In praise of lexicogrammar

Lexicogrammar is not a word you hear much but those of a certain following – cognitive linguists, functional grammarians, etc – use this word to describe what is traditionally call vocabulary and grammar as one system rather than being two separate systems.

As a researcher in prepositions this is a big deal. It means I (can) treat prepositions as vocabulary, requiring them to be learnt by students when before they were and still are somewhat relegated to the category of grammar. Vocabulary and grammar should not be studied separately. Vocabulary are not individual words to be studied, or looked up when you don’t know the word. Vocabulary only have full function within a sentence, and shine bright within the context of use within communication. Certainly, in Saussurean linguistics the signifier/signified duality of words are an important and enlightening feature. But words are best understood in communicative units, namely sentences. And Saussure will not have argued against that. In fact he argued for it.

Undoubtedly dictionaries are useful tools. But they generally push the learner to think of words as separate objects with separate meanings. Good dictionaries will give plenty of examples of usage but students will generally use the cheapest or most handy dictionary at hand. Today this is the smartphone dictionary and translator. Rarely do they give examples. And for most of the time they give one translation to one word, suppressing the multiple nuanced (often schematically-related) meanings that most words have. I shall talk about this point in another post.

Form and meaning in linguistics

Form in linguistics and language refers to the symbols used to represent meaning. Each form has a particular meaning in a particular context. This cannot be stressed enough. It implies that a form can have different meanings in different contexts. However, the range of meanings for a form is usually limited to a prototype or prototypes based around an image schema to a set of extensions. This is referred to as polysemy (think of the different meanings listed in a dictionary of a particular word).

Note that the relationship of the form to meaning is largely arbitrary. This is quite easily proven to be true. Firstly, if meaning is linked to form then naturally all languages will have the same form for the exact same meaning. This is obviously not true by observation of any two language. Secondly, meaning changes over time for a form. An example of this is ‘gay’. Two hundred years ago this word had meant ‘happy’. Today it signifies a social group. Furthermore, ‘gay’ no longer has negative connotations that it did just 30 years ago.

But in linguistics, it is not form and meaning but form-meaning, one word. The proper terms used for form-meaning, form and meaning are sign, signifier and signified respectively.

Finally, signs can represent either real things or imaginary concepts. As long as these things or concepts are considered coherent they can be given a form, and turned into a sign by a language community.