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» Wednesday Linguistics: What’s in a word?


Wednesday Linguistics: What’s in a word?

2006-04-5 @ 12:33

An important principle of the linguistics school I adhere to, is that it is not just sentences or phrases which are analyzable wholes, but words as well, one of the main postulates being that in order for a word to appear in syntax, it must first be constructed. And that is why we need to understand the meaning of the different building blocks involved in their construction.

The word, in Psychomechanics, is of prime importance as the main repository of meaning. This definition of the word is in accord with Sapir’s (the great misunderstood American linguistics) who sees it as the smallest psychologically independent morsel of meaning:

The best we can do is to say that the word is one of the smallest, completely satisfying bits of isolated “meaning” into which the sentence resolves itself. It cannot be cut into without a disturbance of meaning, one or the other or both of the severed parts remaining as a helpless waif on our hands. …Such features as accent, cadence, and the treatment of consonants and vowels within the body of a word are often useful aids in the external demarcation of the word, but they must by no means be interpreted, as is sometimes done, as themselves responsible for its psychological reality.1

It should be borne in mind that even though the word is seen as an independent psychological reality, it is nevertheless constructed from non-independent parts. One could paraphrase Sapir’s comment by saying that the word is the smallest independent, psychologically real, construct.

The idea is that when we want to express something, we try to embody the meaning in words. Depending on the requirements for the word we choose in the particular language we are using, we might need to had to it (e.g., if it is a verb, we’ll want to give it tense, person, etc.). Also depending on the requirements of the language, we might need to add another word to complete the one we chose (e.g. adjectives need nouns, a verb might need a overt subject, or a complement) semantically and syntactically.

For example, if I want to talk about a blue fox in French, the word “renard” comes to mind (although “bleu” could always come first). Semantically, I’ll want to qualify it with “bleu”; syntactically, I’ll need to give it an article to give it boundary, to specify whether I’m talking about a designated fox or not.

nd so we start with a word and add to it until we reach the utterance that would express or meaning in an understandable way (including grammatical constraints). This is why we often can hear sentences where the beginning does not fit with the rest: it is not built from above (from a syntactic structure) but from the bottom: word by word.

It is easy to see that the word has to be constructed before we can move on to syntax when we take a look at other languages than English, where words are relatively fixed. Take, for example, Yuchi were verbs will vary depending on who talks to whom about what. Or in Hungarian where, depending on whether you are going to a house, coming from it, going near it, living in it, putting a TV antenna on it, etc., the word would change its ending. True, in this last example, one could argue that the ending is added in syntax as a suffix. But that can hardly account for cases where the word changes internally.

The main reason why language, in the main current linguistic school, is seen primarily as a matter of syntax, is probably that English is primarily syntax-based: words don’t change much and the relationships between them is a matter of position and accompanying words (e.g. prepositions). But is far from being the case for all languages. It wasn’t in Old English or Latin, nor is it in Lithuanian, Hungarian or Yuchi, and a host of other languages.

“We can explain to the extent that we have understood. We can understand to the extent that we have observed.”2 The main part of observation, in linguistics, is internal, so such this view of syntax as the key to language is understandable. If your only information on other languages comes from outside, it is hard to truly understand. We tend to translate this information into something we can wrap our head around, something we are familiar with, and not just as a matter of knowledge, but also of living.

But I digress.

1. Sapir, Edward, 1921 [1949]. Language: An introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. pages 35–36.
2. Guillaume, Gustave. 1984. Foundations for a Science of Language. (trans. of Principes de linguistique théorique, 1973) Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins, page 69.

What do you think?