Collocations: ASPs in language use

Is there an atom-like matroshka? (Source: Wikipedia)

Is there an atom-like matroshka for meanings? (Source: Wikipedia)


This is about Automatic Subconscious Procedures involving language.

When we talk, we occasionally put together some words or phrases (=groups of meanings) in a certain alignment, and we do this largely unconsciously as if we’re operating (more or less) on automatic pilot.

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the latest developments in the field of linguistics, but now we use something called

“collocations” (Together-in-a-Place), meaning “words which are near each other”.

The study of collocations tells us that

  • “automatic pilot” would be much more common than “automatic driver”
  • “smart phone” would be more likely than “smart picture”.

There are some words that go together and these combinations become Automatic Subconscious Procedures:

We just use them in our speech without giving much thought.

Another collocation: “to give much thought to SOMETHING”.

We don’t reflect back on the language itself, we don’t look at this from a meta-language point of view, except of course when we use the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) and we look at the meanings in terms of the universal meanings.

We can break down our language-embedded Automatic Subconscious Procedures by using NSM and by specifying and explaining their meanings when

  1. these are not brought to our consciousness during everyday communication & 
  2. this creates a problem, a gap between these ASPs and their (original, actual) meanings.

“Concentration camp” is another collocation. We want to look into these words and explain what they mean:

This is a place, somewhere.

People live in this place.

Two kinds of people: Many good people live here. Some bad people live here.

The bad people have something (freedom, weapons, food),

The (many) good people don’t have much.

Sometimes the bad people do something and then a lot of good people die.

Let’s break down Auschwitz for anybody who’s a Holocaust denier:

Auschwitz was a place, a set of buildings.

If you don’t have time to go to Auschwitz, then let’s break it down into a couple of words so that you can understand the full meaning of “concentration camp”.

We’re back to morality, now.

The fact that we can break down our language into universal meanings allows us to communicate (i.e., to unpack) these meanings for others who may not have access to the full spectrum of cultural baggage which is involved in such words that happen to collocate in a language.

One of the most interesting things about NSM is perhaps the background of Ms. Wierzbicka (Dr. Wierzbicka, to be more precise).

It’s quite an amazing story that from Leibniz and the Russian matroshka (the doll within the doll) she could develop a further metaphor, probably shared by many Russian linguists, that meaning is packed together like a smaller doll in a bigger doll, and then a bigger doll and then a bigger doll and so on.

Of course, this is a simplified view, but the obvious question to ask is

“What does the last small doll look like?”

Would it be (at that point where it’s so small) recognizable as such by other people who may have built up the matroshka into different shapes or different patterns?

Everybody envelops meaning upon meaning upon meaning, but the great news is that the shared set of universal meanings is

  1. so big (in terms of geographical reach) &
  2. so small (in terms of the number of meanings included in the set)

as to enable communication between us.

Doctor Wierzbicka. I hope I’m pronouncing her name correctly. It was fortunate that she went to an English speaking country, which also had a native (Aboriginal) population with a richness and diversity of languages that would not be available in many other places.

How much was it an accident and how much was it designed by her to end up in Australia? [I mean “end up” in a good way; I’m aware that “end up” usually has negative connotations (when it’s an ASP collocation)].

It was a fortunate event that Dr. Wierzbicka came to Australia because we got to know and understand more. I’m Romanian (living in Japan) and I’ve studied at an Australian university but I don’t think I would have had access to the work of those Russian linguists: I don’t speak Russian and I cannot read Russian.

Moreover, Russia seems (now) to be more about either Dostoyevsky or some kind of Cold War Enemy that is impenetrable because of the huge support a dictator-like figure seems to enjoy.

However, let’s go away from that because that’s not all that Russia is: Russia is much more than that.

Russia has produced some linguists (and some scientists) and a culture with the matroshka dolls giving a very good approximating metaphor of how we pack our meanings into words that go together.

Systems in the taxonomic sense are all sorts of static classifications of objects, like the periodic table of chemical elements.

The crucial feature of such systems is the reducibility of a large set of complex objects to a much smaller set of repetitive simpler components.

Systems in the operational sense are sets of objects interacting with each other according to natural laws, like the system of blood circulation, or according to rules designed by humans to solve a certain task, like advanced information systems.”

What is interesting about these dolls is that, after some time, we use them without giving much conscious thought to what exactly they pack (in terms of the meanings inside) when we bandy words together. When we swap stories.

We’re lucky that Dr. Wierzbicka was lucky; we’re lucky that Dr. Wierzbicka was

  1. smart enough
  2. brave enough &
  3. enterprising enough

to be able to do as much work in as fortunate circumstances as one could possibly hope for.

Imagine how much more difficult this would have been a hundred years ago.

Was it inevitable that NSM would be discovered? Probably not. We needed a background of so many cultures and so many interactions and so many new contacts, not only with the English speaking people, but also with the people speaking Aboriginal languages: e.g. Pitjantjatjara.

We had to learn that we are here together.

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