Academic journal article British and American Studies

The Experiencer in Verbal Idioms of Emotion in English and German

Academic journal article British and American Studies

The Experiencer in Verbal Idioms of Emotion in English and German

Article excerpt

1. Theoretical background

Idiomatic expressions are generally understood as multi-word chunks consisting of components which are bound together lexically and syntactically. Idioms are characterised by three main features: lack of lexical variability, low literalness and syntactic frozenness. Being highly divergent in structure and meaning, idioms have always been a matter of debate among linguists.

This paper is concerned with idiomatic phrases headed by a verb, also known as verbal idioms. Verbal phrasal idioms have been divided into compositional and non-compositional. Compositional or decomposable idioms (e.g., spill the beans - 'to disclose a secret') can be decomposed into components that have identifiable meanings contributing to the meaning of the whole (cf. Wasow et al 1980:90). In contrast, non-compositional idioms cannot be decomposed, the meaning of kick the bucket, for example, is associated with the global interpretation of to die. They are syntactically frozen, while compositional idioms show more syntactic and semantic flexibility. Nunberg, Sag and Wasow (1994:496) argue that the majority of phrasal idioms are semantically compositional and that the phenomenon of idiomaticity is fundamentally semantic in nature.

An examination of the semantic properties of idioms (see Kovecses 2000) is helpful in accounting for the thematic roles assigned to the noun phrase components in an idiomatic phrase. We assume that verbal idioms are of three types, as shown in Krajka (2000:221):

a) phraseological idioms with the structure V + NP, such as kick the bucket or bite the dust. They can be understood both idiomatically and literally, for example kick the bucket as 'die' or as 'strike the nail with one's foot'; or. bite the dust understood as 'die', 'fail' or as 'fall face down' in its literal meaning, commonly associated with scenes of gunfights in American Western movies.

b) phrasal verbs like go down (e.g., His speech went down very well.) with the structure: V + part, whose meaning is non-compositional and cannot be derived from the senses of the parts. Such idioms can be decoded in two ways, either literally or idiomatically, e.g. go down as 'fall to the ground', or idiomatically, 'get a particular reaction from sb.', 'swallow food with difficulty', or 'get depressed'.

c) primary verb idioms, V + NP constructions, with a primary verb like do, make, get, let, keep, give, etc., as in let the cat out of the bag, get the sack. The primary verb, a frequently used one, possessing multiple meanings, occurs in one of its senses (e.g. let in let the cat out of the bag with the meaning 'allow sb. to do sth.'). The idiomatic construction arises from the unexpected combination of the primary verb with the rest of the phrase.

Krajka (2000:229) argues that there are varying degrees of compositionality inside these classes of verbal idioms and proposes a scale of verbal idioms, reflecting the degree of syntactic frozenness and the compositionality of meaning. The scale points to a continuum of idiomaticity from the most idiomatic type, the phraseological idioms, whose aggregate meaning is almost totally uncompositional, going on with phrasal verbs whose meaning is less obviously compositional, and with primary verb idioms that are more compositional in meaning, since the primary verb contributes one of its usual meanings to the composite structure.

2. The thematic roles of NPs in idioms

In non-idiomatic configurations NPs function as arguments and are assigned thematic roles by the verb. However, in idiomatic constructions the argument status of NPs has been a matter of debate among linguists. Components like bucket, which do not carry any individual meaning, have been called quasi-arguments with a non-referential fiínction (Chomsky 1981). In contrast, components of decomposable idioms like the beans have been considered to carry some individual meanings, which are not the literal meanings of the parts but rather their figurative meanings. …

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