Functioning of Linguistic and Non-linguistic Context in Modern English

Lexico-Semantic Peculiarities of Context in Modern English. The essential characteristics of linguistic context. The problem of lexical and grammatical valency. The characteristic features of non-linguistic context. Textual Representation in English.

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Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine

Kyiv National Linguistic University

Course Paper

Functioning of Linguistic and Non-linguistic Context in Modern English

Kyiv 2009



Part I. Lexico-Semantic Peculiarities of Context in Modern English

1.1 The definition of the term context

1.2 The essential characteristics of linguistic context

1.2.1 Lexical context

1.2.2 Grammatical context

1.2.3 The problem of lexical and grammatical valency

1.3 The characteristic features of non-linguistic context

Part II. Textual Representation of Context in Modern English




The subject-matter of the Course Paper is to investigate the lexico-semantic peculiarities of context.

The topicality of the problem under consideration results from the necessity to update basic assumptions provided by different linguists in order to be able to establish the characteristic features of context in Modern English.

The novelty of the problem arises from the necessity of a profound scientific investigation of context.

The main aim of the Course Paper is to summarize and systemize different approaches to the study of context in Modern English.

The aim of the Course Paper presupposes the solutions of the following tasks:

to expand and update the definition of the term context;

to reveal the characteristic features of linguistic context;

to establish the peculiarities of lexical and grammatical context;

to dwell on the problem of lexical and grammatical valency;

to reveal the characteristic features of non-linguistic context;

to present the textual representation of context in Modern English.

According to the tasks of the Course Paper its structure is arranged in the following way: Introduction, the Main Part, Conclusions, Resume, Bibliography, List of Electronic References.

In the Introduction we provide the explanation of the theme choice, state the topicality of it, establish the main aim and the practical tasks of the paper.

In the Main Part we analyze the lexico-semantic peculiarities of context, reveal the characteristic features of non-linguistic context, linguistic context, lexical and grammatical context, dwell on the problem of lexical and grammatical valency, give the texual representation of context in Modern English.

In Conclusions we generalize the results achieved.

Resume, in Ukrainian, outlines the gist of the Paper covering in brief all the questions under consideration.

Part I. Lexico-Semantic Peculiarities of Context in Modern English

1.1 The Definition of the Term Context

There is a great amount of different definitions of the term context. Many scientists and researchers have been working upon this problem for many years. If we try to combine those numerous definitions by different authors, we can get a short formula given by Torsueva I.G., Context is a fragment of the text minus the determined unit [1]. The fragment of the text must include the determined unit and constitute its right and left environment. Moreover that fragment must be a necessary and sufficient condition to determine the meaning and should not contradict to the general sense of the text.

The dictionaries [3; 19] give the following definitions of the term context. Context - 1.the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect: e.g., You have misinterpreted my remark because you took it out of context; 2.the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc. Origin: 1375-1425; late ME < L contextus a joining together, scheme, structure, equiv. to contex(ere) to join by weaving (con- con- + texere to plait, weave) + -tus suffix of v. action; cf. text [19].

So context is defined as the aggregate of linguistic, situational, social and cultural variables that surround linguistic units such as texts, discourses, utterances, words, morphemes, phonemes, sounds, and distinctive features.

The most detailed and consistent definition of the term context is considered to be given by Amosova N.N. In her work English Contextology she defines context as the minimal stretch of speech determining each individual meaning of the word, its immediate syntactical environment [5]. This is not to imply that polysemantic words have meanings only in the context. The semantic structure of the word has an objective existence as a dialectical entity which embodies dialectical permanency and variability. The context individualizes the meanings, brings them out. It is in this sense that we say that meaning is determined by context [6]. According to Prof. Amosova, the word the meaning of which is to be realized is called the semantic dependant. In other words, context is the connection of the word with its indicator, which is either in direct or indirect syntactical connection with the actualized word. The semantic indicator is the element of the same syntactical unit which denotes the appropriate meaning of the word in a given context.

Some linguists do not distinguish speech situation (immediate extra-lingual circumstances under which the utterance takes place) from context. Kolshansky G.V. discriminates between linguistic and extra_linguistic context, defining context as the whole set of conditions under which a linguistic unit is used [9].

It is clear that the whole utterance, or a phrase, or a word and the conditions of its usage do not influence on choosing the necessary part of the meaning scope of a polysemantic word is in a linear way. That's why we can find a huge amount of different typologies and classifications of context in literature. All of them appeared against the aims and tasks of each researcher. Thus they distinguish micro- and macro-context, where micro-context is the minimal environment of the unit plus additional encoding in form of associations, connotations, etc., while macro-context is the unit's environment which helps to define its function in the text in general. They say also there explicit verbal/non-verbal and implicit contexts. According to the functional principle, enabling, reducing, compensative and other types of context can be distinguished [9; 10; 14; 18].

Our task does not include the full research of the complicated problem of context. Thus we confine ourselves with the description of types of context according to the Amosova's theory. According to her, context is a notion used in the language sciences (linguistics, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, pragmatics, semiotics, etc.) in two main ways, namely as linguistic context and non-linguistic context [5].

1.2 The Essential Characteristics of Linguistic Context

Linguistic context refers to surrounding text or talk of an expression (word, sentence, conversational turn, speech act, etc.). The idea is that verbal context influences the way we understand the expression. Since much contemporary linguistics takes texts, discourses or conversations as its object of analysis, the modern study of 'verbal context' takes place in terms of the analysis of discourse structures and their mutual relationships, for instance the coherence relation between words, phrases and sentences [11].

Before talking about main types of the linguistic context it is important to mention about such notion as context clues. Text book writers usually know when they must use a word that will be new to their readers. So they often include other words or phrases to help with the understanding of the new word. These words or phrases are referred to as context clues. They are built into the sentences around the difficult word. If you become more aware of the words around the difficult words you encounter in your reading, you will save yourself many trips to the dictionary. You will be able to make logical guesses about the meanings of many words. There are four common types of context clues [15]:

Definition - the word is defined directly and clearly in the sentence in which it appears. E.g., The arbitrator, the neutral person chosen to settle the dispute, arrived at her decision.

Antonym (or contrast) - often signaled by the words whereas, unlike, or as opposed to. E.g., Unlike Jamaal's room, which was immaculate, Jeffrey's room was very messy.

Whereas Melissa is quite lithe, her sister is clumsy and awkward.

Synonym (or restatement) - other words are used in the sentence with similar meanings. E.g., The slender woman was so thin her clothes were too big on her.

Inference - word meanings are not directly described, but need to be inferred from the context. E.g., Walt's pugnacious behavior made his opponent back down.

The man gigged the large fish, but he needed his friend to enlarge the hole to drag it out of the frigid water.

Linguistic context is the set of suitable defined linguistic units that co-occur with a given linguistic unit within a given text [17]. The two more or less universally recognized main types of linguistic contexts which serve to determine individual meanings of words are the lexical context and the grammatical context. These types are differentiated depending on whether the lexical or the grammatical aspect is predominant in determining the meaning.

english context grammatical lexical

1.2.1 Lexical Context

According to Prof. Amosova, when indication comes from the lexical meaning of the indicator it is a case of lexical context [5]. The author subdivides this type of context into that of the first degree and that of the second degree. The contextual elements of lexical context of the first degree have a direct (immediate) syntactical connection between them. Lexical context can be variable: the indicator may be varied without affecting the semantic content of the dependent word. If, in the unit of the context, only one certain indicator realizes a particular meaning of the dependant, then the context is constant. A phraseological unit is a unit of constant context.

In lexical contexts of primary importance are the lexical groups combined with the polysemantic word under consideration. This can be illustrated by analyzing different lexical contexts in which polysemantic words, e.g. heavy or take, are used. The adjective heavy in isolation is understood as meaning 'of great weight, weighty' (heavy load, a heavy table, etc.). When combined with the lexical group of words denoting natural phenomena such as wind, storm, snow, etc., it means 'striking, falling with force, abundant' as can be seen from the contexts, e.g. heavy rain, wind, snow, storm, etc. In combination with the words industry, arms, artillery and the like, heavy has the meaning 'the larger kind of something' as in heavy industry, heavy artillery, etc.

The verb take in isolation has primarily the meaning 'lay hold of with the hands, grasp, seize', etc. When combined with the lexical group of words denoting some means of transportation (e.g. to take the tram, the bus, the train', etc.) it acquires the meaning synonymous with the meaning of the verb go.

It can be easily observed that the main factor in bringing out this or that individual meaning of the words heavy and take is the lexical group with which the word in question is combined. This can be also proved by the fact that when we want to describe the individual meaning of a polysemantic word, we find it sufficient to use this word in combination with some members of such lexical groups. To describe but a few meanings of the word handsome, for example, it is sufficient to combine it with the following words--a) man, person, b) size, reward, sum. The meanings 'good looking' and 'considerable, ample' are adequately illustrated by the contexts [2].

The meanings determined by lexical contexts are sometimes referred to as lexically (or phraseologically) bound meanings what implies that such meanings are to be found only in certain lexical contexts.

Some linguists go so far as to assert that word-meaning in general can be analyzed through its collocability with other words [4]. They hold the view that if we know all the possible collocations (or word-groups) into which a polysemantic word can enter, we know all its meanings. Thus, the meanings of the adjective heavy, for instance, may be analyzed through its collocability with the words weight, safe, table; snow, wind, rain; industry, artillery, etc. The meaning at the level of lexical contexts is sometimes described as meaning by collocation.

1.2.2 Grammatical Context

Prof. Amosova suggests that in the case of the grammatical context the semantic indication is provided by syntactical structure of the sentence in which the dependant is used.

In grammatical contexts it is the grammatical (mainly the syntactic) structure of the context that serves to determine various individual meanings of a polysemantic word. One of the meanings of the verb make, e.g. 'to force, to enduce', is found only in the grammatical context possessing the structure to make somebody do something, or in simpler terms this particular meaning occurs only if the verb make is followed by a noun and the infinitive of some other verb (to make smb laugh, go, work, etc.). Another meaning of this verb 'to become', 'to turn out to be' is observed in the contexts of a different structure, e.g. make followed by an adjective and a noun (to make a good wife, a good teacher, etc.).

Such meanings are sometimes described as grammatically (or structurally) bound meanings. Cases of the type she will make a good teacher may be referred to as syntactically bound meanings, because the syntactic function of the verb make in this particular context (a link verb, part of the predicate) is indicative of its meaning 'to become, to turn out to be'. A different syntactic function of the verb, e.g. that of the predicate (to make machines, tables,etc.),excludes the possibility of the meaning 'to become, turn out to be'[7].

Grammatical context appears in case some grammar functions plays the role of the indicator. For example, the meaning of the word ill depends on the function it fulfills in the utterance. If it is the predicative function (fall ill, be taken ill), the meaning of the analyzed unit should be understood as in bad health. If the function is attributive (ill luck, ill will), the meaning of the unit under consideration is bad, hostile. As you can see two meanings are quite different. That's why it is of great importance to take into account the grammatical context.

1.2.3 The Problem of Lexical and Grammatical Valency

In a number of contexts, however, we find that both the lexical and the grammatical aspects should be taken into consideration. The grammatical structure of the context, although indicative of the difference between the meaning of the word in this structure and the meaning of the same word in a different grammatical structure may be insufficient to indicate in which of its individual meaning the word in question is used. If we compare the contexts of different grammatical structures, e.g. to take + noun and to take to + noun, we can safely assume that they represent different meanings of the verb to take, but it is only when we specify the lexical context, i.e. the lexical group with which the verb is combined in the structure to take + noun (to take coffee, tea; books, pencils; the bus, the tram) that we can say that the context determines the meaning [18].

It is usual in modern linguistic science to use the terms "pattern" or "structure" to denote grammatical contexts. Patterns may be represented in conventional symbols, e.g. to take smth as take + N, to take to smb as take to + N. It is argued that difference in the distribution of the word is indicative of the difference in meaning. Sameness of distributional pattern, however, does not imply sameness of meaning. As was shown above, the same pattern to take + N may represent different meanings of the verb to take dependent mainly on the lexical group of the nouns with which it is combined [20].

Thus in the majority of cases we should use a mixed type of context - lexico-grammatical context, where both the lexical meaning and the grammatical function of indicator are essential - in order to identify the correct meaning of the language unit in the text or in speech. For example, if there is a similar grammatical form of the phrases, like in He ran a horse and He ran the risk, we can understand the meaning due to the lexical meanings of the indicators - to make move and to expose oneself to a possibility of danger. However, at the same time the grammatical context works out too: we can observe the presence of the object in the construction near the language unit under analyses as opposed to The horse ran.

It is also not to identify the grammatical form of the utterance It stopped to start again soon for its full comprehension. From the one side the grammatical form takes away some part of extra meanings of the unit stop (compare It stopped doing something). It is obvious that the lexical meaning of the indicator it is of great importance here. If it is the substitute of the word with the general lexical meaning of a living being, the analyzed language unit has the meaning to rest, to halt in a given context (The dog stopped to start again. The tourists stopped for a night to start again in the morning). If the meaning of the indicator it is an inanimate object, it becomes clear that the language unit under consideration means discontinue (The rain stopped) [16].

So usually we should take into account both the lexical and the grammatical contexts in order to get a full comprehension of a given unit.

1.3 The Characteristic Features of Non-linguistic Context

In modern linguistics it has become obvious and axiomatic that language units cannot be understood fully enough without taking into account the conditions and peculiarities of their usage in speech, what can be connected with various historical, cultural, social, situational, etc. factors [12]. For a polysemantic word it means that to identify its correct meaning in the linguistic context it is necessary to take into consideration many non-linguistic factors, such as situation, in which communication takes place; time parameters of the utterance; the individual peculiarities of the speaker; the traditions and cultural features, etc. For example, in order to understand the meaning of the utterance I don't want to be an albatross to you (J.Warren. The Nobel Prize), it is essential to correlate it with the poem by S.Colridge. In the poem it is told about a seaman who killed an albatross - bird that was considered to be sacred for sailors - and as a punishment he had to carry the dead bird on his breast. Thus in order to comprehend the meaning of the utterance, we should be aware of the cultural context: to be an albatross for smb means to be a burden for smb.

Dealing with linguistic contexts we consider only linguistic factors: lexical groups of words, syntactic structure of the context and so on. There are cases, however, when the meaning of the word is ultimately determined not by these linguistic factors, but by the actual speech situation in which this word is used. The meanings of the noun ring, e.g. in 'to give smb a ring' or of the verb get in 'I've got it' are determined not only by the grammatical or lexical context, but much more so by the actual speech situation.

The noun ring may possess the meaning 'a circlet of Precious metal' or 'a call on the telephone'; the meaning of the verb to get in this linguistic context may be interpreted as 'possess' or 'understand' depending on the actual situation in which these words are used [6].

It is of interest to note that not only the denotative but also the connotative component of meaning may be affected by the context. Any word which as a language unit is emotively neutral may in certain contexts acquire emotive implications. Compare, e.g., fire in to insure one's property against fire and Fire! as a call for help. An ordinary concrete noun, e.g. wall, acquires tangible emotive implication in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream (Act V, scene 1) in the context "O wall, O sweet and lovely wall". Here we clearly perceive the combined effect of both the linguistic and the non-linguistic context. The word wall does not ordinarily occur in combination with the adjectives sweet and lovely. So the peculiar lexical context accounts for the possibility of emotive overtones which are made explicit by the context of situation.

Part II. Textual Representation of Context in Modern English

For the purpose of illustrating the role of context we consider the sound complex light, which is often used in speech of all functional styles and can appear to be a noun with different meanings, an adjective with a huge variety of meanings, or a polysemantic verb.

In the examples below, which were taken solely from the novel Oliver Twist by Ch. Dickens [8], the role of various types of context is observed without difficulty.

The undertaker, who had just put up the shutters of his shop, was making some entries in his day_book by the light of a most appropriate dismal candle, when Mr. Bumble entered.

In this very example the word form light is a noun with the meaning the energy that makes us see things. As an ambiguous word the meaning of which can be understood through the context it is the context dependant. The indicator is the structure (by) the of a candle. The indicator revealing a noun is the definite article on the left, the absence of any other noun after light (in this case it would prove to be an adjective). The lexical meaning is clarified by the unit of the lexical context: an attributive phrase of candle, with the word candle being monosemantic. Of has no indicating feature, it only connects the indicator with the dependant. It is the lexical context of the first degree and it is variable - the indicator may be replaced with some other words with the same general meaning without affecting the semantic content of the dependant: light of a torch, light of the sun, light of a lamp.

E.g. There was no moon, and it was only by the light of lanterns swinging from the tugboats that he could see the vague line of the shore, the vast, heavy architecture that crowded the river.

'Look at his togs, Fagin!' said Charley, putting the light so close to his new jacket as nearly to set him on fire.

In this occurrence the word being considered is a noun with the meaning of the thing that produces light. The indicating minimum is putting the close to. The definite article to the left and the absence of any other noun clarifies the grammatical meaning of the word. It is not an abstract notion, it can be moved physically. It is lexical context of the first degree: indication comes from the lexical meaning of the indicator: put means to move or to place in a certain position.

The verb itself is ambiguous and is indicated by the structure close to (the jacket), the adverbial phrase (lexical context of the first degree). The word close is an adverb with the only meaning near. The proper part of speech can be identified with the help of the verb (this is the case of mutual indication) and the objective phrase. In actual speech, the understanding of the meaning requires a chain of dependant-indicator pairs, sometimes the structure of semantic dependence is more like a net, as its elements are interconnected.

The context is variable, e.g.: Catching up the light, he crept softly upstairs.; Then he shut off the light again, and spoke words of welcome in his elven_tongue.

Another example is the following: His red hair hung down upon his bloodless face; his beard was torn, and twisted into knots; his eyes shone with a terrible light; his unwashed flesh crackled with the fever that burnt him up.

In this extract light is a noun having the meaning expression in somebody's eyes. The indicating complex is a in (his) eyes. The grammatical meaning is clarified by the preceding indefinite article. It is an occurrence of lexical context of the first degree. Its lexical meaning is clarified through the presence of the word eyes or elements of these organs on the face we see with (light in the iris). Consequently, the context can be considered variable.

One beautiful night, when they had taken a longer walk than was customary with them: for the day had been unusually warm, and there was a brilliant moon, and a light wind had sprung up, which was unusually refreshing.

In this example there is an adjective with the meaning having little force, gentle. The proper part of speech is recognized due to the presence of the noun a wind to which the adjective refers. The same word provides the lexical meaning. It is the lexical context of the first degree, of a variable type. Charlotte's fist was by no means a light one - here the meaning is the same, and the noun fist stands for the blow the girl can produce with it.

Mr. Giles, who thought this light treatment of the matter an unjust attempt at diminishing his glory, answered respectfully, that it was not for the like of him to judge about that

In this sentence light is an adjective referring to this treatment. The lexical meaning of the noun (a way of dealing with the matter) reveals that the word under consideration means not serious. Again, it is the case of a variable lexical context of the first degree.

This cell was in shape and size something like an area cellar, only not so light.

(The) cell was (not) is the indicating minimum. With the respect to the lexical meaning of the noun - a room for prisoners (which is clarified with the help of another member of the sentence denoting a room - cellar), light means full of light, having the natural light. The type of the context is lexical of the first degree, variable.

Light your lantern! And get away from here as fast as you can.

First of all, grammatical homonymy should be eliminated: possessive pronoun following the ambiguous word, the noun as an object and the absence of the subject in the sentence signalize that light is a verb in imperative mood. The lexical meaning of the object (here an oil lamp in a container of metal and glass with a handle) assist us to state the meaning of the verb is to make something start to burn. It is a variable lexical context of the first degree, e.g. to light a candle, to light a match. Oliver looked up; the Jew, pointing to the candle, motioned him to light it.

In the last extract from Oliver Twist the lexical context of the second degree is observed; the principal elements of it belong to the same sentence, but there is no direct connection between them.

It will shed a gleam of happiness upon my lonely way, and light the path before me.

Here, the indicating minimum is the path. The presence of a preceding indefinite pronoun, auxiliary verb and following definite article referring to the noun after it indicates light is a verb, with the meaning to give light to something, to guide somebody with the light. Over again, it is a variable lexical context of the first degree.

Dead men never bring awkward stories to light.

To bring something to light means to make new information known by people. Taking the expression literally might be misleading. This is a constant lexical context of the first degree. The phrase is an idiom as all its members are necessary for the proper meaning realization, the meanings of the components are weakened, and the whole complex of words in the phrase is the dependant and the indicator of the unit.

A word changes its meaning under various speech conditions, hence, it is imperative to use contextual indicators in the speech continuum to take away the ambiguity. Without minding the context, people would not understand each other, and the natural function of language - to carry out meaning - would not be fulfilled.


The notion of context attracts attention of numerous linguists, while it is essential in full comprehension of different words, phrases, sentences and even texts. Almost every word in any sentence has more than one meaning. In order to find out which particular meaning of an ambiguous word is implied in a certain case, we are bound to resort to a powerful and reliable tool - context. The role of the context in clarifying the proper meaning practically in every single utterance proves to be indispensable in English because of the specific nature of this language with incredibly widespread homonymy and polysemy as the consequence of limited means of enriching the vocabulary with the amount of human knowledge constantly increasing.

Context is the minimal stretch of speech determining each individual meaning of the word. The two main types of context are linguistic and non-linguistic contexts. The two more or less universally recognized main types of linguistic contexts which serve to determine individual meanings of words are the lexical context and the grammatical context. These types are differentiated depending on whether the lexical or the grammatical aspect is predominant in determining the meaning.

All of these types are usually combined when defining the appropriate meaning of a polysemantic word, or a sentence, or a text.


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12. Eckert, P., & Rickford, J. R. Style and sociolinguistic variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. - 2001.

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