Meaning and Structures of Discourse

A discourse consists of a complete utterance/text, anything from an isolated Ouch! to an entire poem or book. It may have single or multiple authorship. Discourses could be either oral or written. They are well organized to display aesthetic features such as unity, balance and rhythm. The different types of discourse are almost unlimited, e.g. narratives, jokes, lectures, letters, poetry, sermons, etc.

Discourses have three basic constituents: sounds, lexemes and sentences. The major features of sound consist of 1) repetitions, e.g. alliterations and rhyme, 2) punning, 3) sound symbolism. The lexical features are selected for the purposed of designative and associative meanings. Sentence types provide important clues about the types of discourse style.


Discourse structures can be analyzed on a level of their fundamental framing components, which may be classified as primary features (time, space, and class) and secondary features (rank, consequence and dialogic sequencing). Below is a brief description of each of these elements.

Time is an integral feature of all discourses, which involves temporal sequencing. Space is a feature used to describe entities. Class is used to indicate relations of coordination, including addition (e.g. and), alternation (e.g. or ) and subtraction (e.g. but, except).

Rank is a further development of class. Consequence is basically a matter of cause and effect. Dialogic sequencing involves two or more units in which each following unit is formally or semantically linked in various ways to the preceding.

Almost no discourse involve only a single type of features. They are more frequently found to combine several.

Meaning and Structures of Syntax

Syntax is the set of relations between lexemes and groups of lexemes. These relations maybe syntagmatic (contextually linear) or paradigmatic (substitutionary, e.g. the use of a pronoun to refer to a noun).

Since the types of relations between lexemes outnumbered that of syntactic construction, there are lots of ambiguity in syntax. But such kind of resulting obscurities in grammar is a psychological necessary.

Major Syntactic Structures

All languages have syntagmatic and paradigmatic structures. There are three types of syntactic structures: propositional, axial and restrictive/specificational.

From the perspective of basic semantic relations, the prepositional structures are of two major types: 1) participational, e.g. John ran (agent + activity), 2) equational, e.g. John is a doctor (the entity John belongs to a class of doctors). The axial structures – relation-axis constructions are 1) spatial, e.g. in the house, 2) temporal, e.g. during lunch, 3) consequential, e.g. he laughed because he was amused by a joke. 4) coordinating, e.g. Tom and Jerry. The restrictive structures are those attributive constructions, e.g. three old men.

Processes of truncation, intrusion and extraposition

They are three processes which make it difficult to analyze the syntactic structure of a language.

Truncation is the dropping of certain elements in particular types of contexts. The ellipsis are of two types:1) one in which the context provides clear evidence, 2) one in which the context indicates no sign of missing elements and often creates more impact, e.g. If you do that, I’ll…It can be found easily in gnomic expressions, e.g. first come first served, and anomalous constructions. In conversation there maybe extreme truncation. in some languages like Chinese, truncation maybe a standard feature of some types of expressions in certain contexts.

Intrusion is a process to insert phrases and even sentences into a sentence structure so as to clarify or add more data. In conversation, one speaker may intrude into the statement of someone else. Exclamatives, e.g. oh God, and Damn it, within in a sentence are also intrusions.

Extraposition is the major feature of “topic-comment” structures, in which one or more elements in a sentence may be put in a first position as the topic of the following comment, e.g. John, I know him.

Formal features marking syntactic units

The formal features marking the relations between and the borders of syntactic units are order, agreement and intonation.

Order is important to mark layers of syntactic relations because sometimes syntagmatically related words must be in some order and the closely related words or groups of words tend to be juxtaposed.

Agreement is a process to mark relations by employing forms having the same syntactic categories, e.g. he come (sharing the categories of third person and singularity)

Intonation is an important feature of syntactic marking. The kinds of “pause pitches” within a sentence are crucial to mark relations between words and group of words.

Meaning and Structures of Lexemes

Lexemes consists of words and idioms.

A word is a unit of speech with relatively fixed internal distribution but relatively free external distribution. But in fact there is no universal applicable meaning of defining a word. For example, in languages like Chinese, one word(one character to be exact) consists of a single syllable and is not internally modified – there is no alteration and addition to a stem or root. The only word structures are fixed phrases. Also, there are areas of overlap between word and its syntactic phrases, e.g. come-in-and-take-it-easy hospitality.

Idioms are combinations of words, which are more open to intrusions and modifications and are rather culture-specific. Idioms carry more impact than nonidiomatic expressions.

Semantic Classes of Lexemes

Most lexemes are referential – they represent reference in the real word or linguistic world. They may have unique referents, e.g. proper names. They maybe one of the four major classes: entities, activities, characteristics and relations. Lexemes could act as substitutes to other lexemes, predominantly pronouns. There are “empty” lexemes. For example, in the English phrase “make a speech”, the verb “make” is semantically almost empty.

Besides the above-mentioned major classes, there appear to be at least four minor semantic classes: marker (e.g. to as a marker of infinitive forms), exclamatives (e.g. oh boy, and ouch), attention-getter (e.g. hi, and hey) and admonisher (e.g. shh).

Meanings of lexemes

Lexemes have designative/denotative and associative/connotative meanings. The associative meanings represent the values and attitudes resulting from the use of lexemes in discourses, while the designative meanings represent referents in the practical or linguistic world.

Associative meanings

Associative meanings are derived primarily from the linguistic and cultural context in which such lexemes habitually occur.

There are several primary sources of associative meanings. The person who uses such lexemes are one of the principal sources. Expressions such as sweetie, oh no and my oh my  are typical of female speech. Also, the four-letter words in English are generally regarded as vulgar and uncouth because of the people who habitually use them.

Some associative meanings come from the physical settings in which lexemes are used, e.g. Church, political rallies and sports events. However, the specific settings can radically change the associative meaning. For example, the English phrase “son of a bitch” normally has an associative meaning of crude vulgarity, but it can also have friendly conviviality between two  buddies who meet after prolonged period of time and greet each other with enthusiastic, like “how are you doing, you son of a bitch”.

The associative meanings of lexemes are often conditioned by their occurrences in well-known published sources, for example, “of the People, by the people and for the people” could immediately suggest the Gettysburg address.

Contextual contamination – the occurrence of a particular lexeme in especially favorable or unfavorable expressions – could affect some associative meanings. For example, the meaning of green as a color may be affected negatively because of such phrases as green with envy, and green-eyed monster.

Some associative meanings are derived from homophone. For example, the term ass a term for donkey has a negative associative meaning.

Cultural values associated with the referent of a lexeme may also influence the associative meaning of a term. For example, in some cultures the word pig may have negative associative meanings because pigs are not highly rated in those societies. But the situation might be totally the opposite in certain cultures like Malaysia.

Designative meanings

The designative meanings of lexemes represent referents in the practical or linguistic world, which includes a bundle of semantic features. It is more relevant to regard meaning as a three-way relation between a sign, the reference and the system of the sign which makes possible the interpretation of the sign.

The definition of any meaning of a lexeme depends upon determining the distinctive semantic features. More commonly, designative meanings are stated in terms of some prototypical entity, activity, characteristic or relation. For example, the meaning of cup, mug and demitasse can be stated by setting cup as a prototypical entity and then establishing the distinguishing features of mug and demitasse on the basis of difference from cup which can be regarded as a prototype and as a kind of semantic primitive.

Some of these sets of meanings form well-defined clusters and some are inclusive and included meanings – which then create multi-layered hierarches. Overlapping meaning are also common. Complementary relations can also be found in meanings: 1) polar opposite, 2) reversives, 3) role-shifters.

In addition, different meanings of the same lexeme could exhibit different kinds of semantic relations: strings, galaxies and constellations. The different to use as a single word may form a string of relatively close meanings. Also, in many cases there is a central meaning to which other meanings are related to as a type of galaxy. There are words whose meanings are rather amorphous which have no central meaning to which other meanings related to, all of which are in a form of amorphous constellation.

The diachronic/historic features of a word could provide interesting information on the semantic relations, although it cannot determine the synchronic/present-day usage.

There are three sets of the relations between a lexeme and its referent: iconic, indexical and conventional. The iconic relation is based on similarity, e.g. choo-choo. The indexical relation is based on a pointing relation e.g. here, there. The conventional relation is the most common one: Most lexemes are related to the referent in an arbitrary manner.

Major features of designative meanings

The designative meaning of lexemes have indefinite boundaries. It may be recorded to determine where the range of meanings end. The semantic range of all lexemes is always potentially open.

The sets of designative meanings are always fuzzy. The semantic domains tend to overlap. This is because it is always difficult to determine the diagnostic features which separate one sets of meanings from another.

There are shifts in the number and types of semantic features in designative meanings. Also, inherent difficulties exist in determing the distinctive meanings. This is especially obvious when people trying to define the meaning of words. The designative meanings also have obligatory and optional/supplementary features.  Some lexemes have numerous meanings while others have limited ones.

Basic Analytical Principles

In the process of analyzing the meaning of lexemes, there are a number of basic irrelevant principles.

First, the correct meaning of a lexeme in any context is the one which fits the context best;

Second, unless otherwise contextually marked, the central meaning of a term is to be assumed as correct. Its peripheral and figurative meanings are generally marked by context;

Third, in any context, a lexeme is likely to have one meaning unless multiple meanings are indicated by its immediate contexts;

Fourth, no two lexemes in a language have exactly the same meaning;

Fifth, no two words in any two languages are completely identical in meaning.

Structures of language

All languages consist of four primary structures: sounds, lexemes, syntax and discourse.


Each language has a limited number of sounds – phonemes – so as to signalize differences of meanings. Each of these phonemes is made up of phones – a set of closely related and phonetically different sounds. The relation of contrast between phonemes makes possible the functionality of language. In any language, the sounds are systematically organized and contrastively related to one another. A phone can be pronounced quite differently in different words and positions. For example, the t in till and still is pronounced differently. Therefore, a phoneme is a bundle of related sounds which contrast with other bundles of sounds. This introduces the formal diversity and functional unity to all phases of language. For example, the same suffix marking pluralization has three different phonetical forms: the voiceless s sound (e.g. oaks), the voiced z sound (e.g. bugs), and the iz sound (e.g. roses), but they all have one single function.

The distinctiveness of a phoneme is up to the features of other related sounds. For example, in the English set sip/sib, bit/bid, luck/lug, what really signals the difference is the reluctive length of the vowel – when before the voiceless consonant p, t, and k, the vowel is pronounced shorter than before the voiced consonant b, d, and g.

The contrasts in distinctive sound of a language are systematic. For example, the stop sounds of English defers in both articulatory position and voicing.

Paralingustic and extralinguist features

Besides the consonants and vowels which make possible the expressions, there are other important accompanying features which may alter the meaning of what’s said. They are called paralinguistic and extralinguistic features.

As for paralinguistic features, the tone of voice – falling or rising intonation – can drastically change the meaning. Also, an exaggerated length of a syllable in a word can increase the implication, e.g. thank you soooo much. In addition, particular type of pronunciation may expose the speaker’s personal information, such as the level of education. When it comes to written texts, the handwriting, accuracy of spelling, pronunciation,etc. can well reveal important information of the writer.

With regard to extralinguistic features, they are also essential to affect the understanding of an utterance. For example, the hand and facial gestures, the eye contact, body stance, etc. can all reveal part of the message. In written communications, the type of paper used, the printing quality, the theme color used, etc. could represent important signs.

Lexemes, Syntax, Discourse 

Lexemes are structured in informal and semantic ways. Take English as an example, the major formal classes of word sinclude nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctionsand exclamatory particles. The major semantic classes are entities, activities,characteristics and relations. The meaning of the words may also be structured into semantic domains. For example, come, go, arrive, depart, enter,exist, fall and rise are a cluster of terms involving movement and consists of contrastivepairs.

The syntactic structure of language are basically syntagmatic (the linear relations of grammatical unit) and paradigmatic (the vertical/substitutional relations of grammatical units).

The discourse also has structures/patterns.This can be felt from the tightly organized lyric poetry to some rambling conversations, perhaps with story as the most readily recognized discourse structure.

Structure elements in dynamic processes

The above mentioned four types of language structures symbolize four different degrees of options to introduce variationson existing language. Each of them has been on a continuous changing process.The sound systems of a language can be changed in very limited ways with quite slow pace. By contrast, the form of words and their meanings change much faster.But changes in syntax seem to be more restricted, while the discourse changes in a greater pace than syntax.

On each stratum of language, there are internal and external relations. For the sound system, the internal relations are primarily ones of the opposition, e.g. the pronunciation from p to b/t. The external relations of sounds are consisted of formal and semantic types. As for external relations, it means the verbal sounds could exert semantic relations through sound symbolism to the real world. For example, the “meaning” of the initial consonant in flip, flutter, fly, flare and flash.

The internal relations of lexemes are formal and semantic as well. The major formal structure included the processes of compounding, e.g. blackbird, affixation, i.e. words with suffixes, prefixes and infixes, systematic alteration, e.g. sing, sang, sung, suppletion, e.g. go/went, be/is/am/are, reduplication and deletion. The external relations of lexemes are about referents in the real or imagined word. The lexemes might be said to represent the entities, activities, characteristics and relations in the practical or imagined world.

The internal relations of syntax are the syntagmatic and paradigmatic structures.

The internal relations of discourse structure consist of scenarios, schemata and frames used in various genres. The external relations are congruent with human experience. The proportion, completeness andunity in a text could coincide with related experiences in other areas such as architecture.

All the phenomena of language can be viewed as processes of formulation and use in which the focus is what happens to the structures. It is better to understand it as dynamic processes of interaction so that the functions of language can be easily pictured.

Theories of Language

There have been different theories of language. Essentially, they are the different perspectives to view the diverse and complex word of verbal communication. Below is a brief chronological description of different language theories.

In the classical Greece and Rome, the focus of language study was the effective use of language, especially on rhetorical structures and stylistic excellence. They had a mystical view of language because they found language had a supernatural power in cursing, blessing, divining and exorcism. They believed language had inherently embedded insights on the nature of reality.

About at the same time there was a different approach to language emerged in India, as exemplified by the Sanskrit grammar of Panini. This grammar, developed sometimes in the period of 352 to 150 B.C., details the features of sound, word formulation and syntax of classical Sanskrit.

During the medieval period language became the tool of philosophy and logic, and Latin grammar became the model for pedagogical grammars of most Western European languages.

At the end of the 18th century the discovery of the Panini’s Sanskrit grandma had greatly changed the scholarly views about language in Western Europe. Scholars realized that Sanskrit was closely related to almost all Western European languages. This encouraged a period of intense and exhaustive study on the history of and differences between various languages. 

Then a different view of languages, a descriptive approach, was established as exemplified in Saussure’s contribution which highlighted the distinction between a historical view of language development (diachronic) and a description of language at a particular point of time (synchronic).

There were important developments in the structural study of language. Weinreinch contributed significantly to the understanding of the role of semantics in language structure. The semantic approach became so popular that it was used to explain almost everything in language.

Then there appeared a great deal of suspicionon the role of semantics. Scholars in Eastern Europe and North American developed different views in the structural study of language. For example, the Prague School focused on phonology and discourse, while Bloomfield emphasized on item and arrangement which was later adapted to be known as Tagmemics – a system focuses on spots, filters and hierarchical structures.

By elaborating networks of relations within and between strata, a stratificational approach to language was prompted by Sydney Lamb and Adam Makkai. Then there was the famous transformational-generative grandma (T-G grammar) raised by Noam Chomsky who argued to look at language from the dynamic perspective – a series of transformations from an abstract underlying base to the surface structure. In this theory, syntax is focal.

The T-G grammar evoked critiques and also inspired developments in language study. A type of generative semantics was developed to start from an underlying semantics level rather than an abstract and underlying syntax. Also, T-G grammar has indirectly prompted the development of sociolinguistics – a theory with emphasis on language as used in a society.

During the 20th century a functional approach was rather popular in anatomizing languages. In the early stage the focus was on how languages work and then it was well developed by Halliday into a theory of systemic grammar which focuses on a dynamic system and can treat numerous phases of language.

Sperber and Wilson developed a new way to explore language which emphasizes the role of relevance in language design and practice. It was rather prevailing at then time to seek single principles and structures to explore language. For example, Chomsky employed “autonomous syntax”, while Halliday and Hasan applied cohesion as a unifying principle.

Semiotics has been the universal approach to languages, with Peirce and Wittenstein as the star contributors. Language has been recognized as a system of signs. Therefore, it is widely believed that semiotics could provide insights to understand how the linguistic code works.

Although no one theory is adequate enough to embody the complexity of verbal communication, all these different theories of language provide important insights into the nature of language.

Functions of language: Sociological

Generally, when people use language to relate to or influence others, they are applying the sociological functions of language. There are basically five types of such functions: interpersonal, informative, imperative, performative, and emotive.

As for the interpersonal function of language, it is about how people use language to negotiate and/or maintain social status. In most languages, there are distinct registers, such as ritual, formal, informal, casual and intimate speech. People make use of language in different registers to help establish themselves in society and maintain relations with one another. For example, people who want to increase their power often try to imitate the speech of those in power. A speaker or writer who wants to develop greater solidarity with the audience usually attempts to use the same register that the target audience uses and appreciates. Besides, it frequently happens that language is used not to say something relevant but just to maintain a relationship, which can be well explained by the cleverly social chattering at cocktail parties.

The use of speech or writing to influence the cognitive content or state of others is the informative function of language. This function is always part of other functions. Besides, to maximize the formative function of language it should be built on the existing cognitive state of the receptor.

The imperative function of language is about the attempts to influence the behavior of receptors. This can be done through commands, exhortations and even more effectively by means of smart jokes, suitable illustrations, searching questions, etc. Its application, with lots of a verbal negotiating, implies a measure of authority or power, although its effectiveness involves the receptor’s self-interest.

The performative function of language involves a change in the status of the receptor. The speeches themselves are expected to establish a different status of an object, such as the speech used in solemnizing a marriage. Mostly, performative language is highly ritualized and fixed in form which ensures the power and prestige of such speech.

The emotive function of language involves affecting the emotive state of receptors. For this reason, it profoundly exploits the associative or connotative meanings of words. This function may be understood as the most powerful and fearful aspect of language – because the emotions that can be influenced is unlimited. Language can kindle numerous emotions, from religious devotions to hilarious laughters. This function is the object for various groups, from professional linguists to powerful politicians.

In fact, most speeches and writings involve several different functions of language and in different proportions.

Functions of language: psychological

Language has diverse functions which are of two basic types: psychological and sociological. This short essay represents the psychological functions of language.

There are five essential psychological functions of language: naming, stating, modeling of reality, expression and cognition.

Finding names to experience and items is a psychological necessity. However, this need is so obvious that people mostly don’t realize its importance. It is essentially significant to have symbols/names to identify and even control things. In fact, finding the right word to symbolize some object or event seems to give some control over such things.

Stating is to say something about the object and event that are named. This is why there are subjective-predicate statements and topic-comment statements. Besides, since single propositions are too limited to meet certain psychological needs, it is natural to link together strings of sentences.

Modeling of the reality is the more profound function developed by people. In some sense, people instinctively felt words should provide a system for viewing the world – verbal symbols could reflect a reality, although imperfectly. From a different perspective, language is used to model reality in four major semantic classes of lexemes: 1) entities, e.g. daisy, water, tree, 2) activities, e.g. cry, laugh, run, 3) characteristics, primarily qualities and quantities, e.g. good, numerous, quickly, and 4) relations, e.g. in, because, during.

Another psychological function of language is expression – give vent to a person’s own feelings. It could be emotive responses to some event, e.g. ouch, damn it, and oh boy. It can also be a matter of playing with words which small children often love to do. Expressive language might be for the purpose of aesthetics. Words are arranged to form balance, proportion, symmetry and rhythm to formulate a certain psychological atmosphere.

Cognition, using language to think, is possibly the most important psychological function of language. Whatever style the thinking is performed, language is involved. This is a process of manipulating verbal symbols within brain.

Paradoxes of translating

Translating is an intricate and enchanting task.  There are many paradoxes in this particularly complex human practice. Below is a brief note from Language, Culture and Translating, the masterpiece of Eugene Nida, the theoretician of translation, father of dynamic equivalence theory.

It is popularly assumed that close and literal translation equals faithfulness to the source text. But the fact is that literal renderings are often misleading. Because there are many discrepancies between meanings and structures of different languages. Interestingly, while some people, who are concerned with figurative language and complex poetic structures, insist that translating is impossible, more and more translations are done and done well.

There is some contention about the validity of paraphrase (or adaptation if you well) when it comes to translating. Some argue that translating is valid but paraphrase is wrong. In fact, all translating involves differing degrees of paraphrase. It is out of the question that one can successfully translate word for word or structure for structure. The truth is that languages do not differ essentially in what they can say, but in how they say it. Therefore, paraphrase is inevitable. The key point is to ensure the semantic legitimacy of the paraphrase.

Another paradox holds that stylistic editing should be proceeded by a somewhat literal rendering – first produce a literal translating of the source and then improve it stylistically. However, style is the hard core which must be built into the translation from the very beginning. It can be put in this way: A few errors in the correspondences of lexical meanings are more excusable than missing the spirit and aesthetic quality of the source.

Then there is a paradox about translators themselves. It is true that translating is a skill which can be taught and then mastered by considerable practice. However, exceptional translators are born rather than made. They need to have outstanding aptitudefor the creative use of language. Well, this can be categorized into “Nature VS. Nurture”.

As the descending and thriving of computers and Internet, some people find it paradoxical for the existence of human translators. Modern technologies help human a lot, but when it comes to creative contents, such as advertising brochures and lyric poetry, computer printouts are basically useless. Human translators will always be indispensable as long as the text is stylistically appealing and semantically complex – which carry the essential message that is worth communicating in the target language. Human brain is not only digital and analogic but also has an established system of values which gives it a componentially incalculable advantage over machines.

Another paradox of translating is that there is never a completely perfect translation. Both the language and culture are in the process of change. Furthermore, language is an open system with overlapping meanings and fuzzy boundaries. Mostly, the biggest problem in translating is not to find the right equivalent in the target language but to thoroughly understand the designative and associative meaning of the source text.

A further paradox of translating is the general assumption that a bilingual person equals a translator or interpreter. The truth is that knowing two languages is far from enough. It is essential to be familiar with the respective cultures. Besides, the capacity to write well is another important quality to become a good translator. As for becoming a competent interpreter, it is imperative to have a quick mind to organize andformulate a response.

There is also a paradox of the language itself. Language not only represents reality but also distorts it. Sunsetand sunrise are the perfect examples of the parallax between language and reality – we all know the sun doesn’t set or rise. Unfortunately, people often don’t recognize such parallax in language and even are accustomed to accept verbal formulation as being the absolute truth. 

In general, the paradoxes of translating are basically the paradoxes of language and of culture.



我体验的是Translator App上的语音翻译功能以及网页版Bing Microsoft Translator上的文本翻译功能。













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