Creativity is an inherent property of idioms. According to Langlotz (2006), idioms feature creativity in two interacting ways: variational creativity relates to phenomena of syntactic variation, whereas intrinsic creativity applies to the idiom’s “internal structure [that] incorporates the systematic and creative extension of semantic structures” (Langlotz 2006: 11). Additionally, we can also be creative using idioms, for instance, by deliberately varying them. As our creativity is shaped by individual and cultural experience, and as this experience is at least partly available in the form of conceptual metaphors, conceptual metaphors serve as entrenched templates on which creativity can take place. Therefore, the study of creativity in the use of idioms gives a deep insight into the interplay of creativity, entrenchment, and conventionality in figurative language.
As creative extensions of idioms can be traced back to conventional images by speakers, the idiom’s figurative origin gets revitalized. Many idioms are motivated by one or a set of conceptual metaphors, e. g., the idiom spill the beans is motivated by the metaphors the mind is a container and ideas are entities. A great number of studies in the last two decades have shown how a process of revitalizing can be elicited in experimental settings (e. g. Gibbs & O’Brien 1994; Gibbs, Bogdanovic, Sykes & Barr 1997). The findings of these studies suggest that many idioms must be considered as “vivid” rather than “dead” metaphors.
Recently, Müller (2008) presented data that proves activation processes of metaphors during everyday discourse. From a multi-modal point of view, gestures can reveal the activation of a metaphor during the verbal use of so called “dead metaphors.” As a result, Müller rejects the notion that metaphors are either “dead” or “alive,” or “conventional” or “novel,” and points to the dynamic aspect of metaphors. Metaphors can be more or less activated in a speaker, depending on the actual cognitive demands in discourse. In this sense, metaphors are either “sleeping” or “waking.” They do not need to be present and active while using metaphorical expressions, but metaphorical expressions can make them “wake up” during actual discourse.
In the field of language acquisition, children’s understanding of metaphorical idioms is often linked with their understanding of other forms of fixed or phraseological language such as collocations, idiomatic compounds, and phrasal verbs (e. g. Buhofer 1980). Therefore, idioms are believed to be learned as “fixed phrases,” and to resist a semantic analysis by the learners. According to Häcki Buhofer (1997), children’s awareness of the dual semantic structure of idioms does not occur before elementary school age; until then, children will not analyse idioms. Nevertheless, certain parts of an idiom (the verb or the noun) can often influence the children's interpretation of an idiom in a “syncretistic-literal” way: children, then, understand idioms neither literally nor figuratively but rather according to their individual, age-appropriate beliefs.
In my talk, I will present and discuss data of children aged 5 to 10 talking about anger. In a cross-sectional study, interviews were used to elicit figurative and non-figurative language. To elicit figurative language, common metaphorical idioms were used by the interviewer “along the way,” i. e. idioms (such as einem platzt der Kragen “one’s collar bursts” ‘to be in rage’) were embedded in the interviewer’s questions to elicit and to enhance figurative language in the children's answers (so called “argreement-seeking method”). Children responded to this method in different ways. While some repeated the presented idiom, others just used another idiom, and few participants varied the given input. The variation of the presented idiom appeared in different ways: older children varied the presented idiom in accordance with the underlying conceptual metaphor (e. g. mir hätte der Kopf platzen können “my head could have burst” anger is hot fluid in a container), younger children varied the idiom in accordance with the literal meaning of the idiom (e. g. da würde mir fast die Hose platzen “my pants nearly would burst”).
These findings raise the question of how children analyze idioms. This questions is not meant to refer to children’s explanations of an idiom’s meaning. Rather, it focuses on the issue whether or not children unconsciously treat idioms as a possible instance of a conceptual metaphor. The different kinds of variation of the presented idiom do seem to reflect an unconscious process of re-analysing the idiom. Therefore, variations can provide insights into the process of the comprehension of idioms. Creative variations of an idiom can display an activation of the underlying conceptual metaphor. In my study, this activation was forced by the interviewer's use of an idiom. The results show that such an activation was more successful among older children. This suggests a simple answer to the above raised question: children may understand idioms on the basis of conceptual metaphors – but this requires the entrenchment of the metaphor. Once a metaphor is entrenched, it can serve as an interpretational tool for idioms, and children are able to catch the intrinsic creativity of idioms. If children lack this tool of interpretation, they will stick more or less to the literal or “syncretisitc-literal” meaning.
Buhofer, Annelies (1980): Der Spracherwerb von phraseologischen Wortverbindungen. Eine psycholinguistische Untersuchung an schweizerdeutschem Material. Frauenfeld.
Gibbs, Raymond W. & Jennifer E. O‘Brien (1990): Idioms and mental imagery: The metaphorical motivation for idiomatic meaning. Cognition 36: 35-68.
Gibbs, Raymond W., Josephine M. Bogdanovich, Jeffrey S. Sykes, & Dale J. Barr (1997): Metaphor in Idiom Comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language 37: 141-154.
Häcki Buhofer, Annelies (1997): Phraseologismen im Spracherwerb. Wortbildung und Phraseologie, R. Wimmer und F.-J. Berens [Hgg.], 209-232. Tübingen.
Lakoff, George (1987): Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University Press.
Langlotz, Andreas (2006): Idiomatic Creativity. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Müller, Cornelia (2008): What gestures reveal about the nature of metaphor. Metaphor and Gesture, A. Cienki & C. Müller [Hgg.], 219-245. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.