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Corpus Linguistics meets Cognitive Linguistics: A framework for the analysis of idioms

Idioms are traditionally defined as linguistic units whose meaning is more than the sum of the meanings of their constituent parts; hence they are considered classic examples of violation of the principle of compositionality. This definition has proven to be largely unsatisfactory for capturing the very essence of idiomatic expressions.

In the cognitive linguistic framework idioms are regarded as central for the study of language and the human mind. Like other linguistic units idioms are treated as symbolic units, which associate a phonological (formal) representation with a semantic representation (Taylor 2002).

This paper presents a corpus-based analysis of German verb phrase idioms such as aus der Haut fahren (literally "drive out of one's skin", 'fly off the handle') or Öl ins Feuer gießen ('add fuel to the fire').

A central claim of this paper is that in order to determine the semantic and grammatical properties of idioms, their analysis in actual usage is indispensable. More importantly, the key to the understanding of idioms is the analysis of idiom modification as revealed in large corpora: 1) Modification of idiom components by adjectives, genitive and prepositional attributes, relative clauses, and compounding, 2) Substitution of idiom components by other words or phrases such as substitution by synonyms, hyponyms, and hyperonyms. 3) Wordplay, which usually extends over larger stretches of text.

Nunberg et al. (1994) relate modifiability to semantic analysability, i.e. the possibility that an idiom is analysable into components which themselves can be assigned meanings, e.g. spill the beans (‘reveal the secret’). Non-analysable idioms like kick the bucket (‘die’) are seen as units which resist analysability and therefore also modifiability (Gibbs et al. 1989). This model predicts that only analysable idioms can be modified.

In this paper, I argue against the notion of semantic analysability as a helpful notion in the analysis of idiom modification and idiom behaviour in general. An alternative framework for the description and explanation of the use of idioms in texts is proposed which explains two phenomena: 1) Actual use of idioms and especially "non-canonical" uses as revealed by types of modification. 2) The relation between literal and idiomatic meaning, which has troubled early generative approaches and psycholinguistic research on idioms. Idioms are best treated as gestalts whose literal meaning evokes a concrete imaginable scene. Idiom modification involves both the level of literal meaning and the more abstract level of idiomatic meaning. Often both levels are simultaneously present in a text. Our analysis allows a refinement of the theory of symbolic units in Cognitive linguistics and a description of how conceptual structure is mapped onto language.



Gibbs, R. et al. (1989) "How to kick the bucket and not decompose: Analyzability and idiom processing". Journal of Memory and Language 28, 576-593.

Moon, R. (1998) Fixed Expressions and Idioms in English: A Corpus-Based Approach. Oxford: Clarendon.

Nunberg, G. et al. (1994) "Idioms." Language 70, 491-538.

Taylor, J. (2002) Cognitive Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.