Robyn Carston: The Pragmatic Lexicon and Complex Words


A certain linguist once suggested that “it is possible that natural language has only syntax and pragmatics; on this view, natural language consists of internalist computations and performance systems that access them along with much other information and belief, carrying out their instructions in particular ways to enable us to talk and communicate, among other things.” (Chomsky 1995: 26-27).

In this talk, I attempt to bring together current work in generative grammar on the structure (the syntax) of words and relevance-theoretic (RT) lexical pragmatics to explain how word meanings arise and evolve. My focus is on ‘complex’ words, such as ‘reactionary’ with its non-compositional (atomic) meaning backward-looking and ‘naturalize’ with its non-compositional (atomic) meaning become citizen of a country, and so-called ‘conversions’, e.g. the verb ‘to grandstand’ derived from the noun ‘grandstand’, the verb ‘to houdini’ derived from the proper name ‘Houdini’, and the noun ‘an embed’ from the verb ‘embed’. The issue these words raise for a syntactic account of word structure is why and how they come to have non-compositional meanings when phrasal structures are typically compositional (e.g. ‘the girl who saw the teacher’, ‘eat breakfast at noon’).

I maintain that the relevance-based account of lexical pragmatics, according to which word meanings are being flexibly adjusted in communicative contexts all the time, by inferential processes that either narrow/broaden existing meanings or create new meanings via metonymic lexical innovation, can explain the emergence of these non-compositional meanings for complex words. As with the cases of ‘simple’ words, which have been the sole focus of RT lexical pragmatics until now, only some of these online contextual adjustments emerge as new word senses with sufficient stability that they enter into speakers’ lexicons, from which they are directly retrieved in utterance comprehension. This pragmatic lexicon houses a wide range of established communication units: words (simple and complex) with their families of senses (polysemy), phrasal idioms, frozen forms, and perhaps even some constructions. It is a performance system (see Chomsky quote above), lying outside the narrow language faculty (syntax) but interfacing with it at specific structure points.