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

Kerstin Norén and Per Linell

Abstract

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.

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