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It Just Sounds Strange, And Here’s Why…

Through winter, rides between Oslo and Hammerfest use thirty hours up in a bus, though why travellers would select to ride there then might be pondered.

It was Noam Chomsky who observed that even though almost all the language children hear being spoken around them is presumably grammatically ‘correct’ they still manage to develop a near-perfect knowledge of the grammar of their native language. In other words, they somehow recognise a grammatically incorrect sentence when they see it even though they have never previously encountered that sentence and been told that it is unacceptable. Chomsky concluded that human beings must therefore have some innate linguistic capacity – a ‘universal grammar’ – which helps them to separate, grammatically-speaking, right from wrong.

Although this ‘generative’ theory of language acquisition neatly accounts for what is syntactically acceptable in a language it falls down when it comes to explaining why some language, though grammatically sanctioned, grates on the native-speaker ear. A universal grammar, for instance, cannot explain why the quotation which begins this article, whilst essentially obeying the rules of English grammar and unambiguously revealing where the author stands on the issue of seasonal bus travel in northern Norway, was almost certainly not written by a best-selling travel writer. In the past, a student who included such a sentence in a written account of her holiday in Scandinavia and enquired of her teacher why it had been returned underlined in red ink would have been lucky to receive as a reply anything other than that standard riposte of the desperate TEFLer: “It just sounds strange”.

But not any longer.

Lexical priming theory, the result of research carried out by Professor Michael Hoey at Liverpool University, asserts that a word is acquired through encounters with it in speech and writing, so that knowledge of the word includes the knowledge of how that word is used. Just as the people we know best tend to be those we have most contact with, it follows then that the words we know better are those we read, hear and indeed use most frequently. Frequent encounters with a word, in a variety of contexts, will, for instance, provide us with some knowledge of its collocates, that is, the other words which tend to occur near it. Through such encounters, we become primed to expect a word to occur with these collocates, and through further encounters with the word in the future its ‘priming’ is liable to alter slightly as new collocates emerge.

If what we understand to be the meaning of a word is simply the sum of all its primings, this meaning is a personal interpretation which we renegotiate for ourselves every time we encounter the word

It is these ‘drifts’ in the primings of words which account for language change – temporary or permanent changes in the way individuals or communities use language.

Collocation in fact goes a considerable way towards accounting for naturalness of language use, and indeed for language itself. As Hoey puts it, sentences only really exist because of the collocations they contain. But according to Hoey’s theory it is only really the tip of the language iceberg. Consider this sentence:

I was woken by the chirruping of my alarm clock.

Clearly, to claim that this sentence is evidence of the fact that alarm clock collocates with the verb chirrup would be stretching a point, and most people would not bet on even the biggest corpus containing an example of such a collocation. The fact that the sentence does not stand out as being unnatural, however, implies that we expect alarm clock to occur with a ‘sound’ verb. Alarm clock, then, is primed for semantic association with ‘sound’, or more precisely with ‘sound likely to stand out from other sounds to the extent that it might cause one to wake up’ – a semantic set including such verbs as ring, buzz and chime.

Just as a word may be primed to co-occur with another word or semantic set, so it may be primed to occur in or with a particular grammatical function, and it is through its potential for linking lexis and grammar that lexical priming reveals its full value as a theory of language. Colligation is the term used to refer simultaneously to the grammatical company a word keeps, the grammatical functions preferred or avoided by a word, and the place in a word sequence preferred or avoided by a word, so that a word which is frequently preceded by the word the may be said to be primed for positive colligation with the grammatical function of ‘definiteness’, for example.

The contexts in which we encounter language contribute to the way that language is primed for us, and we are in turn primed to use the language in these contexts. That is not to say that we always choose to use the lexis in this way, however. We have the capacity both to choose from the range of primings available to us and to override them, should we wish to. In addition, we are able to distinguish between productive priming (when we encounter words in situations we are actively participating in) and receptive priming (via contexts in which we are unlikely to ever participate in ourselves either through lack of opportunity, in the case of classical literature, or negative preference, in the case of a conversation with someone we dislike. It is the friction between productive and receptive priming, and our awareness of and willingness to override our primings, which underlies linguistic creativity, literary criticism, wordplay and, in a wider sense, social networking.

Whilst Chomsky’s ‘universal grammar’ supposes an innate capacity within the brain to judge the ‘grammaticality’ of language, lexical priming theory treats the brain very much as a blank slate. The part of the brain which deals with language acts, in effect, like a huge database which is empty when we are born but quickly fills up thereafter. Except, of course, it never actually does ‘fill up’. Throughout our lives the written and spoken text we come across is stored in our heads in what amounts to a constantly updated concordancer with unlimited capacity, and it is this concordancer which primes us to recognise lexical features such as collocation, semantic preference and colligation. It follows from this that we never stop ‘learning’ even our native language, as our primings drift and crack with every new linguistic encounter. It also follows that since our encounters with the language are unique to us as individuals, we are all primed differently and, in effect, speak a language which is unique to us. The fact is, of course, that within a family, social clique, geographical region or other demographic group the primings of the group’s members are sufficiently similar to enable perfect, or near-perfect, mutual comprehension.

But although as native speakers we are no different from our students in so far as we are all constantly learning and re-learning the language, there are crucial differences in the mechanisms by which priming occurs. Whereas young children start with fully formulaic primings (acquired through encounters with repetitive rhymes or narrative frames) which are gradually loosened as they come into contact with wider linguistic contexts, second language learners start with isolated lexical items and learn how to stick them together, initially by transposing their L1 primings to English (which risks causing L1 interference) and perhaps with the guidance of a teacher. Every now and again students of mine will say something in English which causes them to frown and look at me questioningly because they somehow sense it is not something a native speaker would say in a similar situation.

Lexical priming theory offers little in the way of immediate comfort to such students, in that it reveals no significant short cuts, no easy options. What it does offer, though, is a rigorous theoretical framework which, whilst not yet providing teachers with too much in the way of practical solutions to the problem of how to make their students use ‘natural’ English (such solutions will come later, no doubt), is ambitious, comprehensive and utterly convincing in explaining why the problem exists in the first place.

*This sentence is a ‘translation’ by Michael Hoey of this first sentence of Bill Bryson’s book Neither Here Nor There (1991):

In winter, Hammerfest is a thirty-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering. (Bill Bryson)


Lexical Priming – Michael Hoey; Routledge, 2005
Neither Here Nor There – Bill Bryson; Secker & Warburg, 1991

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