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Book: The Language Dynamic

Chapter: A Systemic and Stratal Account of Language and Society, as Told by Three T-shirts, a Urinal and a Karaoke Machine.

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.44588


In Chapter 3, A systemic and stratal account of language and society, our discussion moves from phylogenetic accounts of the emergence of language in the species to consider the ontogenesis of the capacity for language within the individual speaker. Drawing on the work of Tomasello (2003), we highlight the importance of children’s capacity to distinguish structures and their uses as they attend to the contextualised talk of socialised speakers. Turning to the language system, we then illustrate how such distinctions function within networks of interrelated meanings and emphasise that the distinctions captured in linguistic forms are not universal but language specific, reflecting alternative ways of carving up the concrete real into functional elements. We then introduce the twin concepts of articulation and stratality to explain how combinations of meanings at one order of abstraction create new higher-order meanings in a recursive and open-ended cycle. This entails a discussion of metaredundancy and the regular but not absolute correlation between meanings at one level of abstraction and their realisation by features from the next stratum down. We then expand on the indeterminacy inherent in the concept of metaredundancy to discuss different registers as subcategories within an overall language system that are distinguishable in terms of both their semantic content and the characteristic ways by which the lexicogrammar is used to realise the semantics. In this way we see that systems are not only language specific, but also context specific. Once again, these relations are relative rather than absolute, an idea we explore in terms of cultural evolution and an embodied human tendency to balance copying and risk-taking as an effective strategy in adapting to new contexts.

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