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Phraseological Expressions

11 November 2009

Upcoming talk by Dr Gordon Tucker : Tuesday, November 24th at 5pm in room 5.18 in the Humanities Building at Cardiff University.

Modelling Phraseological Expressions in a Systemic Functional Grammar
Gordon Tucker
Cardiff University

As previous LinC talks will have made clear, grammatical and lexical organisation together constitute a resource – the ‘lexicogrammatical’ resource – for making meanings. Speakers of a language are able to exploit this combined resource (and its meaning potential) to make or understand those meanings that are personally and socially relevant in any given speech event. To what extent, however, do speakers exploit the resource ex-novo each time they produce and interpret language in the act of making and understanding meanings?

Subverting the first part of a claim of Chomsky’s, namely that,
A very basic fact of language is that speakers are constantly confronted with expressions that they have never encountered in their previous linguistic experience, and that they can nevertheless produce and understand with no effort” Chomsky 2002:2)
I have proposed that,
A very basic fact of language is that speakers are constantly confronted with expressions that they have encountered, either fully or in part, in their previous linguistic experience. (Tucker 2007:239)

This observation is by no means novel. Numerous studies, particularly from within the discipline of corpus linguistics, but also within a psycholinguistic context, have shown that a substantial amount of the language we hear and use is not original or creative (see for example Moon 1998, Wray 2002, Sinclair 1987, Hoey 2005). And in the same way that we share most of the grammatical resource and much of the lexical resource, we also share many of the ‘whole expressions’ that are produced. Whilst every linguistic expression starts out life as unique and original, many are taken ‘lock, stock and barrel’, borrowed, re-used, appropriated, re-cycled etc. by successive individual and whole communities of speakers. The motivation for, and the functions served in doing this are many (see Wray 2002 for a comprehensive account). Essentially, a holistic expression, with the meaning(s) that it conveys, is adopted by subsequent speakers in a similar way to buying clothes and other items ‘off the peg’ or ‘ready made’. And, naturally, the more an expression is adopted by other speakers, the more we are all exposed to it.

Linguistic interaction is thus extensively populated by phraseological expressions (formulae, idioms, fixed and semi-fixed expressions etc.). Not only do such expressions have relative constancy in terms of their meanings, they often take on, or constitute a single meaning, particularly from a functional/pragmatic perspective. Indeed, some would claim that such expressions are not subject to (lexicogrammatical) analysis either by speakers or hearers, but are understood and used as a single whole (Wray 2002:4), Sinclair 1987:320).

Any lexicogrammatical theory that claims to account for the relationship between meaning/function and form must therefore address the question of phraseology, particularly from the perspective of the production of holistic expressions which may be taken to have a single overall meaning, rather than the meaning of their parts.

In this talk, I will address this question in respect of systemic functional grammar (SFG). I will show that an SFG – and here the Cardiff Grammar – has the resources to model phraseological phenomena, and outline how fixed and semi-fixed expressions are represented in the grammar. I will also claim that the Cardiff Grammar approach satisfies both the view that such expressions are unanalysed wholes, and the view that the underlying ‘meaning of their parts’ is still available when necessary. I should point out, in advance, that this is an account of how such expressions are represented in the grammar, and not in any sense an account of how they are produced and interpreted from a psycholinguistic point of view.

Chomsky, N. (2002) On nature and language. Edited by A. Belletti and L. Rizzi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hoey, M. (2005), Lexical priming: a new theory of words and language. London and New York: Routledge.
Moon, R. (1998) Fixed expressions and idioms in English: a corpus-based approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sinclair, J. (1987b) ‘Collocation: a progress report’, in R. Steele and T. Threadgold (Eds.) Language topics: essays in honour of Michael Halliday. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 319-32.
Tucker, G.H. (2007) ‘Exposure, Expectations and Probabilities: Implications for Language Learning’. In A. McCabe, R. Whittaker and M. O’Donnell (Eds.) Advances in Language and Education. London: Continuum International.
Wray, A. (2002). Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Further references to my work on phraseology within an SFG framework
Tucker, Gordon H. (1996) “So grammarians haven’t the faintest idea: reconciling lexis-oriented and grammar-oriented approaches to language.” in R. Hasan, C. Cloran, and D.G. Butt. (Eds.) Functional Descriptions: Theory in Practice. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Tucker, Gordon H. (2001) “’Getting our heads around it’: semantic and syntactic tension in the transitivity analysis of metaphorically-derived multi-word verbs.” Studi Italiani di Linguistica Teorica e Applicata XXX.2, 303-313.
Tucker, Gordon H. (2006) “Systemic incorporation: on the relationship between corpus and Systemic Functional Grammar.”, in G. Thompson and S. Hunston (Eds.) System and Corpus: Exploring Connections. London: Equinox, 81-102
Tucker, Gordon H. (2007) “Between lexis and grammar: towards a systemic functional approach to phraseology”, in C. Matthiessen, R. Hasan and J. Webster ( Eds.) Continuing Discourse on Language: A Functional Perspective, Vol. 2. London: Equinox, 954-977.
Tucker, Gordon H. (2007) “‘Sorry to muddy the waters’. Accounting for speech act formulae and formulaic variation in a systemic functional model of language.” in C.S. Butler, R. Hidalgo Downing, and J. Lavid (Eds.) Functional Perspectives on Grammar and Discourse: In Honour of Angela Downing. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 395-418.