final questions and answers

for Dan Sanford’s 490/590 seminar: Formulaic Language.

i had to pick two out of these four:

  • What is the difference, with respect to idioms, between compositionality and conventionality? Why is it a mistake to confuse the two?
  • How are the questions of whether or not idioms are compositional, and whether or not they’re metaphorical, related?
  • Nunberg, Sag, & Wasow make a distinction between Idiomatically Combining Expressions and Idiomatic Phrases, while Fillmore, Kay, & O’Connor make a distinction between encoding vs. decoding idioms. Are the making the same distinction?
  • Construction Grammar explains idioms using the same apparatus that it uses to explain words and sentences. How does that work, exactly?

I chose questions 1 & 4. Following are my answers:

1. The study of idioms has expanded our understanding of processes that work together in dynamic and deeply interrelated ways. This constant discovery of mechanisms accumulates in a large body of work that consists of the observation of and explanation for many overlapping phenomena. The terminology in Linguistics is dense, to be sure. Using words to describe words is a particular challenge because of the nature of words. The ability of language to reproduce itself and create new levels of understanding spontaneously also prohibits consistently translucent definitions. A good example of this threat for confusion is the difference between compositionality and conventionality. Both refer to characteristics of idioms, but the end results in the type of idiom described are different when using these two terms. One of the challenges in understanding these differences is the fact that each author does his or her best to explain their understanding as best they can, and are rarely are successful in sharing exactly what they mean. With this sense of self-awareness I will attempt to describe the difference between the two. Compositionality describes the way an idiom interacts with the language around it. As idioms become less compositional, they become idiomatic phrases (Nunberg & Wasow, 497). Idiomatic phrases are used in such a way that there is no separation of the parts from each other. Phrases such as “jump the gun” are rarely, if ever, seen separated by another part of speech. This reflects the phrasal nature of the idiom, as well as the fact that this phrase only occurs in contexts where the meaning is “one got ahead of one’s self.” At the other end of the spectrum exist idiomatically combining expressions (ICEs) which, although understood at the conceptual level, can be altered via the use of topicality, VP-ellipsis and other arrangement strategies to further specify the conceptual domain of the idiom. An example might be “his opinion pushed a button or two.” The expansion of expression is reflected at the surface level and has a matching correlation at the conceptual level. The literal meaning of the expression is not applicable in either case. The relationship of Conventionality to Compositionality rides on the distinction between idiomatic phrases and ICEs. The conventionality of an idiom is measured in part by its noncompositionality, that is, its status as an idiomatic phrase. These are the phrases that function in speech and in society as normalized nonliteral expressions that the least likely to be used in a manner not in keeping with their commonly understood conceptual message. Conventional idioms are more often used as examples of idioms since they are standardized to a degree. On the other hand, compositional idioms are more often used in spontaneous conversation, since they are more productive.

4. Humans understand language more holistically than any analysis will ever convey. In studying language, the scientist isolates and labels parts, and seeks to explain every level of language as thoroughly as possible. However, this approach stands intrinsically at odds with the way people produce and perceive language. As a result, in our continuing quest to understand it, we have had to overcome certain perceptions which although seemingly intuitive, are incorrect and based on assumptions which do not take into account the holistic nature of linguistic patterns. Construction Grammar (CG), instead of forcing idiomatic expressions into categories in which they do not fit, such as the lexicon or a set of transformational rules, approaches them as indivisible, recognizable linguistic units. In this manner, the parts of an idiom, although separable like the morphemes of a word, cannot be considered meaningful parts on their own. Also at the sentential level, the whole meaning cannot be deciphered when the semantic relationships between the components of the sentence are attended to individually. In separating language across finer distinctions, to the level of allophones, the scientist becomes further removed from the meaning of the whole. The value of approaches like CG is that they address the trends and patterns that comprise the highly regulated structures in language. This is an opposing view to the traditional approach that requires the disassembling of linguistic units, and the subsequent effort to put them back together analytically, as dissected, isolated units with a proper name via the use of rules that often wind up with more exceptions than examples. The inexplicable nature of idioms within this paradigm forced the scientist to consider alternative approaches to the analysis. By accepting and studying idioms as units, many more patterns become visible. By focusing on the observation of linguistic patterns, instead of forming arbitrary criteria to which language must conform, CG can provide a deeper, richer set of explanations regarding the overall nature of language and how it is used to communicate. These explanations reflect the cognitive process more accurately than any set of transformational rules. CG shows us that the mind stores and uses linguistic units of varying length that bear a range of relationships between form and meaning. This ability is then used to efficiently convey meaning in one of the many ways we use to express ourselves. CG allows us to embrace a wider range of language usage than before. By looking at grammatical units as constructions rather than individual words, CG can account for the regular usage of phrases and collocations that before could only be labeled as “special” due to their seemingly contradictory use of duality of patterning while not adhering to the established convention of words as the only recognized meaningful linguistic unit. This is the same dual articulation that has been explored both at the sentential and word levels in the past, and which is at the core of the similarities between words, constructions, and sentences. CG, by establishing the construction as a meaningful unit of language, can more accurately reflect linguistic patterns and explain more holistically the use of language by speakers.

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