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A DIALOGIC PERSPECTIVE ON THE VARIABILITY OF LEXICOGRAPHICAL MEANING VINCENT REGAN So what is it that lexicographers do? To respond that they explicitly describe not only what words are, how they are pronounced, syllabified, and spelled, what syntactic function they typically serve, and, most important, what they mean is to take but a superficial perspective of lexicography. Such would be an off-handed acknowledgment of lexicographers' ultimate authority over the business of words. That their descriptions are encoded in printed language presupposes readers who can with understanding decode their writings. The Russian philosopher and semiotician, Mikhail Bakhtin, noted that language is inherently dialogic. It is not just a secondary activity that requires the speaker to find adequate words to describe and report mental states with set meanings. This view is largely one of language after the ideational fact, as promulgated by Wundt, Husserl, Ong, and others. Writing involves more than "simply externalizing, transcribing, or inscribing thoughts with all due respect for convention and context. . . . The salient features of written text are not just so many arbitrary conventions somehow to be taken into account while writing" (Nystrand 33). Lexicographical writing addresses readers who will transform the printed message to fit their immediate purposes. For Bakhtin, not only are the material resources of the language medium social in origin, but also the choices writers make at every turn are composed by the balance their written discourse must set between what they have to say and the context in which the text must function. He writes that: Every . . . prose discourse . . . cannot fail to be oriented toward the "already uttered," the "already known," the "common opinion" and so forth. The dialogic orientation of discourse is a phenomenon that 76 Vincent Regan77 is ... a property of any discourse. It is the natural orientation of any living discourse (Imagination 279). A text is thus never the simple result of an individual's language production but always what a writer does vis-à-vis a reader—it is "the product of the reciprocal relationship between . . . addresser and addressee" (Bakhtin, Marxism 85): The word is always oriented toward an addressee, toward who that addressee might be. . . . Each person's inner world and thought has its stabilized social audience [Bakhtin's italics] that comprises the environments in which reasons, motives, values and so on are fashioned . . . the word is a two-sided act. It is determined equally by whose word it is and for whom it is meant. . . . Each and every word expresses the one relation to the other. I give myself verbal shape from another's point of view, ultimately from the point of view of the community to which I belong. A word is territory shared by both addresser and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor (Marxism 85-86). Bakhtin's approach to language opposes the abstract linguistics of Saussure, whose main focus was on the systematic, normative properties of la langue. While the individual "speech facts" of la parole are "heterogeneous" and unsystematic and thereby unanalyzable per se, Saussure argued that together "some sort of average will be set up" (Saussure 9). This average constitutes la langue. His distinction regards individual speech acts as evidence for articulating language as a system. He wrote, "As soon as we give language first place among the facts of speech, we introduce a natural order into a mass that lends itself to no other classification" (9). This approach posits the character of language as prior to itself ontologically. This means to say that, first, language is a "something" (grammatical rules, for example) and only secondarily a use. It was against this abstraction of speech acts that Bakhtin reacted and instead focused on the dynamics of communication in discrete social contexts. 78 A Dialogic Perspective on Lexicographical Meaning For Bakhtin, any text is shaped by the reciprocal relationship of speaker/writer and listener/reader, and the meaning of the text is reciprocally formed by the writer's intentions and the reader's interests as they work in the context of use: "In essence, meaning belongs to a word in its position between [writers/readers]; that is, meaning is realized only in the process of active responsive understanding" (Marxism 102). The exact...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 76-82
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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