Peter Roe


This Unit seeks to help you develop an understanding of the notion of Lexis in the context of the wider concept of Language.

ad hominem, ad rem, connotation, context, contextualisation, denotation, dynamic, language, langage, langue, lexis, parole, prosody, rhetorical structure, segment, socio-physical setting, speech/discourse community

We are embarked on an investigation into the nature of lexis. Unit 1 sought to establish what we are trying to achieve through this study, and to specify a selection of the questions to which we would like to have answers, and to suggest some of the issues of which we would like to have a deeper understanding. But what is 'lexis'? What are 'words'? At first glance this may seem a trivial question. But the nature of our answer will predetermine to a very large extent the nature of the theory to which it will lead, and consequently its usefulness to us as teachers. It seems a reasonable assumption to make that lexis is a part of something larger which we call language, and that our perceptions of lexis will be greatly predetermined by our understanding of what language is. 'Words', however we eventually define that term, will inevitably end up as elements or components or a dimension of that view of language. That is why we must first revisit this global topic to ensure that we have a perspective appropriate to our goals as language teachers etc.

The number of possible perspectives to choose from is of course vast (structuralist, transformational, systemic, pragmatic, sociolinguistic, ethnomethodological, etc. etc.) and we cannot pursue them all. But I believe these all tend in one of two possible directions, which I call 'language as system' and 'language as sharing'. I propose to investigate them both, asking you to take a position regarding them, and to mould your own preferred perspective for yourself.

Language as System
A simple starting point for this dichotomy is provided by Singleton (1997). In his "State of the Art Article: Learning and processing L2 Vocabulary" he states that:

" … the treatment of lexis in most teaching approaches is also inadequate. … One possibility is that interest in the lexicon is to some extent thwarted by the difficulty in delimiting things lexical with respect to what has traditionally been labelled as 'grammar'. … the consistent message that comes through is that the lexicon defies easy definition and cannot be readily disentangled from 'grammatical' knowledge."
(Op. cit. page 213)

It is this confusion that we must clarify before we can hope to get a sound grasp of the lexis which is the subject of this Module. And with this in mind I propose to explore some of the fundamental issues in the arguments concerning what is language, and what is linguistics. In so doing I shall keep an eye on some of the most recent literature, but also revisit some of the classic papers of the past in which great minds have wrestled with precisely the same timeless fundamentals which now confront us.

The Joosian Perspective
One of the most influential, and in my view least examined, of the theoretical 'positions' or assumptions inherited by 'applied linguistics', and one with the most serious implications for ESP, is that made most explicit by Joos (1950). The fact that this statement was made nearly half a century ago, and that many of us may never have heard of Joos, does not diminish the degree to which its influence is still felt today in statements of advice to teachers, especially when it comes to the 'teaching' of 'vocabulary'. This states that linguistic theory is concerned with the study of discrete linguistic segments, to the exclusion of the worlds of acoustic and semantic continua, which are the domains of the acoustic engineer and the sociologist respectively. This segmentation proceeds from the identification of a set of minimal base units, the phonemes (conveniently mapped into conventional orthographic units), through morphemes free and bound (likewise mapped into conveniently pre-existing orthographic symbols 'words'), phrases, clauses and sentences. This all locks us securely into a 'scientific' perspective, but one which seems to leave out of consideration the social world and the crucial notion of interpersonal communication.

The Katz and Fodor Semantic Theory
This exclusion of the 'real' world is further justified by Katz and Fodor (1963) who argued, following the Joosian position, that "a COMPLETE theory" purporting to account for all "information about the world ... is impossible", and that one is thus reduced to accepting "a LIMITED theory of selection by sociophysical setting" (their emphasis). This is bad enough for the world of ESP, which can only exist in a full, real-world, sociophysical setting, but there is worse to come:

"Such a [limited] theory has a strong and a weak version. The strong version requires that the theory interpret a discourse in the same way that a fluent speaker would. ... Since, however, in so interpreting a discourse a speaker may need to bring to bear virtually any information about the world that he and other speakers share, the argument given against a complete theory of selection by sociophysical setting applies equally against the strong version of a theory of selection by discourse. Hence we need only consider the weak version.
"The weak version of such a theory requires only that the theory interpret discourses just so far as the interpretation is determined by grammatical and semantic relations which obtain in and among the sentences of the discourse."

(Op. cit. in Jakobovits & Miron (1967) pages 406-7)

Now I am not claiming that a theoretical position formulated over thirty years ago has many explicit defenders today. But I do claim that many of its underlying assumptions still inform much of our pedagogic practice, and the advice given to language teachers, as in the examples quoted below. One need only consider the inclusion, at least until recently, of transformational grammar in many of our training syllabuses, in spite of the fact that Chomsky's lexical component bears such a strong resemblance to the position recommended by Katz and Fodor. Why include TG unless it is implied that it constitutes part of the arsenal of theories which form the basis of applied linguistics? And it is in advice given on the teaching of lexis that the problem seems most acute.

At this stage it would be a very good idea for you to stop and reflect on the formal perspective of language outlined above, and to consider its implications for language teaching, in the light of such insights as you have gained so far.
What is lost that would be of value to the language user?

What kind of Advice?
So what kind of advice to language teachers can we expect from a vision of language based on the Joosian perspective? Here is an example taken from a well-known authority of that period, Carroll (1964):

"The teaching of words, and of the meanings and concepts they designate or convey, is one of the principal tasks of teachers at all levels of education. It is a concern of textbook writers and programmers of self-instructional materials as well. Students must be taught the meanings of unfamiliar words and idioms; they must be helped in recognising unfamiliar ways in which familiar words may be used; and they must be made aware of the possibility of ambiguity in meaning and the role of context in resolving it. Often the task that presents itself to the teacher is not merely to explain a new word in familiar terms, but to shape an entirely new concept in the mind of the student."
(Op. cit. p. 178)

Words & Meanings
But what are these words? What are these meanings? Are 'meanings' in some way attached to the 'words'? How are they linked? How did the 'meaning' get there in the first place? And what is meant by 'teaching' a 'word'? And 'learning' a 'word'? Is 'teaching' a 'word' like an on-off switch - "Before this lesson I had not 'taught' it. Now I have"? Or how about: "A moment ago I did not 'know' this word. I have now learnt it"? And by what authority is the language teacher called upon to shape concepts in the mind of the students? Is language teaching about helping people to express and share what they already know, or to acquire new concepts to express? And who is to decide on the syllabus of new concepts to be 'taught'? And by what criteria?

Again it would be useful if you could reflect on your own answers to these questions, which are fundamental to this module.
What is meant by 'teach' and 'learn' a 'word'?
To what extent is it our function to give learners the 'words' for their 'meanings', as opposed to giving them our 'meanings' and our labels for them?

I suggest possible responses to these questions in later Units, particularly Unit 3.

Carter & McCarthy and Nunan
I have taken us back across nearly half a century of linguistic thinking, not just as a historical review, but to show some of the roots that feed the present tree of applied linguistics, from which we teachers are expected to nourish our professional selves. For the Joosian perspective, the 'language as system' mentality, is alive and well today, and one can easily detect its influence in more recent literature. Let us take the example of a highly influential book, Carter and McCarthy (1988). On page 1 of their book they say: "It may be useful" to list "some questions which teachers and students have asked, usually quite persistently, about vocabulary and language study". They then proceed as follows:

" … we hope to try and lay some foundations from which answers might be found:
How many words provide a working vocabulary in a foreign language?
What are the best words to learn first?"
(Op. cit. page 1)

These are followed by six further questions, all containing the word "words". And all again beg exactly the same questions as the Carroll quotation. And these same questions are given further currency by being included in Nunan (1991). But what do they mean by 'word', 'learn' and 'teach'?
Additional evidence of the Joosian underpinnings of the Carter & McCarthy perspective is provided in their "Summary and Conclusions", where their first "theoretical conclusion" is phrased as follows:

"For L1 there is one mental lexicon, phonologically arranged, with word stress, syllable structure and syntax acting as high level organisers. This lexicon is accessed by distinct but interlinked networks for production and reception."
(Op. Cit. page 93)

Language Equals Grammar?
This may well be your own personal perspective. And if so you are obviously in good company. But before making up your mind take a look at some of the alternatives. In particular, consider what aspects of language are lost if we adopt the perspective outlined above. Consider the possibility that the notion of 'language' has imperceptibly been hijacked, and that the word has come to be used informally as synonymous with 'grammar' and/or 'syntax', such that if one has 'taught' 'grammar' one has taught 'language'. But there is also plenty of more formal evidence to suggest that lexis, and the non-discrete world it reflects, have been relegated to an annex, a 'lexical component', of the main object of our attentions, the 'grammar'. To return to Chomsky, for instance:

"In short, it [the lexical component] contains information that is required by the phonological and semantic components of the grammar and by the transformational part of the syntactic component of the grammar, as well as information that determined the proper placement of lexical entries in sentences …"
(Op. cit. page 88)

The lexicon itself is a 'component' of the "base component of the grammar", to which is relegated all that is irregular, or 'deviant', that might detract from the elegance of the base component.

Hatch and Brown
Further evidence for the virtual stranglehold of the Carroll perception of vocabulary can be found in yet more recent literature. Hatch and Brown (1995) is highly informative, and raises many of the issues touched on in these Units. And yet, at the end of the book, the last set of practice exercises starts off with:

"Select fifty words that you would like your students to learn in a second language. … Which words would be hard (or easy) to learn …?"
(Op. Cit. page 422)

Such a task (to my mind at least) locks us into a set of assumptions which shut out the possibility of benefiting from many of the insights on offer throughout the book. As in the joke about the man who asked the way, and was told: "If I were you, I wouldn't start from here." Well, where else can we start from?

* * * * *


Let me stress at this stage that what I have presented here is not a 'theory of language'. It is merely a set of perspectives, which I collectively call a 'systems perspective'. And it is not as if language teachers go about quoting Chomsky or Halliday. They may not necessarily have heard of them. But their influence is there all the same, most clearly visible when it comes to official syllabuses and course book design. You must decide for yourself how productive, how useful, or indeed how stultifying, it is likely to prove for our professional purposes. I shall be referring to it again in the Units which follow. But now it is time to turn to a consideration of a totally different perspective.

* * * * *

Language as Sharing
But what is the Alternative?
The 'other way' of looking at language does not reside in any one 'theory', but rather in a number of related approaches to the subject, a broad perspective which they have in common. In the Katz and Fodor quotation above, the authors exclude from their remit "the world which he [the speaker] and other speakers share". Do we want to, can we afford to, reject this 'world'? Is it not precisely this world that we are interested in? Let us look at a few quite different approaches.
Duranti and Goodwin Eds (1992) start off with:

"Anthropological linguistics could no longer be content with analyzing language as an encapsulated formal system that could be isolated from the rest of a society's culture and social organisation."
(Op. Cit. page 1)

Back in 1975, Becker had already pointed clearly to much the same dimensions of "society's culture and social organisation":

"… language remains a social medium which emphasizes the display and sharing of formulas known to both speaker and hearer."
(Op. Cit. page 1)

This conveniently summarises for me what I see as the essential ingredients in what I am calling the 'sharing perspective'. Note in particular that for language to function as a 'social medium', community members need to share not only a common set of "formulas" (the 'words'), but also some awareness of what their "display" is meant to refer to.
At this stage I suggest you make a point of reading the whole of Becker's paper.

This new perspective is possibly best summed up in the quotation from Antony (1973) in Coady & Huckin (1997):

"A user of English is provided with culturally determined patterns of behaviour which enable him to share his experience with others belonging to the same culture and subject to the same patters of behaviour."
(Coady & Huckin page 14)

Here again we find the central notion of the "sharing of experience", circumscribed by the boundaries of "culture" and shared "patterns of behaviour". But note that Antony is not making a distinction between English and some foreign language, but between discourse communities all within the larger 'speech community' of 'users of English'.

For Altmann (1997) "the very essence of language" is "the ability to convey meaning". But:

"… meaning is a complex concept - intonation, words, utterances, and whole conversations all convey meaning, but different kinds of meaning. Meaning can be conveyed without any sound at all; gestures, such as a shake of the head, or a shrug, can augment an utterance, or even replace it. Meaning can be conveyed without words or gestures - by a well-placed silence, for instance."
(Op. cit. page 119)

In such a case, mere 'words' and their combinations can be seen as only playing a very subsidiary, supplementary role in human communication. We have to interpret Becker's "formulas" in this light.

* * * * *

We need to make up our minds, or at least establish an interim view, as to whether the job of a language teacher is to enable people to communicate with others, or simply to manipulate words. How great a part do words play in the communicative process, compared with the other carriers of meaning to which Altmann refers?
By way of introduction to the kind of thing that is lost if one restricts language to segments which can be represented by letters, let us go back to what I have called the 'Joosian' position above. Joos did not invent this. He merely articulated a perspective which runs through the whole history of linguistic thought, concerning the conflict between language seen as essentially segmental, systematic and general, as opposed to something social and non-segmentable.

Langue & Langage
Among the first to tackle this issue head on was de Saussure (1915). Writing in French, he insisted on making a major distinction between what he called 'langue' and 'langage'. 'Langage' is the totality of what goes to make up oral communication, an intractable heterogeneous mass of social and physical systems which he terms 'heteroclitic', at once both social and individual. This is very close to the Altmann perspective. But 'langue' he sees as defined by what he calls "un principe de classification". It is an abstraction of what this diversity of language users have in common:

"Entre tous les individus ainsi reliés par le langage, il s'établira une sorte de moyenne: tous reproduiront, - non exactement sans doute, mais approximativement - les mêmes signes unis aux mêmes concepts."
(Op. cit. page 29)

Langue & Parole
In other words, language is an abstraction of what language users have in common, with particular reference to a set of shared signs linked to the same shared concepts. This 'collectivity' of language is further contrasted with the notion of 'parole', the particular one-off and transitory manifestations of language contributed by the individual in the here and now. Furthermore, these signs are one and the same in their acoustic and written manifestations:

"… la langue étant le dépôt des images acoustiques, et l'écriture la forme tangible de ces images."
(Ib. page 32)

De Saussure finally declares that 'langue' is the only object of study for the linguistic sciences, and proceeds to a consideration of what he sees as the basic generalisable segment of language, the phoneme.

* * * * *

De Saussure stresses again and again the social nature of language, but goes on, in a manner that anticipates Joos forty years later, to reduce it to a finite set of abstractions. Others have followed a similar path since. We shall now look at some examples.

* * * * *

Another highly influential work on linguistics was Bloomfield (1933). In his second chapter, The Use of Language, he says:

"A human social group is really a unit of a higher order … the individuals in a human society co-operate by means of sound-waves."
(Op. cit. page 28)

which is much the same thing as saying they 'share'. And at the beginning of Chapter two, Speech-communities:

A speech-community is a group of people who interact by means of speech. All the so-called higher activities of man … spring from the close adjustment among individuals which we call society, and this adjustment, in turn, is based upon language; the speech-community, therefore, is the most important kind of social group."
(Ib. page 42)

So a speech-community is a group of sharers. But, like Saussure and Joos, Bloomfield is also concerned with the problem of 'accounting for' the socio-physical world:

"Actually, however, our knowledge of the world in which we live is so imperfect that we can rarely make accurate statements about the meaning of a speech-form. The situations which lead to an utterance, and the hearer's responses, include many things which have not been mastered by science. Even if we knew much more than we do about the external world, we should still have to reckon with the predispositions of the speaker and hearer. We cannot foretell whether, in a given situation, a person will speak, or if so, what words he will use, and we cannot foretell how he will respond to a given speech."

I draw attention to the fact that, if Bloomfield was right, we have here a clear indication of why the lawyers are never likely to meet the requirements of Bentham, as discussed in the previous Unit. And this description of the problem goes a long way towards seeing language in similar light to T S Eliot's "shabby equipment".

So in order to proceed at all 'scientifically' and objectively, Bloomfield is forced to acknowledge:

"The study of language can be conducted without special assumptions only so long as we pay no attention to the meaning of what is spoken."
(Op. cit. page 75)

And he is forced to the unsatisfactory conclusion that:

"The statement of meanings is therefore the weak point in language study …"
(Op. cit. page 140)

a perspective which he later amplifies as follows:

"The varieties of connotation are countless and indefinable and, as a whole, cannot be clearly distinguished from denotative meaning. In the last analysis, every speech-form has its own connotative flavor for the entire speech community and this, in turn, is modified or even offset, in the case of each speaker, by the connotation which the form has acquired for him through his special experience."
(Op. cit. page 155)

Connotation & Denotation
These notions of "connotative" and "denotative" are fundamental to our study, although they will appear later in different guises. For the moment, suffice it to say that we may use many words to refer to (denote) the same 'thing', but feel very differently about each of them, and their 'connotations', their 'vibes', for us as individuals. Formal systems cannot handle connotation, for the reasons Bloomfield gives. For example, to die, to pass away, to kick the bucket, to breathe one's last, all denote the same 'thing', but their connotations will be different, and vary from individual to individual. And if doctors say to us: "You may feel some discomfort", as opposed to "You may feel some pain" The difference probably lies in the connotation, rather than the denotation. You may find it helpful to consider taboo words as examples of lexical items which have become charged with connotations at the expense of denotation.

But it is this notion of 'meaning', whether connotative or denotative, being linked to forms (words) through "special experience" that provides the key to our alternative approach, the hard road not taken by the structuralist school. But what other option have we if we are to account to our learners for the full richness of language, and enable them to share with others their own meanings, not just the desiccated meanings frozen in a formal system? For the only "accurate statements" which Bloomfield seems able to make with scientific assurance concern phonemes and morphemes i. e. segments, and syntax, i. e. segmental combinatorics.

* * * * *

There are two points in particular which I think are worth stressing at this stage.
The appeal, and apparent virtue, of making "accurate statements" may be illusory. This, and the Chomskyan criterion of "descriptive adequacy", may well be a major hindrance to us as language teachers. To what extent does "descriptive adequacy" help develop "predictive power"? Which, after all, is what we are really interested in.
Is it not precisely the "special experience" of our learners that we are interested in? At the end of the day, it is their meanings they will wish to express.

What is lost if one strips language of all denotation? Newman, over a century ago (referring particularly to the "inferential exercises" of symbolic logic), put the case forcibly as follows:

"Words, which denote things, have innumerable implications; but in inferential exercises it is the very triumph of that clearness and hardness of head, which is the characteristic talent for the art, to have stripped them of all these connatural senses, to have drained them of that depth and breadth of associations which constitute their poetry, their rhetoric, and their historical life, to have starved each term down till it has become the ghost of itself, and everywhere one and the same ghost, "omnibus umbra locis" [everywhere one and the same ghost], so that it may stand for just one unreal aspect of the concrete thing to which it properly belongs, for a relation, a generalization, or other abstraction, for a notion neatly turned out of the laboratory of the mind, and sufficiently tamed and subdued, because existing only in a definition."
(Op. cit. pages 214-5)

What is Lost?
So what is lost through the Joosian retreat from the real 'socially situated' world, by the 'scientific' search for a finite set of "accurate statements" which will "account for" and describe all the infinite data of language? By way of introduction, try these simple exercises:
1. Consider the utterance: "Go on!"
Speak it aloud as if to say: "Please continue. I am listening sympathetically".
Now say it again as if to imply: "I don't believe you!".
2. How important is this kind of distinction in our communicative system?
3. How many further subdistinctions can you make in the way you utter these words which might well be of social significance?
4. At what stage in your own language teaching syllabus is the social significance of this distinction made clear?
5. What reasons can you think of for not giving it greater prominence?
6. Translate each of the two contrastive forms of the utterance shown above into another language.
7. What do you say to the proposition that "Go on!" is a reduction of two or more quite distinct lexical items which are confused only when they are written down as two words?

* * *

"Shut up!" he explained.
These famous words by Thurber introduce a further stage in this investigation into the notion of social significance. When we see a text of the form: "[UTTERANCE]", he [VERB]ed, we feel naturally invited to 'hear' the UTTERANCE pronounced with an intonation suggested by VERB. The humour in the case of Thurber lies largely in the near (but not total) impossibility of saying "Shut up!" in a tone of voice that implies that we are offering an explanation for something. This natural interpretative instinct is born of long exposure to the convention among novelists of interspersing their direct speech conversations with various realisations of the form "[UTTERANCE]", he [VERB]ed. Consider for example the data shown in Appendix 1. These are all taken from the first few dozen pages of a popular historical novel by Georgette Heyer (1991). Much of the action in this popular author's works is carried by the dialogue, revealing the way in which people react to one other. But one only has to read a few pages before realising that what is being communicated by the words inside the inverted commas is much more than the printed words themselves are capable of expressing.

The simplest device for achieving the desired effect of bringing to life the drama being played out is in the selection of the verb of reporting: he roared, she sobbed, I insisted, he complained, he whined, she sighed etc. For a more colourful effect one has resort to more expressive means, such as a carefully chosen adverb, e.g. "bitterly", "cheerfully", or an adverbial phrase, such as "in a melancholy voice", or "with perfect gravity". The assumption is that if we were present at the discussion being unfolded for us, these 'meanings' would be conveyed to us without the benefit of any visual or printed clues. We would hear for ourselves the "note of appreciation in her voice".

He shrieked mad with excitement
Why Georgette Heyer? I just wanted to test my hypothesis that writers who lean heavily on 'conversation' would have to resort to such devices. So I just grabbed any book with lots of conversation, without regard to literary merit. But in case she was a unique case, I grabbed another in the same random way, this time C S Forester 1950. The results of a few minutes work are shown in Appendix 2. Here we find much the same devices, with a greater range of expressive verbs of reporting, conveying socially relevant information which the author considers an essential part of the interaction.

There are of course a number of other limited devices available to the writer, depending on what the printer is prepared to allow for technical reasons. Heyer resorts to: "Odious creature!" (page 144) without investing in any verbs or adverbs. The italics are enough. And consider the following extract:

"Which I perfectly see is a very touching story, for I am not hardhearted, whatever Aunt Clara may say! But what I do not see, and never shall see, is why Ninian and I must be married merely because our fathers, in the milkiest way, made an idiotish scheme that we should!"
(Op. cit. page 25)

Heyer uses highlighting and exclamation marks to suggest something of what is lost when language in interaction is represented in print. Forester uses italics only for the names of ships. Neither uses underlining, no doubt for technical reasons.

Now look again at Appendices 1 and 2, and try this experiment.
Take the left hand side of a quotation and match it with a wrong right hand side.
Some pairs won't make any sense.
Others will make inappropriate sense.
How about "She is afraid of dogs, said Ninian enthusiastically."
Or "Pull, you men! Pull!" remarked Edrington calmly."
What further incongruities can you find?

Speech versus Writing
Now, whatever the literary merits and demerits of my sources, I would claim that we do indeed communicate much of what is important in our message by a means other than the accurate reproduction of the phonemes and morphemes alone. I would even go so far as to suggest that we consider that, in many cases, the words do not convey our meaning at all, a view compatible with that of Altmann above. In fact, it is often very difficult to express our attitudes and feelings through the meaning of the words chosen, whereas our tone of voice may well do the job for us in very few seconds. At the other end of the spectrum, of course, as when we wish to know the time of the train, or the price of the ticket, our prosody is hardly likely to assist us greatly, and we have to have recourse to words. The noises that we make, and represent in writing by "Hmm", or "Oooh" or "Ahhh" etc are virtually devoid of all substance, but may well be pregnant with social meaning. Then again, some people may prefer to duck the challenge of getting their message across prosodically, and resort instead to the written word.

Rhetorical Structure
Again consider what I believe to be a perfectly normal kind of human experience. Suppose you and a friend are sharing considerable anxiety regarding the outcome of an expected decision affecting your friend's welfare. The phone rings, and your friend goes into the next room. Through the half-closed door you can hear the sound of his/her voice, but not the words. The chances are that, when s/he returns to the room, you will not need to ask the outcome. The tone of voice without the words, and without the other side of the conversation, may very well have revealed all. If it is a face-to-face interview we overhear, always assuming we are party to the issues involved, we may be able to follow the whole rhetorical structure, minus of course the detail concerning practical arrangements of times, dates, locations and such concrete details.

Ad Rem and ad Hominem
I do not think it appropriate, in the context of an investigation into lexis, to enter into discussion of possible types and modes of communication, such as what is called 'phatic communion'. But I do think it is useful for our purposes to distinguish a cline of choices, from the totally impersonal at one end, to the entirely personal at the other. Towards the impersonal end would come Airspeak, where an air traffic controller might pass permission for takeoff, or allocate an altitude or flightpath. Even such exchanges as these are however not always necessarily altogether devoid of interpersonal colour, especially if the one is not totally impressed by the other's professionalism. And at the other end of the spectrum one can consider possible responses, in a family situation, to e. g. the question: "Would you like some parsnips?" where a fraction of a second of a wordless answer may be enough to reveal all.

In between these extremes of course we are faced with other choices, especially word choice, which can in itself convey much of our (mainly attitudinal) meaning. Consider "freedom fighters" as opposed to "terrorists", or, even more crudely, "brat" as opposed to "dear child". I propose to label these two extreme ends of this cline with the Latin tags ad hominem, meaning directed at the person, and largely attitudinal, and ad rem, directed at the thing, and largely objective and impersonal, or factual. The notion of ad rem relates closely to what Bloomfield (above) referred to as 'denotative meaning'', and ad hominem more approximately to his 'connotative meaning'.


As you know, you are required to undertake some investigation of natural language.
One possibility would be for you to explore more thoroughly this notion of what we communicate suprasegmentally, on the evidence of an investigation into the conversations sections in, say, between ten and twenty suitable novels.
Would your results help you to classify authors?
Act as a guide to the quality of the work?
Offer any other insights?

* * * * *


The $64,000 Question
The kind of approach to language outlined earlier, and which I have referred to as a 'systems' approach, preoccupied more with the segments of language, and words as orthographic symbols, letters bounded by spaces, cannot as it stands handle the kind of 'meaning' of spoken discourse such as is indicated by the verbs and adverbs used in Appendices 1 and 2. But to this one can object, "Yes, but let us get the segments right first, and then we can add another 'suprasegmental' layer of 'meaning'". In asking this question however, let us not forget the pedagogic purpose of our investigation, that is: Which is the more useful perspective, pedagogically speaking, to say:

· The essential and fundamental sense of discourse is captured by the segments, which can be recorded on paper without loss of information. The suprasegmentals serve to give extra shape and colour to what is already there;


· The essential and fundamental sense of discourse is captured by its suprasegmental contours, which give it its rhetorical shape. The segments merely serve to clarify what is already there.

My own answer, of course, is that both can be right, depending on the pedagogic context. For instance, Option A is likely to be more appropriate when it comes to the use of Airspeak between pilots and air traffic controller, or for mathematicians who only need to read academic articles. But when it comes to doctor-patient interviews, or 'social' English between businessmen and women, Option B is more likely to predominate.

To emphasise this most important notion of social or interpersonal meaning, here is a quotation from Bateson (1968):

"When boy says to girl, 'I love you', he is using words to convey that which is more convincingly conveyed by his tone of voice and his movements; and the girl, if she has any sense, will pay more attention to those accompanying signs than to the words."
(Op. cit.)

* * *

A Social Constructionist Perspective

Further insights into the 'sharing' perspective of language which purports to cater for 'total man' in his social context are offered by Shotter (1993), with the apt title of "Conversational Realities: Constructing Life through Language", in which he makes extensive use of Bateson's 'three little words'. According to Shotter:

... the human world is best thought of as a whole 'multiverse', or 'social ecology', of unique but interdependent regions and moments of human communication activity. And in such a multiverse ... language is neither primarily for the representation of the world, nor for the achievement of shared understanding: it is primarily for the coordination of diverse social action, for materially 'moving' people.
(Op. cit. page 121)

What Shotter is calling "language for the representation of the world" is close to what I have labelled ad rem language, while "language for the achievement of shared understanding" is more akin to what I have termed ad hominem language. So the notion of 'sharing' appears again. And Shotter's "social ecology" is closely akin to Antony's "culturally determined patterns of behaviour".

But these he builds into the more complex construct of social interaction, in terms very reminiscent of both Altmann and Bloomfield above. He offers two complementary notions of social ecology:

"Social life: an ecology of self-maintaining orderly centres of activity, interactively embedded within a more disorderly flow of surrounding activity."
(Op. cit. page 161)
"Society is an ecology of interdependent regions of different discourses, with, of course, in between such regions, 'zones of uncertainty' making up a society's civil society."
(Op. cit. page 96)

This is a long way from seeing language as the study of systematic patternings of discrete segments. And within this social ecology:

"... One must live within a number of conflicting and competing 'forms of life' with their associated language games."
(Op. cit. page 163)

Shotter makes what is (for our purposes) a useful distinction:

"... the contested activity of words in their speaking ... 'tools' in effecting everyday communicative processes ..." "... the study of already spoken words after all contest over their speaking has ceased ..."
(Op. cit. page 20)

The formal 'systems' approach can only handle "already spoken words", not "words in their speaking". But 'communication' is all about "words in their speaking".

* * *

Goodwin & Duranti
Shotter is of course only reflecting a perspective shared by many others of different linguistic and philosophical persuasions. Goodwin and Duranti (1992), discussing the work of Vygotsky, speak of the "social context of language acquisition",

"… demonstrating that language and consciousness were both lodged within a matrix of social activity, and that this activity system, rather than the isolated individual, should be the primary focus of activity."
(Op. cit. page 21)

Cicourel, in the same volume, also reflects upon the impossibility of describing "everything" about a context:

"Such a demand is of course impossible to satisfy because no one could claim to have specified all of the local and larger sociocultural aspects of a context."
(Op. cit. page 309)

For Volosinov (1973), language is "a continuous generative process implemented in the social-verbal interaction of speakers". Goodwin and Duranti see him as having "emphasised the ways in which language must be conceptualised as embedded within a matrix of human interaction" (page 19), a terminology reminiscent of Shotter's.

"Instead of viewing context as a set of variables that statically surround strips of talk, context and talk are now argued to stand in a mutually reflexive relationship to each other, with talk, and the interpretative work it generates, shaping context as much as context shapes talk."
(Op. Cit. page 31)
"… a subsequent utterance not only relies upon existing context for its production and interpretation, but that utterance is in its own right an event that shapes a new context for the action that will follow it."
(Op. Cit. page 29)

It is this dynamic nature of language which is completely missing from the formal 'systems' perspective, and which is surely a crucial aspect for the language teacher.

Gumperz, in Goodwin and Duranti, offers a useful definition for 'contextualisation':

I use the term "contextualization" to refer to speakers' and listeners' use of verbal and non-verbal signs to relate what is said at any one time and in any one place to knowledge acquired through past experience, in order to retrieve the presuppositions they must rely on to maintain conversational involvement and assess what is intended.
(Op. cit. page 230)

"Knowledge of the world", for Gumperz, "is reinterpreted as part of the process of conversing so that it is interactively, thus ultimately socially, constructed." In like vein, Schegloff, also in Goodwin and Duranti:

"If one is concerned with understanding what something in interaction was for participants, then we must establish what sense of context was relevant to those participants, and at the moment at which what we are trying to understand occurred. … their grasp of the setting supplies the basis for each next increment of their conduct …"
(Op. cit. page 196)

One particularly obvious feature of many of the quotations so far in this Unit has been the frequency with which the word "context" arises. Even Carroll used it when speaking of the role of context in resolving ambiguity in meaning. Cicourel refers to "sociocultural aspects of a context". And Goodwin and Duranti speak of "talk … shaping context as much as context shapes talk" and of an utterance being "in its own right an event that shapes a new context".. 'Context', together with Gumperz' related notion of "contextualization", clearly represents a notion of prime importance for our 'language as sharing' perspective, and we shall return to it frequently, especially in Unit 3.

In case the link between the perspectives being offered here and the language teaching classroom should not be immediately apparent, let me try to make matters clearer. For Goodwin and Duranti

"… the process through which a child learns to speak cannot be analyzed simply as language acquisition … but instead constitutes a profound process through which the child by learning how to speak in a community becomes a competent socialized member of his or her society."
(Op. cit. page 1)

So their perspective would suggest that the organisation of language learning means the organisation of socialising experiences in a context and in a community. This has obvious implications for syllabus design. And the Schegloff quotation above would argue that effective language learning will only take place inasmuch as the learner perceives him/herself as belonging to, and engaged in, that context and that community. Language learning is thus seen as a by-product of that socialising experience. This would suggest: No socialising means no uptake, no language acquisition, back to formalism.

To what extent do you feel inclined to go along with this view?
Or are you inclined to say: "That is all very well for first language acquisition, but I am teaching a second, or foreign, language, and that's different"?
To what extent do you believe that there is a significant difference as far as lexis is concerned?
Can you articulate a justification for your view?

But we need further perspectives still in order to be able to appreciate what we risk losing if we stick with pure formalism. One powerful source of evidence is provided by psycholinguistic studies, to which I now turn.

* * *

Psycholinguistic Evidence

Black Boxes
We, so-called 'applied linguists', may feel less than entirely clear about the nature of the data whose study leads to the theories we are expected to apply. But spare a thought for the poor 'mind scientists'. We at least can point to our frozen forms as some concrete link to the reality we purport to be studying. But the mind scientist is faced with the unobservable 'black box' of something we call the 'mind'. (Try looking the word up in a dictionary.) But any scientist worthy of the name needs 'facts', observable data that are not in dispute. In a 'black box' approach one does things to the black box to see how it reacts, and these observable reactions become the data from which one makes inferences, post hoc ergo propter hoc, about what the inside of the black box must be like.

Black Box Methods
So it is with psycholinguists. Over recent decades they have developed more and more ingenious methods of inducing reactions from their black boxes: unborn babies in utero; neonates; young children; adults. And we must remember that even adults cannot be relied upon to see into their own minds. Unborn babies can detect the human voice, and changes in intensity and pitch, but not at the higher frequencies used for phonemic articulation. However, they are sensitive to variations in what I have called prosodic structure. Neonates have the benefit of the addition of higher frequency discrimination, but are unable to tell us what they hear. So instead we wire up their dummies to our computer and note how our stimuli systematically influence sucking rates. With older children we can observe both how the language they produce relates to their environment, and changes in this relationship over time. With adults we can observe how linguistic reactions vary with changes in stimuli, and make our inferences accordingly.

I do not propose to go into further detail of the impressive arsenal of methods developed by psycholinguists. If you are interested, I suggest you start your further reading with Altmann, and go on from there. Instead, I simply propose to draw attention to those of their conclusions which appear most fruitful for our own investigation into the nature of lexis. Page references are to Altmann (1997).

Prosodic Variation
Prosodic variation is "just about the only variation in the language that the baby has exposure to before it is born" (p13). Using only prosodic variation, babies learn to distinguish between languages "on the basis of prior familiarity" (p14). So babies are born with a significant degree of familiarity with the prosody of the language of their environment. For them, the language is its prosody. Phonemic articulation appears to be an add-on, a further layer of sophistication on an already highly complex system. Altmann likens it to the backup and the beat in popular music.

Prosody and the Neonate
But when the baby is born, and can hear the full spectrum of speech, does prosody suddenly fade into the background to make way for syllables or phonemic distinctions? Apparently not, for "babies do not organise what they hear syllabically - they organize it prosodically" (p19). But for the first eight to nine months of their lives they do learn to distinguish syllables on the basis of consonantal variation.

Categorial Perception
After that they appear to have decided they know enough about phoneme discrimination as far as consonants are concerned; but vowels are a different matter Here a wide range of allophonic variation is necessarily tolerated, under the influence of the adjoining consonants. Consider, for instance, the vowel in the words "meek", "meal", "mean", "mere" and "meet", all representing the same phoneme, but all physically different under the influence of the following consonant. Young babies categorise the sounds they hear on the basis of whether or not a distinction relates to a significant and regular distinction in their environment.

Language and Meaning
According to Altmann, and what he calls the "classical view of what word-learning involved":

"… children are not attempting to map individual words, somehow excised from the rest of the utterance, onto individual meanings somehow excised from the rest of the world."
(Op. cit. page 40)


"They use the structure of the events they see in the world to aid in their interpretation of the structure of the sentences they hear. Conversely, they use the structure of the sentence they hear to guide what they should be attending to in the world they see. It is a two-way process."

Prosodic Structure
But how do they perceive this sentence structure referred to? The answer appears to be that they have already 'learnt' it as part of the prosodic structure to which they have become accustomed.

"Studies have shown … that infants as young as just four and a half months are sensitive to the prosodic patterns that accompany some of the boundaries between the major constituents of a sentence."
(Op. cit. page 28)

That is, "they organise what they hear according to the rhythms of their language" (p58).

Language Learning
Altmann makes direct reference to the implications for language learning:

" … to learn a language, however that is done, requires the right kind of exposure; … So we need sufficient language input to acquire the language. But it is not quite that simple, because it seems to be the case that we do not simply acquire the language that we are exposed to; rather we create a language consistent with what we hear."
(Op. cit. page 52)

You may like to re-read some of the books and articles written by Krashen during the 1980s and note how compatible his ideas are, in some respects, with those of Altmann.

* * * * *

This might be a good point at which to read the whole of Bolinger (1965).
Try to clarify your own position on the more fundamental issues raised.


We are, I remind you, in search of the notion of lexis in the context of a notion of language, armed perhaps with an intuitive notion that lexis in some way carries, is associated in some way with, 'chunks' of meaning. But we have been forced to cater for two kinds of 'meaning', the segmental and the suprasegmental. Let us call them the referential (the ad rem 'things' we are talking about), and the rhetorical, or the 'slant' we wish to give to those 'things' ad hominem, which we can do by the tone patterns of our voice. Now we can also convey a 'slant' in other ways, e. g. by the structure of our arguments. But in order to make our investigation more manageable, as well as more pedagogically relevant, I propose we limit ourselves to a search for the smallest sound-sense segments. This will form the main objective of the next Unit. It is in discovering these that we shall discover lexis.

A Speculation
Before we leave this investigation into the nature of language as the context for the study of lexis, you may find it helpful to speculate about the reasons why we now have to live with such a schizophrenic perspective. Language is at once a set of well-defined formal systems and a continuum of sense and sound in a complex socio-physical setting. These two orientations, reflected in so many different branches of modern linguistics, arose, we can assume, not arbitrarily, but purpose-driven. What then were these purposes? I offer the speculation that the main 'purposes' of the nineteenth century were those of the budding schools of anthropology, and their off-shoot the missionaries. These were people faced with the problem of learning to communicate with civilisations of which they had little or no knowledge, and whose language may have been totally alien to those with which they were familiar. They had to make a start somewhere, and an altogether obvious procedure, perhaps the only practical one given the influence of the 'scientific method' of the day, was to reduce everything to manageable proportions by identifying a minimal set of segments and their 'combinatorics'. (This must have caused a few headaches in the case of tonal languages, which are many, and by no means limited to Chinese.) This gave an initial entrée to the culture, but soon led to an awareness that the 'world', the socio-physical setting, served by the new language was different from their own, not just in the sense of concepts and their labels, or mere word order, but fundamentally other, differently structured, differently perceived, and no less rich, than their own. One famous (very readable) account of how this realisation dawned is contained in Malinowski (1933).

So, according to my speculation, anthropologists and missionaries first set the scene for what was to become the structuralist school, but then moved on to develop what we would now call ethnography, leaving the 'scientific' linguists to seek to model 'language' as a closed system, only tenuously linked to a shadow of the 'real' world. These polarities correspond to what I have been calling 'system' versus 'sharing'.

Appendix 1.
Illustration of ways in which Georgette Heyer (1991) attempts to make up for the loss of information when writing down her imagined conversations. The first column gives the text and page reference.

A. The verb of speaking:
Q16 "North Parade!" exclaimed Annis.
Q16 "Yes," faltered Lucy.
Q31 "I am not an ignorant schoolgirl!" cried Lucilla ...

B. An adverbial expression:
Q8 "Stop, stop! " begged Annis laughingly.
Q10 "... kind as Lady Wychwood is!" she said brightly.
Q10 "... raptures over infants in arms," said Annis apologetically.
Q16 "Oh, don't be afraid of that!" said Annis cheerfully.
Q17 "Oh, no, no, no!" she cried passionately.
Q17 "Thank you!" Lucilla said unsteadily.
Q20 "Don't be such a goosecap, Maria!" replied Miss Wychwood in a rallying tone.
Q20 "I was speaking metaphorically," answered Miss Farlow, in outraged accents.
Q21 "It's my belief," said Miss Farlow darkly, ...
Q22 "... That," said Lucilla bitterly, "is the worst of servants .."
Q23 "I did think of calling myself Smith," said Lucilla doubtfully.
Q23 " not to reveal the E to a living soul," promised Annis, with perfect gravity.
Q26 "Oh, no, not at all!" responded Lucilla sunnily.
Q26 "It isn't so!" said Lucilla flatly.
Q32 "You may be sure that I will, ma'am!" said Ninian enthusiastically.
Q33 She is afraid of dogs," said Lucilla gloomily.
Q26 "Miss Wychwood!" she said explosively.
Q34 :Oh, don't despair!" said Annis cheerfully.

C. Both together:
Q18 "Well, of all the unjust things to say!" gasped Lucilla indignantly.

D. Adverbial expressions in reported speech:
Q22 Lucilla said apologetically that ...
Q31 Mr Elmore demanded of Miss Carleton, in an undervoice. ...
Q21 she spoke with most unusual severity
Q30 He hesitated and then said shyly:
Q32 ... saying firmly that ...
Q33 saying in a melancholy voice
Q35 agreed Miss Wychwood, amusement in her voice
Q36 unable to repress a note of appreciation in her voice

Appendix 2.
Examples of how Forester seeks to supply in text aspects of the richness of meaning in the dialogues he invents.

Varying the verb "said".
H167 "Stop!" bellowed Hornblower.
H105 "Who's in charge here?" he demanded.
H79 "Good God, it's you!" he exclaimed.
H88 "You just keep your mouth shut," growled Jackson.
H81 "It as fortunate, all the same," mused Pellew.
H102 "... the matter with you, Finch?" he rasped ... .
H114 "Jump, damn you!" raved Hornblower.
H105 "Time!" roared a voice ... .
H114 "The mainyard!" he screamed.
H96 "Stand by to go about!" shouted Eccles.
H57 "Allez au diable", he snapped.
H92 "Easy!" whispered Hornblower.
H95 "Sir!" yelled Hornblower.

Adding an adverb or adverbial phrase.
H87 "Is that all understood?" asked Hornblower harshly.
H91 "Where's Mary?" asked Hales in a conversational tone.
H93 "Give way!" said Hornblower. He uttered the order as if it had been torn from him by the rack.
H101 "You're right," said Hornblower, with a disinterested intonation which would discourage conversation.
H102 "A curious timetable," was Hornblower's sotto voce comment.
H106 "No, you're not on watch," he said coldly.
H106 "Mr Muggeridge," he said icily, "I advise you .... ".
H109 "Now we're walking up to her," said Bolton with grudging optimism.
H110 "Stop that, Finch!" said Hornblower irritably.
H140 "I don't know, sir," confessed Hornblower miserably.
H142 "Just as well I had them posted there," remarked Edrington calmly.
H167 "Oh, belay that!" said Hornblower testily.

Using both:
H160 "Pull, you men! Pull!" he shrieked mad with excitement.
H153 "It don't seem right, somehow," muttered Wales under his breath.