Accessible Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton March 21, 2017

Semantic mapping: What happens to idioms in discourse

Jonathan Owens and Robin Dodsworth
From the journal Linguistics

Abstract

Idioms have generally played a supporting rather than a leading role in research on figurative language. In Cognitive Linguistics for instance idioms have been understood against how they are embedded in conceptual metaphors (Lakoff 1987, Women, fire, and dangerous things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Clausner and Croft 1997, Productivity and schematicity in metaphors. Cognitive Science 21. 247–282) while in the experimental psycholinguistic tradition their role has been to challenge the basis of conceptual metaphor in “priming” figurative language (Glucksberg et al. 1993, Conceptual metaphors are not automatically accessed during idiom comprehension. Memory and Cognition 21. 711–719; McGlone 2007, What is the explanatory value of a conceptual metaphor? Language and Communication 27. 109–206). It is, moreover, broadly assumed that criteria defining grammatical properties of idioms are limited to their morphological and syntactic behavior (Nunberg et al. 1994, Idioms. Language 70. 491–538). While the pragmatic properties of idioms have been described informally (Glucksberg 2001. Understanding figurative language: From metaphors to idioms (Oxford psychology series 36). Oxford: OUP), there are few studies which systematically contrast the behavior of nouns in literal vs. idiomatic expressions in discourse. Using a battery of criteria which has been developed to study discourse properties of subjects in spoken Arabic (Owens et al. 2013. Subject expression and discourse embeddedness in Emirati Arabic. Language Variation and Change 25. 255–285), we show that keyword nouns in Nigerian Arabic are significantly different according to whether they are idiomatic or literal. The basis of the conclusion is the statistical analysis of 1403 tokens derived from a large corpus of natural Nigerian Arabic texts. Nouns in idiomatic expressions are opaque to discourse in a way those in literal ones are not. To explain the statistical results we argue that idioms partake in a ‘semantic mapping’ which incorporates the noun and its collocate in the idiom into a word-like unit, rendering it largely invisible to subsequent discourse. Since Nigerian Arabic idiomatic nouns, as is shown, display no clause-internal syntactic constraints, exhibit no cross-clausal syntactic dependencies, and show no significant interactions with possessive pronouns which ostensibly appear to mark the discourse argument of the keyword they are suffixed to, it is concluded that the mapping is of semantic nature. Other than exemplifying basic facts obtained via elicitation, the entire argument hinges on an examination of nouns in actual spoken discourse. The article establishes that large corpora coupled with multivariate statistical treatment contribute directly to understanding semantic factors difficult to evaluate via direct elicitation or examination of individual examples, in this case the sensitivity of cross-clausal referentiality to idiomatic contextualization.

Funding source: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Council)

Award Identifier / Grant number: OW 5/5-1/3

Funding statement: Research was generously supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Council) under grant OW 5/5-1/3, Idiomaticity and lexical realignment in spoken Arabic.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Prof. Jidda Hassan, Prof. Sherif Abdulahi, Ibrahim Adamu, Kellu Ibrahim and Prof. Bosoma Sherif for their persistent support in the research on Nigerian Arabic.

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Online data corpus:

Owens, Jonathan and Jidda Hassan. In their own voices, in their own words: A corpus of spoken Nigerian Arabic. http://www.neu.uni-bayreuth.de/de/Uni_Bayreuth/Fakultaeten/4_Sprach_und_Literaturwissenschaft/islamwissenschaft/arabistik/en/Idiomaticity__lexical_realignment__and_semantic_change_in_spoken_arabic/Nigerian_Arabic/index.html

Appendix

This appendix adds further examples illustrating the parameters defined in Section 3.2, showing that nouns in literal and idiomatic expressions occur in parallel contexts.

Literal non-body part noun qalla ‘grain’, referred to by object pronoun in two following clauses.

(a)

i-jiib-ui lee-naiii al qallaii foog at tawwaar ninš-uiii bi-kiil-uuihaii min borno bi-jiib-uui-haii.

‘…they’d bring us grain on the bulls. We’d go and they measured (i. e. bought it in measures) it from the Kanuri’

(TV44b)

Literal body part noun ʔeen ‘eye’, referred to by object pronoun in two following clauses.

(b)
ʔeeni-akdamati-sill-ahaitu-zugg-ii-niba-ai
eye-yourDETnoyou-remove-it.Fyou-throw-F-mewith-it.F

  1. ‘That eye of yours, don’t take it out and hit me with it’

    (GR153, from a folktale)

Noun in idiomatic expressions referred to by object pronoun in following clause.

(c)

ana gul wu al-katkadá di di bas een-íi hu rijil-í bas ar raajil bi-šiil-hai bi-rmiy-ai

‘I said this very paper is my eye and my leg (necessity) then a person takes it and throws it … ’

(IM138)

Note that this has an ambiguous reference. The object pronoun bišiilha is feminine, as is ʔeen ‘eye’, so grammatically –ha can be seen as anaphoric to ʔeen. However, the subject noun ‘paper’, katkada, is also feminine, so it could be that –ha refers only to this noun.

Published Online: 2017-3-21
Published in Print: 2017-5-24

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