Michael Hoey Lexical Priming a New Theory of Words and Language 2005

August 19, 2017 | Author: amitabhvikram | Category: Lexicon, Priming (Psychology), Linguistics, Word, Grammar
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A New Theory of Words and Languages...


Collocation 1


Collocation and lexical priming

Introduction In this book I want to argue for a new theory of the lexicon, which amounts to a new theory of language. The theory reverses the roles of lexis and grammar, arguing that lexis is complexly and systematically structured and that grammar is an outcome of this lexical structure. The theory grew out of an increasing awareness that traditional views of the vocabulary of English were out of kilter with the facts about lexical items that are routinely being thrown up by corpus investigations of text. What began as an attempt to account for collocation turned into an exploration of grammatical, semantic, sociolinguistic and text-linguistic phenomena. This book is the story of my intellectual journey. Accordingly it begins with my journey’s starting point – the pervasiveness of collocation.

The traditional view of the lexicon and grammar The classical theory of the word is well reflected in those two central compendia of linguistic scholarship of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – the dictionary and the thesaurus. According to such texts, words have pronunciation, grammar(s), meaning(s), etymology and relationships with words of closely related meanings (synonyms, superordinates, co-hyponyms, antonyms). According to the theory underpinning these texts, lexis interacts with phonology through pronunciation, with syntax through the grammatical categories that lexical items belong to, with semantics through the meanings that the lexical items have and with diachronic linguistics through their etymology. In the most extreme versions of the theory, the connection between the word and the other systems has been so weak that it has been possible to argue that grammar is generated first and the words dropped into the grammatical opportunities thereby created (e.g. Chomsky 1957, 1965) or that the semantics is generated first and the lexis merely actualises the semantics (e.g. Pinker 1994).



Theories of lexis that can claim to be more sophisticated, such as systemicfunctional linguistics, likewise sometimes represent the relationship between grammar and lexis as if the precise lexical choice was the last choice to be made. Even if one starts from the assumption that lexis is chosen first, or at least earlier, it is easy to assume that it passes through what might be regarded as a grammatical filter which organises and disciplines it. Tagmemics treats lexis as having as much theoretical importance as grammar (Pike and Pike 1982), in that this theory posits three hierarchies – the grammatical hierarchy, the phonological hierarchy and the referential or lexical hierarchy, but such a tripartite division only underlines how separate the levels of lexis and grammar are conceived to be. The picture I have just sketched is in some respects lacking in light and shade. Construction grammar, for example, does not separate syntax and the lexicon in the manner I have been describing (Fillmore et al. 1988; Goldberg 1995). Even so, its theory still talks of lexical constructions and syntactic constructions, and a key tenet of the grammar is that grammatical patterns have precise meanings that are distinct from those of the lexical items used in the patterns. Chomsky (1995) assigns inter-language variation to the lexicon. Hudson’s Word Grammar (1984), as its name implies, starts from the assumption of a connection between lexical and syntactic description. Likewise Hunston and Francis (2000) identify and describe the close relationships found between lists of specific lexical items and the availability of particular grammatical patterns, and in so doing arrive at much more interesting accounts of grammar than are normal in descriptive grammars (as illustrated in Francis et al. 1996, 1998). A precursor of this work was the Cobuild English Grammar (Sinclair 1990). Nevertheless they continue with a separation of lexis and grammar; indeed, their approach depends upon it. I shall return to these grammars in Chapter 8, along with a discussion of the work of Sinclair, who goes furthest in dissolving the distinction between lexical study and grammatical study and whose work was in several important respects the starting point for the positions presented here.

Collocation and naturalness The problem with all but the last two theories is that they account only for what is possible in a language and not for what is natural. This book is concerned, in part, with how naturalness is achieved and how an explanation of what is natural might impinge on explanations of what is possible. A key factor in naturalness, much discussed in recent years, is collocation, and this is therefore an appropriate place to start such an explanation. Collocation is, crudely, the property of language whereby two or more words seem to appear frequently in each other’s company (e.g. inevitable + consequence). (I shall provide a more careful characterisation below.) Collocations – recurrent combinations of words – are

Collocation 3 both pervasive and subversive. Their pervasiveness is widely recognised in corpus linguistics; probably all lexical items have collocations (Sinclair 1991; Stubbs 1996). The notion is usually attributed to Firth ([1951]1957), and certainly his discussion of the concept underpins all that has followed on the subject. Interestingly, though, Doyle (2003) draws attention to the fact that the word collocation was being used in linguistic discourse prior to Firth; in this connection he draws attention to a citation from 1940 in the Oxford English Dictionary (1995). This observation is confirmed by inspection of the 1928 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, which has the following entry for collocation: collocation . . . Act of placing, esp. with something else; state of being placed with something else; disposition in place; arrangement. The choice and collocation of words. Sir W Jones. . . . COLLOCATION denotes an arrangement or ordering of objects (esp. words) with reference to each other. It is improbable that the eighteenth-century amateur linguist Sir William Jones, who is traditionally credited with having set in motion the nineteenthcentury’s exploration of language change and language families, can also be credited with the late twentieth-century’s exploration of lexical relations, though I have not sought out the original from which the quotation is taken to verify that assumption. But the OEDs and Webster’s definitions do suggest that collocation has been slowly maturing as a notion. As befits a notion that has been developing slowly and whose study has been transformed with the onset of large corpora and sophisticated software, collocation is a word with a number of definitions. Partington (1998) groups these neatly into textual, statistical and psychological definitions. The textual definition is closest to the use of the word exemplified in the Webster definition quoted above: ‘the occurrence of two or more words within a short space of each other in a text’ (Sinclair 1991: 170). This definition (which I should add does not reflect Sinclair’s own use of the term) is not useful and can result in a woolly confusion of single instances of co-occurrence with repeated patterns of co-occurrence. I shall not be using collocation in this way. Whenever I need to refer to the occurrence of two or more words within a short space of each other, I shall talk of ‘lexical co-occurrence’. The statistical definition of collocation is that it is ‘the relationship a lexical item has with items that appear with greater than random probability in its (textual) context’ (Hoey 1991a: 6–7). This definition, though better, confuses method with goal. It is true that to discover collocations one needs to examine the statistical distribution of words and that those that occur in each other’s company more often than can be accounted for by the mechanisms of random distribution can be said to collocate. But the definition says nothing interesting



about the phenomenon; it gives no clues as to why collocation should exist in the first place. For this we need to turn to Partington’s third type of definition – the ‘psychological’ or ‘associative’ definition. There are two well-known ‘psychological’ definitions, and neither is successful for our purposes, though they are both insightful. The first is that provided by Halliday and Hasan (1976: 287) in their pioneering work on cohesion in English. They refer to collocation as a cohesive device and describe it as ‘a cover term for the kind of cohesion that results from the co-occurrence of lexical items that are in some way or other typically associated with one another, because they tend to occur in similar environments’. Their discussion of collocation as a cohesive device, and the exemplification they provide, makes it clear that they are not talking about the regular co-occurrence of words in close proximity to each other. The association they refer to must therefore be a psychological one, in which words are regularly associated in the mind because of the way they are regularly encountered in similar textual contexts. As a definition, it is hard to operationalise and indeed Hasan (1984) abandons the concept, replacing it with more specific semantic relations (hyponymy, meronymy etc.). It does however place collocation where it belongs – as a property of the mental lexicon. (We shall revisit Halliday and Hasan’s notion in Chapter 6, where it will be found to have a proper place in an account of text after all.) The second definition comes from Leech (1974: 20), who talks of ‘collocative meaning’ which, he says, ‘consists of the associations a word acquires on account of the meanings of words which tend to occur in its environment’. As couched, this is too general to cover the word in its most common current usage. It also implies that the word acquires connotations as a result of the words that surround it, a position that was formulated by Louw (1993) and taken up by Stubbs (1995, 1996). This position is discussed in Chapter 2 and is not uncontroversial (see Whitsitt 2003). Leech’s definition does however pick up both the statistical reality and the psychological reality and, most valuably, posits a causal connection between the two. Partington (1998: 16), commenting on his definition, notes that ‘it is part of a native speaker’s communicative competence . . . to know what are normal and what are unusual collocations in given circumstances’. I would quarrel with the wording here in that Partington allows for ‘unusual collocations’ but the point he is making is important. We now have to consider what counts as being in the environment of another word and, more fundamentally still, whether the word or the lemma is the appropriate analytical category in this context. Jones and Sinclair (1974) provided the first influential computational analysis of collocation. Their corpus was only 147,000 words – computers at that time struggled to deal with even that much data – but it was sufficient to allow them to determine that the optimum span for identifying collocation is up to four words on either side of the node word (the node word being the word under investigation and typically shown at

Collocation 5 the centre of the concordance lines). This finding has not been seriously disputed, though collocational software will often permit a wider span (e.g. ± 5). Collocational analysis can be done on lemmas or words. Renouf (1986), Sinclair (1991), Stubbs (1996) and Tognini-Bonelli (2001) have all argued against conflating items sharing a common lemma (e.g. political, politics; break, broke; onion, onions) on the grounds that each word has its own special collocational behaviour. In Hoey (1991a, 1991b) I found it useful to work with lemmas, but for present purposes I concur with these linguists that conflation often disguises collocational patterns. Williams (1998) notes that in the context of molecular biology research papers the collocates of the word gene and those of the word genes are quite distinct, both prior and subsequent to the node word. Doyle (2003) likewise shows that there are few shared collocates between grammatically related forms of lemmas in scientific textbooks; he looks, for example, at amplifier, amplifiers (only three shared collocates), circuit, circuits (only two shared collocates), frequency, frequencies (only one shared collocate) and shift, shifts where he finds no shared collocates at all. When various forms of a lemma do share collocates (e.g. training and trained share collocation with as a teacher), they can of course be discussed together, but common collocates should never be assumed. So our definition of collocation is that it is a psychological association between words (rather than lemmas) up to four words apart and is evidenced by their occurrence together in corpora more often than is explicable in terms of random distribution. This definition is intended to pick up on the fact that collocation is a psycholinguistic phenomenon, the evidence for which can be found statistically in computer corpora. It does not pick up on the causal relationship identified by Leech, but only because that will be attended to separately.

The pervasiveness of collocation The importance of collocation for a theory of the lexicon lies in the fact that at least some sentences (and this puts it cautiously) are made up of interlocking collocations such that they could be said to reproduce, albeit with important variations, stretches of earlier sentences (Hoey 2002). It could be argued that such sentences owe their existence to the collocations they manifest. As evidence of these claims, consider the following two sentences: In winter Hammerfest is a thirty-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering. Through winter, rides between Oslo and Hammerfest use thirty hours up in a bus, though why travellers would select to ride there then might be pondered.



One of these sentences is drawn from Bill Bryson’s travel book Neither Here Nor There (1991) about his trips around Europe and is indeed, in some respects, the first sentence of the book (if we discount a quotation from Bertrand Russell and introductory material). The other is best seen as a translation from Bill Bryson’s English into my altogether less fluent English. I have attempted to maintain the meaning of the original and the sentences share a number of words and lemmas in common – winter, Hammerfest, thirty, hour(s), ride(s), bus, Oslo, though, why, would, to, there. Yet I assume few readers would hesitate in assigning the first sentence to Bill Bryson and the second to me. The first is natural; the second is clumsy. However, according to the theories of the lexicon that have dominated linguistic thought for the past 200 years there is no reason to regard the naturalness or clumsiness of the sentences as being of any importance. Both sentences are, after all, grammatical. Both use words in reasonably acceptable ways; though the second sentence contains an unfamiliar image of ‘using up’ hours, it draws upon a familiar enough metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson 1980), namely that time is money. Both sentences are textually appropriate as well; there is no apparent reason why either should not begin a text. Both are meaningful. I want however to argue that what distinguishes Bryson’s sentence from my version is that his is made up of normal collocations and mine is made up of what Partington referred to as ‘unusual collocations’. The naturalness of the first sentence and the clumsiness of the second are not immaterial. They are properties of those sentences and are as much in need of explanation as any other feature of language. There is no reason why linguistic theory should not be as much concerned with naturalness as with creativity, as has been recognised for some years (e.g. McCarthy 1988). Indeed, as I shall argue in Chapters 8 and 9, accounts of creativity in language need to take account of naturalness if they are properly to explain creativity. One of the obvious ways in which the two sentences differ, I am claiming, is in respect of their collocations. In my corpus, the words in and winter occur together 507 times; this means that 1 in 15 instances of winter occurs in the word sequence in winter in my data. And 1 in 6 instances of hour occurs with a number, and there are 35 cases of thirty or 30 occurring with hour(s). The words bus and ride occur in the same environment 53 times (though usually as bus ride), the words ride and hour occur together 12 times and ride and from occur together 121 times. The combination by bus occurs 116 times and the three-word combination by bus from occurs 7 times. The collocations just listed interlock. So hour collocates with thirty but it also collocates with ride. Likewise ride, in addition to collocating with hour, collocates with by and bus. Bus also collocates with by. Both ride and bus collocate with from. The same kinds of point can be made about the second clause of Bryson’s sentence. The combination though why occurs 24 times, why anyone would occurs

Collocation 7 28 times, why anyone would/should want to occurs 23 times, want to go occurs 355 times and want to go there occurs 15 times. Diagrammatically the interlocking produces the following: thirty – hour – ride – by – bus – from though – why – anyone – would – want – to – go – there Compare this with the picture for my contrived rewritten version. The combination of through and winter occurs 7 times (as opposed to 507 instances of in winter), rides between occurs once, in a bus occurs 15 times (as opposed to 116 instances of by bus) and use x hours up (where x stands for any number) is not attested at all. The same is true of the second half of the sentence. The combination travellers would occurs 13 times (as opposed to 122 instances of anyone would) and would select occurs 21 times (as opposed to 573 instances of would want). (The latter frequencies are of course affected by the comparative rarity of travellers and select, as opposed to anyone and select, but this does not alter the point and in any case is not true of the earlier combinations.) It is worth noting that even my rewritten version still makes use of existing collocations; it is hard to construct a meaningful sentence without calling upon them. My version has fewer of them, though, and those it does have are weaker and do not interconnect.

Priming as an explanation of collocation I imagine many readers will not have needed convincing of the pervasiveness of collocation; it has been much noted in the literature and Sinclair (1991), in particular, has teased out some of its less obvious and more interesting properties. The subversiveness of collocation has however rarely been given much attention. The reason that it is subversive of existing descriptions of the lexicon is that the pervasiveness requires explanation and many current theories cannot do this. Butler (2004) argues for a greater awareness in corpus linguistics of the need for a more powerful and cognitively valid theory, while showing that existing theories have an even greater obligation to test and modify their claims against corpus data. A good starting point for a cognitively valid theory would seem to be the pervasiveness of collocation. As we have seen, any explanation of the pervasiveness of collocation is required to be psychological because, as we have seen, collocation is fundamentally a psychological concept. What has to be accounted for is the recurrent co-occurrence of words. If they were stored in our minds separately or in sets, the kinds of collocational naturalness displayed in the Bryson sentence would be inexplicable. The most appropriate psychological concept would seem to be that of priming, albeit tweaked slightly. As discussed in the psycholinguistic



literature (e.g. Neely 1977, 1991; Anderson 1983), the notion of semantic priming is used to discuss the way a ‘priming’ word may provoke a particular ‘target’ word. For example, a listener, previously given the word body, will recognise the word heart more quickly than if they had previously been given an unrelated word such as trick; in this sense, body primes the listener for heart. This has an obvious connection with word association games. The word body sets up a word association with heart, which the word trick does not (at least for me). The focus in psycholinguistic discussion is on the relationship between the prime and the target, rather than on the priming item per se. In the discussion that follows, however, priming is seen as a property of the word and what is primed to occur is seen as shedding light upon the priming item rather than the other way round. We can only account for collocation if we assume that every word is mentally primed for collocational use. As a word is acquired through encounters with it in speech and writing, it becomes cumulatively loaded with the contexts and co-texts in which it is encountered, and our knowledge of it includes the fact that it co-occurs with certain other words in certain kinds of context. The same applies to word sequences built out of these words; these too become loaded with the contexts and co-texts in which they occur. I refer to this property as nesting, where the product of a priming becomes itself primed in ways that do not apply to the individual words making up the combination. Nesting simplifies the memory’s task (Krishnamurty, personal communication; see also Krishnamurty 2003). Necessarily the priming of word sequences is normally a second phase in the priming; occasionally, of course, a child acquires the primings of a combination first and the primings of the individual words later (e.g. all gone). There is no difference in principle between acquiring the word (or word sequence) and acquiring the knowledge of its collocations, though presumably recognition of the word must notionally precede recognition of recurrent features, in that the word has to have occurred twice (at least) for the latter process to begin. Chomsky (1986) distinguishes the study of linguistic data, which he terms ‘E-Language’ (externalised language), from ‘I-Language’ (internalised language), the language found in the brains of speakers. Lexical priming is intended as a bridge between the two perspectives. The notion of priming is entirely compatible with Giddens’ (1979) discussion of the relationship between human agency and social structure, where each individual action reproduces the structure and the structure shapes the individual action; indeed, Giddens applies his theory to language. Priming in the fullest form, as described in this book, might be seen as the explication of Giddens’ claims. Stubbs (1996: 56) notes, preparatory to a discussion of Giddens’ work: ‘Speakers are free, but only within constraints. Individual speakers intend to communicate with one another in the process of moment to moment interaction. The reproduction of the system is the unintended product of their

Collocation 9 routine behaviour’. The crucial phrase here is ‘only within constraints’. The notion of priming completes the circle begun here by Stubbs. Priming leads to a speaker unintentionally reproducing some aspect of the language, and that aspect, thereby reproduced, in turn primes the hearer. It is not necessary to assume, though, that what is reproduced is a system as usually understood. Indeed, as we shall see in subsequent chapters, priming can be seen as reversing the traditional relationship between grammar as systematic and lexis as loosely organised, amounting to an argument for lexis as systematic and grammar as more loosely organised. This position is similar to that of Hanks (1996, 2004). My argument here also follows a similar line to that of Hopper (1988, 1998), who argues that grammar is the output of what he calls ‘routines’, collocational groupings, the repeated use of which results in the creation of a grammar for each individual. He terms this process ‘emergent grammar’ and importantly every speaker’s grammar is different because every speaker’s experience and knowledge of routines is different; Hopper also makes use of the notion of priming, though as a less central notion. Some of the properties of priming In this section some of the characteristics of priming are considered. Necessarily, since we have so far only considered collocation, these characteristics are formulated in terms of their application to collocation, but, importantly, the claims here are made for all types of priming as discussed in the remainder of the book. Priming need not be a permanent feature of the word or word sequence; in principle, indeed, it never is. Every time we use a word, and every time we encounter it anew, the experience either reinforces the priming by confirming an existing association between the word and its co-texts and contexts, or it weakens the priming, if the encounter introduces the word in an unfamiliar context or co-text or if we have chosen in our own use of it to override its current priming. It follows that the priming of a word or word sequence is liable to shift in the course of an individual’s lifetime, and if it does so, and to the extent that it does so, the word or word sequence shifts slightly in meaning and/or function for that individual. This may be referred to as a drift in the priming. Drifts in the priming of a word, occurring for a number of members of a particular community at the same time, provide a mechanism for temporary or permanent language change. Again, Stubbs (1996: 45), drawing on Halliday’s (1991, 1992) analogy between linguistic systems and weather systems, puts it well: ‘Each day’s weather affects the climate, however infinitesimally, either maintaining the status quo or helping to tip the balance towards climatic change’. It will be observed that I have referred to contexts as well as co-texts. This is because it is demonstrable that collocations are limited in principle to particular domains and genres, and even these are fluid. Baker (forthcoming) warns:

10 Collocation approaches that focus on different discourses need to acknowledge that the concept of discourses as discrete and separate entities is problematic. Discourses are constantly changing, interacting, merging, reproducing and splitting off from each other. Therefore a corpus-based analysis of any discourse must be aware that it can only provide static snap-shots that give the appearance of stability but are bound to the context of the data set. An example of contextual limitation is the collocation of recent and research, which is largely limited to academic writing and news reports of research. Reexpressed in terms of priming, research is primed in the minds of academic language users to occur with recent in such contexts and no others. The words are not primed to occur in recipes, legal documentation or casual conversation, for example. In short, collocational priming is sensitive to the contexts (textual, generic, social) in which the lexical item is encountered, and it is part of our knowledge of a lexical item that it is used in certain combinations in certain kinds of text. This is not a new idea, though it may be expressed here in unfamiliar terms. Firth referred in 1951 to ‘more restricted technical or personal collocations’. The only difference between his ‘restricted technical collocations’ and domainspecific primings (apart from the psycholinguistic focus of the latter) is that I would argue that the latter are the norm, rather than the exception. Firth’s notion of ‘personal collocations’ is still closer to that of priming, in that it is an inherent quality of lexical priming that it is personal in the first place and can be modified by the language user’s own chosen behaviour in the second place. Firth comments on personal collocations that: The study of the usual collocations of a particular literary form or genre or of a particular author makes possible a clearly defined and precisely stated contribution to what I have termed the spectrum of descriptive linguistics, which handles and states the meaning by dispersing it in a range of techniques working at a series of levels. (Firth [1951]1957: 195) The position I am advocating here is also related to that of reading theorists such as Smith (1985), who talks of the importance to the learner-reader of their having experience of a word in a variety of contexts – intertextual, extratextual, intratextual. These contexts are important in that without them the word will not be appropriately primed. This said, it does not follow that priming may only occur in specific domains and/or genres. It does however follow that we should be wary of over-generalising claims about primings. I shall return to this point on several occasions. Primings nest and combine. For example, winter collocates with in, producing the phrase in winter. But this phrase has its own collocations, which are separate

Collocation 11 from those of its components. So in winter collocates with a number of forms of the word BE (i.e. is, was, are, were, etc.), which as far as I am aware neither in nor winter do. This then is an instance of a nesting that might be represented as follows:

in ←

→ winter

→ BE

Or to take a more complex example, the word word collocates with say, say a word in turn collocates with against, and say a word against collocates with won’t. (We shall return to this example in subsequent chapters.) In this way, lexical items (Sinclair 1999, 2004) and bundles (Biber et al. 1999) are created. Primings may crack, and one of the causes of cracking is education. If, for example, a word is primed for someone as collocating with a particular other word and a teacher tells that person that it is incorrectly primed (e.g. you and was) the result is a potential crack in the priming. Cracks can be mended either by rejecting the original priming or by rejecting the attack on the priming. Better still, they can be healed by assigning the original priming to one context (e.g. family) and the later priming to another context (e.g. the classroom, science, public speaking). Not all cracks get healed and the result can be uncertainty about the priming, a codification of the crack, leading to long-term linguistic insecurity. We will return to this issue in Chapter 10. As the possibility of cracking suggests, one of the implications of lexical priming is that each individual’s experiences of language, and the primings that arise out of these experiences, are unique. Since our experience of language suggests that communication takes place, there must be harmonising principles at work to ensure that each individual’s primings do not differ too greatly from those of others. Education is one of these, but there are others as important, including the property of self-reflexivity. The harmonising principles are discussed in the final chapter after we have reviewed the full range of semantic and grammatical facets of priming. The notion of priming as here outlined assumes that the mind has a mental concordance of every word it has encountered, a concordance that has been richly glossed for social, physical, discoursal, generic and interpersonal context. This mental concordance is accessible and can be processed in much the same way that a computer concordance is, so that all kinds of patterns, including collocational patterns, are available for use. It simultaneously serves as a part, at least, of our knowledge base. Primings can be receptive or productive. Productive primings occur when a word or word sequence is repeatedly encountered in discourses and genres in which we are ourselves expected (or aspire) to participate and when the speakers or writers are those whom we like or wish to emulate. Receptive primings occur when a word or word sequence is encountered in contexts in which there

12 Collocation is no probability, or even possibility, of our ever being an active participant – party political broadcasts, interviews with film stars, eighteenth-century novels – or where the speaker or writer is someone we dislike or have no empathy with – drunken football supporters, racists, but also sometimes stern teachers and people of a different age group. Although productive primings are more interesting, receptive primings have their importance too. It is as a result of these that we recognise allusion, quotation and pastiche, and indeed just as collocation requires priming as an explanation, so do these recognised literary properties. Our ability (sometimes) to recognise plagiarism may possibly arise from the same mental concordance. A person’s encounter with lexical items in the plagiarised text, I would hypothesise, sometimes results in the new instances of the items being stored near to the items from the original and a consequent recognition of the similarity/ identity of the two texts (though other factors come into play as well, such as incongruities of style). The existence of allusion in the above list may also suggest that our mental concordance is tagged for the importance of the text in which a word or word sequence is encountered. Thus the claimed greatness of a literary work or the centrality of a religious text may ensure that an encounter with a word in such writings has a bigger impact on the priming than a similar encounter with the word in a less valued work. The same may be true of words encountered in conversation; words spoken by a close friend are likely to affect our primings more directly than those spoken by someone to whom we are indifferent. Primings can be transitory or (semi-)permanent. Speakers or writers may combine certain words repeatedly in a discourse and this repeated combination may become part of the cohesion of the text. The listener or reader will grow to expect these words together in the text in question, but unless subsequent texts reinforce the combination it will not become part of the permanent priming of either of the words. Emmott (1997) discusses priming in these terms where a reader is primed to construct a frame which permits them to process more effectively the text they are reading.

Priming as an explanation of other linguistic features In the above discussion, I have talked as if words and word sequences are primed for collocation only and all the examples I have so far given have played along with this assumption. However, once we accept that collocation can only be accounted for in terms of priming, the possibility opens up that priming will explain other features of the language. Indeed it is the argument of this book that priming is the driving force behind language use, language structure and language change. I shall therefore conclude this chapter with a statement of the hypotheses that the remainder of the book will be concerned with exploring.

Collocation 13 Priming hypotheses Every word is primed for use in discourse as a result of the cumulative effects of an individual’s encounters with the word. If one of the effects of the initial priming is that regular word sequences are constructed, these are also in turn primed. More specifically: 1 Every word is primed to occur with particular other words; these are its collocates. 2 Every word is primed to occur with particular semantic sets; these are its semantic associations. 3 Every word is primed to occur in association with particular pragmatic functions; these are its pragmatic associations. 4 Every word is primed to occur in (or avoid) certain grammatical positions, and to occur in (or avoid) certain grammatical functions; these are its colligations. 5 Co-hyponyms and synonyms differ with respect to their collocations, semantic associations and colligations. 6 When a word is polysemous, the collocations, semantic associations and colligations of one sense of the word differ from those of its other senses. 7 Every word is primed for use in one or more grammatical roles; these are its grammatical categories. 8 Every word is primed to participate in, or avoid, particular types of cohesive relation in a discourse; these are its textual collocations. 9 Every word is primed to occur in particular semantic relations in the discourse; these are its textual semantic associations. 10 Every word is primed to occur in, or avoid, certain positions within the discourse; these are its textual colligations. Very importantly, all these claims are in the first place constrained by domain and/or genre. They are claims about the way language is acquired and used in specific situations. This is because we prime words or word sequences, as already remarked, in a range of social contexts and the priming, I argue, takes account of who is speaking or writing, what is spoken or written about and what genre is being participated in, though the last of these constraints is probably later in developing than the other two. One reason why some of the features described in this book have been given only limited attention is that traditionally descriptions of language have treated the language as monolithic. Even corpus linguists have characteristically worked with general corpora. But certain kinds of feature only become apparent when one looks at more specialised data. Returning to the list of claims, the first has already been argued for and will not be further discussed in this book. Claims 2 and 3 are explored in Chapter 2,

14 Collocation claim 2 in some detail. Claims 4, 5 and 6 are discussed in Chapters 3, 4 and 5 respectively, with claim 7 being given briefer attention in Chapter 8. The textual claims (8, 9, 10) are explained in Chapters 6 and 7, with preliminary supportive evidence. Chapters 8 and 9 consider the implications of lexical priming for discussions of creativity, and the final chapter considers some of its implications for L1 and L2 learning. Primings can be studied from two perspectives. We can study their operation from the perspective of the primed word or word sequence. Thus we might, for instance, look at all the primings associated with the word consequence. Alternatively, we can observe their operation in combination. So we might look at all the primings that contribute to the production of a sentence such as the one cited earlier from Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There. In each of the following chapters I shall do both (and indeed the word consequence and the Bill Bryson sentence will both be examined), though the weighting will differ as the chapters progress. Thus, initially most of the attention will be on the individual word, but in later chapters, where the focus is on textual priming, we will be more concerned with the ways primings combine.

The status of the corpus as evidence of priming I have talked of the language user as having a mental concordance and of the possibility that they process this concordance in ways not unrelated (though much superior) to those used in corpus linguistic work. However, it does not automatically follow that exploration of the nature of priming can be achieved through the study of computer corpora. A corpus, whether general – like the British National Corpus or the Bank of English – or specialised – such as the Guardian corpus used in this work – represents no one’s experience of the language. Not even the editor of the Guardian reads all the Guardian, I suppose, and certainly only God (and corpus linguists) could eavesdrop on all the many different conversations included in the British National Corpus. On the other hand, the personal ‘corpus’ that provides a language user with their lexical primings is by definition irretrievable, unstudiable and unique. We have therefore a problem: we have a posited feature of language acquisition and use, one of whose characteristics is that it is differently actualised for every language user. If my analogy between the mental concordance and the computer concordance is correct, the computer corpus cannot tell us what primings are present for any language user, but it can indicate the kinds of data a language user might encounter in the course of being primed. It can suggest the ways in which priming might occur and the kinds of feature for which words or word sequences might be primed. In other words, it can serve as a kind of laboratory in which we can test for the validity of claims made about priming. If in subsequent chapters I sometimes write as if words or word sequences have

Collocation 15 priming independently of individual speakers, this should be regarded as no more than a convenient shorthand. Words are never primed per se; they are only primed for someone (and, as we shall see in Chapter 8, it is not only, or even primarily, the word that is primed). All that a corpus can do is indicate that certain primings are likely to be shared by a large number of speakers, and only in that sense is priming independent of the individual. As already noted, in the final chapter I shall return to the issue of how it comes to be that primings are shared.

16 Meaning


Lexical priming and meaning

What collocation will not account for: semantic association If lexical priming only operated with regard to collocations, it would be an anomalous but not especially interesting characteristic of language. It would have nothing to say about linguistic creativity and be of little or no theoretical importance. However, a glance at the Bill Bryson sentence shows that there is more to say about the way it has been constructed than can be accounted for in terms of collocation alone. Take the word hour in the word sequence thirty-hour ride. For most speakers it is likely to be primed to collocate with ride, but there is no evidence in my corpus of its being likely to collocate with thirty. On the basis of my corpus evidence, hour is likely to be primed for many speakers of English to collocate with half an, one, two, three, four and twenty four, but thirty only occurs once in my data. It is not to the point to argue that a larger corpus might show it to reach the threshold of collocability, both because it will always be possible to find a number that has not yet been shown to collocate and because it is nonsense to suppose that any user of the language would feel they were breaking new linguistic ground if they used a number with hour that they had never heard anyone else use. More subtly, the same goes for the collocation of hour with ride in that it also collocates with drive, flight and journey. Listing such collocates is theoretically trivial and unrevealing about the possibilities of its occurring with other ‘journeying’ words such as meander, slog or odyssey, for example. If however we assume that the priming is operating at a more abstract level, we can say that for most speakers of English the word hour is likely to be primed for semantic association with NUMBER and JOURNEY. Thus thirty-hour ride belongs to a pattern that (in my corpus) also includes: half-hour drive four-hour flight two-hour trip three-hour journey

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