Logos Multilingual Portal

5 - Reading and concept evolution

«The romantic fascination
produced in the pure state
by the first sentences of the first chapter
of many novels is soon lost
in the continuation of the story» 1.

The most suggestive aspect of Vygotsky''s perspective for those of us interested in the study of the word per-ception with reading, as the first act of interlingual translation process, is that which regards the evolution of the perception of meaning.
  We said that the meaning of a word is a consequence of the generalization of a concept, of the synthesis of many perceptive experiences: it is, therefore, an act of thought. Thoughts, words, and meanings are tightly interwoven, and it is probably more interesting to study them as a single system rather than try to isolate components and maniacally demark their limitations.

But from the point of view of psychology, the meaning of every word is a generalization or a concept. And since generalizations and concepts are undeniably acts of thought, we may regard meaning as a phenomenon of thinking. It does not follow, however, that meaning formally belongs in two different spheres of psychic life. Word meaning is a phenomenon of thought only in so far as thought is embodied in speech, and of speech only in so far as speech is connected with thought and illumined by it 2.

As we have already said, there cannot be elaboration of concepts without language and there can be no language without an intense thought activity. But the fruit of such intellectual activity is never fully mature, never truly results as conclusive. Just owing to this back-and-forth play between analysis and synthesis, between perception and generalization, meaning is an ever-evolving process.
  In the early 1930s (Vygotsky died at 38 in 1934) his strong intuition would have already brought up the problem of all semantic theories - and of all translation studies theories ante litteram - based on the notion of static word meaning and of ''linguistic equivalence'' between signifiers, in a field that has enormous importance for the debate on translation. But Vygotsky''s book, published posthumously in 1934, was banned in 1936 (and ''rehabilitated'' in 1936 with Khrushchev and the thaw) because it contradicted Materialistic Reductionism and mentalism typical of psychological research in the Stalin era 3. Consequently, for twenty years Vygotsky''s thought circulated among Soviet researchers, but only in a semi-clandestine way, and reached the West only in the 1960s.
  The meanings of words are dynamic formations changing with the individual''s development and with the various ways in which his thought functions. The relation between thought and word is not a thing but a process during which changes can be considered "as development in the functional sense" 4.
  To illustrate the dynamic relation between thought, word, and meaning it is important to distinguish inner speech (or "endophasy"), directed toward ourselves, and outer speech, the one normally referred to as "language", useful for keeping us in touch with others of our kind. Actually, the two types of language - given the functional difference - have different structures, and are two versions of the same kind of translation: outer language is translation of thoughts into words, while inner language, in Vygotsky''s opinion at least, is a translation of words into thought 5.
  Even if it is now conceivable with the latest research, the hypothesis of inner speech does not necessarily encompass a translation into verbal speech - a language between self and self not using words but only mental sense units - Vygotsky''s notion is nonetheless interesting because the translation of words into thought is exactly what comprises the act of reading.
  Inner speech is characterized by extreme synthesis, because there is a single ''interlocutor'', and can therefore take as a ''given'' the entire context in which an utterance is made. This is partly true for outer oral language too, where the contingent situation shared by the interlocutors allowing an ample ''taking for granted''. For example, if I am in my car still parked by the curb, and another driver pulls up alongside and asks me "Going out?" nothing else is needed to understand that he is asking if the parking space will now be available.
  In written language, on the contrary, communication lacks many meaningful features: intonation, timbre, environmental context, so the reader may interpret anything not specified by the author in a far freer way.
  As Vygotsky acutely states, "The evolution from the draft to the final copy reflects our mental process" 6: and when reading we follow a reverse path.
  While translating a text into mental language, we have to turn meaning into sense. Paulhan, quoted by Vygotsky, defines sense as "the sum of all psychological events aroused in our consciousness by the word" 7. Meaning - in this view - is just one of the zones of sense, the most stable and precise. A word acquires its sense from the context in which it appears; in a different context, its sense is altered.
  In the next units we will turn away from the more psychological aspects of literature to start to ponder what "meaning" can mean.


Bibliographical references

CALVINO I. If on a Winter''s Night a Traveller, translated by William Weaver, London, Vintage, 1998, ISBN 0-7493-9923-6.

VYGOTSKIJ L.S. Thought and Language. Edited by Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar. Cambridge (Massachusetts), MIT Press, 1965. First edition: Myshlenie I rech´. Psihologicheskie issledovanija. Moskvà-Leningrad, Gosudarstvennoe social´no-èkonomicheskoe izdatel´stvo, 1934.

1 Calvino 1998, p. 177.
2 Vygotskij 1965, p. 120.
3 Bruner, in Vygotskij 1965 p. vi.
4 Vygotskij 1965, p. 130.
5 Vygotskij 1965, p. 131.
6 Vygotskij 1965, p. 144.
7 Vygotskij 1965, p. 146.