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Professor Robyn Carston
University College London
Research Fellowship

Lexical innovation: conceptual flexibility and grammatical constraints

Robyn Carston’s project will investigate the extent of lexical flexibility, the grammatical constraints on it and thus the nature of everyday human communicative ingenuity

The focus of my project is the everyday human capacity to use words creatively in communication. We readily express new senses for a word by using it metaphorically, e.g. saying that someone is a ‘snake’ or a ‘songbird’ or a ‘robot’. We also coin new words from existing words, making verbs into nouns (e.g. ‘That was a great get’) and, more frequently, nouns into verbs (e.g. ‘We zoomed our friends throughout the pandemic’), some of which become established in the language, while others are short-lived. The following, from Clark & Clark (1979), involves the coining of the verb ‘siren’ from the noun ‘siren’ and the expressing of several distinct, albeit related, senses with that verb:

    a. The factory sirened midday and everyone stopped for lunch.
    b. The police sirened the Porsche to a stop.
    c. The ambulance sirened up to the accident.
    d. The police car sirened the daylights out of me.

In grasping the different senses of the verb here, we use two different kinds of information: grammatical/syntactic and contextual/pragmatic. On the syntactic side, the past tense verbal inflection and the structure of the sentences constrain the various interpretations of ‘siren’; on the pragmatic side, general world knowledge about different uses of sirens (by factories, police and ambulances) is needed in order to grasp the various senses.

Even more striking are cases derived from proper names (of people, places, artworks, etc.), such as the verb ‘to gaslight’ based on the name of a movie in which a particular psychologically undermining behaviour was highly salient and is now an established meaning of the verb (with no trace of the literal meaning of ‘gas’ and ‘light’ evident in that new meaning). The central question raised by this kind of lexical creativity is: how flexible is it and how constraining are grammatical structure and pragmatic information?  

A contrast is often drawn between two kinds of meaning: ‘structural meaning’ vs. ‘conceptual content’. The key difference is the rigidity of the former and the remarkable flexibility of the latter. Linguists working on the syntax-semantics interface focus on structural meaning; pragmaticists try to explain how context and communicative principles enable a wide expressive range. In this project, these two fields come together in a much closer collaboration than before, with a focus on their complementary roles in explaining the generation of new senses for words. 

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