Re: LCA: Toward another LCA

From: Ana Marjanovic-Shane (
Date: Wed Jun 22 2005 - 21:07:18 PDT

Dear Phil and everyone,
It is probably the summer lull or something similar -- every culture has
its own reasons to explain such things. But they are probably always
I can't wait to hear/read Gordon's introduction of Halli day's notions
and their relation to Vygotsky. And in the meantime I was reading
Lantolf/Thorne's Introduction chapter to the Sociocultural theory and
the genesis of second language development. So I'll pick up with your
offer to discuss the "unit of analysis".
What is evident from the discussion and from the almost century long
line of discussions is that the unit of meaning cannot be equated either
with single words, nor with "sentences", and that the move is toward
"utterance" and the emergent aspect of meaning making. Vygotsky saw this
difference as the difference between the stable "meaning" and a more
fluid "sense" -- as the meaning realized in a particular context of a
particular situation. Rommetveit, as L&T quote him, talked about meaning
I think that even an "utterance" (with all the situatedness it carries
in itself) is not quite right as a unit of meaning. The reason for that
is that if utterance is considered as a units of meaning then the
"meaning" is still a category in the domain of the interpretables, i.e.
what is a resulting meaning of a particular utterance in a particular
situation -- is not only a matter of interpretation by the participants
in that situation but also by a researcher. In other words, a researcher
is still looking for what "chunk" or "fragment" of linguistic behavior
refers to what "chunk" or fragment of the reality to which the
participants refer at each point of development (on all developmental
scales). However, referentiality of any size of the sign (word,
sentence, utterance) is just one component of meaning making.

Consider the following example from Kittay:

    “If I absentmindedly or emphatically utter ‘Would you mind passing
    the salt?’ you generally presume that I am making a request, and not
    inquiring into what you do or do not mind, at the same time you need
    not be at all concerned with what I am thinking about or otherwise
    intending at the time. I may care less about making the request and
    more about informing my host that he has once more overdone his
    fetish of providing salt-free food.” (*Kittay)

This is a situation in which the speaker has or creates more than one
audience, by simultaneously "passing" two different meanings by the same
"utterance". But the speaker does that by being able to simultaneously
enact two "meaning" activities in one "utterance".

For me this example illustrates several points that I want to make.
First -- I think that a "unit of analysis of meaning" has to be dynamic
and contain "acts" that are done by the interlocutors in the process of
Second -- the attributes a unit of meaning have to include the "acters"
, i.e. the relational identities of the participants and the
particular point in the history of the relationships at the time of the
Third -- the referentiality of the signs also has to be studied in a
genetic (developmental way) -- but with a caution that the researcher
may not be in a position to know what exactly is being referred to. I'll
illustrate this with an example of a very young child's language. (from
my collection)

    This is a translation from Serbo-Croatian:
    While my mother and I were having a conversation in her room, my
    nephew Jovan (2 years, 4 months) took two long narrow cushions from
    his grandmother's bed. He crossed them on the floor, sat on the
    construction and said:
    J: “I'm building an airplane. It is not _a mineral airplane, it is a
    plain airplane_.”

    This translation is a result of _interpretation_ which was not
    automatic. In other words, what Jovan said was not immediately
    meaningful to us. In fact, when we (me and my mother who was Jovan's
    grandmother) first heard Jovan utter that phrase, we heard him say
    "Sour airplane" and "plain airplane". That was strange and did not
    make sense in his play. However, the juxtaposition of the
    adjectives he used: "sour"/"plain" ("kisela"/"obicna") lead us to
    think of something else: In our household in Belgrade, where we all
    lived together,we spoke frequently about “mineral water” and “fresh
    or plain” water. In Serbo-Croatian, although the adjective "kisela"
    means "sour", “kisela voda” means “mineral water” instead of “sour

    We thought that Jovan’s use of the word “kiseli” was actually
    referring to “mineral” and not to “sour” because of the following:

    Jovan's mother did not let him drink mineral water, only fresh
    water. But, of course, he loved mineral water and he secretly took
    it whenever he could from the other members of the household.

    In addition, the cushions Jovan took to play with, also were
    something he was not allowed to touch. However, he took them off the
    bed while me and my mother were standing in a conversation of our own.

    We agreed that what Jovan wanted to say to US was that he was doing
    nothing bad or prohibited (like “mineral water”), but, on the
    contrary, he was claiming to just be playing a “plain” i.e.
    unforbidden game.

I apologize for the length of this example, but it illustrates the
difficulty in which every researcher (and not only of children's
language) finds her/him-self whether they are aware of it or not: in
order to analyze the construction of meaning, one has to be able to
interpret the end-point, the resulting referential meaning, at least as
well as every participant in the situation, and maybe even better then them.
In addition, this example illustrates the need to know the "root" and
the history of meaning development of particular "chunks" of linguistic
phrases (be it words, sentences, utterances, etc).
Finally, the MEANING as a process, as an activity of building particular
relationships among the participants has to be analyzed as a relational
activity: Jovan's words would not have meant anything to anyone else
(and they almost did not mean anything to us!!!), but when we
"understood" them, we understood what Jovan was telling us. And that was
something that could only be interpreted as: "Please let me play with
these cushions. I am not doing anything prohibited". We were the
participants in the situation, and Jovan's closest relatives from the
same household. That gave us relevant background knowledge.
Finally, I think that Vygotsky's work opens more issues, let's us
wondering more than it answers questions. For instance: if we are to
understand the dual orientation of the sign -- as pointing outwards --
to control the others in communication; and as pointing inwards - to
control one owns thought and feeling processes, we need to analyze the
actual acts that are performed by an utterance. It is not only a matter
of a correct interpretation of other people's utterances. It is also a
matter of finding out what categories of such acts exist, what are the
similarities and differences between acts that point outward and those
that point inward, i.e. the nature of the transformation from
communicative to intellectual acts.


*Kittay, E.F. (1987), Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic
Structure, Oxford: Clarendon Press; NY: Oxford University Press

Phil Chappell wrote:

> Dear All,
> It is always perplexing when a discussion on XMCA stops dead in it's
> tracks! But it has, probably because everyone is reading the papers,
> pondering the topics, or busy elsewhere... co-facilitator Steve
> Thorne, like many I suspect, is unfortunately in the last category for
> a few
> it would be good to keep the discussions moving, as Gordon is waiting
> in the wings to introduce the Vygotsky/Halliday language/learning
> component. But in the meantime, those who are not familiar with the
> Hallidayan school might look at the discussion in the Lantolf and
> Thorne paper on Hopper's emergent grammar, and it's unit of analysis,
> as with Rommetveit and Bakhtin, as the utterance (the move and clause
> in Hallidayan theory). Arguments for the "sentence" as a unit of
> analysis are questioned in the paper, and a fundamental difference
> between spoken and written language is foregrounded. What I find
> challenging both for the language teacher and the researcher
> investigating the talk that goes on between students during classroom
> communicative activity is the idea of speech NOT constituting an
> ellipted form of some reified linguistic system (e.g. "Slab" ellipted
> from "Please bring me the slab" - see the example from Wittgenstein on
> page 9 of the paper). It poses some serious challenges for what we are
> teaching, how learning may be facilitated and how we might interpret
> what is being said. And of course a theory of context is involved.
> Lantolf and Thorne:
> we speak of ellipsis of elements, as if the elements had originally
> been there or are there underlyingly and then are deleted in the
> actual production of the utterances in question. However, this is a
> consequence of the jargon inherited from linguistic theory which
> posits underlying forms that are deleted in certain contexts. The
> claim of emergent grammar is that nothing is missing or deleted in
> the examples just considered; it is that interlocutors intentionally
> combine linguistic forms and contexts to produce utterances that give
> rise to specific local meanings (Hanks 1996: 120). In communicating,
> then, ‘actors continually reach beyond themselves and the
> pre-established forms of language to create meanings that were not
> there before’ (Hanks 1996: 121).
> To all the language educators, researchers and other interested
> parties - what do you think? And to those still pondering more
> philosophical questions such as "When is a tool?" and "When is a
> sign?".....ponder on. There is a point when we might archive the
> question of what Heidegger said for a later move ;-)))
> Looking forward to hearing from all those who were interested last
> April in this endeavour.
> Phil

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