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READING: Fernando, Ch./Flavell, R. 1981. On Idiom: Critical Views And Perspectives. (Exeter Linguistic Studies, 5). Exeter: University of Exeter, pp. 18-48

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CHAPTER II

THE NATURE OF IDIOM  

(in: EXETER LINGUISTIC STUDIES, Vol. 5, ON IDIOM - Critical views and perspectives, BY Chitra Fernando and Roger Flavell, University of Exeter, 1981)

 

2.1 Characterising Idioms  

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 have already been presented in the previous chapter. If one narrowed down the consideration of idiomaticity to the specific problem of definition it is possible to identify two approaches to what idiomaticity is:

(i) Those scholars who adopt the first approach look on idiomaticity as manifesting the specific character or genius of a language. Their investigations of idiomaticity are directed towards revealing this specific character which is, in effect part of the underlying conceptual design of the language. Such an approach ultimately leads to the nature of cognition itself and therefore has strong psycholinguistic implications. The chief exemplars of this approach to idiomaticity in the Anglo-American tradition of linguistics, Smith (1925) and Roberts (1944), do not carry their investigations to these depths. Their work, already referred to in Section 1.1, simply outlines the cultural preoccupations, the 'world view' implicit in the idioms of English, together with the pecularities of phrasing and other distinguishing features (e.g. non-literalness) that distinguish expressions as idioms. But the main emphasis in such work is on the conceptual design of the language in so far as it emerges through a consideration of idiomaticity rather than on the structural properties of idioms.

(ii) Scholars who adopt the second approach are more structurally orientated and seek to define idiomaticity in terms of one or more structural properties. They are, therefore more selective in their indentification of idioms. The second approach, in addition, enables the linguist to make topological classifications of such idioms on the basis of the properties he adopts as criteria. The majority of the scholars whose work has been examined in Chapter I adopt this second approach which is also the one adopted in this chapter.  

2.2 Morpho-syntacitc Composition  

Of the five properties listed in Chapter I the fact that an idiom is non-literal functions as the highest common denominator of idiomaticity. As far as definitions encapsulating properties go, Hockett's is the most explicit (Section 1.2)

 

p. 19

and has been adopted in one form or another by several later scholars. Makkai rejects Hockett's definition on the grounds that it is a catch-all for virtually everything in a language and argues that it is more economical "to use the term idiom only for units realised by at least two [free] morphemes" (1972: 58). We have, accordingly, two conflicting criteria, a conflict that is reflected in the variety of morphological forms that have been identified as idioms: bound forms, single free forms, compounds, phrases and sentences. As far as idiom types go such forms range from proverbs and metaphors to a variety of set phrases including rhetorical questions like Has the cat got your tongue? and social formulae like Long live X. This multiplicity of morphological forms and idiom types gives rise to two major problems:

(i) Should one of the defining criteria of idiom be morphological structure? Should such a structure entail a constraint which would result in a minimal and maximal size for an idiom?

(ii) How should the fact that idiomaticity is a phenomenon lacking in monolithic uniformity be best brought out? There are various types of idiom. If the fact that the meaning of an idiom is not the compositional function of its constituent parts (i.e. an idiom is non-literal) is taken as the highest common denominator of idiomaticity, then obviously the meaning of kick the bucket is much less easily deducible from its constituent parts than long live X which borders on the literal. Yet the latter has some claim to be considered an idiom in terms of the fact that it is a set expression which is institutionalised as such in a given language.

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