Michael Hoey: Lexical Priming

We have now reached the end of this fascinating book, which proposes a new description of the way language works. It is based on the new information offered by new technology – the huge databases of authentic language offered by computers and their ability to analyse them.

This enables Hoey to question fundamentally the grammar-dominated model of language put forward by Chomsky. Hoey argues that the meanings of language are built up, not primarily from grammar, but from semantics. This he describes systematically, using as evidence the information and analyses derived from these databases. Chomsky’s model, by contrast, has never been supported by evidence.Hoey proposes that we do not learn words in isolation but that every word comes in context, linked to other words semantically, grammatically and through discourse structures. All this is accessible through computer programmes which can give the collocations of every word in the corpus – that is, those regularly occurring within (say) four words either side.

Until the last chapter I was not sure whether Hoey was merely proposing a more refined theoretical description of the way language functions or whether he was claiming more than that. In chapter 10 it is clear that he is claiming a psychological reality for his description. It opens up a huge field for research in such areas as child language learning, the learning of foreign languages and, most excitingly for me, a detailed description of the language “cracks” that occur when disadvantaged children try to reconcile the language of home with the language of school. It has the potential to scotch once and for all the notion of inherited and fixed “intelligence”, which is still so useful to those wishing to maintain the status quo.

The only cause of concern is that anyone studying language using this approach has to have access to the databases and computer programmes which provide the evidence. Like so many other areas of study these days the day of the amateur is over!

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