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WORD MEANING AND CONTEX
6.1. Types of context and their role in realization of meaning.
6.2. Meaning and use.
6.1. One of the approaches to the investigating word-meaning is through the study of syntagmatic relations of words, combinations with other words in speech, i.e. in typical contexts.
“The Oxford Companion to the English Language” defines context as (1) the speech… that normally precedes and follows a word or other element of language, (2) the linguistic, situational, social and cultural environment of an element of language.
We shouldn’t assume that words acquire meanings only in context as the meaning of the word is its inherent property. But a particular meaning is realized in a certain context.
Word-meaning is determined by different types of contex. Firstly, we distinguish between linguistic, or verbal contex and extralinguistic, or non-verbal contex.
Linguistic context is the minimum stretch of speech necessary to determine (realize) each individual meaning. The semantic structure of a word has an objective existence. Context brings out, actualizes meanings and it is in this sense that we say that word meaning is determined by context.
Technically, the occurrence of a word in a linguistic context is said to be determined by collocational or selectional restrictions,
e.g. the use of flock with sheep and birds, pack with dogs, wolves and cards.
Generally such association is largely determined by meaning
e.g. drink beer/milk, but eat bread/meat,
but also, by the conventions of use,
e.g. milk is never rancid, but sour.
On the other hand, meaning is determined by context,
e.g. white people, white wine, white coffee (which is of course brown).
A certain meaning in the semantic structure of a word which is least dependent on context and is representative of a word in isolation, i.e. occurs to us when we hear or see the word alone, is called free,
e.g. doctor “smb whose profession is to attend to and treat sick people”.
The other meanings that the word realizes only in certain contexts are bound,
e.g. a radio/bicycle doctor “(infml) a person whose job is to repair the stated thing”.
There are two types of linguistic context: lexical context (collocation) and grammatical context (colligation).
Lexical context is a habitual association of a word with other words in speech, the co-occurrence range of the word, i.e. the group of other lexical items combined with a given word.
e.g. raise when combined with cattle or pigs means ”keep animals”, when combined with hopes and awareness means “cause to appear or exist”, when combined with question or issue means “mention”.
In grammatical context it is the grammatical structure, morpho-syntactic combinability of the word that brings out individual meanings. In modern linguistics, the term pattern is used to denote grammatical context. Patterns are represented in conventional symbols, e.g. N - nouns, V - verbs, D - adverbs, etc.
e.g. make: V+N “to produce” (to make smth);
VNV “to force” (to make smb do smth);
VAN “to become” (to make a good teacher).
However, we often find that both lexical and grammatical context should be considered together as grammatical context alone is insufficient to indicate in which meaning the word is used,
e.g. (1) take in the VN pattern is used in different meanings determined by the lexical context:
take coffee / tea / sugar - “eat or drink”,
take the bus/train, etc. - “travel by”;
(2) in the pattern V prp N take has again quite different meanings:
take to gardening “adopt as a practice or hobby”,
take to the woods “take refuge in”.
It is argued that difference in the distribution of the word indicates the difference in meaning. But the sameness of the distribution does not imply the same meaning: in the same pattern a word may be used in different meanings which are brought out by the lexical context.
Non-linguistic context is often referred to as situation, i.e. the actual speech situation in which the word is used. Here the contextual factors are: (1) the speaker and the listener, i.e. their age, sex, background, social class, occupation, social relations, physical and emotional state, (2) the setting, i.e. the circumstances, e.g. the place and time of communication, for example, a law court or a press conference.
e.g. If “We are going down”, perhaps in a storm, is said on board a ship it means “The ship is sinking”, if it is said on campus, say, at the end of June, it means “We are leaving the university, having graduated”.
Language should be considered in a broad context of culture, way of life, the very environment in which it exists. Words should be studied in a broad context of attitudes and perceptions as part of people’s life experience. The extralinguistic knowledge about how things are organized and perceived (the context of reference) then becomes indispensable.
Purely linguistic and extralinguistic features are closely interwoven. Historical and cultural information is actually realized in words.
6.2. It is important to distinguish between systemic or " standard" meanings that the word has in the lexicon, on the one hand, and " contextual" meanings, or uses of the word in different contexts. Thus " permanent" (common) " stock" /" usual" meanings which are fixed in dictionaries are opposed to " functional" /" situational/occasional" meanings, which are not registered in dictionaries. They are also called " extended", " creative", unique to each specific instance, while " dictionary" meanings are " conventionalized" and are realized in typical context.
Thus, we can describe the above opposition in the following terms:
e.g. The noun snout means " the front part of an animal’s head, esp. a pig's head". It can also be used contemptuously of a human nose when it is large or badly shaped. These are systemic " dictionary" meanings, belonging to the conventional vocabulary. But in " the snout of the lorry " (Gerald Durrell) snout refers to " the pointed part of something, thought to be like a snout". This is an occasional use of the word which extends its semantic potential.
Thus, words used in various contexts may acquire additional meanings. In most cases " extended" meanings are dynamic, i.e. " creative" uses, expressing the speaker’s individual views and attitudes. Usually such uses are emotional-expressive (metaphoric),
e.g. " the blanket of the dark" (Shakespeare).
" Occasional meanings" (uses) may eventually become conventional meanings, for example, now blanket has the fixed meaning " a thick covering", in which it was originally used by Shakespeare in " Macbeth".
Any text includes both types of semantic realization of words. On the one hand, there are always words used in their conventional meanings; on the other hand, there are " dynamic", occasional uses.
The actual meanings of words in context are affected by the genre of the utterance, the type of discourse and the functional style in which the given lexical item occurs. The number of " extended", occasional uses is greatest in imaginative genres - in fiction and journalism, as compared to informative ones. There seems to be no limit to how widely the word can vary in its " creative", extended uses. Such uses contribute to the development of the word's semantic structure.