Idioms and Idiomacity

The field of phraseology or idiomacity in any language is so varied and fascinating that one could spend an entire lifetime analyzing it and looking at it from various viewpoints. In linguistics, phraseology describes the context in which a word is used. This often includes typical usages/sequences, such as idioms, phrasal verbs, and multi-word units.

Yet we will lay the light on the studies carried out on such important area of language. We will concentrate on two approaches; semantic, and cultural; hence our concern is the translation of two word idioms into Turkish.

From the introduction, of Collins COBUILD Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs, we quote the following lines to show the close relation between our research topic and this reference: ‘Idioms are one of the most interesting and difficult parts of the English vocabulary. They are interesting because they are colourful and lively and because they are linguistic curiosities. At the same time, they are difficult because they have unpredictable meanings or collocations and grammar, and often have special connotations. Idioms are frequently neglected in general dictionaries and in classroom teaching, because they are considered marginal items which are quaint but not significant. Yet research into idioms shows that they have important roles in spoken language and in writing, in particular in conveying evaluations and in developing or maintaining interactions. (Sinclair et al. 1995:iv)

The central problem one comes up against in attempting to define “idiom” is identifying the property (or properties) which will adequately capture all the idioms in a language while excluding all the non-idioms. A number of approaches to idiomaticity together with various definitions of what an idiom is will be presented in this chapter.

Idiomaticity is the core of the notion of idioms. Mainly, the question in idiomaticity is to analyze how idiomatic idioms are, i.e. how unpredictable the meaning of an idiom is from its literal counterparts. Some idioms are wholly idiomatic and the words constituting the idiom seem to have no sensible meaning of their own as a unit without the idiomatic meaning, some idioms have both literal and idiomatic meanings (metaphorical or arbitrarily different meanings), which are used alongside; some idioms are only partially idiomatic, i.e. one word of it can be taken literally and the rest of them idiomatically (semi-idioms).

Idiomaticity can also be called phraseology. Gläser (1988, 265-266) clarifies as follows: ‘This is the corresponding term among Soviet and Eastern European linguists when describing set expressions whose meaning cannot be derived from the meanings of their parts. However, the term phraseology is also used to describe “1) the inventory of
phrases or set expressions, and not only idioms; 2) the linguistic sub discipline of
lexicology which studies and classifies set expressions (phraseological units in the
broadest sense)”

Weinreich (1972:89) sees “idiomaticity … a phenomenon which may be described as the use of segmentally complex expressions whose semantic structure is not deducible jointly from their syntactic structure and the semantic structure of their components.”

Idiomaticity According to the authors of the Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English, “Idiomaticity is largely, though not wholly, a question of meaning”. That is to say, idioms are mainly characterized by their semantic unity and lack of motivation”

According to Hockett (1956: 222) “An idiom is a grammatical form – single morpheme or composite form the meaning of which is not deducible from its structure.”

Later, Hockett in his 1958 “Course in Modern Linguistics” is the first of the modern western grammarians to give serious consideration to the definitions of idiom and its consequences. His discussion is worth quoting at length:

‘Let us momentarily use the term ‘Y’ for any grammatical form the meaning of which is not deducible from its structure. Any ‘Y’ in any occurrence in which it is not a constituent of a larger ‘Y’, is an idiom. A vast number of composite forms in any language are idioms. . (Hockett 1958: 172 )

Idioms will thus range from morphemes to proverbs or even poems, taking pronouns, proper names and figures of speech. Idiom formation is a constant process, and Hockett makes this significant point in the following words: ‘the less productive a pattern is, the more likely it is that if a new form does get coined by the pattern it will have idiomatic value’. (Hockett 1958:308) In general, Hockett’s account of idiom emphasized the following points: Idiomaticity is taken to be completely pervasive of language i.e. idiomaticity is a common throughout – present and seen or felt everywhere.

Hockett deliberately and carefully admits morphemes to idiom status while other definitions exclude single morphemes (by referring to ‘morpheme arrangements’, a ‘group of morphemes’, or by specifying an idiom as a complex, a morpheme as a simple expression) or even words. It is not particularly forms which are idioms but occurrences of forms in the context of particular utterances.

Generally speaking, Hockett is thorough in mapping out the full territory covered by his definitions of idiom, and undoubtedly the class he has constituted is linguistically significant. Hockett’s definition of idiom might sound nitpicking, but in the framework of generative linguistics, it is the logical consequence of morphological analysis of words, and, hence, a necessary stage in forming an idiom theory. Hockett regarded idioms as any kind of non-compositional expressions.

Weinreich’s article (1969:226). ‘Problems in the Analysis of Idioms’ is an attempt to establish the criteria upon which to base the characteristic features of idiomatic phrases. Weinreich accepts as idioms only multiword expressions which have literal counterparts. Those expressions which cannot display this criterion are considered ill-formed and therefore disqualified as idioms. The reason he gives for not including units such as by and large is that they are merely stable and familiar. Weinreich gives his definition of an idiom as ‘a phraseological unit that involves at least two polysemous constituents, and in which there is a reciprocal contextual selection of subsenses…’

Weinreich also claims that ‘the semantic difference between idioms and their literary counterparts is arbitrary’ (1969:229, 260). This should mean that the relationship between the overall figurative meaning of idioms and their wording (i.e. the selection of words in an idiomatic string) is completely ad hoc. This claim cannot hold as it is very likely that ‘the figurative meanings of idioms are not arbitrary, but are partially determined by how people conceptualize the domains to which idioms refer’.For example, the idiom ‘cold feet’ which means according to the DEI If you get cold feet about something, you lose the courage to do it. This idiom is used in the following article in the Guardian newspaper dated March 25, 2006

Iraq hostages ‘were saved by rift among kidnapper. Guards got cold feet after American was shot”

If people conceptualize ‘cold feet’ as ‘a loss of the courage to do something’, the way in which the word-string is selected will depend on the concepts of the ‘cold feet’whichpeople hold. Since ‘cold feet’ seems to symbolize loss of the courage.

As can be seen, Weinreich’s assertion that idioms must have literal counterparts cannot hold in a large number of cases, as idioms are unique in terms of their semantics. Also, the arbitrary nature of the link between idioms and their literal counterparts is doubtful when we consider that the way in which people conceptualize the world around them is reflected in the language they use.

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