Thursday, 30 April 2009

Scott Thornbury on words.

Vocabulary - is it more than words?

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?

By Scott Thornbury

In a radio broadcast made in 1929, the English writer Virginia Woolf had this to say about words: "Words, English words, are full of echoes, memories, associations. They've been out and about, on peoples' lips, in their houses, on the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries…". These "echoes, memories, associations" that words accrue are what we now call a word's connotations, and they will vary from person to person. The word field (in the Woolf quote above) will have quite different associations for a farmer and a city-dweller, for example, or for a hunter and an ecologist, or for a cricketer and a soldier. Nevertheless, knowing a word means knowing something about those connotations of the word that are generally shared between speakers of the language as a whole - knowing what makes a field so different from a meadow or a prairie, for example, or from the Spanish campo or an Egyptian feddan.
Virginia Woolf goes on to say that: "It is a very obvious but always mysterious fact that a word is not a single and separate entity: it is part of other words… words belong to each other". Here she neatly captures the interdependence of words, and that knowing a word means not only knowing its connotations but knowing the words that it commonly occurs with - its collocations. Hence, part of knowing the word field is knowing that it collocates with words like study, vision and view (as in his chosen field of study) as well as in such combinations as field trip, field test and field work, and magnetic field, gas field and ice field.
A third feature of word knowledge that Woolf identifies is the way that this knowledge is organised into semantic networks - highly idiosyncratic and much more convoluted than the relatively straightforward word lists you find in textbooks. She writes: "[Words] are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries: they live in the mind. … And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, ranging hither and thither, falling in love, meeting together."
The fact, well attested by linguists and teachers, that words are context-sensitive was also evident to Woolf: "[They do not] like being lifted on the point of a pin and examined separately. They hang together in sentences, paragraphs, sometimes whole pages at a time". Hence, to say that someone works in the same field may mean two quite different things, depending on whether it is said by a farm labourer or a rocket scientist. Attempting to define words apart from their contexts of use is - as teachers well know - an often perilous activity.
Part of a word's resistance to easy definition is due to the amazing elasticity of words, as they constantly adapt - and are adapted - to new uses, new needs, new contexts, new users. "In short [Woolf observes] they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude. For what is their nature, but change. Perhaps that is their most striking peculiarity - their need of change. This is because the truth they are trying to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being many-sided, dashing first this way then that, saying one thing to one person, another thing to another person…"
All this provides a challenge to the learner - and to the teacher. Part of the pleasure of word-learning, though, is to experience the power of words - including their resilience over time - a living proof of which is the way Virginia Woolf's own words still resonate many decades after they were first uttered.

© 2002 Scott Thornbury

Listen to Virginia Woolf, click here.

To read the full transcript, click here .
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