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The contextual method of linguistic research holds its own alongside statistical, structural and other developments. Like structural methods and procedures, it is based on the assumption that difference in meaning of linguistic units is always indicated by a difference in environment. Unlike structural distributional procedures (see §5.2, 5.3) it is not formalised. In some respects, nevertheless, it is more rigorous than the structural procedures, because it strictly limits its observations and conclusions to an impressive corpus of actually recorded material. No changes, whether controlled or not, are permitted in linguistic data observed, no conclusions are made unless there is a sufficient number of examples to support their validity. The size of a representative sample is determined not so much by calculation though, but rather by custom. Words are observed in real texts, not on the basis of dictionaries. The importance of the approach cannot be overestimated; in fact, as E. Nida puts it, “it is from linguistic contexts that the meanings of a high proportion of lexical units in active or passive vocabularies are learned."1
The notion of context has several interpretations. According to N. N. Amosova context is a combination of an indicator or indicating minimum and the dependant, that is the word, the meaning of which is to be rendered in a given utterance.
The results until recently were, however more like a large collection of neatly organised examples, supplemented with comments. A theoretical approach to this aspect of linguistics will be found in the works by G. V. Kolshansky.
Contextual analysis concentrated its attention on determining the minimal stretch of speech and the conditions necessary and sufficient to reveal in which of its individual meanings the word in question is used. In studying this interaction of the polysemantic word with the syntactic configuration and lexical environment contextual analysis is more concerned with specific features of every particular language than with language universals.
Roughly, context may be subdivided into lexical, syntactical and mixed. Lexical context, for instance, determines the meaning of the word black in the following examples. Black denotes colour when used with the key-word naming some material or thing, e. g. black velvet, black gloves. When used with key-words denoting feeling or thought, it means ‘sad’, ‘dismal’, e. g. black thoughts, black despair. With nouns denoting time, the meaning is ‘unhappy’, ‘full of hardships’, e. g. black days, black period.
If, on the other hand, the indicative power belongs to the syntactic pattern and not to the words which make it up, the context is called syntactic. E. g. make means ‘to cause’ when followed by a complex object: I couldn’t make him understand a word I said.
1 Nida E. Componential Analysis of Meaning. The Hague-Paris, Mouton 1975. P. 195.
A purely syntactic context is rare. As a rule the indication comes from syntactic, lexical and sometimes morphological factors combined. Thus, late, when used predicatively, means ‘after the right, expected or fixed time’, as be late for school. When used attributively with words denoting periods of time, it means ‘towards the end of the period’, e. g. in late summer. Used attributively with proper personal nouns and preceded with a definite article, late means ‘recently dead’.
All lexical contexts are subdivided into lexical contexts of the first degree and lexical contexts of the second degree. In the lexical context of the first degree there is a direct syntactical connection between the indicator and the dependent: He was arrested on a treason charge. In lexical context of the second degree there is no direct syntactical connection between a dependent and the indicator. E.g.: I move that Mr Last addresses the meeting (Waugh). The dependent move is not directly connected to the indicating minimum addresses the meeting.
Alongside the context N. N. Amosova distinguishes speech situation, in which the necessary indication comes not from within the sentence but from some part of the text outside it. Speech situation with her may be of two types: text-situation and life-situation. In text-situation it is a preceding description, a description that follows or some word in the preceding text that help to understand the ambiguous word.
E. Nida gives a slightly different classification. He distinguishes linguistic and practical context. By practical context he means the circumstances of communication: its stimuli, participants, their relation to one another and to circumstances and the response of the listeners.