Stories of Words, Words as Stories. Some lexico-statistically based Reflections on the Meaning Unit in Spoken Language

  • Eleonora Massa


This paper develops a theoretical discussion about the definition of the unit of content in spoken language. The issue originates from the applicative field of corpus-based lexico-statistical surveys, which are traditionally and prevalently used to optimize and standardize the programs for the vocabulary didactics of foreign languages. The main critical limitation of lexico-statistical inquiries can be identified in their impossibility to determine a representative threshold of the basic content lexicon of a language or, put otherwise, the most important words referring to the concrete things that are spoken about. Beyond the threshold of the most recurring 1,000 lexemes, in fact, words virtually show low and irregular as well as semi-equivalent probabilities to recur in spoken texts. The lexico-statistical applications that have followed aim exactly at overcoming this limitation. Albeit through different methodologies, the various approaches conceive in fact the basic content lexicon as made up by the most frequent or used concrete substantives of a language. From time to time, either limited or particularly extensive series of concrete nouns have been compiled: however, these nouns are de facto subject to sporadic and irregular trends of recur-rence values in spoken texts and are likely to be encountered very rarely by the language user in actual spoken utterances. The discussion on basic spoken contents simply ends up in a theoretical flaw and in a mere representational paradox, because it investigates and describes exactly what is not constitutive of the examined phenomenon. The consideration of the very semiotic peculiarity of spoken language constitutes the premise of an alternative definition of its meaning unit. The things that are talked about are in fact expressed only sporadically, because they are embedded in the situational context wherein they are shared – and mostly reiterated – by the conversation partners. More than with a dis-crete lexical element, the unit of spoken content seems to be identifiable with the holistic con-versational practice that is instead regularly carried out by the speakers within likely ordinary frames of experience; consequently it seems to be closer to a basic unit in the “practice of meaning” than to an isolated meaning constituent. As the habitudinary modality of construct-ing, inhabiting and sharing our everyday form of life, the meaning unit in spoken language rather unveils as a narrative unit, for reasons that this paper explores in details. Such an alter-native theoretical vision is dealt with in the final part of the contribution, which also outlines further issues related to the possibilities of both its representation and its didactic usability.
Massa, E. (2016). Stories of Words, Words as Stories. Some lexico-statistically based Reflections on the Meaning Unit in Spoken Language. Linguistik Online, 75(1).