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Idioms: Production, Storage and Comprehension

MAREK HAVRILA
2009-11-07
The present paper offers a brief overview of theories on production, storage and comprehension of idiomatic
expressions and emphasizes the relative position of these expressions on the interface of grammar and
lexicon
Idioms: Production, Storage and Comprehension
!diomatic expressions, which b" definition are semanticall" non-compositional #cf eg $atz % &ostal
19'(), present a great challenge to traditional theories of language storage and comprehension based on
the principle of compositionalit" *owever, the existing non-compositional approaches to idioms cannot
definitel" confirm that idiomatic expressions have their meanings arbitraril" stipulated either The idea of
exclusivel" arbitrar" meaning stipulation was tac+led alread" b" ,acciari and Tabossi #19--), .ibbs et al
#19-9), /a"a+ et al #1990), who delivered evidence that it is possible to infer certain meaningful
relations between the literal sense of individual parts of an idiom and its idiomatic meaning 0nother
problematic 1uestion is the production of idioms 0lthough idiom storage and comprehension have been
discussed since 1970s #eg 2obrow and 2ell 197(), the 1uestion of production, which is prior to storage
and comprehension processes, was paradoxicall" tac+led as late as on the verge of new millennium
3or better visualization of actual interrelations between individual theories, the paper is arranged
chronologicall" and from-low-to-high complexit" of approaches rather than in logical order from-
production-to-comprehension
1. Storage
The level of idiom storage models is represented b" two theories 3ollowing the Separate List
Model #2obrow and 2ell 197(), idioms are stored as a separate list of items that has nothing to do with
the list of 4single4 literal words out of which idiomatic phrases were made up 0ccording to theSingle
Lexical Item Model #5winne" and ,utler 1979), idioms are stored in the mind as single lexical items in
the lexicon in the same wa" as 4single4 words
2. Production and Comprehension
!diom comprehension theories can be divided into three groups according to their approach to the
compositionalit" of idiom /on-compositional approaches assume that idioms are stored in the lexicon
and retrieved from it as whole 4long words4 #2obrow and 2ell 197(, 5winne" and ,utler 1979, .ibbs
19-0) ,ompositional models oppose the theor" of 4long words4 and assume that individual idiom
components contribute to the overall sense of an idiom #,acciari and Tabossi 19--, .ibbs et al19-9)
*"brid models approach to the idiom processing as to a combination of compositional and unitar"
features of s"ntactic and lexical-conceptual nodes in the mental lexicon #,utting and 2oc+ 1997, .iora
and 3ein 1999, 5prenger et al 200') ,utting and 2oc+ #1997) and 5prenger et al #200') present not
onl" their h"brid theories of idiom comprehension, but the" also focus their attention to the explanation
of the process of idiom production
2.1 Non-Compositional Perspectives
2.1.1 Idiom List Hypothesis (Literal-First-Hypothesis)
2obrow and 2ell #197() suggest that fixed expressions are stored as a separate list or an 6idiom
word6 dictionar" of long complex words #2obrow and 2ell 197(7(8() in a special idiom lexicon where
these expressions are stored, respectivel" accessed as single lexical items The idiom list h"pothesis,
often referred to as the Literal-First-Hypothesis of idiom comprehension #9ega-:oreno 2001), suggests
that literal meaning is activated prior to the activation of figurative meaning !n other words, an" t"pe of
expression is b" default processed literall" first !f the meaning does not match the context, the idiom
mode of processing is activated, and the expression is chec+ed for an appropriate figurative #idiomatic)
meaning b" accessing one;s idiom word dictionary This model of idiom comprehension implies that it
would ta+e longer for idioms to be processed than for literal word combinations< however, 5winne" %
,utler #1979) proved that the comprehension of idiomatic expressions is not more time-consuming than
that of non-idiomatic ones #cf also =rton" et al 197-)
2.1.2 Lexical Representation Theory (Simultaneous Processing Hypothesis)
5imilarl" to 2obrow and 2ell #197(), 5winne" and ,utler #1979) suggest that idiomatic expressions
are stored and mentall" processed as long ambiguous single lexical units #long words) whose all potential
meanings are accessed when such a 4long word4 is encountered The difference between the !diom >ist
*"pothesis and the >exical ?epresentation Theor" is that the latter suggests that these long words are
stored in the general lexicon 5wine" and ,uttler #1979) argue against the priorit" of literal
interpretation, and in their model, also referred to as the Simultaneous Processing Hypothesis #9ega-
:oreno 2001), the" re@ect an" special idiom processing mode and propose parallel access instead The
reason for diverting from the !diom >ist *"pothesis derives from experimental findings that show that
understanding idioms #eg kick the bucket) does not ta+e longer than understanding literal strings
#eg strike the pail) #=rton" et al 197-< 5winne" % ,utler 1979) Ahen the listener encounters the first
constituent of a fixed expression, processing of both potential meanings is triggered, but the figurative
one is preferred as soon as the idiomatic features are identified The assumption of a simultaneous
access of human mind to literal as well as figurative semantics of Blong words; is considered to be the
explanation to wh" figurative and literal comprehension of language items ta+e principall" e1uall" long
time
2.1.3 Direct Access Hypothesis (Figurative-First-Hypothesis)
.ibbs #19-0) presents the Cirect 0ccess *"pothesis, also referred to as the Figuratie-First-
Hypothesis #9ega-:oreno 2001) diverting even more radicall" from 2obrow and 2ell;s assumptions
.ibbs suggests that the literal meaning of idioms is of less importance in comprehension because idioms
have strong conventional figurative meaning The 3igurative-3irst-*"pothesis proposes that idioms are
lexical items whose idiomatic meaning is retrieved directl" from the mental lexicon as soon as such a
string is encountered in an utterance #cf .ibbs 19-0, 19-2, 2002) *ence an idiom is accessed
figurativel" first, and onl" if the meaning is inappropriate to the context it is then interpreted literall"
.ibbs also tac+les 5winne" % ,utler;s #1979) account of idiom comprehension b" his suggestion that 6the
finding that idioms #eg kick the bucket) are processed faster than literal strings #eg Bstri+e the pail;)
does not necessaril" impl" that literal processing must ta+e place at all6 #9ega-:oreno 200177')
0ccording to this account, the literal reading not onl" is not prior to the idiomatic one, but can also be
completel" b"passed 6The direct access view simpl" claims that listeners need not automaticall" anal"ze
the complete literal meanings of linguistic expressions before accessing pragmatic +nowledge to figure
out what spea+ers mean to communicate6 #.ibbs 20027 8'0)
2.2. Compositional Perspectives
2.2.1 Configuration Hypothesis
The configuration h"pothesis proposed b" ,acciar" % Tabossi #19--) and later developed b" ,acciari
% .luc+sberg #1991) supports the simultaneous processing h"pothesis, however, without committing to
the idea that idioms are stored as lexical items The model suggests that idioms are grouped together
with other memorised strings such as parts of poems, titles of songs, l"rics or an" other se1uence of
words represented and distributed in the lexicon The h"pothesis emphasizes the compositional nature of
idioms, which however assumes that idioms are not treated as long words but rather as configurations of
words
,acciar" % Tabossi #19--) assume that a word combination #a potential idiomatic expression) is
initiall" processed literall" until a configuration 4+e"4 is recognized, and the idiomatic meaning is
activated 5ubse1uentl", literal and figurative #idiomatic) processing run in parallel until the literal sense
is definitel" re@ected and the idiomatic one is accepted as the intended interpretation The 4+e"4, usuall"
a word, is a point at which the hearer decides to re@ect the literal meaning option in favour of the
idiomatic one 5ince the recognition of idiomatic sense of an expression is principall" context-dependent,
recipients usuall" are able to recognise the 4idiom +e"4 in a configuration as soon as after the first or
second word in the string
The upgraded variant of ,onfiguration h"pothesis, proposed b" .luc+sberg #!n7 9ega-:oreno
2001) D1E, namel" the Phrase-Induced-Polysemy Model, assumes pol"semous character of words in the
string 0ccording to this h"pothesis, for example in the idiomatic string spill the beans the lexical
form spill conve"s an extra sense of ?F9F0>, and the lexical form bean carries an extra sense of
5F,?FT 3ollowing the model, understanding the string spill the beans as reeal the secret is @ust a
matter of an appropriate recognition of the #sub-)senses in the configuration
2.2.2 Idiom Decomposition Hypothesis (Conceptual Metaphor Model)
.ibbs et al #19-9) come up with the idea that idioms are not @ust dead metaphors whose meaning can
be paralleled with a simple 4single word4 literal paraphrase The authors do not re@ect the role of the
meaning stipulated to an idiom in the mental lexicon< however, according to the !diom Cecomposition
theor", individual words in an idiomatic expression seem to contribute to the overall figurative meaning
of the idiom due to their metaphoric potential that such words conve"
.ibbs; explanation of the contributive role of individual words to the overall meaning of the idiom is
based on the wor+ of >a+off and Gohnson #19-0) who suggest that language items are motivated b" pre-
existing conceptual metaphorical mappings in our long term memor" reflecting our life experience 3or
example, understanding an idiom such as spill the beansis a matter of mapping the two metaphorical
concepts that motivate the idiom7 :!/C !5 0 ,=/T0!/F? and !CF05 0?F &*H5!,0> F/T!T!F5 which can
get spilled out of the container and thus be revealed to others
=f course not all idioms are decomposable to the same extent on the basis of conceptual metaphor
.ibbs et al #19-9) define three degrees of idiom decomposabilit" #anal"zabilit") which the" relate to the
s"ntactic flexibilit" of idiomatic expressions ?esearch results suggest that there reall" is a direct relation
between semantic anal"zabilit" of idioms and their s"ntactic productivit" =n the one hand, some
idiomatic phrases can be seen in different s"ntactic alternations, and the" still maintain their figurative
meaning such as for example !ohn laid down the law #Gohn enforced the rules) =n the other hand, the
idiomatic sentence !ohn kicked the bucket #Gohn died) can not be used in passive transformation such
as"#he bucket was kicked by !ohn without disruption of its idiomatic interpretation The degree of
grammatical flexibilit" depends on the possibilit" of assigning particular meanings to individual words
comprising the idiom, and subse1uent definition of clear relations between them Ahereas the former
idiom can be passivized into #he law was laid down by !ohn without an" loss of figurative meaning, the
latter one can not be passivized into "#he bucket was kicked by !ohn, since the idiom is semanticall"
non-decomposable and no particular senses capable of ac1uiring certain grammatical roles can be
ascribed to the individual words comprising the idiom
2etween normall" decomposable and non-decomposable idioms lies a special group of abnormall"
decomposable idioms that displa" a restricted s"ntactic flexibilit" !ndividual constituents of abnormall"
decomposable idioms do not b" themselves refer directl" #literall") to some component of the idiomatic
reference but create onl" some metaphorical relation between individual parts and the referent 0n
example of an abnormall" decomposable idiom is carry a torch for somebody #to have warm feelings for
someone) 3or instance !ohn carried a torch for Sally can be passivized into $ torch for Sally was carried
by !ohn because the metaphorical relation between warm feelings and a torch impl"ing fire and warmth
can be established #.ibbs et al 19-97I7-) =n the basis of the sub-conscious sensitivit" to that
decomposabilit"-flexibilit" relation language users can reliabl" distinguish frozen and flexible idioms
2.3 Hybrid Perspectives
2.3.1 The Graded Salience Hypothesis (Comprehension)
The .raded 5alience *"pothesis, also referred to as the familiarity model, 6posits the priorit" of
salient #coded, context-independent, prominent) meanings6 #.iora 20027890) !t disregards the 1uestion
of compositionalit" or anal"sabilit" of idiom meaning, and it re@ects an" competition of literal and
figurative meanings in idiom comprehension The h"pothesis does not tac+le the s"ntax-lexicon interface,
but it is h"brid in the sense that it suggests a direct access to the meaning of a language item, whereb"
it does not posit the default priorit" of figurative interpretation of an expression The model presumes
the automatic access to an" most familiar #salient) interpretation of the linguistic expression The %most
salient& applies to an" literal and idiomatic sense of the expression This approach relativizes the absolute
role of the context in recognizing the appropriate meaning of an expression and assigns more
responsibilit" for assessing the right sense of an expression to its inherent semantic content The
decisive factor for a successful and fast interpretation of an expression is the salience and familiarit" of
individual items present in such an expression !n other words, 6more salient meanings - coded foremost
on our mind due to conventionalit", fre1uenc", familiarit" or protot"picalit" - are accessed faster and
reach sufficient levels of activation before less salient ones6 #>aurent et al 200'71I1) !t is important to
note that the model emphasises the irrelevance of the difference between literal and figurative
#idiomatic) meaning of a language item in access to its salient meaning
!n other words, the familiarit" and graded salience h"pothesis re@ects the processing difference
between literal and figurative language items and implies that the more familiar a language item is, the
more prominent is its position in the mental lexicon, and subse1uentl", the less decisive role in meaning
recognition is pla"ed b" contextual clues
The guiding role of context in appropriate meaning recognition applies onl" in cases in which there are
more than one approximatel" e1uall" salient meanings assignable to one language item =n the one
hand, the model supports the assumptions of the direct access model in the case of highl" salient
expressions, on the other, it pre-supposes a se1uential and context-guided access to the meaning of less
familiar language items
These conclusions arise from .iora and 3ein;s series of context conditioned comprehension tests
#.iora and 3ein 1999) in which access to meanings of different literal and idiomatic expressions with
different levels of familiarit" was assessed 3or instance, the comprehension of highl" familiar idioms in
the idiomaticall" biasing context activated their salient idiomatic meanings, whereas the less salient
literal meanings were hardl" accessed The same idioms set in the literall" biasing context activated
both, the literal as well as idiomatic meaning of the idioms =n the other hand, the comprehension of
less familiar idioms with approximatel" e1uall" salient idiomatic and literal interpretation set into an
idiomaticall" biasing context resulted in activation of both literal and idiomatic meanings of the
expression 3inall", the comprehension test with less familiar idioms set in a literall" biasing context
made literal meaning of the expression highl" salient, whereas the idiomatic meaning was activated onl"
marginall"
2.3.2a Syntactic-Conceptual Interface Model (Comprehension and Production)
,utting and 2oc+ #1997) propose a h"brid model of idiom processing suggesting a twofold,
simultaneousl" unitar" and compositional, perspective of idiom representation Their model is based on
>evelt;s speech production model #>evelt 19-9) who suggests that idiomatic expressions have their own
entries as lexical concepts ,utting and 2oc+;s s"ntactic-conceptual interface model #,utting and 2oc+
1997) assumes that idiom representation grounds on the mutual interpla" of s"ntax and lexicon 3rom
the viewpoint of s"ntax, ever" potential idiom representation consists of a set of rules forming a
structural frame with terminal nodes of grammaticall" categorized empt" slots These slots are filled in
with units derived from the lexicon, namel" with nodes for semantic concepts, words, morphemes and
phonemes that are mutuall" hierarchicall" interconnected The node representation in the lexicon must
grammaticall" compl" with specific re1uirements of the s"ntactic slot !n other words, idioms are not @ust
lexicalised, structurall" void long words but rather phrases with internal s"ntactic and semantic structure
!dioms are represented in the lexicon as wholes #nodes) located between the levels of lexical and
conceptual nodes, and hereafter the" are referred to as lexical-concept nodes The lexical representation
of an idiom-node is associated with a phrasal node #eg verb phrase) rather than with a single
grammatical categor" #eg verb) !diom retains the structural information in its lexical representation, so
that for example kick the bucket is represented as a phrasal node #verb phrase) in the s"ntactic part of
the s"stem !n the lexicon part, the lexical-conceptual node of the idiom is associated with individual
lexical nodes #lemmas) B+ic+;, Bthe; and Bbuc+et; that form the idiom
The above assumptions on the unitar" character of idioms consist in the observation that 6idiom
blends occur too rarel" in spontaneous speech6 #,utting and 2oc+ 19977I9) This observation led ,utting
and 2oc+ #1997) to the idea of a time pressure speech error test with idiom blends in which idiom pairs
with the same s"ntactic structure proved to be more sensitive and prone to error substitutions than pairs
with different s"ntactic structure #eg kick the bucket and meet your maker produced kick the maker)
3urthermore, 9(J of the substitutions were words of the same grammatical class as original words the"
replaced #,utting and 2oc+ 19977'() The grammatical class consistenc" in error substitution of words,
on the other hand, supports the assumption of s"ntactic sensitivit" #structure) of idioms and refutes the
perception of idioms as large single words without internal structure
2.3.2b The Superlemma Theory of Idiom Production (Comprehension and Production)
The 5uperlemma Theor" #5prenger et al 200') D2E, similarl" to ,utting and 2oc+ #1997) is based on
>evelt;s theor" of lexical access in speech production #>evelt 19-9) The model supports the assumption
of the h"brid, unitar" and compositional, representation of idiom #,utting and 2oc+ 1997) 0n idiom has
its unitar" idiomatic concept that activates individual lemmas it is composed of, but the lemmas are not
exclusivel" bound to one idiomatic meaning The idiomatic expression is represented in the lexicon and
activated b" a superlemma that relates to a specific lexical concept which in turn activates the single
lemmas comprising the superlemma #5prenger et al 200') 3or example the concept of 'dying' will
activate the superlemmakick the bucket which subse1uentl" activates the individual
lemmas kick, theand bucket The concept of 'dying' can activate an" other superlemma such as to bite
the dust, or to breathe one&s last, and those will compete for production in the actual speech the same
wa" as simple lemmas do in the case of non-idiomatic speech #>evelt and :e"er 2000) !n terms of
grammatical behaviour, the specific 6s"ntactic constraints associated with the idiom become available to
the production s"stem at the point of definite selection of the superlemmaK #$uiper et al 20077(2()
The extra step in the idiom production, namel" the superlemma activation, provides an explanation
wh" it ta+es more time from the conceptualization #preverbal message) of an idiomatic speech to the
onset of its audible production #overt speech) compared to non-idiomatic speech =n the other hand,
according to >evelt and :e"er #2000), the superlemma provides also an explanation to a higher level of
fluenc" of idiomatic speech in comparison to the non-idiomatic one /amel", in a non-idiomatic speech, a
spea+er can choose to start the articulation either at the point when the first element of the intended
string is grammaticall" and phonologicall" encoded or as late as the whole intended articulation string is
encoded and read" for overt production Ahen the spea+er decides for the first method, heLshe will start
the overt speech production faster but at higher ris+ of articulation fluenc" disorders such as hesitations,
pauses, or grammatical errors !n the case of the second approach to speech production, the
conceptualization of the message prior to onset of the overt production itself ta+es longer, but the
articulation proper is then more fluent #without hesitations, pauses, and ungrammaticalities) and
generall" faster at its end !n this respect, the superlemma theor" complies with the results delivered b"
,utting and 2oc+ #1997) who suggest that idioms are less prone to errors than literal #novel) expressions
in spontaneous speech
2.3.2c Cutting and Bock vs. Superlemma Theory
The difference between ,utting and 2oc+ and the 5uperlemma Theor" lies in the approach to the
s"ntactic representation of idioms ,utting and 2oc+ assume that 6idiomatic concepts activate phrasal
frames that are not bound to specific lemma representations DME The" provide a phrase structure with
open slots that can be filled with simple lemmas that are activated b" the idiom;s lexical concept node6
#$uiper et al 20077(28) The problem is that ,utting and 2oc+;s phrasal frame is an abstract s"ntactic
structure that cannot recognize the relationship between concepts and individual active lemmas, which
results in troubles in the production s"stem inabilit" to identif" the spea+er;s intention This is
particularl" ver" probable in cases in which a potential idiomatic expression contains open slots for more
than @ust one /& or 9& leaving it unclear how the s"stem decides where particular /&s and 9&s shall be
inserted 3or instance, in the idiom to be a wolf in a sheep&s clothing, the nouns sheep and wolf could be
inserted either of the open /& slots, which might ma+e a wolf in sheep&s clothing intoa sheep in wolf&s
clothing e1uall" probable #5prenger et al 200'7177 1td in $uiper et al 20077(2I) D(E The superlemma
theor" suggests that 6DtEhe s"ntactic relationships and idios"ncratic constraints that characterize an
idiom are directl" applied to the lemmas involved< no additional operation is re1uired6 #$uiper et al
20077(2I) This model of idiom processing simultaneousl" unites the features of idiom production as well
as comprehension, and in comparison to ,utting and 2oc+;s theor", avoids the troublesome explanations
for the existence of man" s"ntactic idios"ncrasies present in man" idioms
Conclusion
The overview of theories on production, storage and comprehension of idioms @ust emphasizes the
relative position of these expressions on the interface of grammar and lexicon The assumption of
existence of supperlemma in idiom production finds a solid ground in higher fluenc" and minimum of
overt speech hesitations and errors
The 1uestion whether idioms are units stored with their meanings a priori stipulated and retrieved as
wholes from the memor", or the" are living compositional and conceptual entities remains The fact that
man" idioms have their figurative and literal readings, as well as the evidence that confirms the
contextual sensitivit" of idioms offer interesting h"potheses to the above 1uestion but paradoxicall" are
the ma@or sources of conflicts between the processual and factual assumption of idiom comprehension
Notes
D1E .luc+sberg, 5 #199() !diom meaning and allusional content !n7 ,acciari, , % & Tabossi
#eds) Idioms( Processing) Structure) and Interpretation) *-+, *illsdale, /ew Gerse"7 >awrence
Frlbaum
D2E 5prenger, 5, >evelt, AG: ,$empen, . #200') >exical access during the production of idiomatic
phrases !ournal of memory and language) -.)1'1-1-8 !n7 $uiper, $, Fgmod van, :F, $empen,.,
5prenger, 5 #2007) 5lipping on superlemmas7 :ulti-word lexical items in speech production #he
Mental Lexicon +(*) (1(-(I7
D(E 5prenger, 5, >evelt, AG: ,$empen, . #200') >exical access during the production of idiomatic
phrases !ournal of memory and language) -.)1'1-1-8 !n7 $uiper, $, Fgmod van, :F, $empen,.,
5prenger, 5 #2007) 5lipping on superlemmas7 :ulti-word lexical items in speech production #he
Mental Lexicon +(*) (1(-(I7
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