Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Verbal Idioms in Focus - towards the Continuum of Idiomatic Expressions. (Linguistics)

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Verbal Idioms in Focus - towards the Continuum of Idiomatic Expressions. (Linguistics)

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Idiomaticity has been traditionally regarded as one of the most complex linguistic phenomena. The discussion on the problem how certain aberrant idioms should be represented in and explained by regular frameworks has been the theme of a number of linguistic inquiries. By now, many extensive discussions have been published in which one can find the classes of idiomatic expressions and their features (e.g., Makkai 1972; Fraser 1970; Weinreich 1969). The purpose of the present paper is to try to compare four classes of idiomatic expressions of verbal nature -- phraseological verbs, phrasal verbs, primary verb idioms and prepositional verbs -- by means of some objective grammatical tests, such as passivisation, substitution, deletion or insertion and to determine in consequence which classes are more restricted in their grammatical behaviour and which are more free. Finally, it is hoped that the differences in behaviour between the members of the discussed classes would justify the claim that idiomaticity is grad able and these classes differ in the degree of it. The analysis is conducted in agreement with the main principles of Transformational Generative Grammar, since I subject complex phrases to some transformational tests.

As regards the definition of idiom adopted in the present paper, the key principle will be the non-compositionality of meaning (after Hockett 1958 and Makkai 1972). It is possible to say which construction is more compositional (and consequently less idiomatic), as when comparing highly non-compositional bite the dust (in the sense of 'be killed, fall to the ground') with more regular let the cat out of bag (meaning 'tell a secret without intending to do so'). In the former case the verb let as well as the prepositions out of contribute its usual meanings to the sense of the compound, and it is the nouns cat and bag which denote other things than usually.

The next principle justifying the idiom label in this paper will be the integrity of the structure of the construction. As will be demonstrated later on, there are some phrases which allow some movement of their parts (passivisation, particle movement) or change of the structure (the addition of a modifier, the deletion of some part, the substitution of one element for another). Since literal phrases allow all such modifications without any restrictions, it is assumed here that if some idiom does not allow some modification which a literal expression of the same syntactic structure does, then it is the sign that it is relatively highly idiomatic. When there are two idioms of the same structure, one of which allows some movement or change while the other does not, then it seems justified to say that the latter is more frozen (and more idiomatic) while the former is less restricted (less idiomatic, more literal).

2. Historical perspective

The definition of the term idiom has been understood differently over the course of years. Hockett (1958: 171-173) claims that this is a phrase whose meaning is non-compositional, that is the meaning of the whole cannot be fully deduced from the meanings of the parts. To give the example, the sum of the usual meanings of hot ('having a high temperature') (1) and dog ('male canis') do not fully account for the sense of the idiom hot dog ('a boiled or grilled frankfurter in a bun' (Makkai 1972: 30-3 1)). Hockett also maintains that an idiomatic phrase should be any expression of variable reference, without a fixed meaning in all situations (here he mentions anaphor one, numerals, deictic demonstratives this, that, proper names and personal pronouns. He claims that there are idioms of a larger size than a single word and that idioms are not only limited to lexis (phrasal or lexical idioms), but idiomaticity may also be present in syntactic constructions. Metaphors, hyperboles or puns are equally idiomatic as phr asal idioms if their meaning is non-compositional and if, when decoded literally, they seem to be out of context. …

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