This book is about the lexicon. Lexicon is the Anglicized version of a Greek word (λεξικóν), which basically means ‘dictionary’, and it is the term used by linguists to refer to those aspects of a language which relate to words, otherwise known as its lexical aspects. Lexicon is based on the term lexis (λέξις), whose Greek meaning is ‘word’, but which is used as a collective expression in linguistic terminology in the sense of ‘vocabulary’. The study of lexis and the lexicon is called lexicology.
In fact, as we shall see in the course of the next 200 pages or so, almost everything in language is related in some way or other to words. We shall also see that, conversely, the lexical dimension of language needs to be conceived of as rather more than just a list of lexical items.
‘In the beginning was the Word …’
This opening pronouncement of the Gospel of John in the New Testament may or may not be a true claim about the origins of the cosmos. However, if taken as a statement about where our thinking about language started from (and continues to start from) it is hard to fault.
The original version of John’s Gospel was written in Greek, and in this version the term used for ‘word’ is lógos
), which, significantly enough, meant (and in Modern Greek still means) ‘speech’ as well as ‘word’. This kind of association between the concept of word and a more general concept of speech or language is by no means confined to Greek culture. For example, to stay with the Gospel of John for just a little longer, the Latin translation of the above quotation is : ‘In principio erat Verbum
…’, where λόγος
is replaced by verbum
, an expression which, like the Greek term, was
applicable to speech as well as to individual words. Thus, for example, one way of saying ‘to speak in public’ in Latin was verbum in publico facere
(literally, ‘word in public to make’).
A similar association between ‘word’ and ‘speech’ is to be found in many other languages. For example, this dual meaning attaches to French parole, Italian parola and Spanish palabra. Similarly, in Japanese the term kotoba (‘word’, ‘phrase’, ‘expression’) is often abbreviated to koto or goto and is used as a suffix in expressions referring to speech such as hitorigoto o iu (literally, ‘by-oneself-word say’ = ‘talk to oneself’) and negoto o iu (literally, ‘sleep-word say’ = ‘talk in one’s sleep’); in Swedish the expression en ordets man (literally, ‘an of-the-word man’) is used to refer to a skilled speaker; and in German one way of saying ‘to refuse someone permission to speak’ translates literally as ‘from someone the word to remove’ – einem das Wort entziehen. In English, too, the association between the word and language in use is very much a feature of the way in which linguistic events are talked about in ordinary parlance, as the following examples illustrate:
That traffic warden wants a word with you.
A word in the right ear works wonders.
When you are free for lunch just say the word.
The Prime Minister’s words have been misinterpreted by the media.
The wording needs to be revised.
Nor is it particularly surprising that words should loom so large in people’s understanding of what language is. After all, words are vital to linguistic communication, and without them not much can be conveyed. For instance, a visitor to a Spanish-speaking country anxious to discover where the toilets are in some location or other may have a perfect command of Spanish pronunciation and sentence-structure, but will make little progress without the word servicios (in Spain) or sanitarios (in Latin America).
It needs perhaps to be added that awareness of words is not limited to literate societies. The American linguist Edward Sapir, for example, conducted a great deal of fieldwork among Native Americans in the early part of the twentieth century. His goal was the transcription and analysis of Native American languages which had not previously been described. He found that although the Native Americans he was working with were illiterate and thus unaccustomed to the concept of the written word, they nevertheless had no serious difficulty in dictating a text to him word by word, and that they were also quite capable of isolating individual words and repeating them as units.
Interestingly, a child acquiring language appears to develop an awareness of words earlier than an awareness of how sentences are formed. For example, research has shown that children in the age group 2–3½ correct themselves when they make errors with words before they start self-correcting
in the area of sentence construction. Thus, examples like the first one given below will begin to appear earlier than examples like the second one cited.
you pick up … you take her (substitution of take for initial word-choice pick up)
The kitty cat is … the … the spider is kissing the kitty cat’s back (reordering of elements in order to avoid the passive construction The kitty-cat’s back is being kissed by the spider)
With regard to the specialist study of language, this too has been highly word-centred. For instance, in phonology, under which heading fall both the sound-structure of languages and the study of such sound-structure, a major focus of attention is the identification of sound distinctions which are significant in a particular language. Anyone with any knowledge of English, for example, is aware that in that language the broad distinction between the ‘t-sound’ and the ‘p-sound’ is important, whereas no such importance attaches to the distinction between an aspirated t (i.e. a t-sound pronounced with a fair amount of air being expelled) and an unaspirated t sound (i.e. a t-sound pronounced without such a voluminous expulsion of air). This last distinction is, in English, determined simply by the particular environment in which the t-sound occurs; thus, aspirated t occurs at the beginnings of words like ten, tight and toe, whereas unaspirated t occurs after the s-sound in words like steer, sting and stool. Phonologists talk about environmentally conditioned varieties of the t-sound in a given language as belonging to or being realizations of the /t/ phoneme, and label them as allophones of the phoneme in question. (Notice that the convention in linguistics is for phonemes to be placed between slashes – /t/–, whereas allophones are placed between square brackets – the transcription of the aspirated allophone of /t/, for example, being [th]).
To return to the role of words in all this, one of the crucial tests for phonemic distinctions is that of lexical differentiation – that is, the test of whether a particular sound distinction differentiates between words. This can be tested by use of minimal pairs – pairs of words which differ in respect of just one sound (pin/tin, top/tot, gape/gate etc.). Distinctions between sound segments which serve to differentiate between words in this way – such as the difference between the English p-sound and the English t-sound – are called phonemic distinctions, whereas distinctions between sound segments which do not differentiate between words – such as degrees of aspiration of English consonants are described as non-phonemic. It should be noted, incidentally, that in other languages (such as Sanskrit and its modern descendants) the distinction between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, which in English is merely allophonic, is as important in differentiating between words as the distinction between /p/ and /t/ in English.
There are other ways of studying the sounds used in human languages – ways which do not need to refer to phonemes and hence have no particular
connection with lexical issues. For example, it is perfectly possible, without getting involved in questions of word differentiation and without any regard to the semantic implications of using one sound rather than another in a particular language, to study the acoustic properties of human speech (in terms of the physics of sound) or the physiological aspects of speech production (the interplay of the lips, the tongue, the vocal cords etc.). These kinds of phenomena and their investigation go under the heading of phonetics
. The Greek root phoné
– ‘sound’, ‘voice’), is shared by both phonetics
, but whereas phonology deals with the sound systems of individual languages (and any universal organizational principles which may emerge from such investigations) – and in doing so uses lexical differentiation as an important reference point – phonetics is concerned with speech sounds without reference to linguistic system and meaning. Thus it can be said that what differentiates phonology from phonetics is an interest in lexical differentiation in the above sense.
At the grammatical level too, the distinction between two major areas of interest essentially revolves around words – although in a somewhat different manner. Grammar has traditionally been seen as having two branches – syntax and morphology – and in both cases the very definition of terms is lexically based. Thus, the term syntax, a derivative of the Greek word sýntaxis (ούνταξις – ‘putting together in order’), denotes the whole range of regularities which can be observed in the combination of sentence components (and the study of such regularities), and it turns out that these components are largely identifiable as words and groups of words. For example, the distinction between the syntax of statements in English (e.g. John can swim.) and the syntax of questions (e.g. Can John swim?) is, at least from one perspective, a distinction between different ways of ordering words. The term morphology, for its part, owes its origins to the Greek root morphé (μορϕή – ‘form’, ‘shape’) and denotes the internal structure of words (and the study thereof) – that is, how words are built up out of basic units (known as morphemes) which may or may not be capable of standing alone as words in their own right (e.g. un-just-ly, de-nation-al-ize, re-en-act-ment etc.).
A third area right at the heart of linguists’ interests, namely semantics
– that is, the domain of meaning (and its investigation) – is also very much bound up with words. Although the coverage of the term semantics
(from the Greek sma
) – ‘sign’, ‘si...