Meaning potentials and the interaction between lexis and contexts: An empirical substantiation

Kerstin Norén and Per Linell


This article is a contribution to a theory of lexical semantics and situated sense-making which aims at explaining how meaning is constituted in and across contexts, in a dialogical interplay between lexical resources and aspects of situations. We propose that the semantics of words or grammatical constructions are not just abstract schemas, to be filled in by pragmatic enrichment in situated uses. Nor are words associated with simple lists of different usages. Instead, we propose a theory of meaning potentials. The basic assumptions of such a theory are that linguistic resources provide language users with semantic resources to understand, say and mean specific things in particular usage events, and that this always involves an interplay with contextual factors. The study reported here is an exercise in empirical pragmatics, using authentic data from language use. We explore the meaning potential of the Swedish adjective ny ‘new’ by examining its interplay with a specific grammatical construction, x-och-x (‘x-and-x’: in English roughly ‘x, it depends on what you mean by x’). X-och-x is a conventionalised and (largely) conversational practice, by which language users activate and negotiate parts of the meaning potential of a word x, such as ny, in order to establish a local situated meaning of it. In doing so, they exploit their knowledge of what x can mean, performing what can be seen as users´ semantic analyses in authentic communicative interaction. Our study can also be read as a contribution to Construction Grammar, attempting to develop a more dynamic, interactional interpretation of this theory than has previously been put forward in the literature.

Quick links
A browser-friendly version of this article is not yet available. View PDF
Allwood, J
(1998) Semantics as meaning determination with semantic-epistemic operations. In J. Allwood & P. Gärdenfors (eds.), Cognitive semantics: Meaning and cognition. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 1-18. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
(2003) Meaning potential and context. Some consequences for the analysis of variation in meaning. In H. Cuyckens, R. Dirven & J.R. Taylor (eds.), Cognitive approaches to lexical semantics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 29-65. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Auer, P
(1996) The pre-front field in spoken German and its relevance as a grammaticalization position. Pragmatics 6.3: 295-322.  BoP CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Bezuidenhout, A
(2002) Truth-conditional pragmatics. Philosophical Perspectives 16: 105-134.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Blank, A
(2003) Polysemy in the lexicon and in discourse. In B. Nerlich, Z. Todd, V. Herman & D. Clarke (eds.), Polysemy: Flexible patterns of meaning in mind and language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 267-293. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Butt, D., & C.M.I.M. Matthiessen
forthcoming) The meaning potential of language: Mapping meaning systemically. Centre for Language in Social Life, Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.
Cappelen, H., and E. Lepore
(2005) Insensitive semantics. A defense of semantic minimalism and speech act pluralism. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
Carston. R
(2002) Thoughts and utterances. The pragmatics of explicit communication. Oxford etc.: Blackwell. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Carston, R
(2005) Pragmatic inference – reflective or reflexive? Plenary lecture read at 9th International Pragmatics Conference, Riva del Garda, Italy, 10-15 July, 2005.
Couper-Kuhlen, E., and M. Selting
(2005) A linguistic practice for retracting overstatements: ‘Concessive repair’. In A. Hakulinen & M. Selting (eds.), Syntax and lexis in conversation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 257-288. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
Croft, W., and A. Cruse
(2004) Cognitive linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Crossref  MetBibGoogle Scholar
Deppermann, A
(2005) Conversational interpretation of lexical items and conversational contrasting. In A. Hakulinen & M. Selting (eds.), Syntax and lexis in conversation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 289-318. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
Ekberg, L
(2003) Transformations on image schemas and cross-linguistic polysemy. In Nordlund 24. Småskrifter från Institutionen för Nordiska språk, Lund University.Google Scholar
Evans, V
(2006) Lexical concepts, cognitive models and meaning construction. Cognitive Linguistics 17: 491-534. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
Fauconnier, G., and M. Turner
(2003) Polysemy and conceptual blending. In Nerlich, et al. (2003), pp. 79-94.
Fetzer, A
(2004) Recontextualizing context: Grammaticality meets appropriateness. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
Fillmore, Ch., P. Kay, and Mary K. O´Connor
(1988) Regularity and idiomatiticity in grammatical constructions: The case of let alone . Language 64: 501-38. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Fillmore, Ch
(2005) FrameNet. Retrieved from http://​framenet​.icsi​.berkeley​.edu/ January 29, 2006
Fretheim, T
(2005) Is there a rigid boundary between semantics and pragmatics? Working Papers ISK, 2/2005. NTNU; Trodheim: Department of Language and Communication Studies, pp. 113-129.
(2005/in press) English then and Norwegian da/så compared: A relevance-theoretic account. Ms. Trondheim: Dept of Linguistics.Google Scholar
Fried, M., and J.-O. Östman
(2005) Construction grammar: A thumbnail sketch. In M. Fried & J.-O. Östman (eds.), Construction Grammar in a cross-language perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Gibson, J
(1966) The senses considered as perceptual systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
(1979) The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.Google Scholar
Goldberg, A
(1995) Constructions: A Construction Grammar approach to argument structure. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Halliday, M
(1973) Explorations in the functions of language. London: Edward Arnold.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Hasan, R
(1996) Ways of saying: Ways of meaning. Edited by C. Cloran, D. Butt & G. Williams. London: Cassell.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Kay, P
(2004) Pragmatic aspects of grammatical constructions. In L. Horn & G. Ward (eds.), The Handbook of Pragmatics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 675-700.Google Scholar
Kilgariff, A
(2003) “I don´t believe in word senses”. In B. Nerlich, Z. Todd, V. Herman & D. Clarke (eds.), Polysemy: Flexible patterns of meaning in mind and language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 361-391. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Lähteenmäki, M
(2004) Between relativism and absolutism: Towards an emergentist definition of meaning potential. In F. Bostad, C. Brandist, L.S. Evensen & H.C. Faber (eds.), Bakhtinian perspectives on language and culture: Meaning in language, art and new media. Basingstoke: Palgrave, pp. 91-113. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Langacker, R
(1987) Foundations of cognitive grammar, Vol.1. Theoretical prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
(2006) On the continuous debate about discreteness. Cognitive Linguistics 17: 107-151. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Lindström, J., & P. Linell
(2007)  Roli å roli: X-och-x som samtalspraktik och grammatisk konstruktion. (“Funny and funny: X-och-x as a conversational practice and a grammatical construction”). E. Engdahl & A.-M. Londen (eds.), Studier i svenskt samtalsspråk, 2. Lund: Studentlitteratur.Google Scholar
Linell, P
(1998) Approaching dialogue. Talk, interaction and contexts in dialogical perspectives. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company. Crossref  BoPGoogle Scholar
(2006) Towards a dialogical linguistics. In M. Lähteenmäki, H. Dufva, S. Leppänen & P. Varis (eds.), Proceedings of the XIIth International Bakhtin Conference, Jyväskylä, Finland, 18-22 July 2005 (e-book). Jyväskylä: Department of Languages, pp. 157-172.Google Scholar
Linell, P., and K. Norén
(2005a) Vad man kan göra: Om den dialogiska bestämningen av pronomens användningsbetydelser. [“What man can do: On the dialogical determination of the meanings in use of pronouns”] In I. Bäcklund, et al.. (eds.), Text i arbete / Text at work. Festskrift till Britt-Louise Gunnarsson den 12 januari 2005. Uppsala: Institutionen för nordiska språk vid Uppsala universitet, pp. 115-124.Google Scholar
(2005b)  Ny och ny – en dialogisk analys av meningspotentialen hos lexemet ny i svenskan. [“New and new – a dialogical analysis of the meaning potential of the lexeme ny ’new’ in Swedish.”] In B. Melander, et al.. (eds.). Språk i tid. Studier tillägnade Mats Thelander på 60-årsdagen. (Skrifter utgivna av Institutionen för nordiska språk vid Uppsala universitet, 67.) Uppsala, pp. 231-242.Google Scholar
Marková, I
(1992) On structure and dialogicity in Prague semiotics. In A.H. Wold (ed.), The dialogical alternative: Towards a theory of language and mind. Oslo: Oslo University Press, pp. 45-63.Google Scholar
Mukařovský, J
(1977) On poetic language. In J. Burbank & P. Steiner (eds.), The word and verbal art. New Haven: Yale University Press. [Czech original published in 1940].Google Scholar
Nationalencyklopediens ordbok
1995/96 (“Dictionary of the National Encyclopaedia”). Språkdata, Göteborgs universitet and Bra Böcker, Höganäs, Sweden.Google Scholar
Nerlich, B., Z. Todd, V. Herman, and D. Clarke
(2003) (eds.) Polysemy: Flexible patterns of meaning in mind and language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. CrossrefGoogle Scholar
Norén, K
(2006) Både ork och lust. Om semantisk påverkan mellan ord i ordpar. [“Both ‘strength’ and ‘disposition’. On semantic influences between words in word pairs”]. In S. Ask, et al.. (eds.), Lekt och lärt: Festskrift till Jan Einarsson 2006. (Reports from Växjö University – Humanities), pp. 189-202.Google Scholar
Norman, D.A
(1990) The design of everyday things. New York: Doubleday.Google Scholar
Recanati, F
(2004) Literal meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  BoPGoogle Scholar
Rieger, B
(2005) Semiotics and computational linguistics: On semiotic cognitive information processing. www​.uni​-trier​.de​/.​..​/ldv​_archiv​/http​/www​/public​_html​/dvpage​/rieger​/pub​/aufsaetze​/kaczad98​/kaczad98​.html. Retrieved Dec. 18, 2005.
Rommetveit, R
(1974) On message structure. London: Wiley.  BoPGoogle Scholar
(1992) Outlines of a dialogically based social-cognitive approach to human cognition and communication. In A.H. Wold (ed.), The dialogical alternative: Towards a theory of language and mind. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, pp. 19-44.Google Scholar
SAOB = Ordbok öfver svenska språket utgifven av Svenska Akademien
1898- Stockholm. [“Dictionary of the Swedish language by the Swedish Academy”].Google Scholar
Selting, M
(2005) Syntax and prosody as methods for the construction and identification of turn-constructional units in conversation. In Hakulinen & Selting (2005), pp. 17-44.Google Scholar
Sinclair, J
(2004) Trust the text. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Teleman, U., S. Hellberg, & E. Andersson
(1999) Svenska Akademiens Grammatik. Vol. 4. Stockholm: Norstedt.Google Scholar
Thibault, P
(2005) The interpersonal gateway to the meaning of mind: The inter-and intraorganism perspective on language. In R. Hasan, C. Matthiessen & J. Webster (eds.), Continuing discourse on language: A functional perspective. London: Equinox, pp. 117-156.Google Scholar
Zlatev, J
(2003) Polysemy or generality? Mu. In H. Cuyckens, R. Dirven & J.R. Taylor (eds.), Cognitive approaches to lexical semantics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 447-494. CrossrefGoogle Scholar