Words and Meaning

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2 Words and meaning
Colin Yallop
2.1 Words in language
People sometimes play games with words. People may also recite or memorise lists of words, for example when trying to learn the words of another language or to remember technical terms. And they may occasionally leaf through a dictionary looking at words more or less randomly. These are legitimate activities, enjoyable or useful as they may be. But they are not typical uses of words. Typically, human beings use words for their meaning, in context, as part of communicative discourse. As Halliday has made clear (see especially 1.6 above), vocabulary can be seen as part of lexicogrammar, a lexicogrammar that represents the choices which users of a language make, a lexicogrammar that represents our ability to mean. For, ultimately, language is about meaning. The main function of language - and hence of words used in language - is to mean.

This part of the book is particularly concerned with exploring the semantics of words. Section 2.2 offers some comments on meanings as presented in dictionaries. This is followed by brief discussion of potentially misleading notions about 'original meaning' (2.3) and 'correct meaning' (2.4). In 2.5 we try to explain what we mean by a social perspective on language and meaning, followed by some background on the theorising of Saussure and Firth (2.6) and Chomsky

and cognitive linguists (2.7). We then look at the implications of our theorising for language and reality (section 2.8) and, to open up a multilingual perspective, we talk about the diversity of languages in the world (section 2.9) and about the process of translating from one language to another (2.10).

2.2 Words and meaning
A dictionary seems the obvious place to find a record of the meanings of words. In many parts of the English-speaking world, dictionaries 24 COLIN YALLOP
have achieved such prestige that people can mention 'the dictionary' as one of their institutional texts, rather in the same way that they might refer to Shakespeare or the Bible. Such status means that a printed dictionary may easily be seen as the model of word-meanings. We may then, uncritically, assume that a dictionary in book form is the appropriate model of words as a component of language or of wordmeanings stored as an inventory in the human brain or mind.

In fact a dictionary is a highly abstract construct. To do the job of presenting words more or less individually, in an accessible list, the dictionary takes words away from their common use in their customary settings. While this is in many respects a useful job, the listing of words as a set of isolated items can be highly misleading if used as a basis of theorising about what words and their meanings are.

There is of course no such thing as 'the dictionary'. For a language such as English there are many dictionaries, published in various editions in various countries to suit various markets. The definitions or explanations of meaning in a dictionary have been drawn up by particular lexicographers and editors and are consequently subject to a number of limitations. Even with the benefit of access to corpora, to large quantities of text in electronic form, lexicographers cannot know the full usage of most words across a large community, and may tend to bring individual or even idiosyncratic perspectives to their work. In the past, dictionaries were quite often obviously stamped by the perspective of an individual. We have already mentioned Samuel Johnson's definition of excise as 'a hateful tax' (1.7 above), and, as another example, here is Johnson's definition of patron:

patron, one who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery.
Modern lexicographers generally aim to avoid this kind of tendentiousness. Certainly today's dictionaries tend to be promoted as useful or reliable rather than as personal or provocative. Nevertheless, despite the obvious drawbacks of a...
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