Lexicon definition linguistics functions types mental lexicon


With Lexicon definition linguistics we can refer to several different ideas:

  • on the one hand, to the set of words and lexemes of a language,
  • on the other, the book that collects, lists and defines (the lexical dictionary),
  • more specifically, the set of words and lexemes that a “generic” speaker knows.

The lexicon is basically a type of dictionary that defines not only the semantic content of words but their lexical variability. Such a dictionary tries to establish the set of rules by which words are constructed and modified, as well as the procedures by which different lexical families are generated and derived. Thus, any morphological irregularity or pragmatic information regarding flexion or diversion will be a nuclear part of any lexicon.

Among the many types of words that a language has, lexicon is interested in a single distinction: the one that marginalizes the lexical -or open- categories of the functional -or closed- categories. This is because this distinction is the one that marks the possible additional constructions around a word: a noun, an adjective or a verb are lexical or open categories because they have referential meanings that speakers use to designate processes, actions or entities, of so that its number is by nature unlimited and is subject to constant changes. On the contrary, a preposition, an article or a conjunction lacks that referential character and only have grammatical meanings; their number and use change very slowly and almost imperceptibly for the community of speakers.

Each word – or “entry” of the lexicon – corresponds to a definition on three general levels:

  1. Formal features: information about the type of word, its syntactic context and its flexion.
  2. Semantic features: information on the plot structure required by the lexical unit (does it require subject? Agent? If it is a verb, is it transitive ?, etc.).
  3. Phonological features: information required for the assignment of a phonetic representation to the unit.

Lexicons differ from traditional dictionaries also in the set of words they list. If in a common dictionary we find each word listed in its infinitive form (for verbs) singular and masculine (for nouns), and so on; in the lexicon we also find all its possible derivations, or, at least, when these are too many, a thorough explanation of its extension and derivation rules.

The use of lexicons is very much associated with automatic translation software, which requires a thorough knowledge not only of the variations and lexical equivalences but also of the rules of word formation and the flexion of the same.


It should not surprise, in fact, that the roots we can find on this word can be found in the Greek . We must understand that, by then, centuries before Christ , the Greeks were concerned that some of the words in their poems and texts became somewhat obscure for popular understanding . The famous lexicons , heirs of the current glossaries, emerged . Lexicon is, therefore, a word that comes from Lexicon , which comes to mean “language and word.”


To emphasize the role of the lexicon in culture is to rescue the role that language has in human life. It is known that each lexicon obeys the customs, traditions and socio-environmental conditions of a given community. It is, therefore, its function to capture with words as appropriate as possible that of the Real that escapes the symbolic world. The lexicon is, therefore, a condition that makes it possible to symbolize something of the external world.


According to its origin, we can say that the lexicon has the following classification:

Heritage lexicon

It refers to the type of lexicon that is the heritage of a particular language, whether by nationality or foreigners. An example of this are words used today in Spanish ( Ok, for example ), and that actually come from English .

Passive lexicon

It is only part of the subject’s understanding .

Active lexicon

It is part of the repertoire of words used by the subject ..


That is, inherent in the region of origin.


It refers to the words that are used within a sociocultural or professional group.

Mental lexicon

The mental lexicon is defined as the individual and internalized knowledge that a speaker has about the vocabulary of a language. The way in which mental lexicon is organized allows the speaker to encode a message when he speaks and writes, it also allows to decode it when what he wants to do is listen or read a message.

The mental lexicon, when relating to the individual competence of each speaker, is a partial concept in relation to the “vocabulary” since the latter is the result of a knowledge shared by the members of the speaking community and, therefore, supra-individual and independent of the particular knowledge of each speaker.


The characteristics of mental lexicon and the characteristics of language are some common and most of them interdependent and correlated. The first axiom of language and mental lexicon is its multi structuring. This means that the units of lexicon, lexemes, are structured or linked in different ways. What is known as mental lexicon is an abstraction about some central elements in language that are lexemes.

The design of the lexeme is doubly determined by its prospective use, which is to appear as a module in a communicative sequence or chain, and by its oppositional (paradigmatic) nature to other signs of language. However, not all features and design determinations of lexemes depend on this basic fact of modularity and oppositionality. The lexeme also depends on its symbolic function, that is, being a mental concept representing a homogenized set that accounts more or less ‘naturally’ for certain segments of the multiple realities that make up the universe.

The language, both for the formal aspect of the linguistic sign and for the semantic aspect of it, establishes a large number of links between the signs and things and the signs with each other. In addition, language as a reflection of reality, reflects the structure that it has and the natural links that exist in reality, although this reflection is not completely reliable.

Basically, lexicon is structured externally as an ontological reflex, and internally, through the relationships established through linguistic signs:

‘ Direct ontological reflection : Language reflects reality as it is perceived by the human being. The biological structure allows man to perceive connections or links of different entities and phenomena linked both by time and space, and later also by more complex categories such as causality, purpose, etc. Any speaker regardless of their language is able to establish associations or links such as those established between smoke and fire, clouds and rain or bow and arrow, etc.

‘ Particular reticulation of a language : Many relationships between words and things exist thanks to the internal relationships of the signs, that is, to the relationships between their signifiers and their meanings, and also thanks to many other relationships that are established between the signs in function of its peculiar location in the syntagmatic and paradigmatic structures.

‘ Linguistic operations of information about the world : One of the usual activities of language is the acts of transmission of information about language and the world. These acts or operations serve to learn about how things are in the world and how are the words that designate them. Although speakers of the same language share basically the same mental lexicon, it never acquires a finished structuring, so there are perceptible differences between the mental lexicons of different people.

Lexicon and cognition

The grammar of a language is acquired and completed at a certain age, not the mental lexicon; This is constantly expanding and restructuring throughout the life of the speakers. This means that mental lexicon grows parallel to the knowledge of the world that a person can acquire.

The lexicon is the part of language that is closest to the general knowledge or mental map that humans form in the outer and inner world. Each new statement heard (especially those with the greatest informational news about the world or the linguistic code), each new act of transferring ideas, thoughts or perceptions to words, potentially represents an instrument of change in the mental lexicon.

There are important cognitive aspects related to mental lexicon. The human mind depends on language to perform most of its cognitive and rational functions. To think well, there is a lack of good mental maps of reality and discrete means (signs, propositional structures) to fix that thought. Every thought is like a virtual journey on mind maps. If you have a good mental map, it circulates well through external reality. And a good interior map is one that reflects the ontological landscapes more accurately and truthfully.

Mental lexicon is based on signs and relationships between signs. It constitutes a mental map that guides humans in their decision making when interacting with the environment. Throughout the life of man there is a constant elaboration and restructuring of the mental lexicon while increasing personal and cultural experiences.

The mental lexicon acts as an intermediate mechanism between objective reality and the mind. In this way, its nature and organization are very involved in the representation of the world we achieve, since it is obtained not only through our senses in daily experience, but also through the language we use.

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