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Word-Groups and Phraseological Units




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  1. Complete the paired phraseological units in the sentences below.
  2. Phraseology. Classification of Phraseological Units.
  1. Lexical and grammatical valency
  2. Structure and classification of word groups
  3. Types of meaning of word groups
  4. Motivation of word groups
  5. Free word groups vs phraseological units vs words
  6. Semantic structure of phraseological units
  7. Types of transference of phraseological units
  8. Classification of phraseological units
  9. The linguistic status of proverbs and sayings

8.1. Lexical and grammatical valency. The aptness of a word to appear in various combinations with other words is called lexical valency or collocability. The noun ‘myth’, for example, may be a component of such word-groups, as ‘to create a myth, to dispel a myth, to explode a myth, myths and legends, etc.’ Lexical valency is of special importance when it concerns differentiation of meanings of a polysemantic word.

The range of the lexical valency of words is linguistically restricted by the inner structure of the English word-stock. Though the verbs ‘lift’ and ‘raise’ are synonyms, only ‘to raise’ is collocated with the noun ‘question’.

Words habitually collocated in speech tend to constitute a cliché, e.g. ‘arms race’.

The lexical valency of correlated words in different languages is different, cf. English ‘pot plants’ vs. Russian ‘комнатные цветы’.

Grammatical valency is the aptness of a word to appear in specific grammatical or rather syntactic structures. The minimal grammatical context in which words are used to form word-groups is usually called the pattern of the word-groups. For example, the verb ‘to offer’ can be followed by the infinitive and the noun (‘to offer to do something; to offer a job’). Its synonym the verb ‘to suggest’ has a different grammatical valency; it can be followed by the gerund and by the noun (‘to suggest doing something, to suggest an idea’).

The grammatical valency of correlated words in different languages is also different, cf. English ‘to influence somebody, something’ vs. Russian ‘влиять на кого-то, что-то’.

8.2. Structure and classification of word-groups.

The term syntactic structure or formula implies the description of the order and arrangement of member-words in word groups as parts of speech, e.g. the syntactic structure of the word-groups ‘a small boy, the civil war’ is ‘adjective + noun’; of the word-groups ‘to go home, to build a castle’ is ‘verb + noun’.

If the structure of word-groups is described in relation to the head-word we speak of the syntactic pattern, e.g. the syntactic patterns of the word-groups ‘to go home, to build a castle’ are ‘to go + noun, to build + noun’.



According to the syntactic pattern word-groups are classified into predicative and non-predicative. Predicative word-groups have a syntactic structure similar to that of a sentence, e.g. ‘she slept, my uncle works’.

All other word-groups are called non-predicative. They are subdivided into subordinative (such as ‘a small girl, a man of means’) and coordinative (such as ‘here and there, now and then, do or die’).

Structurally, all word-groups are classified into endocentric and exocentric.

Endocentric word-groups have one central member functionally equivalent to the whole word-group, i.e. the distribution of the whole word-group and the distribution of its central member are identical. In the word-groups ‘red rose, cruel to enemies, the head words are the noun ‘rose’ and the adjective ‘cruel’ correspondingly. These word-groups are distributionally identical with their central components.

According to their central members, word-groups fall into nominal (e.g. ‘red rose’), verbal (e.g. ‘to speak fluently’), adjectival (e.g. ‘cruel to enemies’), etc.

Exocentric word-groups have no central component and the distribution of the whole word-group is different from either of the members. For example, the distribution of the word-group ‘by hook or by crook’ is not identical with the distribution of its component members, i.e. the latter cannot syntactically substitute for the whole word-group.

8.3. Types of meaning of word-groups. We distinguish between the lexical and the structural meanings of word-groups.

The lexical meaning of the word-group is defined as the combined lexical meaning of the component words, so the lexical meaning of the word-group ‘red rose’ may be presented as the combined lexical meaning of the words ‘red’ and ‘rose’. Nevertheless, the term ‘combined lexical meaning’ does not imply it to be just an additive result of the lexical meanings of its components. The lexical meaning of the whole word-group predominates over the lexical meanings of its constituents.

The structural meaning of the word-group is the meaning conveyed mainly by the pattern of arrangement of its constituents. For example, such word-groups as ‘school grammar’ and ‘grammar school’ are semantically different because of the difference in the pattern of arrangement of the component words.

The lexical and structural meanings of the word-groups are interdependent and inseparable.

8.4. Motivation of word-groups. Semantically all word-groups are classified into motivated and non-motivated.

If the combined lexical meaning of the whole word-group can be deduced from the meanings of its constituent words, such word-groups are called lexically or semantically motivated, e.g. ‘a red rose, a small girl, to teach a lesson’ etc.

If the combined lexical meaning of the whole word-group cannot be deduced from the lexical meanings of its constituents, such word-groups are considered lexically or semantically non-motivated, e.g. ‘red tape’ means ‘bureaucratic methods’, or ‘take place’ means ‘occur’.

The degree of motivation can be different. Between the extremes of complete motivation and complete lack of it there are innumerable intermediate cases, e.g. the degree of motivation in the word-group ‘an old man’ is higher than that of ‘old boy’. Besides, there are cases when seemingly identical word-groups are found to be either motivated or non-motivated depending on their semantic interpretation, e.g. ‘red tape’ may mean ‘a piece of band of a certain colour’ and, in this case is semantically motivated; it can also mean ‘bureaucratic methods’ and thus, it seems to be non-motivated.

Completely non-motivated or partially motivated word-groups are described as phraseological units or idioms.

8.5. Free Word-Groups versus Phraseological Units versus Words.

A phraseological unit is usually defined as a ready-made (reproduced) and idiomatic (non-motivated or partially motivated) unit of the language built up according to the model of free word-groups (or sentences, in case of proverbs and sayings) and semantically and syntactically brought into correlation with words. Hence, it is necessary to name the criteria exposing the degree of similarity/ difference between phraseological units and free word-groups, phraseological units and words.

The structural criterion helps to distinguish certain features, which 1) state a certain structural similarity between phraseological units (later referred to as PhU-s) and free word-groups (FWG-s), simultaneously opposing them to separate words, and 2) specify their structural distinctions.

1). A feature common to both PhU-s and FWG-s is the divisibility (раздельнооформленность) of their structure, i.e. they consist of separate structural elements. This feature puts them in opposition to words as structurally integral (цельнооформленные) units. It means that the structural integrity of a word is defined by the presence of a common grammatical form for all constituent elements of this word. For example, the grammatical change in the word ‘shipwreck’ implies that it has a grammatical paradigm typical of a countable noun – the plural is ‘shipwrecks’, while in the word-group ’the wreck of a ship’ each element is subject to the changes of the grammatical paradigm – ‘the wrecks of ships’.

Like in FWG-s, in PhU-s potentially any component may be changed grammatically, but this occurs very rarely and serves mostly for creating a certain stylistic effect, e.g. ‘a black sheep’ (‘a disreputable member of a family”) – “the blackest sheep”.

2). The principal difference between PhU-s and FWG-s manifests itself in the structural invariability of the phraseological units. It suggests no (or rather limited) substitutions of the components, e.g. in the idiom ‘to build a castle in the air’ the following grammatical change is possible – ‘to build castles in the air’; or the component ‘the air’ may be substituted for ‘Spain’ –“to build castles in Spain’. No such substitutions are possible in the phraseological unit ‘to give somebody a cold shoulder’ meaning ‘to treat somebody coldly, to ignore’, as ‘a warm shoulder’ or ‘a cold elbow’ would make no sense.

The semantic criterion helps to state the semantic difference/ similarity between a) PhU-s and FWG-s; 2) PhU-s and words.

1). The meaning in PhU-s is created by mutual interaction of elements and conveys a single concept. The actual meaning of a PhU is transferred (figurative) and is opposed to the literal meaning of the word-group from which it is derived. The transference of the meaning of the initial word-group may be based on simile, metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche, the degree of transference varies and may affect either the whole unit or only one of its constituents, cf.: ‘to skate on thin ice’ in the figurative sense means ‘to take risks’ and the transference of meaning here is complete, while in case of ‘small hours’, which means ‘the early hours of the morning’ the transference of meaning is only partial. However, there are cases of PhU-s where the change of meaning seems to be complete but the basis that gives rise to the transference may be traced diachronically, e.g. the idiom ‘red tape’ originates in the old custom of officials and lawyers to tie up their papers with red tape.

The meaning of a FWG is based on the combined meanings of the words constituting its structure. Each element in a FWG has a much greater semantic independence and stands for a separate concept, e.g. ‘to cut sandwiches, to cat a finger, to eat pies’; besides, every word in a FWG can form additional syntactic ties with other words outside it, retaining its individual meaning at that.

2). The semantic unity makes PhU-s similar to words. The semantic similarity between the two is proved by the fact, that, for example, the idiom ‘to join the majority’ the meaning of which is understood as a whole and not related to the meaning of individual words can be replaced by the word ‘to die’, the idiom ‘out of the blue’ – by the word ‘suddenly’ etc.

The syntactic criterion reveals the close ties between single words and PhU-s as well as FWG-s. Like words and FWG-s, PhU-s may fulfill different syntactic functions in the sentence: the subject (narrow escape, first night, baker’s dozen), the predicate (to have a mind, to call the black white, to cross the Rubicon), an attribute (as ugly as sin, as thick as thieves, quick on the trigger), an adverbial modifier (in full swing, off the record, now and again). According to the syntactical function PhU-s can be classified into substantive, verbal, adjectival, adverbial, and interjectional.

The same as FWG-s, phraseological units can be divided into coordinative (e.g. ‘free and easy, neck and crop’) and subordinative (e.g. ‘a big fish in a little pond, to make bricks without straw’).

Thus, the characteristic features of phraseological units are: ready-made reproduction, structural divisibility, morphological stability, permanence of lexical composition, semantic unity, and syntactic fixity.

8.6. Semantic structure of phraseological units.

The semantic structure of PhU-s is formed by semantic ultimate constituents called macrocomponents of meaning. The macrocomponental model of phraseological meaning was worked out by V.N. Teliya, who distinguishes between the following types of macrocomponents:

1) denotative (descriptive) containing information about the objective reality, which is connected with the procedure of categorization, i.e. classifying the denotatum;

2) evaluative containing information about the value the speaker sees in the denotatum; the rational evaluation may be positive, negative or neutral, e.g. “a home from home” means ‘a place where one feels happy’, here the evaluation is positive, cf. “the lion’s den” meaning ‘a place of danger’ – the evaluation is negative;

3) motivational correlating with the notion of the inner form of the PhU, which is viewed as the basis of transference of its meaning, the associative-imaginary complex, e.g. the literal meaning of the word-group “to skate on thin ice” brings forth an image of a person who treads on dangerous soil, thus gives rise to the transferred meaning of the PhU “to be in danger”;

4) emotive, that is the result of the interpretation of the imaginary base in a cultural aspect, e.g. “to lead a cat and dog life” used to describe a husband and wife constantly quarrelling with each other conveys disapproval of the way people live; cf. “hitch your wagon to a star” on the contrary is used approvingly about the people who have noble aspirations in life;

5) stylistic pointing to the communicative register and to the social role relationships between the participants of communication, e.g. “sick at heart” is formal, while “be sick to death” is informal and “pass by on the other side” is neutral;

6) grammatical containing information about possible morphological and syntactic changes in the PhU, e.g. “to be in deep water” – “in deep waters” or “Achilles’ heel” – the heel of Achilles” etc.;

7) gender (singled out by I.V. Zykova) that may be expressed explicitly, e.g. “every Tom, Dick and Harry” meaning ‘any man’ and “every Tom, Dick and Sheila” meaning ‘any man or woman’; or this gender macrocomponent may be expressed implicitly, then it reveals knowledge about such cultural concepts as masculinity and femininity peculiar to this or that society, e.g. “to wash one’s dirty linen in public” meaning ‘to expose personal affairs to publicity’ contains the implicit feminine macrocomponent of meaning which is conditioned by the idea about traditional women’s work. The implicit gender macrocomponent may cover three conceptual spheres – masculine, feminine and intergender, cf. “to feel like royalty” – “to feel like a queen” - “to feel like a king”.

8.7.Types of transference of phraseological units.

Phraseological transference is a complete or partial change of meaning of an initial word-group as a result of which the word-group (or a sentence) acquires a new figurative meaning and becomes an idiom. Phraseological transference may be based on:

1) simile, intensifying some feature of the denotatum comparing it with an object belonging to a different class, e.g. “as long as life”, “to swim like a fish”;

2) metaphor, which is making one object look like, or similar to another on the association of real or imaginary resemblance, e.g. “to flog a dead horse” meaning “to waste energy on a matter that cannot be improved” is based on the resemblance that bears a hyperbolic character; or the character of resemblance may be a euphemistic one to serve the purpose of softening unpleasant facts, e.g. “to join the majority”, “to go west” meaning “to die”;

3) metonymy, which is a transfer of name from one object to another based on the contiguity of their properties, relations etc, e.g. “a blue stocking” meaning “a spinster” is based on the replacement of the genuine object (a woman) by the article of clothing typical of the members of the feminine literary society “Blue Stocking Club” of the 18th century London;

4) synecdoche, which is a variety of metonymy, is the transference of meaning based on naming the whole by its part, replacing common by private, plural by singular etc., e.g. “in the flesh and blood” meaning “in a material form”, where the components “flesh and blood” are integral part of any living being.

8.8. Classification of the phraseological units.

According to the degree of semantic cohesion between the components of a phraseological unit (a classification devised by academician V.V. Vinogradov), that is the degree of idiomaticity, all PhU-s fall into three large groups:

1) phraseological fusions, which show the greater degree of semantic cohesion and are completely non-motivated word-groups, e.g. “as mad as a hatter” – “utterly mad”, “a white elephant” – “a present that involves great expenses for keeping it”, “red tape” – “bureaucracy”;

2) phraseological unities, which show a lesser degree of semantic cohesion and are partially motivated as their meaning can be perceived through the metaphoric meaning of the whole, e.g. “to lose one’s head” – “not to know what to do”, “to ride the high horse” – “to behave in a superior, haughty way”;

3) phraseological collocations which show the lowest degree of semantic cohesion and are not only motivated but contain at least one component used in its direct meaning, e.g. “to meet the demands”, “to be good at something” etc.

Professor A.I. Smirnitsky offered a classification system for phraseological units, which combines the structural and semantic principles, grouping phraseological units according to the number and semantic significance of their constituent parts. Thus, two large groups are distinguished:

1) one-summit units having one meaningful constituent, e.g. “to give up”, “to be tired”;

2) two-summit and multi-summit units having two or more meaningful constituents, e.g. “common sense”, “to fish in troubled waters” etc.

Further on, these groups are classified according to the category of parts of speech of the summit constituent.

Thus, the one-summit units fall into:

a) verbal-adverbial equivalent to verbs in which the semantic and the grammatical centres coincide in the 1st constituent, e.g. “to give up”;

b) units equivalent to verbs having the semantic centre in the 2nd constituent and the grammatical centre in the 1st, e.g. “to be tired”;

c) prepositional-substantive equivalent either to adverbs or to copulas, having their semantic centre in the substantive constituent and no grammatical centre, e.g. “by heart”, “by means of”.

Two-summit and multi-summit phraseological units are classified into:

a) attributive-substantive two-summit units equivalent to nouns, e.g. “black art”, “blue stocking”;

b) verbal-substantive two-summit units equivalent to verbs, e.g. ”to take the floor”, “to take off the hair”;

c) phraseological repetitions equivalent to adverbs, e.g. “now or never”, “time and again”, “by hook or by crook”;

d) adverbial multi-summit units, e.g. “every other day” etc.

The scholar also distinguishes between proper phraseological units, which in his classification system are units with non-figurative meanings, and idioms, which are units with transferred meanings based on metaphor.

The latest achievement in the Russian theory of phraseology is Professor A.V. Kunin’s classification system of phraseological units which is based on the combined structural-semantic principle and also considers the quotient of stability of phraseological units.

According to the function in communication determined by the structural-semantic characteristics phraseological units are divided into four classes:

1) nominative, represented by word-groups which include the ones with one meaningful word, and coordinative phrases of the type “wear and tear”, “well and good”; they also include word-groups with a predicative structure, such as “as the crow flies”, “see how the land lies”, “ships that pass in the night”;

2) nominative-communicative including word-groups of the type “to break the ice’ – “the ice is broken”, i.e. verbal word-groups which are transformed into a sentence when the verb is used in the passive voice;

3) interjectional, e.g. “by Jove!”, “oh my eyes and Betty Button!”;

4) communicative, which are represented by proverbs and sayings, e.g. “He is easiest deceived who wants to be deceived” etc.

Besides, these four classes are divided into subgroups according to their structural type, which in their turn are subdivided according to the kind of relations between the constituents and according to their full or partial transference of meaning.

8.9. The linguistic status of proverbs and sayings.

It should be mentioned that not all linguists include proverbs and sayings into the sphere of phraseological research on the grounds that proverbs and sayings differ from the phraseological units structurally, as they are represented by sentences, while phraseological units are word groups fitting into the structure of the sentence performing a certain syntactical function.

In the semantic aspect the difference is even more striking, as proverbs and sayings do not stand for one concept as phraseological units do, but they sum up the collective experience of the community moralizing (“Hell is paved with good intentions”), giving advice (“Don’t judge the tree by its bark”), warning (“If you sing before breakfast, you’ll cry before night”), admonishing (“Liars should have good memories”), criticizing (“everyone calls his own geese swans”) etc. Thus, they fulfill the communicative function in speech, imparting certain information.

However, from A.V. Kunin’s point of view, one of the main criteria of a phraseological unit is its stability. If the quotient of phraseological stability in a word-group is not below the minimum, it means that we deal with a phraseological unit; and the structural type, i.e. whether the unit is a combination of words or a sentence, - is irrelevant.

A.V. Kunin also states that the criterion of nomination and communication cannot be applied here either, because there are a considerable number of verbal phraseological units which are word-groups (i.e. nominative units), when the verb is used in the active voice, and sentences (i.e. communicative units), when the verb is used in the passive voice, e.g. “to cross the Rubicon” – “The Rubicon is crossed”, “to shed crocodile tears” – “Crocodile tears are shed”. Hence, if we accept nomination as a criterion of referring this or that unit to phraseology, we shall face an absurd conclusion that such word-groups when with the verb in the active voice are phraseological units, and when the verb is used in the passive, they do not belong to phraseology.

One more argument in favour of A.V. Kunin’s theory is that many phraseological units originate from proverbs, e.g. “the last straw” originates from the proverb “The last straw breaks the camel’s back”, “birds of a feather” from “Birds of a feather flock together” etc.

What is more, some proverbs are easily transformed into phraseological units, e.g. “Don’t put all your eggs into one basket” > “to put all one’s eggs in one basket”; “Don’t cast pearls before swine” > “to cast pearls before swine”.

All this brings us to the conclusion that there is no rigid or permanent borderline between proverbs and phraseological units.

The etymological classification takes into consideration the origin of the phraseological units, dividing them into native and borrowed.

The main sources of native phraseological units are:

1) English customs and traditions, e.g. “baker’s dozen”;

2) English literature, e.g. “the green-eyed monster” – “jealousy” (W. Shakespeare), “how goes the enemy?” – “what is the time?” (Ch. Dickens);

3) superstitions and legends, e.g. “a black sheep” – “a disreputable member of the family” as people believed that a black sheep was marked by the devil;

4) terminological and professional vocabulary, e.g. physics – “centre of gravity”, navigation – “under false colours”, military sphere – “fall into line”;

5) historical facts and events, personalities, e.g. “to do a Thatcher” – “to stay in power as prime minister for three consecutive terms”;

6) phenomena and facts of everyday life, e.g. “to carry coal to Newcastle” etc.

The main sources of borrowed phraseological units are:

1) the holy Script, e.g. “the kiss of Judas”, “the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing”, “a serpent in the tree”;

2) ancient legends and myths belonging to different religious or cultural traditions, e.g. “the Trojan horse”, “an apple of discord”;

3) facts and events of the world history, e.g. “to meet one’s Waterloo” – “to suffer a defeat” (like the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815), “the fifth column” – “the inside enemies” (like those in Madrid in 1938 when it was besieged by four fascist divisions and by the fifth the spies in Madrid were meant);

4) variants of the English language, “be home and hosed” (Australian), “a hole card” (American);

5) other languages, classical and modern, e.g. “second to none” (Latin), “The fair sex” (French), “let the cat out of the bag” (German) etc.





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