>>Word and Meaning

Word and Meaning

: Word and Meaning.

Word and Meaning

The word may be described as the basic unit of language. Uniting meaning and form, it is composed of one or more morphemes, each consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation. The combinations of morphemes within words are subject to certain linking conditions. When a derivational suffix is added a new word is formed, thus, listen and listener are different words.

When used in sentences together with other words they are syntactically organized. But if we look at the language speech, it becomes apparent that words are not neatly segmented as they are by spaces in graphological realization. The pauses in speech do not consistently correspond with word-endings; many languages, including English, do not make it clear to a foreign listener where the utterance is divided into words.

The definition of a word is one of the most difficult in linguistics because the simplest word has many aspects. All attempts to characterize the word are necessarily specific for each domain of science and are therefore considered one-sided by the representatives of all the other domains and criticized for incompletness. The variants of definitions were so numerous that some authors collecting them produced works of impressive scope and bulk.

A few examples will suffice to show that any definition is conditioned by the aims and interests of its author.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), one of the great English philosophers, revealed a materialistic approach to the problem of nomination when he wrote that words are not mere sounds but names of matter. Three centuries later the great Russian physiologist I.P. Pavlov (1849-1936) examined the word in connection with his studies of the second signal system, and defined it as a universal signal that can be substitute any other signal from the environment in evoking a response in a human organism. One of the latest developments of science and engineering is machine translation. It also deals with words and requires a rigorous definition for them. It runs as follows: a word is a sequence of graphemes which can occur between spaces, or the representation of such a sequence on morphemic level.

Within the scope of linguistics the word has been defined syntactically, semantically, phonologically and by combining various approaches.

It has been syntactically defined for instance as the minimum sentence by H.Sweet and much later by L.Bloomfield as a minimum free form the smallest unit of meaning that can exist in isolation, but this does not help us unreservedly. Is newspaper-seller a word, or petrol-station, or computer-programmer? They certainly convey bits of meaning which we do not automatically break into smaller units when we meet them in common use. So too we can make total response to the epithets in Joyces phrase the bbullockbefriending bard or Shakespears world without end hour, although they do not follow the regular adjective pattern. At the other extreme, we may regard an affix as less than a word. Yet people will speak confidently about different isms and ologies, or respond to a sentence like, Some were in favour of the idea, but most were very anti,, without filing a complaint of deviance.

Again, in an attempt to make a count of all present-day English, how do we asses the set teach, teaching, teacher, teachable, to say nothing of the change taught? If a foreigner learns the form teach and has some knowledge of methods of word-formation, how many words has he learned? Even more important, how many words has he learned in recognizing as units the sequence of sounds which are written down s pipe, match, box, balance? For each of these, and for many other words, the dictionary offers a number of apparently different meanings.

E. Sapir takes into consideration the syntactic and semantic aspects when he calls the word one of the smallest completely satisfying bits of isolated meaning, into which the sentence resolves itself. Sapir also points out one more, very important characteristic of the word, its indivisibility: It cannot be cut into without a disturbance of meaning, one or two other or both of the several parts remaining as a helpless waif on our hands. The essence of indivisibility will be clear from a comparison of the article a and the prefix -a in a lion and alive. A lion is a word-group because we can separate its elements and insert other words between them: a living lion, a dead lion. Alive is a word: it is individual, i.e. structurally impermeable: nothing can be inserted between its elements. The morpheme a is not free, is not a word. The situation becomes more complicated if we cannot be guided by solid spelling. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, does not include the reciprocal pronouns each other and one another under separate headings, although they should certainly be analyzed as word-units, not as word-groups since they have become indivisible: we now say with each other and with one another instead of the older forms one with another or each with the other.
Altogether is one word according to its spelling, but how is one to treat all right, which is rather a similar combination?
When discussing the internal cohesion of the word the English linguist John Lyons points out that it should be discussed in terms of two criteria positional mobility and uninterruptability. To illustrate the first he segments into morphemes the following sentence:

Slow ly the boy s walk ed up the hill
Up the hill slow ly walk ed the boy s

Yet under all the permutations certain groups of morphemes behave as blocks they occur always together, and in the same order relative to one another. There is no possibility of the sequence s the boy, ly slow, ed walk. According to John Lyons - One of the characteristics of the word is that it tends to be internally stable (in terms of the order of the component morphemes), but positionally mobile (permutable wit other words in the same sentence).

A purely semantic treatment will be found in Stephen Ulmanns explanation: with him connected discourse, if analyzed from the semantic point of view, will fall into a certain number of meaningful segments which are ultimately compose of meaningful units. These meaningful units are called words.
Th semantic-phonological approach may be illustrated by A.H. Gardiners definition:

A word is an articulate sound-symbol in its aspect of denoting something which is spoken about.

The eminent French linguist A. Meillet combines the semantic, phonological and grammatical criteria and gives the following definition of the word:

A word is defined by the association of a particular meaning with a particular group of sounds capable of a particular grammatical employment.

This formula can be accepted with some modifications adding that a word is the smallest significant unit of a given language capable of functioning alone and characterized by positional mobility within a sentence, morphological uninterruptability and semantic integrity. All these criteria are necessary because they permit us to create basis for the oppositions between the word and the phrase, the word and the phoneme, and the word and the morpheme: their common feature is that they are all units of the language, their difference lies in the fact that the phoneme is not significant, and a morpheme cannot be used as a complete utterance.

The weak point of all the above definitions is that they do not establish the relationship between language and thought, which is formulated if we treat the word as a dialectical unity of form and content, in which the form is the spoken or written expression which calls up specific meaning, whereas the content is the meaning rendering the emotion or the concept in he mind of the speaker which he intends to convey to the listener.

Still, the main point can be summarized:

The word is the fundamental unit of language. It is a dialectal unity of form and content.

Its content or meaning is not identical to notion, but it may reflect human notions, and in this sense may be considered as the form of their existence. Concepts fixed in the meaning of words are formed as generalized and approximately correct reflections of reality, therefore in signifying them words reflect reality in their content.

Literary writers in all ages have experienced what T.S. Eliot called, the intolerable wrestle with words. Although they may have formulated no linguistic theories, they knew well enough that meaning is not to be sought only at the level of the single word. It is contained in the smaller units as well: in the affixes, and in the inflexions which are few in modern English but were once numerous.

Recognition of meaning within a smaller unit than the word makes it possible to compose new units which will themselves be more readily recognized in their own right. Meaningful neologisms depend on competence which splits the seemingly atomic word and takes from it something that still communicates. However much we may dislike neologisms like motorcade or washeteria, however much we deplore the etymological inaccuracy of paratroop, we cannot deny their semantic function.

It is, however, meaning that spreads beyond word-boundaries which is of the greatest interest. If we look at the lexicon of any langue the store of words available to its users at a given time we are presented with countless possibilities of combination. The lexicon is neither infinite nor static in itself. The lexicon is constantly losing items which become archaic, as well as receiving neologisms. Yet even a lexicon much smaller than that of present-day English offers a seemingly infinite series of syntagmatic and paradigmatic choices. A syntagmatic sequence is correctly realized, appropriate choices from the lexicon are inserted in their places and we once again marvel at the power of human beings to generate new and unique sentences that are immediately comprehensible. No single user will possess the whole lexicon, and performance does not draw on the whole range even of what is theoretically possessed. Yet a skilful writer has a large potential choice and exercises it widely. His choices are among the matters to be examined through stylistics.

Literary writers have a habit of going beyond the conventions of common speech in questions of what is correct, which choices are appropriate, even what is to be regarded as comprehensible, and in other matters. One thing they share with the rest of us the tension between freedom and constraint which lies beneath all linguistic performance.
The freedom of choice becomes anarchic without restriction. Syntagmatic deviation is comparatively simple to detect and to judge. Paradigmatic deviation is a different matter, since the choice from the paradigm must be judged with regard to meaning and is therefore less readily referable to the rules. Yet in relationship too each choice is to some extent restricted by what precedes and restrictive of what follows.

The restrictions may be imposed by external forces ( these need to be recognized in any stylistic approach), by high style and poetic diction.

Formal considerations may condition the choice of words: phonological requirements of rhyme and alliteration, as well as metrical ones. Fashion, form, meaning may seem a heavy concentration of armament on one little word. Yet such concentration may be one of the factors which distinguish literature from other linguistic styles.

We all know, of course, that the sounds or letters which make up the word tree are not identical with any tangible vegetable growth. The word points our attention, to a particular tree or to a concept formulated from a number of observed trees, without itself partaking of a single characteristic that could be called tree-like. This is clear, except when we react emotively or superstitiously to words as if they somehow are the things that they denote, or if we are stupid enough to find something uniquely correct in tree and are incredulous that any sensible person would call the same object arbre or baum or albero. The identification of words with things is some psychological and anthropological interest; it has implications for our present purpose too.

The word nightingale is not a small brown bird that sings by night; neither is rossignol, luscinia, Philomel, or light-winged Dryad of the trees. Yet all these point to the same creature the first in what we should call a foreign language, the second in technical zoological description, and the others . . .? We are back with the question of appropriate register, for the last two are clearly literary and acceptable only in a certain kind of context. Each of the four has a place where it seems to fit, isolated from others where it would be awkward or deviant. We adjust our expectations and meet it without surprise, once we have accepted that a particular register is being used.
Literature can and does avail itself of all registers in a langue; no register can be excluded even though we may learn to recognize a distinctively literary register, or several. We do not know what to expect as we do in non-literary situations; we do not know where we are, and that is one reason why literature is exciting and important. Most communication in life is carried on with an unconscious prediction of probabilities and rejection of improbabilities. In buying a railway ticket, it is extremely likely that single, please, change will be heard, even more extremely unlikely that dragon, tribal, or syntax will be.
No such inhibitions constrain the literary writer, and the response to his work must be open and receptive. Yet the balance is not all one way and although literature may seem open-ended in its possibilities, it does in fact act as something of a controlling influence. This is not, or not solely, by reason of proscriptivism among its practitioners and critics, but by the very fact of its existence as part of a communitys culture, as a set of permanent and prestigious linguistic realization. Sooner or later in every age, and despite the intentions of successive reformers, literature creates its own stylistic variations from the spoken norm.

Words which are lifted from the lexicon for the particular use may be returned to it with signs of their honour still upon them. A single use may dignify a word and give it life after many of its contemporaries have faded into archaism: this is true, for understanding if not for active use, of the Authorized Version kine and the Shakespearean bourne. More often, the power of the word comes from repeated use. Words are not things, but they can acquire associations which affect our way of understanding things.

The word culled from the lexicon does not come untested by the speech-community. Like a human being, its distinctiveness is partly owed to the influence of birth and environment. Its user has a certain responsibility to honour its accepted meaning and its proper placing in the syntax. Usage can blur and blunt meaning as well as sharpening it, and the result may be the ambiguity against which manuals of good writing warn us and in which poets rejoice.

The ambiguities of daily speech are, generally, unintentional and call for clarification as soon as they are detected. They may be phonic I meant Id have a pear, the fruit, not a pair, two; or semantic Do you mean funny, peculiar, or funny, ha,ha? Or syntactic, as when we question whether running water means water which runs, or the process of causing water to run. Any of these may occur in literature, but in this style the are much more likely to be studied and intentional. The words of literary language may be in conflict, bu it is conflict to which they are deliberately set on, in contrast to the random brawls of words in colloquial use.

The type of phonic ambiguity known as the pun is familiar to all. The phonic identity or close similarity of two or more words is exploited in a manner which brings their different meanings into juxtaposition. Its deterioration in the humour of the pantomime and the Victorian comic periodical should not make the modern reader despise its use in foregrounding with more serious intent. It can be explicit, when the words in question are realized as separate units;

Ill gilled the faces of the grooms withal,
For it must seem their guilt.
(Macbeth, II.i)
or implicit when we are left to deduce two meanings from one unit:
This councellor
Is now most still, most secret, and most grave,
Who was in life a foolish prating knave.
(Hamlet, III.iv)
Literary ambiguity can draw on phonic, semantic and syntactic features.

A unit which most people would think of as one word may carry a number of meanings, by association with certain contexts. Thus pipe can be any tubular object, a musical instrument or a piece of apparatus for smoking; a hand can be on a clock or watch as well as at the end of the arm. Multiple meaning or polysemy is of considerable linguistic importance, and the process of extension is a concern of historical linguistics. Most of the time, we are able to distinguish the intended meaning by the usual process of mental adjustment to context and register: we dont expect to find tobacco pipes in the school recorder band. The literary language, however, again refuses to give us comfortable divisions of meaning beyond which imagination need not stray. It often forces us to accept polysemy not as a feature from which we select but as one in which we meet the writers intention without restriction.
The writer may indeed call in the aid of context to distinguish the meanings of polysemic words; but his intention is not necessarily to elucidate a single meaning but rather to emphasize the uncertainties of daily usage and to point from this to an ironical comment on the human predicament.
Polysemy may allow a writer to work on two levels concurrently, apparently relating one set of events while really indicating something different. We move here towards metaphor, which must be a separate concern, but it is interesting to see how a chosen image can be maintained by word-choice appropriate to the register in which we should normally expect to find it, while the metaphorical relation to hidden meaning is deferred. For example, George Herbert sustains the image of God as the landlord in the poem Redemption by use of legal terms which are in perfect register-agreement with the opening statement:

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And make a suite into him, to afford

A new small-rented lease, and cancel thold
In heaven at his manor I him sought:
They told me there that he was lately gone

About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

The writer may not confine himself to any normal register but rather create his own by choices that would seem odd or questionable in that context in everyday use. It is useful, though without attempting to draw any impassable line, to distinguish between two ways in which a writers selection of a single word may seem admirable. We will assume that there is no syntagmatic deviation and that the choice is paradigmatic within a context that is free from apparent ambiguity. Of course, the associations and figurative applications of words may still operate even when there is no obvious polysemy.
In the first way, there is no deviation; the achievement is in tackling the problem of synonymous words. It may well be argued that there are no perfect synonyms, since choice must be conditioned by register, dialect and emotive association. However, the problem of word-selection is difficult and is not much aided by the brief definitions of a dictionary or the listings of a thesaurus. One of the most effective ways of finding out what a word means in current usage is by asking people whether they would readily use it in a given sentence.


1. I.V. Arnold The English Word, .: 1986
2. Raymond Chapman Linguistics and literture, 1973



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