Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Why Are Idioms Recognized Fast?

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Why Are Idioms Recognized Fast?

Article excerpt

It is an established fact that idiomatic expressions are fast to process. However, the explanation of the phenomenon is controversial. Using a semantic judgment paradigm, where people decide whether a string is meaningful or not, the present experiment tested the predictions deriving from the three main theories of idiom recognition-the lexical representation hypothesis, the idiom decomposition hypothesis, and the configuration hypothesis. Participants were faster at judging decomposable idioms, nondecomposable idioms, and clichés than at judging their matched controls. The effect was comparable for all conventional expressions. The results were interpreted as suggesting that, as posited by the configuration hypothesis, the fact that they are known expressions, rather than idiomaticity, explains their fast recognition.

Idiomatic expressions (e.g., kick the bucket) belong to the vast family of multiword conventional expressions. They are characterized by the fact that their meaning is not a direct function of the meanings of their constituent words: The composition of kick, the, and bucket does not produce "die suddenly." These expressions, which defy the standard compositional view of language comprehension and production, are very common. In fact, speakers show a strong propensity to "speak idiomatically unless there is a good reason not to do so" (Searle, 1975). Thus, understanding how people deal with idiomatic expressions is a crucial part of any theory of language processing.

So far, psycholinguistic research has concentrated primarily on how idiomatic expressions are recognized in their citation form, and much empirical work has been done on the issue. A standard paradigm in this line of investigation is the semantic judgment task: Participants are visually presented with a string of words, and their task is to decide as quickly and accurately as possible whether the string makes sense or not. In addition to strings that do not make sense (e.g., wish out table), idiomatic strings (e.g., break the ice) and matched literal expressions (e.g., break the glass) are presented. One very robust finding is that idiomatic expressions are typically responded to as fast or faster than matched literal expressions are (Gibbs, 1980; McGlone, Glucksberg, & Cacciari, 1994; Ortony, Schallert, Reynolds, & Antos, 1978; Swinney & Cutler, 1979). All current models of idiom recognition must, and indeed do, explain this phenomenon (referred to as the idiom superiority effect); however, they do so in very different ways. The goal of the experiment reported here is to compare the merits of these alternative explanations, thus testing the empirical appropriateness of the alternative models.

The first and probably best known model is the lexical representation hypothesis (LRH; Swinney & Cutler, 1979). It emphasizes the fact that the meaning of an idiomatic string is arbitrary with respect to its component elements. Because of their lack of semantic compositionality, idioms are mentally represented as long, morphologically complex words, and are recognized through the same retrieval processes that take place during word recognition. The retrieval process is initiated as soon as the first word of an idiomatic string is encountered and runs parallel to the computation of the literal meaning of the expression. However, computing is a slower process than retrieving. Therefore, the idiomatic meaning of a string typically becomes available to the reader before its literal meaning. More generally, recognizing an idiom is faster than computing the meaning of compositional, "literal" expressions.

A more recent model is the so-called idiom decomposition hypothesis (IDH; Gibbs, Nayak, & Cutting, 1989), which holds that idioms are represented and processed differently, depending on whether they are decomposable or nondecomposable. Semantic compositionality refers to the fact that the constituents of some idioms "carry identifiable parts of the idiomatic meaning" (Nunberg, Sag, & Wasow, 1994, p. …

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