20 ago. 2011

Semantic Prosody

I'm going to be teaching a course starting Wed with the title "From Idiom to Proverb." I'm very excited by a little frightened by it too, because I've never taught it before and I don't know whether the course will work or not. It is a course that is supposed to be "Advanced Studies in the Spanish Language," so it is basically the highest level of Spanish language course there is, for graduating senior Spanish majors.

Anyway, I found an interesting concept in a book by John Sinclair (Trust the Text) what he call "semantic prosody." This has nothing to do with prosody at all, but with the habitual use of a word in a context. (I have a feeling I wrote a similar post last Spring about this, but I am not going to look at it until I finish writing this one.) The example he uses is the word "budge." If you look it up in a dictionary, you will find its meaning, which is to move a slight bit. The semantic prosody, however, associates the word mostly with NOT moving, and with intransigeant positions that have nothing to do with physical movement. The way to get at the semantic prosody of a word is to study huge corpora of actual real life language. You can also use simple search engines like google and see what comes up.

Sinclair argues that, compared to grammar, the study of the lexicon seems very primitive. Dictionaries simply list items in arbitrary (alphbetical) order and give definitions that often don't give guidance as to semantic prosody or context. If a single word has multiple definitions, how does a reader or listener know what is meant?