Comparing Stories in English, Japanese, German, Greek, Mayan,
-- and Chinese

The Film. In the mid-1970's Professor Wallace Chafe, a specialist in Native American languages, decided to test how much a simple story will vary from language to language. With his research team, he designed a very simple film to elicit stories from speakers around the world, including uneducated speakers in rural areas. (For full description, see Chafe 1980.)

'The Pear Stories' film was designed to tap into universal experiences, by showing a man harvesting pears, which are stolen by a boy on a bike. The boy has some other adventures with other children, before the farmer discovers that his pears are missing. The film is six minutes long, in colour, with sound effects but no words. It was filmed in northern California, near the University of California, Berkeley. The man who plays the farmer is a Cuban.

The story line is deliberately loose and bland, to avoid imposing a strong U.S. cultural bias. But the film makers deliberately inserted a short scene of a man leading a goat to test descriptions of a background event with no later significance. The scene of falling off the bike and spilling the pears can measure language for cause and effect. And the unusual ping-pong toy tests how people describe an unfamiliar object. The final scene, when the farmer discovers his fruit is stolen, re-introduces a character who had been off-screen for most of the film, and stimulates speakers to describe emotions and state a moral.

Interview Procedure. The standard procedure calls for at least twenty fluent native speakers of the same social background to be recruited to participate in an experiment on 'language'. For convenience, university students are often recruited. Only women students are recruited, to avoid the complicating effect of gender differences, and also because the original Malaysian advisor on the project suggested that women in rural areas were less influenced by contact with foreigners.

The participants watch the film. Within 5-25 minutes afterward, they are interviewed individually in a different room. The interviewer is a young woman native speaker of the same social background. Speaking the target language, she says to each participant, 'you have just seen a film. But I have not seen it. Can you tell me what happens in the film?' If questioned further, she says, 'just describe what you saw. There are not any right or wrong answers.' Most speakers tell the story quite naturally, taking around two minutes. Each description is audio or videotaped.

The tapes are then transcribed and cross-checked by native speakers.
All pauses, false starts, and errors are transcribed. As in Chafe's original design, a '..' indicates a short pause. Longer pauses are marked by a ','. A full stop '.' indicates the end of an utterance, marked by utterance-final intonation. Usually, but not always, this marks the end of a sentence.
All sentences are numbered. Sub-phrases, which Chafe calls 'intonation units' are marked by pauses, and given a sub-number.

Languages sampled. Chafe showed the film to undergraduate students at the University of California, Berkeley in 1975, collecting both spoken and written narratives. The spoken transcripts are included in this media packet. Other, unpublished English Pear Stories were collected for primary school children by Karen Carroll, Janice Schafer, and Sarah Michaels. Japanese stories were collected in Tokyo by Masako Katoh (see Clancy 1980, Downing 1980, 1996). Stories in the Quiche and Sacapultec Mayan Indian languages, were collected in Guatamala by John DuBois (1980). Greek stories were collected in Athens by Deborah Tannen (Tannen 1980). German stories were collected by Swantje Ehlers. Malay stories were collected in northern Malaysia by Arfah Azia. Thai stories were collected by Kanita Roengpitya, Persian stories in Iran by Reza Tabeni, and Haitian Creole stories by Francine Desmarais. Chinese stories in Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Shanghai Wu, Southern Min, Changsha Xiang, and Nanchang Gan were collected by Mary Erbaugh, as further described below.