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Word Meaning

Word meaning, a meaningful spoken word, is a species of artefact-mediated action, which Vygotsky selected as the unit of analysis for an investigation of the intellect.


In the context of Vygotsky’s use of ‘word meaning’ as a unit of analysis for the investigation of verbal thinking (or the intellect) some points of clarification need to be made about what Vygotsky meant by the term.

1. Word meaning can be described as a species of artefact-mediated action, in which the artefact in question is the sound of the spoken word. This places Vygotsky’s Thinking and Speech in continuity with his work on the ‘instrumental method in psychology’. 1930) Further, ‘word meaning’ could be described as a species of ‘joint artefact-mediated action’ (Zinchenko 1985) inasmuch as the archetypical spoken word is always addressed to an interlocutor who collaborates by interpreting and responding to the word. In this context, the sound of the word is the mediating artefact.

2. Vygotsky’s unit of analysis is a spoken word. This does not mean that word meaning is restricted to the spoken word to the exclusion of the written word. Rather, the spoken word is taken as the archetype of the word which will reveal the connection between the psychological processes involved in the intellect, which are enormously complicated in the case of the written word. As ever, Vygotsky focussed on one reaction or relation, the simplest possible, in order to reveal the universal processes at work, a methodological principle for which he praised Pavlov (1929).

3. Thus in this context, ‘meaning’ is not to be understood as the definition found in a dictionary, but rather the content of the actual spoken word (in the specific social context in which the word is uttered). As is the case with the use of any artefact, the word is invested with a certain value through its generalised use in social interaction which makes its meaningful use possible in specific appropriate social circumstances. Meaning, then, is not a lexical but a psychological category. Insofar we talk of the conventional, standardised meaning associated with a word, this is an ideal property, not a psychological property. [Vygotsky's discussion of Paulhan's distinction between 'sense' and 'meaning' suggests that the unit of analysis should have been word sense rather than word meaning. However, he does say in this context: "Change in the word’s sense is a basic factor in the semantic analysis of speech. The actual meaning of the word is inconstant. In one operation, the word emerges with one meaning; in another, another is acquired" (1934b, p. 276).]

4. Thus ‘word’ should not be taken in the literal sense, as a grammatical category, but as simultaneously a psychological category. Grammatically speaking, the ‘word’ may be in a given instance a phrase or any other verbal sign for a concept.

“... the grammatical category is to some extent a fossil of the psychological category. ... correspondence between the grammatical and psychological structure of speech may be encountered less frequently than we generally assume. ... If the two appear to correspond with one another in one situation, they diverge again in others” (1934b, p. 252).

5. Vygotsky is at pains to emphasise that a ‘word’ which is not meaningful is not a word, but merely a sound. The meaning of a spoken word cannot be separated from its sound, its external, material form, without the word ceasing to be a word at all. Conversely, meaning without some mediating artefact is inaccessible to perception.

“Word meaning, then, is a phenomenon of both speech and intellect. This does not, however, represent a simultaneous and external membership in two different domains of mental life. Word meaning is a phenomenon of thinking only to the extent that thought is connected with the word and embodied in it. It is a phenomenon of speech only to the extent that speech is connected with thought and illuminated by it. Word meaning is a phenomenon of verbal thought or of the meaningful word. It is a unity of word and thought” (1934b, p. 244)

6. In the final chapter of Thinking and Speech Vygotsky traces the complex transformation of the structure of internal speech into thinking and conversely of thinking into speech. The relation between the psychological facts of the intellect and that of speech is not one of identity. But word meaning provides an ‘entry point’ for the study of the intellect through the observation of behaviour, since Vygotsky ruled out introspection as a scientific method (1924). So meaning inheres only in the action of uttering a word. It is not brought to the word from some region of the mind where it waits to be called into action.

7. In this context, it is difficult to give separate meanings to the words ‘word’ and ‘meaning’ since meaning is something purely speculative separate from the spoken word, and a ‘word’ without meaning is not a word. Nonetheless, it can be said, as Vygotsky says in a number of different ways:

“A word without meaning no longer belongs to the domain of speech. ... Is word meaning speech or is it thought? It is both at one and the same time; it is a unit of verbal thinking.” (1934, p. 47)

That is to say, word meaning is a unity of opposites, and the non-identity between word and meaning is the source of internal tension in the concept of word meaning. Speech and thinking have separate lines of development which intersect and become intertwined in the development of verbal thinking.

“1. In their ontogenetic development, thought and speech have different roots.
“2. In the speech development of the child, we can with certainty establish a preintellectual stage, and in his thought development, a prelinguistic stage.
“3. Up to a certain point in time, the two follow different lines, independently of each other.
“4. At a certain point these lines meet, whereupon thought becomes verbal and speech rational. (1934a, p. 112)


Vygotsky, L. S. (1924). The Methods of Reflexological and Psychological Investigation. LSVCW v. 3, pp. 35–49.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1930). The Instrumental Method in Psychology, LSVCW v. 3, pp. 85–89.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934). The Problem and the Approach, Chapter 1 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 43–51.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934a). The Genetic Roots of Thinking and Speech, Chapter 4 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 43–51.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934b). Thought and Word, Chapter 4 of Thinking and Speech, in LSVCW, v. 1, pp. 243–285

Zinchenko, V.P. (1985) ‘Vygotsky’s ideas about units for the analysis of mind’, in Culture, communication, and cognition: Vygotskian perspectives, J. V. Wertsch (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 94-118.

-- AndyBlunden - 18 Nov 2013


Topic revision: r3 - 20 Nov 2013, AndyBlunden

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