Specificity in lexical verbs : a corpus–based lexicological study
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Several theorists (amongst whom Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004:175) have stated that the verb (or the verbal group) is the core element in clauses and is largely responsible for the grammatical structure of language. In spite of this pivotal role that verbs fulfil in clauses, lexical specificity is rarely investigated in this class. Instead researchers prefer to investigate lexical specificity in the noun class. It is against this background that the main purpose of this study is to investigate specificity in the lexical verbs of first language (L1) English users and Black South African English (BSAE) users. In order to achieve this aim the secondary aims of the study are: to develop a framework for the analysis of lexical specificity in the lexical verb word class (ii) to compare specificity with regard to lexical verbs in L1 English and BSAE by using corpora, which allows one to firstly test the analysis framework on corpus data and secondly to determine whether or not lexical verbs in BSAE are less specific than lexical verbs in L1 English (iii) to establish the reasons for the differences in lexical specificity with regard to lexical verbs between L1 English and BSAE English. In order to achieve these aims, two corpora were used: the Louvain Corpus of Native English Essays (also known as LOCNESS) that consists of texts written by a subpopulation of L1 English users and the Tswana Learner English Corpus (also known as the TLE) that consists of texts written by a subpopulation of BSAE users. The results obtained in this study were interpreted from both a systemic functional perspective and a cognitive perspective. The initial quantitative results indicated that even though the BSAE users use lexical verbs (tokens) more frequently than L1 English users do, the BSAE users have fewer lexical verb lemmas (types) at their disposal than the L1 English users. Statistical tests determined that the mean type/token ratio between the two independent corpora is not only significant, but that the degree to which there is more specificity in the lexical verbs of the L1 English users than in the lexical verbs of the BSAE users is large. Due to space constraints, the qualitative part of the study focused only on the communication verbs in LOCNESS and the TLE. In order to provide an in-depth overview of the communication verbs, the communication verbs were divided into five semantic subcategories (using frequency counts and semantic considerations). They are: (i) to say something in a particular manner] (ii) to say something in order to express one’s feelings] (iii) to say something in order to convey information] (iv) to say something to someone in order to elicit a certain response] (v) to say something in response to something already said] Each of these semantic categories in turn was divided into semantic subcategories to present a detailed insight into the communication verbs employed in both LOCNESS and the TLE. In the study it was determined that there is overall more specificity in the lexical verbs of the L1 English users than in the lexical verbs of the L2 English users. It was also determined that there is overall more lexical diversity within the lexical verbs of the L1 English users. The following factors influenced the lexical specificity and lexical diversity in the corpora: (i) In cases where more general communication verbs are elaborated by verbs containing manner elaborations, the BSAE users tend not to use the more specific verbs. (ii) Communication verbs that usually play an important role in academic literacy (such as summarise and argue) are used to a lesser extent by the BSAE users than the L1 English users. (iii) In cases where a communication verb could possibly belong to another semantic category (as is the case with the verbs stress and maintain) the BSAE users tend to avoid using the verbs as communication verbs. (iv) Some communication verbs (such as demand and beg) acquired additional meanings in BSAE. (v) Some essay topics in both LOCNESS and the TLE influenced the frequencies of some communication verbs in the respective corpora. Considering the factors above, it was found that being a L2 English user means that English will not always function in the same contexts for the BSAE users as it would for the L1 English users. Therefore the vocabulary of the BSAE users will only be specific and diversified in those semantic categories needed to function in certain contexts. Consequently, the findings of this study can be used to contribute to the development of pedagogical material in academic literacy courses being presented to BSAE users to create an awareness of the variation in English and all the contexts in which it can function. The findings can also be of value to researchers in the fields of lexicography and computational linguistics.
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