Re: [xmca] RE: meaning and sense and has anyone any opinion

From: Gordon Wells (
Date: Wed Jul 27 2005 - 08:31:00 PDT

Ruqaiya, Michael, Mike and Others,

When I looked again at the message to which Ruqaiya replied as below,
I realized it wasn't as clear as I had thought. But before I try to
clarify my intended meaning, I want to suggest that there is perhaps
an incommensurability at the heart of our problem in trying to decide
the correct match between Vygotsky's 'meaning' and 'sense' and the
comparable terms in SFL.

I think the problem is that Ruqaiya and Halliday, as linguists, treat
'meaning' as comprised of 'sense' and 'reference'.However, when
Vygotsky contrasted 'meaning' and 'sense', he was making a
psychological distinction rather than a linguistic one. Linguists
typically deal with units such as word or clause in terms of their
relationship to other units within the system of a language and to
the entities, states, etc, in the world to which they may refer. On
the other hand, although Vygotsky was discussing his chosen unit
'word', it seems to me that he was thinking of its contextualized
utterance by a speaker in interaction with a discourse partner or
with himself. If this is correct, the distinction he was making was
between the 'meaning'of a word as it might appear in a dictionary and
the personal 'sense' it has for the speaker, as a result of the
contexts is which s/he has heard or used the word before, together
with the affective overtones it carries with it.This is how I
interpret the following quote from Thinking and Speech.

A word's sense is the aggregate of all the psychological facts that
arise in our consciousness as a result of the word. Sense is a
dynamic, fluid, and complex formation which has several zones that
vary in their stability. . . . In different contexts, a word's sense
changes. In contrast, meaning is a comparatively fixed and stable
point, one that remains constant with all the changes of the word's
sense that are associated with its use in various contexts. . . . The
actual meaning of a word is inconstant. In one operation the word
emerges with one meaning; in another, another is acquired. (1987, p.

My previous message was somewhat off topic. But Halliday's (1984)
paper, "Language as Code and language as Behavior", suggests that
there is some overlap between his distinction between dynamic and
synoptic and distinctions that both Vygotsky and Bruner have made. As
I understand it, "dynamic" applies to registers that are informal and
related to ongoing activity, whereas "synoptic" applies to registers
that formulate relationships between events and states of affais, as
seen from "above", as it were. This is quite close to Bruner's
distinction between "narrative" and "paradigmatic" modes of meaning.
So it seems to me that Vygotsky's distinction between "everyday" and
"scientific" concepts maps quite closely on to the two former

But this is not the same issue as the distinction between meaning and
sense. On that issue, I liked Michael's:

>If I understand right, sense is tied to the relation of activity
>(something collectively motivated) and action (something
>individually realized). So sense arises from the dialectic relation
>of self and other, individual and collective. Some writers use the
>qualifier "personal" to situate "sense."
>Perhaps that gives us an entry point to understanding meaning, as a
>generalized version of personal sense, that is, the possibilities of
>sense available at the collective level.


>Gordon hello
>I am quite bemused by "dynamic/everyday/narrative v.
>synoptic/scientific/paradigmatic modes of meaning-making." what do the
>slashes indicate? Are they post-modenist or the conventional "or" sign. I
>really do not find it easy to interpret the lexical items of the second set
>in their present collocation.
>At one stage I had thought the issue was the conceptualisation of meaning in
>language or meaning construed by language, but I must6 have got it wrong.
>H'm well -- perhaps its that I am just not used to "dynamic" discourse
>online. I was even more lost with your comment which I quote below:
>Similarly, Halliday's dynamic/ synoptic distinction might be equated with
>narrative/syntagmatic - to some degree!!, while synoptic highlights
>the paradigmatic relationship between alternative lexicogrammatical
>realizations of the same event, with a focus on grammatical metaphor
>through nominalization.
>I most probably do not have anything very sensible from the points of view
>of the direction of the present disdcourse on sense and meaning.

Gordon Wells
Dept of Education,
UC Santa Cruz.

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