A Basic Course in IDIOMATOLOGY

By Gary Wright,2014-10-12 14:49
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A Basic Course in IDIOMATOLOGY


A Basic Course in IDIOMATOLOGY

(An e-learning material for the introductory workshop.)



In the broader sense of the word, idiomaticity is understood as something that

    makes performances in a language sound natural and appropriate to the ear of native speakers. As a matter of fact, the concept of idiomaticity is believed to operate through and across all levels of language analysis. Also for this reason, some tasks presented here are meant to offer a springboard to more complex considerations. It is believed that readers of the present text are not novices in language studies, having been through university-level training in traditional linguistic disciplines.

    In a narrower sense, idiomaticity encompasses the lexical sphere of language performance. Here word junctions are taken into consideration, the meaningful correlation of which in concrete cases represents a continuum, from syntactic strings (free combinations), via more or less fixed, habitual collocations, to idioms proper. Some illustrative phrases are discussed here, mostly as prototypes. It is expected that readers will find their own way of rendering similar expressions, i.e. those falling into prototypical categories, from the point of view of their processing. It is the author‟s little idea to accompany the titles of the chapters with idioms, in order to make readers try to “think in English”.

After studying this course, you will learn

    ; what idiomaticity actually means;

    ; to appreciate the idea of identification with the English


    ; to comprehend the meanings of most idiomatic expressions.

You will be able

    ; to explain the idiomatic character of current English;

    ; to tell the difference between genuine idioms and collocations;

    ; to use idiomatic expressions “idiomatically” in your own

    speech performances.

You will acquire

    ; the skills to increase fluency in your oral and written


    ; a deeper insight into the theory of idiomaticity.

Key words:

    Idiomaticity, idioms proper, habitual collocations, free combinations, variability, literalness, figurativeness, compositionality, predictability


The time necessary to study the presented material and do all the assigned tasks is

approximately 20 hours.


    Chapter One


    (“Idiomaticity is all double Dutch to me.”)

    In this chapter you will learn

    ; what idiomaticity and idiom generally, in a nutshell, mean;

    ; a few pieces of information on the history of idiomaticity.

    You will be able

    ; to render “etymological” definitions of idiom;

    ; to explain why idioms have only recently been paid attention to.

Key words:

Idiom, idiomaticity, peculiarity, dialect, irregularity

Time for study: 3 4 hours

    U. Weinreich once wrote that “idiomaticity is important for this reason, if for no other, that there is so much of it in every language”. Let us add: And mainly in

    English! No wonder that some people are convinced that the English language is all idioms, and that some even dare to regard “word” and “idiom” as synonymous concepts.

    1.1 Definitions The meaning of the word “idiomaticity” can best be explained as a quality of “idiom” derived from the attribution “constituting (an)idiom(s).” Etymologically, the relatively modern expression “idiom” (used in English since the late 1500s) is based on the Greek / Latin “idios”, meaning (1) own, (2) private, (3) peculiar.


    It is hardly possible to find a definition of “idiomaticity” in dictionaries. However, there are some definitions of “idiom”, such as the following:

    (1) the form of speech peculiar or proper to a people or country; (2) the variety of a language which is peculiar to a limited district or class of


    (3) the manner of expression which is natural or peculiar to it;

    (4) the specific character, property or genius of any language;

    (5) the language or dialect of a people, region, class, etc.


    You will understand that most definitions are “etymological”, as it were, and that Idioms in

    they seem to be synonymous with the word “dialect”. Hence it also follows that colloquial

    idioms have been characteristic of colloquial styles rather than of academically language

    cultivated written styles. And of course such colloquialisms have very often been criticized in the past.

For Thinking

    Which definition of „idiom‟ comes into your own mind first? Think of some idioms in Czech.


    Relatively recently, pre-structuralists (and descriptive grammarians generally) mentioned “idioms” in their essays, but they too seemed to look upon them as phrases which broke the laws of grammar and logic; i.e. idioms did not fit into the framework of structuralism.

For Thinking

Try to think of some Czech idioms that break the laws of grammar and/or logic.


    A new wave in studies on idioms can be seen in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. Idiomatics

    Yet we have to admit that idiomaticity was examined closely even earlier, by as a

    Soviet (Russian) scholars who were deeply concerned with lexicology. They discipline

    proposed that “idiomatics” should be a relatively independent linguistic discipline! Nowadays, psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic experiments have added considerably to research on idiomaticity.

Spotlight on Idioms

    You‟ll notice that the heading of each chapter in this text includes a common idiom. For this chapter it‟s „double Dutch‟, which means „something I don‟t understand at all, something that‟s a complete mystery to me‟. It‟s claimed that the idiom originated in the speech of English sailors, who had close contact with their counterparts in the Netherlands. The sailors thought Dutch sounded particularly strange to their ears, and so if we don‟t understand something, we say it‟s „double Dutch‟. Another language idiom is when we say that something is

    „all Greek to me‟, meaning we don‟t understand it.


    1. Most definitions of “idiom” point to peculiarity in language, thus implying

    that “idiom” might be a synonymous concept to “dialect”. However, among

    the five illustrative definitions (see 1.2) one is of a different sense, and could

    be accompanied with such examples as idiom of Shakespeare, idiom of

    colours, etc. Can you briefly comment upon this?


    2. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the author of A Dictionary of the English Language

    (1755), regrets that “colloquial licentiousness … sully the grammatical

    purity.” What was his attitude toward idioms?

    3. In 1988, Fillmore, Kay and O‟Connor published their study entitled

    “Regularity and idiomaticity in grammatical constructions: The case of „Let

    alone‟.” Although you may not have read it, can you judge what their opinion

    on the status of idioms was? (see 1.3).


    The aim of this chapter has been to set out the parameters of idiomaticity as a modern linguistic discipline. In recent years the subject has come to the fore of linguistic studies, and researchers into psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics have begun to take an especial interest in the issue of idioms. Idioms have historically been seen as part of colloquial language; however there are many possible definitions of the term.

Study Guide

    You may now be wondering just what you‟re getting into with the subject of idioms! It probably seems quite complicated, and you‟ve probably found that you don‟t actually know 100% precisely what the word „idiom‟ actually means. But that‟s the point of this course – to help you think like a linguist about the language you commonly use every day.


    Chapter Two


    (“Will my English pass muster?”)

In this chapter you will learn

    ; that idiomaticity is believed to work as an “incorporating

    discipline” of all research in language use.

You will be able

    ; to discern between (grammatical) correctness and idiomaticity;

    ; to find practical solutions of a few issues of idiomaticity in its

    broader sense.

Key words:

    Grammatical correctness, acceptability, breaches of idiomaticity, accent

Time for study: 3 4 hours


    Idiomaticity will encompass not only idioms proper (see Chapter One) but also other What is

    expressions which may violate the expected rules of grammar and/or logic (see Chapter idiomaticity? Three). And, moreover, idiomaticity is believed to be what makes the expressions in a language sound appropriate and natural to the ear of native speakers. Thus we can imagine that idiomaticity travels, as it were, through and across all language strata, from phonetics to pragmatics. Viewed like this, in the broader sense of the word, idiomaticity has a right to existence, at least in foreign language teaching. We assume that it is not enough to learn the lexicon and the grammar; learners will soon understand that whatever they say/write in English must have a peculiar, domestic “flavour” which renders the expression natural.

2.2 Idiomaticity

    Let us note that what is considered grammatical need not be idiomatic, and what is accepted and grammar

    as idiomatic may often be ungrammatical. Native speakers and fluent speakers of English as a second language will see immediately that there is something wrong with the following examples:


    Illustrative Examples

     r(1) My daughter [do:d ] is writing [raidiŋ] a letter [let]. ?

    (2) We must take a lift to get to his apartment.

    (3) We‟re taking a plane to Paris tomorrow at 7 p.m.

    (4) May I make a photo of you?

    (5) Dear Mister President, I‟ll come and meet you at the airport and give you a lift to our

    place of the get-together.

    (6) Oroonoko, a negro prince …, loved Imoinda, a general‟s daughter. They sought her for

    the king‟s harem, and in the end the king sold her into slavery when he discovered her

    love for Oroonoko.

For Thinking

    Readers of the present study material can test their level of knowledge (= idiomatic command) of English now. All the illustrative utterances are, undoubtedly, correct from the point of view of grammar, aren‟t they? And yet which of them strike you as inappropriate (= non-idiomatic)

    first? And which of them do you have to stop to think about?

    2.3 Context-Those who passed phonetic classes at university level will understand the impropriety of bound swapping from a British to an American accent (pronunciation) in one‟s unmarked oral idiomaticity performance. And the same applies for the lexical and grammatical peculiarities of the respective varieties of English. Then, remaining on British soil, fairly advanced learners would be hesitant about the spelling and the choice of words when addressing a president, and being well-trained and knowledgeable of the interplay of grammatical and semantic phenomena, they would, very probably, prefer switching to passive constructions in (6). Last but not least, learners must, indeed, be very advanced to sense (unless they have been told explicitly by their teachers) that “to make a photo” is not the proper question to ask for permission of taking a snap of (a)person(s), and that we do say “take a bus/tram/train,” etc., ()but not *take (my) car, and that “flying” is more appropriate than, literally, “* taking a


    2.4 Breaches of Let us notice that, unlike the examples here above, it‟s me; as it were; by and large, etc. are idiomaticity incorrect, and yet they are idiomatic! The explanation is as follows: what we have in mind, though subconsciously, is grammatical correctness. As we can see, however, also from our everyday experience with language, speaking in terms of idiomaticity makes it easy for us to incorporate into our cultivated speech everything that is generally understood to be acceptable in morphology, syntax, semantics, and even in phonetics. Breaches of idiomaticity, including faulty pronunciation, surely add to the foreign flavour in the learner‟s speech, and they are the strongest markers of “an accent”. In order to avoid this, teachers should pay attention to the

    idiomatic performance of their pupils from the very beginning of the learning/teaching process.


    For Thinking

    Can you think of any examples of breaches of idiomaticity (including faulty pronunciation) that marks out foreign speakers of Czech?

Spotlight on Idioms

    This chapter‟s idiom is „pass muster‟. It‟s another idiom originally from a naval (or military) background and means „to meet the required standard‟. The word „muster‟, meaning a line-

    up of soldiers for inspection, is hardly ever used on its own in modern English, and has effectively survived only as part of the idiom. You‟ll come across many more idioms of the same type, which preserve old words that would otherwise have died out for example „give

    somebody short shrift‟, meaning to send somebody away and dismiss their request or complaint, often rudely. Nowadays the word „shrift‟ (an old English legal term) is only used in the idiom, and even the reason why the idiom has come to mean what it does is unclear!


    1. Some linguists have maintained that it would do to have a supply of lexical units in our

    mental lexicon and a set of rules in order to combine these, no matter whether we call

    them „words‟, „morphemes‟, or anything. Do you think this requirement will satisfy the

    language‟s need for natural fluency?

    2. As for the allegedly non-idiomatic utterances (1) to (6) in 2.2, you will get the idea of “a

    more natural wording” of these after having read the comment in 2.3. Yet in order to be

    certain, how actually would you re-phrase sentences (2) to (6) to make them sound (more)

    natural to native speakers‟ ears?

3. What do you find non-idiomatic in the following sentences?

    ? He could not climb a horse.

    ? He is known to have been making compliments to every woman.

    ? All conflicts have been finished.

    (After J. Bahns, see Bibliography)


    The aim of this chapter has been to show that idiomaticity is what makes language sound „natural‟. It is breaches of idiomaticity that mark out foreign speakers as much as a foreign

    „accent‟. Idioms often do not conform to correct grammar, but are an accepted part of usage in the language.

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