Review of Lexical Meaning in Dialogic Language Use
| AUTHOR: Feller, Sebastian
TITLE: Lexical Meaning in Dialogic Language Use
SERIES TITLE: Dialogue Studies 9
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Ksenia Shilikhina, Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Voronezh
State University, Russia
Meaning is one of the most challenging issues in the study of language.
Sebastian Feller's ''Lexical Meaning in Dialogic Language Use'', the 9th volume of
Dialogue Studies Series (DS) published by John Benjamins, is a discussion of how
exactly words mean in discourse. The text is a revised and extended version of
Feller's thesis defended at the University of Muenster. The approach to lexical
meaning advocated by Feller is based on two key ideas: language and meaning as
its integral part are dialogic in their nature; predication is the major
function of lexical expressions. Feller states that ''Lexical expressions are
used to predicate on the world, i.e., to construct and communicate an image of
reality'' (p. 7).
Language-in-use, or rather, meaning-in-use becomes the focal point of the book.
The author argues that the dialogic nature of language-in-use makes meaning a
part of social action. Feller draws his data from BNC and COCA. The study is
carried out on a set of contexts which contain one of the four English verbs 'to
support', 'to pay', 'to carry' and 'to say'.
The book comprises seven chapters, a list of references and a subject index.
Chapter 1, ''The whole and its parts'', introduces a holistic approach to human
language and explicates the aims of the research. The main questions that the
book attempts to answer are the following: how is the predicative function of
lexical units represented? How can a lexical unit be defined? Is there such a
thing as lexical ambiguity? How does extra-linguistic knowledge affect our
understanding of linguistic expressions?
From the outset the author argues that language cannot be reduced to a system of
grammatical rules. Instead, language is recognized as an instrument of
communication. Consequently, the intentional aspect of dialogic discourse comes
to the foreground. Intentionality lies at the heart of human communication and
it guides our understanding of what is said in a particular context. Feller
illustrates these points with two short dialogues. Taken out of the immediate
context, the utterances lose their meaningfulness. However, further explication
of the circumstances in which the conversations had occurred made the dialogues
sound natural again.
The author pinpoints the major difference between the conventional handling of
meaning in linguistics and his own approach: while orthodox semantic theories
treat meaning as something that exists independently from language users, Feller
argues that meaning emerges as a result of a dialogic interaction between the
speaker and the hearer.
Chapter 2, ''State-of-the-art theories'', presents a succinct critical overview of
several approaches to lexical meaning. Starting from the structuralist models
the author traces the development of linguistic ideas in both formal and
functional directions. The scope of theories includes prototype theory, logical
semantics, generative approaches to lexicon and meaning, cognitive theories,
action-theoretic models of meaning, use theories. Special attention is given to
corpus approaches to lexical meaning. Feller discusses converging ideas (e.g.
Jackendoff's conceptual structures and Fillmore's notion of scenes). In the
final section of the chapter Feller concludes that existing structuralist and
formal theories cannot offer adequate explanation of how language speakers
arrive at meaning in discourse. Feller argues that the majority of existing
semantic theories are eclectic; they do not give a holistic picture of lexical
Chapter 3, ''Theoretical foundation'', starts with the introduction of Weigand's
idea of predication as the main function of lexical units. This, in turn, raises
a question of the boundaries of lexical units -- obviously they cannot be
reduced to single words. Feller discusses several theoretical attempts at
definitions, and claims that they should be checked against real language use.
This chapter is very important for understanding further semantic analysis.
Feller addresses several questions which remain controversial. The first
question is the relation between encyclopedic and linguistic knowledge. While
many linguists treat these types of knowledge separately, Feller claims that
they cannot be separated: people need both types of knowledge for successful
Another stumbling block of semantics addressed by Feller in this chapter is the
concept of polysemy. Unlike most linguists, Feller claims that because language
users derive meaning from multi-word units, they hardly ever have to face the
problem of multiple meanings of words in context.
In Chapter 4, ''Methodological preliminaries'', the author explains his choice of
examples, the test set-up and metalanguage which is used for semantic
representation of lexical meaning. Feller discusses the problem of corpus data
interpretation -- in cases where the nearest co-text was not informative enough,
he had to make additional information searches to complete ''the meaning building
process'' (p. 59).
The subsequent two chapters are devoted to the detailed analysis of the semantic
structures of four English verbs -- 'to support', 'to pay', 'to carry' and 'to
Chapter 5, ''The semantic analysis (Part I) -- The semantic interplay of
subject-NP and VP'', presents a thorough description of the nearest co-texts of
the verbs. In particular, Feller discusses how NPs in subject positions specify
the exact meanings of the verbs. E.g., the verb 'to pay' is included in the
predicating field BUSINESS TRANSACTION when it collocates with NPs like 'the
Milk Marketing Board', but when the same verb collocates with an NP like 'the
price for his illegal action' it has a different meaning and is included in the
predicating field of PENALTY. Predicative functions of the verbs are shown in
detailed schematic representations.
In Chapter 6, ''The semantic analysis (Part II) -- New lexical entries: A pilot
study'' the author presents a large-scale investigation of how the four verbs are
used in different contexts. More predicating fields and subfields are described
(e.g. the predicating field GIVE+AID for the verb 'to support' is further
subdivided into ANCILLA, SPONSORING and SOCIAL BEHAVIOR). The choice of a
particular subfield is again determined by the verb's collocates in subject and
Chapter 7 -- the final chapter of the book -- is a Conclusion, where Feller
offers his own definition of the lexical unit and proposes several types of
practical application of his approach to lexical meaning in context. The
sentential formula for the lexical unit looks as follows: [S: NP+VP]. Though
this is very similar to the syntactic representation of an utterance, Feller
reminds the reader that the two should not be confused: a lexical unit is used
for predication, while utterances have illocutionary force and perlocutionary
As for practical implementation, Feller suggests that his approach can be used
in electronic dictionaries and language teaching.
The author's final comments address the question of switching from lexical units
to lexical concepts -- a more abstract level which allows for taking into
account other cognitive means of predication. This can be the next step of
analysis because the human ability to use language and create meaning is
intertwined with other cognitive abilities.
The intended audience of the book are researchers interested in linguistic
semantics and pragmatics. The book has a very ambitious aim -- to give a full
and precise description to such a recalcitrant phenomenon as lexical meaning. By
claiming that ''[s]peakers do not memorize single words together with their
corresponding list of senses but words embedded in their concrete ways-of-use''
(p. 66) Feller tries to make his semantic theory not only theoretically, but
also psycholinguistically plausible.
The book is interesting in many respects. It challenges traditional approaches
to lexical meaning and tries to give coherent explanations of how speakers
understand meanings of words in utterances.
Modern lexical semantics can be seen as a continuum of theories with two radical
poles: there are linguists who believe that meaning exists independently from
language users and every word can be given an objective dictionary definition.
The opposing theories claim that meaning is created in context and it never
exists outside of it (similar ideas were expressed by the Russian linguist
Alexander Potebnya more than a century ago -- see for example Potebnya 2007).
Feller's concept of meaning-in-use is close to this radical approach. Throughout
the book the author discusses the idea of relativity of meaning. He shows how
one's personal knowledge and cognitive abilities are used in interpretation of
The text itself and the algorithm of semantic analysis have a very clear
structure. Another good point of Feller's research is metalanguage which allows
for a very detailed description of word meanings.
The author questions the traditional notion of polysemy -- he argues that from a
language user's point of view no such thing exists. Feller contrasts his way of
analyzing polysemy with what he calls ''orthodox semantic theories'' (p. 65).
While the latter try to solve the problem of polysemy by describing how language
users choose one meaning from the set of possible meanings, Feller does exactly
the opposite -- he shows how meaning is constructed by context and thus rejects
the idea of polysemy in general.
Some doubts remain about the position of the hearer: in the first chapter the
author claims that the roles of the speaker and the hearer are equally
important. However, only a few examples of real-life dialogues are included to
illustrate the point. Instead, Feller discusses contexts from BNC and COCA and
his own interpretation becomes the only source of semantic analysis.
Most conclusions made by Feller may work well for people with rich language
experience. The question that remains unanswered is how inexperienced users
(e.g. children or language learners) arrive at meaning. What happens if the
hearer does not know the exact meaning of NPs that surround verbs and does not
have instant access to the Internet? Does this mean that she will not be able to
understand the whole sentence or can she still get some vague idea about its
meaning on a more general level?
Another point of potential criticism is the author's approach to traditional
lexicography. He claims that dictionary entries are not informative enough as
they cannot describe all potential meanings which a word can acquire in a new
context. However, the experience of using dictionaries by many generations is
somewhat different -- quite often it is the dictionary that gives us primary
ideas about the potential meaning of a word in context.
The approach to lexical meaning presented by Feller is justified when we analyze
utterances. However, the number of potential contexts in which a word can occur
can be indefinitely large. No dictionary (even a computerized one) would be able
to enumerate all potential collocates of a word.
Other radical statements (e.g. the idea that a pre-defined meaning of a word is
absolutely implausible due to the cultural and cognitive diversity of language
speakers) can also add fuel to the fire of semanticists' discussions.
A possible more practical application for the semantic metalanguage used in the
book can be offered: it might be useful for typological description of lexemes
(similar ideas of semantic maps which present different word meanings in various
languages depending on the collocation can be found in Koptjevskaya-Tamm 2008).
Koptjevskaya-Tamm M. (2008) ''Approaching Lexical Typology'' in ''From polysemy to
semantic change: towards a typology of lexical semantic associations'', ed. by
M. Vanhove, 4-54. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company
Potebnya A. (2007) Mysl' i jazyk (in Russian). Moscow: Labyrinth.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Ksenia Shilikhina is an associate professor of linguistics at Voronezh
State University, Russia. Her main research interests include semantics and
pragmatics with a special focus on verbal irony. Another area of interest
is corpus linguistics. She teaches courses in Linguistic Typology,
Semiotics, Applied and Computational Linguistics and Formal Models in