knows no sexism». To illustrate what he meant, he recounted Episode 4.



A: Nessa área de jornalismo aqui a gente costuma ter um axioma que é muito usado. É assim: «Jornalismo não tem sexo». Então é [deleted] por todo lado. É igual em tudo, 'tá entendendo? Não porque a mulher... competição não é válida, 'tá entendendo, né?


Eu saí daqui, anteontem, fui jantar na casa de puta que tem aqui no Maracanã, delas que não tem mais no Rio. Um rendez-vous daqueles bem baixos. E a maioria dos cara estavam junto e o F. ficou todo assustado, né? Que a comida de lá é muito boa. (Onde?) Aqui no Maracañã. Mas de um baixo nível terrível. Mas a comida é boa. As puta sabem fazer as comida. Aí ele -«Pô, mas a moça...» Falei, «Não, jornalismo não tem sexo». Que ela foi, almoçou com a gente, vi u toda aquela sacanagem lá. Os caras falando palavrão, eu digo palavrão. «[deleted]!» Gritando, assim, na cara. Eu -tudo bem- saí de lá, como se nada tivesse havido, elogiando a comida. Nem se tocou que o cara 'tava lá querendo [deleted]. Nada assim. Conversamos o que tinha que conversar, ali na mesa, não mencionou nada. Agora, isto é uma coisa. Agora a independência da mulher do ponto de vista genérica que você fala, eu não gosto de admitir...

A: 'In this area of journalism here we usually have a saying that is used a lot. It goes like this: 'Journalism has no sex'. So it's [deleted] everywhere.   —652→   It's equality in everything, you understand? Not because women... competition isn't valid, you understand, right?

I left here, the day before yesterday, I went to eat dinner in a whorehouse here in Maracanã, the kind that don't exist anymore in Rio. A rendezvous of the lowest class. And the bunch of guys were sitting together and F. got all scared, right? The food there is very good. (Where?) Here in Maracanã. But of a terribly low class. But the food is good. The whores know how to cook food. So he -«Gees, but the girl...» I said, «No, journalism has [knows] no sex». 'Cause she went, ate lunch with us, saw all that screwing around there. The guys cussing, I'm cussing. «[deleted]» Shouting, like that, in your face. I, you know, left there, as if nothing had happened, praising the food. It wasn't even mentioned that the guy was there wanting to [deleted]. Nothing like that. We talked about what we had to discuss, there at the table, nothing was mentioned. Now, this is one thing. Now, the freedom of women from the generic point of view that you are talking about, I don't like to concede...'

This episode shows the same notion of circularity illustrated in Episodes 1 through 3. However, in this episode, there are several differences in the way it is presented which make it more difficult to understand as a cohesive whole. First, the circularity is achieved basically through the repetition of the utterance, Jornalismo não tem sexo. Second, unlike the other episodes, the speaker does not say any other utterance which easily ties in the episode to what was said earlier. There is no obvious introduction of characters or referents to enable the listener to link them to what was already discussed, with the exception of the mention of F., who was a mutual friend of the investigator. Instead, the listener is suddenly made aware that a woman was present with the speaker and F. through a quote of the latter's expression of concern (mas a moça...). By this utterance and the following one, the listener is to infer that the woman was a journalist, which would then relate at least the characters of the episode to the idea of equality in journalism. The speaker goes on to expand on this point -i. e., that the woman accompanied them to this house of ill repute, and that business was discussed as if there were no scandalous behavior going on around them. Nevertheless, in spite of this clarification, the listener must work hard to infer the intent of the episode. While he tells a colorful story, the anecdote is not linked well to the larger body of discourse, and the episode is not truly cohesive. Therefore, circularity alone does not create strong cohesion.

Evidence of the use of tense change in the narrative to signal utterances which convey circularity can be seen in data from other informants, as seen in Episode 5. This episode was told by a 25-year-old woman, born and raised in Rio de Janeiro. She was a university-educated, highly intelligent, and articulate career woman. The recording was made during an informal conversation between the informant and the researcher, who were casual friends.

In Episode 5, the informant had been speaking about how much she loved any kind of art. She then begins to talk about one artistic film she had seen recently, and describes the plot.



S: Então a arte é assim. Eu assisti «A pocilga» de Rosselini, e eu amei o filme. Nem que tanto o pessoal saiu do outro lado, saiu enojado do filme.


Mas era o seguinte. Era um, que era um rapaz novo que, participou da guerra. Ainda estava na época da guerra. O outro, o filho, de um nazista. Entendeu? Então, o filme todo quase não tem palavras no filme, não há diálogo. E toda expressão facial. O rapaz que virou na montanha, ele praticava antropofagia. Entendeu? Então, ele se revoltava com o mundo e mostrava a revolta dele, através disso, sabe. Sem menor merecimento, não dava o menor merecimento ao, ao problema de ser um ser humano. Ele se sentiu um bicho. Em contrapartida, o filho desse nazista, ele se identificava com os porcos. Por isso, «A pocilga», por causa do pai. O pai, o chefe nazista de campos de concentração, aqueles negócios todo, entendeu? Então o filme todo é jogado em arte, assim, em cena. Ao final o rapaz se joga aos porcos porque se identifica com os porcos, e quer ficar no meio dos porcos. Então, o filme é maravilhoso, mas, teve gente que saiu enojado.

S: 'So art is like this. I went to see «The Pigpen» by Rosselini, and I loved the film. Not so the people [who] left out the other side, they left disgusted with the film.


But it was the following. There was one, who was a young boy who, took part in the war. It was still in wartime. The other, the son, of a Nazi. Understand? So, the entire film has almost no words in the film, there is no dialogue. It's all facial expression. The boy who went up to the mountain, he practiced cannibalism. Did you understand? So, he turned against the world and showed his rejection, in this way, you know. Without the least value, he didn't give any value to, to the problem of being a human being. He felt like an animal. On the other hand, the son of that Nazi, he identified with pigs. For this reason, «The Pigpen», because of his father. The father, the Nazi administrator of concentration camps, all that stuff, understand? So the whole movie is played out in art, like this, in scenes. At the end the boy throws himself to the pigs because he identifies with pigs, and he wants to be among pigs. So, the movie is marvelous, but, there were people who left disgusted'.

In those utterances expressed in the present tense, e. g.,

(5) ... o filme todo quase ndo tem palavras, não há diálogo. 'almost the entire film has no words, there is no dialogue'

(6) Ao final o rapaz se joga aos porcos porque se identifica com os porcos. 'At the end the boy throws himself to the pigs because he identifies with pigs'

the speaker is identifying what is artistic about the film, which relates to her global intent of discussing her appreciation of art.

5. Conclusion

Episodes 1 through 3 and 5 illustrate how a change of tense forms in a sequence of episodic utterances can be used as a cohesive device in the narrative. That is, certain utterances expressed in episodic units in the BP narrative can be related to those in a preceding unit in circular fashion through changes in tense form that signal that these utterances are marked. In this way, tense markers serve as cohesive devices by relating the utterance to macro-propositions, thus facilitating the listener's interpretation of the discourse in a global fashion.


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