The English Economic Term ‘Human Capital’ and Its Semantic Field in Scientific Discourse

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Recently, human capital (HC) has acquired special relevance in response to digital economy development. A semantic study of HC is significant for its linguistic description and practical purposes of teaching business English to students, specializing in economics and management. The aims of the research were to analyze dictionary definitions, compare them with contextual interpretations, and identify syntagmatic relations and lexical collocability of the term HC in scientific discourse. 340 article titles and their abstracts from 18 journals on economics and management served as the material for the research. The methods included continuous sampling, analysis of contextual relations, semantic classification, and componential analysis. The results of definition analysis showed that HC has intangible components of meaning and partly overlaps with resources , in opposition to capital which has monetary nature. Contextual interpretations disclose more semantic aspects of HC. Monetary relations and production factors make it closer to capital . Considerable attention is paid to HC formation and measurement. Terms, related to HC, embrace a wide variety of phenomena from almost all functional areas of business, which indicate the importance of HC for sustainable development, increasing profit and competitiveness. Semantic classification of collocations shows that HC is considered at the personal, organizational and national levels. The most frequent syntagmatic sequences include HC+N , N+Prep.+HC , and Adj.+HC . Objective valency type: V+HC is more common than subjective: HC+V . The most frequent collocations are HC accumulation , HC investments , and the role of HC .

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Introduction Communicative systems, such as language, are viewed as models for understanding real-life processes [1. P. 9] and developing a linguistic worldview. From a linguistic standpoint, human capital (HC) is a language unit, which can be studied at different levels of language structure: phonetics, lexicology, syntax, etc. In this paper, semantics is in the focus of attention. A linguistic analysis will contribute to gaining an insight into the substance of the term HC. Semantically, it belongs to the category of abstract words, which implies, as I.M. Kobozeva suggests, description of their significative meaning and application of such methods as synonymous paraphrase and collocability analysis [2. P. 85]. A linguistic method, studying systemic functional relationships in a language, is semantic field theory, introduced by Jost Trier [3]. The theory was further developed by V.G. Admoni, A.V. Bondarko, G.S. Shchur and other linguists. Each semantic field includes a system of types and classes, variants of a certain semantic category, related to various formal means of their realization [4. P. 11]. A certain semantic category - the one which unites various linguistic units and determines their interaction - forms the basis of any functional semantic field [5. P. 35; 6. P. 6]. Identification of invariant units and referring them to particular speech segments determines the boundaries of the unit variation in a semantic field [7. P. 21]. A lexical unit is part of a language - a semiotic system of a particular type; hence, a lexical unit is a sign. Following A.A. Ufimtseva, a complete semiotic description of a lexical sign means conducting an analysis of its semes (paradigmatics), semantic derivation (epidigmatics), and their functioning in speech (syntagmatics) [8. P. 129]. I.M. Kobozeva suggests adding semantic oppositions and corresponding features to description of lexical units and their semantic fields [9]. According to N.Y. Shvedova, a linguistic environment, in which a word functions, has a tripartite character: firstly, the word belongs to a particular lexical class and has a number of lexical oppositions; secondly, it acquires various linear syntagmatic connections in a text; and thirdly, the word functions in different communicative and pragmatic contexts. In other words, the word is part of a class, text and context [10. P. 383]. The ability of a word to connect with other linguistic units is also called valency - the term introduced by S.D. Katsnel’son [11] and L. Ten’er [12]. Understanding syntagmatic connections of a semantic field reveals inherent relationships between semantics of classes and their realizations in speech. As noted by V.N. Denisenko, interpretation of any fragment of reality as a linguistically organized “semantic space” seems to be an effective and valid method of world cognition [13. P. 23]. A number of recent research papers are devoted to this field of study [7; 14-21]. The aims of this research are to differentiate the semantic field of the term HC from related lexical units, compare dictionary definitions of HC with its contextual interpretations, determine syntagmatic relations and lexical collocability of the term HC in scientific economic discourse. Description of the linguistic view of HC based on the obtained results has theoretical value. Research article titles and the related abstracts, containing the term HC, from journals, devoted to economic and managerial sciences, along with the correspondent dictionary definitions, are considered as the object of the analysis. Notably, research articles reflect the latest views, some of which might later become semantic components in dictionary definitions of HC. The practical relevance lies in the fact that the results can be used in the practice of teaching business English to students specializing in economics and management. It is worth noting that scientific discourse is characterized by multiple modes of semiotic communication, including spoken, written, representational, inscriptional, and symbolic, among others. The range of semiotic communicative forms shows wide variation and is often alien to science students’ ways communicating in others aspects of their lives [22. P. 321]. Consequently, drawing students’ attention to scientific papers will improve their reading skills in the language of science [23], enhance their knowledge of English [24] and develop competencies in professional areas. Material The resources included 18 journals [26-43], related to the areas of economy and human resource management (HRM): Economics Letters (47 articles), The Economics of Education Review (42), Economic Modelling (35), The Journal of Human Capital (32), The Journal of Intellectual Capital (23), Labour Economics (22), Journal of Management (21), Review of Development Economics (19), The Journal of Human Resources (15), The Journal of Comparative Economics (15), The Journal of Monetary Economics (13), Strategic Management Journal (13), International Economic Review (12), Journal of Economic Surveys (11), The Human Resource Management Journal (8), Global Business Review (5), The Human Resource Management Review (4), The Journal of Finance (3). The corpus contained 340 article titles and the related abstracts, 44 800 words in total. 894 occurrences of the term HC were analyzed. Methodology Initially, the articles were continuously selected by the key word: HC; then word combinations were classified into categories on the basis of their valency and contextual meanings. Taking into consideration the fundamentals of semantic analysis mentioned above, the following methods were used: 1. dictionary definitions of the term HC were analyzed in combination with capital and resources in order to compare their individual semantic components; 2. contextual definitions (31) and related economic phenomena (142) were identified; 3. syntagmatic relations of HC and collocations were revealed in the left and right contexts: 3.1. HC+N (344 occurrences) 3.2. N+Prep.+HC (187 occ.) 3.3. Adj.+HC (91 occ.) 3.4. N’s+HC (22 occ.) 3.5. V+HC (51 occ.) 3.6. HC+V (16 occ.) 3.7. HC+Prep.+N (10 occ.) As a result of the analysis, the frequency of collocations with HC was determined. Results 1. Dictionary definitions From an economic perspective, HC is highly valuable in the modern society, though it is a multifaceted complex economic term, difficult for measuring and accounting. It differs from other forms of capital and is related to the field of HRM. The term contains the notion capital as a constituent element; and simultaneously, it has human nature. Let us compare semantic components of the terms HC, capital, and resources, given in dictionaries [44-47]. The term HC is a unique intangible notion, whose denotative meaning completely coincides neither with capital nor resources (Table 1). The principle distinctions of the term HC are as follows. Table 1 / Таблица 1 Differential semantic components of the terms / Дифференциальные семантические компоненты терминов HC Semes: people, employees, skills, knowledge, experience, resources, talents, abilities, intelligence, training, judgment, wisdom, a form of wealth, motivation, health, intellectual capital, competencies, source of creativity and innovativeness Specificity: not reflected in financial statements; incorporated in the organization’s procedures and structure Predicates: (people) have; be possessed; be owned; be available Goals: accomplish goals; yield fulfillment and satisfaction to the possessor; impart the ability to change Capital Semes: money, property, possessions, assets, wealth, factors of production Specificity: not itself in the process Predicates: be used; be available; be invested Goals: to earn more money; for producing more wealth; for starting a new business; for increasing financial strength; for development or investment; to generate income; to create goods or services Resources Semes: money, workers, equipment, qualities, skills, possession, economic or productive factor, means, land, labor, capital, energy, entrepreneurship, information, expertise, management, time Predicates: (people) have; be used; be required Goals: to help an institution or a business; for dealing with problems; to accomplish an activity; to undertake an enterprise; to achieve desired outcome Firstly, HC has mainly intangible nature, including human resources (HR). Capital embraces monetary notions. Capital means wealth, while human capital is only a form of wealth. Gaining HC does not mean gaining direct monetary benefits. The term resources is semantically the widest, including both tangible and intangible semes. Among other similarities, both capital and resources are regarded as factors of production. It is worth mentioning that according to the current economic paradigm, HC is viewed as a factor of production in the era of digital economy, virtual reality, computer-aided manufacturing and artificial intelligence development [25]. That places HC on a par with capital and resources. However, it does not deprive HC of its abstract quality. Secondly, the attainment of HC is regarded as an end in itself [47], - whereas the terms capital and resources are non-finite elements, in effect. This is also proven by the predicate: be used does not appear in the semantics of HC (Table 1). Thirdly, HC is not reflected in financial statements, in contrast to capital and resources. Nevertheless, it is incorporated in the organization's procedures and structure. As for the goals mentioned in each definition, capital is aimed at deriving material and financial profit, such as money, goods, services, or business expansion; in other words, certain material tangible results. However, in relation to HC and resources, more abstract or intangible outcome is mentioned (Table 1). On balance, HC has more similarities with the term resources, as it incorporates both tangible and intangible semantic components, in contrast to capital, which is obviously tangible. It is worth mentioning here that the related term human resources is much narrower in meaning since it denotes only the department of an organization which deals with finding new employees, keeping records about all the organization’s employees, and helping them with any problems [44; 46]. The alternative term to HR is personnel [47]. 2. Contextual definitions and related phenomena As noted by I.M. Kobozeva, synonymous paraphrase is an integral part of semantic analysis, focused on abstract words [2. P. 85]. For this reason, contextual explanations of HC were found in research abstracts. They give a more detailed and broader view, and define HC as a multifaceted concept, determinant of economic growth, indicator of productivity, even as a factor of wage disparities (Table 2). They also have interpretations which directly match dictionary definitions: knowledge, skills, capabilities, and experience. Additionally, contexts expand the term up to education and professional training. At the level of HR departments, HC is associated with employee capability, satisfaction, and commitment. Strategically, HC is a source of competitive advantage. A number of contextual definitions point at the connection of HC with resources and assets (Table 2). Table 2 / Таблица 2 Contextual definitions of HC / Контекстные определения человеческого капитала (ЧК) ¨ the engine of growth ¨ a key driver of economic development ¨ key determinant of wages ¨ measure of productivity ¨ complex input ¨ a multidimensional construct ¨ explanation for health-related wage disparities ¨ tenure, investment experience, education ¨ professional training, gender ¨ an important component of intellectual capital ¨ a key valuable resource ¨ most important asset ¨ an asset to be invested in ¨ a source of competitive advantage Contrasted phenomena include a wide range of notions, ranging from personal to national issues, though differences are sometimes blurred and the phenomena can be attributed to more than one level. As can be seen from Tb. 3, HC being intangible by definition, in its generalized representation influences many aspects of human life, the prosperity of companies and national interests. At the personal level, HC is related to the following aspects: the number of children in a family, the existence of family itself, family types, people’s physical and mental state, financial and social differences among people, employment patterns, career perspectives, and work-life balance, among others. The organizational level embraces almost all functional areas of business activity; not only immediately HRM, but also finance, marketing, research and development, strategic planning, information technologies, production. At the national level, the term HC concerns a long list of fundamental aspects of economic development, social life, demographics, urbanizations, education, migration, technological development, and others. Table 3 / Таблица 3 Economic phenomena related to HC / Экономические явления, соотносимые с ЧК Personal level Organizational level National level ¨ alcohol consumption ¨ birth order ¨ career mobility ¨ career outcomes ¨ college outcomes ¨ earnings dynamics ¨ education ¨ electricity consumption ¨ gender earnings differentials ¨ human fertility ¨ job satisfaction ¨ learning ability ¨ morality ¨ optimal paternalistic health ¨ self-identification ¨ skill formation ¨ stress ¨ study effort ¨ technological knowledge ¨ time allocation ¨ voluntary unemployment ¨ work-life expectancy ¨ benefit churning ¨ brand equity ¨ business longevity ¨ capital structure ¨ cost system ¨ economic efficiency ¨ economic performance ¨ employee reward ¨ HR practices ¨ information technologies ¨ labor productivity ¨ leadership ¨ occupational health ¨ organizational change ¨ physical capital ¨ product variety ¨ R&D ¨ relational capital (RC) ¨ strategic positioning ¨ structural capital ¨ trade performance ¨ value creationт ¨ aggregate and sectoral production ¨ child labour ¨ urbanization ¨ demographics ¨ distribution of earnings ¨ economic cycles ¨ economic development ¨ employment protection ¨ GDP per capita ¨ guest-worker migration ¨ immigrants’ education ¨ internal migration ¨ quality level of the science and engineering labor force ¨ learning culture ¨ military service ¨ models of education ¨ population ageing ¨ rural-urban migration ¨ social collaboration ¨ social norms ¨ technological change 3. Syntagmatic relations and collocability 3.1. HC+N These syntagmatic relations are the most numerous. The most frequent collocations are HC accumulation and HC investments; less frequent are HC formation, HC theory, HC approach, HC endowments, and HC measurement. Table 4 / Таблица 4 Semantic categories of HC+N / Семантические категории ЧК+N HC theory Economic aspects HC accumulation ¨ HC analysis ¨ HC analytics ¨ HC concept ¨ HC definitions ¨ HC explanation ¨ HC field ¨ HC quality, 2 ¨ HC research postulates ¨ HC research, 2 ¨ HC theorists ¨ HC theory, 16 ¨ HC disparity (rural-urban) ¨ HC distribution ¨ HC migration ¨ HC response to globalization ¨ HC scarcity, 2 ¨ HC sector, 3 ¨ HC sectoral productivities ¨ HC stocks, 6 ¨ HC technology ¨ HC transition ¨ HC-intensive industries, 2 ¨ HC accumulation, 77 ¨ HC augmentation ¨ HC building ¨ HC consequences of violence ¨ HC development, 2 ¨ HC enhancement ¨ HC formation, 23 ¨ HC gaps ¨ HC growth, 3 ¨ HC improvement ¨ HC transmission Monetary aspects HC measurement Organizational issues ¨ HC acquisition, 3 ¨ HC cost ¨ HC depreciation ¨ HC endowments, 10 ¨ HC externalities ¨ HC investment decisions, 3 ¨ HC investment risk ¨ HC investment, 58 ¨ HC losses, 2 ¨ HC premium ¨ HC rates ¨ HC returns, 2 ¨ HC risks ¨ HC subsidy, 2 ¨ HC accounting ¨ HC approach, 11 ¨ HC background ¨ HC complementarities ¨ HC disclosures, 2 ¨ HC evaluation ¨ HC heterogeneity ¨ HC indicators, 2 ¨ HC inequality, 2 ¨ HC items (in financial statements) ¨ HC measurement, 6 ¨ HC quality differences ¨ HC valuation, 2 ¨ HC value measurement ¨ HC allocation ¨ HC assets ¨ HC depletion, 2 ¨ HC differences ¨ HC employment mode ¨ HC flows ¨ HC good ¨ HC information ¨ HC intangibles ¨ HC management practices ¨ HC policies, 4 ¨ HC production technology ¨ HC production, 5 ¨ HC resources, 3 ¨ HC-intensive firms The semantic field embraces the following semantic categories: HC theory, HC accumulation, HC measurement, monetary issues, organizational and economic issues (Table 4). Interestingly, it includes monetary aspects - not present in dictionary definitions. 3.2. (Adj.+) N+Prep.+HC One of the most frequent collocations in this category is the role of HC (39 occ.). Let us consider the semantics of these syntagmatic relations. Conceptual aspects of HC reflect the boundaries of the term, including the structure of the notion, origins, forms, types, levels, parameters, cognitive constituents, and others. The accumulation of HC implies its sources, development, accumulation, transmission, transferability, and stock, among others. Monetary features are exposed by such aspects as acquisition, assessment, estimation, value drivers, measurement, cost, investment, endowments, return, obsolescence and depreciation. At the organizational level, HC acquires specific features, such as concentration, specification, qualitative indicators, performance, proportion, inimitability, etc. (Table 5). Table 5 / Таблица 5 Semantic categories of N+Prep.+HC / Семантические категории N+Prep.+ЧК HC theory HC accumulation Monetary aspects Organizational level ¨ cognitive aspects of HC ¨ composition of HC ¨ concept of HC ¨ differences in HC ¨ economy with HC, 2 ¨ emergence of HC ¨ evolution of HC ¨ forms of HC, 6 ¨ higher levels of HC ¨ level of HC, 4 ¨ literature on HC, 2 ¨ main dimensions of HC ¨ research on HC, 2 ¨ types of HC ¨ uniqueness of HC ¨ variables of HC ¨ accumulation of HC, 3 ¨ accumulation rates of HC ¨ development of HC, 3 ¨ formation of HC, 2 ¨ growth of HC ¨ intergenerational transmission of HC, 2 ¨ negative proxies of HC ¨ new proxies for HC ¨ portability of HC ¨ production of HC ¨ transmission of HC ¨ sources of HC ¨ transferability HC ¨ transmission of HC, 8 ¨ woman's stock of HC ¨ acquisition of HC, 2 ¨ assessment of HC ¨ cost of HC ¨ depreciation of HC ¨ estimation of HC ¨ gender disparities in HC ¨ investment in HC ¨ measurement of HC 2 ¨ measures of HC, 2 ¨ obsolescence of HC ¨ return to HC, 2 ¨ risk and return of HC ¨ value drivers of HC ¨ value of HC, 2 ¨ workers’ remittances on HC ¨ competition for HC, 2 ¨ competitive advantage of HC ¨ concentration of HC, 2 ¨ contribution of HC, 2 ¨ description of HC, 3 ¨ effect of HC, 25 ¨ output of HC ¨ inclusion of HC ¨ influence of HC, 2 ¨ inimitability of HC ¨ performance of HC ¨ proportion of HC ¨ indicators of HC ¨ role of HC, 39 ¨ specification of HC ¨ substitutability of HC 3.3. Adj.+HC The most frequently used collocation is specific HC (25 occ.). Semantic categories include specificity, origin, relation to company, amount, professionalism, age, national origin, and a few individual word collocations: Specificity: specific, 25; differential; general, 3; firm-specific, 3; occupation-specific; industry-specific; research-specific; country-specific; sector-specific; colleague-specific. Origin: maternal; parental; low parental; personal; endogenous; educational; inherited; dynastic; individual level, 2; individual; collective; child. Company: entrepreneurial; organizational, 2; managerial; strategic; unit-level; hierarchical; upper-echelon executive. Amount: higher; high; abundant; more; less; scarce. Professionalism: high-skilled; skilled; experience-based; advanced; highly trained. Age: age-structured; modern, 5; existing. National origin: local; foreign; origin-country. Miscellaneous: heterogeneous; risky; rival; valuable; language; inalienable; the latent variable. 3.4. N’s+HC The scope of its semantics comprises three large areas: People: children’s, 3; parents’; descendants’; individuals’, 3; women’s, 2. Company: organization’s; firm’s; manager’s; executives’; directors’; founders’; inventors’. Nation: Russia’s; nation’s; immigrants’; academic’s. 3.5. V+HC The verbal structure with the term HC clearly shows logical sequence of activities, performed at the organizational level: HC accumulation, analysis, management and gaining monetary profit (Table 6). Table 6 / Таблица 6 Semantic categories of V+HC / Семантические категории V+ЧК HC accumulation HC analysis HC management Monetary aspects ¨ accumulate HC, 2 ¨ acquire HC, 4 ¨ develop HC, 3 ¨ enhance HC, 2 ¨ form HC ¨ improve HC, 2 ¨ increase HC ¨ invest in HC, 5 ¨ examine HC ¨ classify the HC of a company ¨ analyze HC ¨ explore HC ¨ focus on HC ¨ investigate HC ¨ study HC ¨ identify HC ¨ manage HC ¨ motivate HC ¨ protect HC ¨ reduce HC, 3 ¨ retain HC ¨ specify HC ¨ utilize HC ¨ assess HC ¨ evaluate HC ¨ isolate HC (from expenses) ¨ measure HC, 4 ¨ obtain HC ¨ transform HC ¨ value HC 3.6. HC+V The vast semantic areas include ‘people’, ‘company’ and ‘economy’. The verbs in the right context are increase, augment, influence, affect, impacts, play a role, contribute to, facilitate, stimulate, interact with, respond to, dampen, result in. Though three times less frequent, they partly coincide with those in the left context (Table 6). The objects in the sequence HC+V+O include performance, investments, growth, income, and some others: People: HC investments increase lifetime income; HC plays an important role in performance of individual-level HC; HC increases the risk of overbidding; HC affects laid-off workers’ occupation choices; HC increases the opportunity cost of crime from foregone work and expected costs associated with incarceration. Company: HC influences the firm’s decisions; HC stimulates investment in physical capital; HC augments labor productivity and also facilitates the transition to skilled employment; HC impacts organizational performance; HC result in superior performance; HC interacts with incentives; firms' HC influences investments in occupational health and safety. Economy: HC contributes to rise in economic growth; the different levels of HC affect countries differently; HC responds to global opportunities; HC dampens responses of young workers to transitory tax changes. 3.7. HC+Prep.+N Three areas are covered: People: the HC of black soldiers, 2; the HC of natives; the HC of children, 3. Company: HC in service organizations; HC of family firms; HC for hiring and promotions. Economy: HC in the new economy; (the effects of) HC on developmental potential; HC in various industries. Conclusion To summarize, the English economic term HC can be referred to the category of abstract nouns on the basis of its dictionary definitions and the semantic field presented in research articles. Despite the fact that HC contains the word capital, its meaning is scarcely similar to capital - mainly a financial term. HC is closer to the term resources due to the abstract components of its semantic meaning. Additionally, the term HC is much wider than HR - the latter are only attributed to the activities performed by personnel departments in organizations. The analysis of the semantic field of HC in scientific discourse revealed a wider understanding of the term than that presented in dictionary definitions. That is explained by the fact that research articles on economy and management contain results of practical studies and attempts to identify, measure, estimate, evaluate, determine the cost and, finally, derive profit from HC in business practice. In research articles, HC is analyzed at three major levels: personal, organizational and national (Fig. 1.). HC theory 8% Measurement 4% Monetary issues 23% Organizational issues 24% HC accumulation 18% National issues 12% Economic issues 3% Personal issues 8% Fig. 1. The semantic field of HC in scientific discourse / Рис. 1. Семантическое поле ЧК в научном дискурсе The importance of HC becomes clear as a result of studying contextual definitions and the related phenomena. The semantic field of the term shows that ii affects individuals’ health, family formation, education, career, income. At the organizational level, HC influences almost all functional areas of business activity. Most crucially, effective approaches to HC contribute to higher productivity, return on investments, business performance, and, ultimately, competitiveness. Similarly, the levels of economy and nation are equally dependent on HC accumulation. Additionally, HC affects social collaboration, norms, hierarchy, gender disparities and other issues. Noteworthily, in contrast to dictionary definitions, contextual interpretations refer to monetary aspects of the term HC and attempts to measure and incorporate it into financial statements. Moreover, HC accumulation, formation, development, enhancement and improvement as a result of education, training and intergenerational transmission could also widen the dictionary definitions. Syntagmatic relation types differ in frequency: the most numerous are HC+N and N+Prep.+HC. Twice as numerous are Adj.+HC. The type of valency where HC acts as an object: V+HC is more common than HC+V, where it functions as a subject. The attributes specifying HC denote a range of characteristics: professional skills, the origin of HC, age, specificity, relation to organizational structure, the amount, even language, and others. The most frequent lexical collocations are as follows: HC accumulation, HC investments, HC formation, HC theory, HC approach, HC endowments, HC measurement, the role of HC, and specific HC. As the conducted research shows, the term HC is rapidly developing, partly due to the emergence of new technologies, and requires further research.

About the authors

Yulia A Filyasova

Saint-Petersburg University of Management Technologies and Economics

Author for correspondence.
Saint-Petersburg, Russia

Candidate of Philological Sciences, Associate Professor of the Department of Pedagogy, Psychology and Translation Studies


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