Understanding modified idiomatic expressions: the 'impossible' just takes a little longer

Kyriacou, Marianna (2020) Understanding modified idiomatic expressions: the 'impossible' just takes a little longer. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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Language boasts an abundance of prefabricated speech formulae, among which are idiomatic expressions, such as kick the bucket or shoot the breeze. Idioms are characterised by their lack of compositionality; their intended, figurative meaning (i.e., ‘die’ and ‘have a casual conversation’ respectively) is not directly retrievable from the meaning of the phrasal components. Yet these expressions are reported to benefit from faster and/or easier processing, relative to matched non-idiomatic phrases (e.g., kick the pail). This ‘idiom processing advantage’ is partly due to the phrases being conventionalised and familiar, which in turn leads to the formation of lexical representations in the lexicon, or templates in memory. Upon activation, these templates allow for fast retrieval of the figurative meaning (direct route), as opposed to the meaning of novel phrases that needs to be computed on-line (compositional route). It is assumed that the lexicalised status of (some) idioms prohibits the retrieval of the figurative meaning if the phrases undergo modification (e.g., the breeze was shot). This could be due to the modified version not matching up to its stored representation, thus making the relevant template inaccessible. This should also affect the idiom processing advantage, since an inability to access an idiom’s template would disable the direct retrieval route. This thesis describes four eye-tracking experiments designed to investigate whether idiom templates are flexible enough to allow for idiom modification, while maintaining a processing advantage over compositional language. To address this, Studies 1 and 2 explored whether passivized idioms (the bucket was kicked) could be understood figuratively in the presence (Study 1) and absence (Study 2) of a rich context. The results indicated that idioms are fairly flexible, as passivized idiom forms activated their figurative meaning. However, passivized idioms were processed more slowly than their active forms. Study 3 was a replication of Study 2 with dyslexic readers, as dyslexic readers are believed to find non-literal language challenging. The findings indicated that dyslexic readers have an easier time activating the literal meaning of potentially non-literal strings, but crucially that they are capable of recognising idiomatic strings and activating their figurative meaning, even when the idioms have been passivized. Taken together the results of these three studies indicated that idioms were fairly flexible, as passivized idiom forms activated their figurative meaning in both typically developed and dyslexic readers. Notably, the slower processing of passivized idioms relative to their canonical form in these three studies, could be attributed to the processing costs associated with the passive voice, as it is more complex and less frequent in English. Further, other types of idiom modification are possible and are attested in corpus research. Thus, Study 4 aimed to investigate another type of idiom modification, namely adjectival insertion (e.g., spill the (spicy (red)) beans). The findings demonstrated slower processing for both modified and unmodified idioms, when compared to matched literal phrases (burn the (spicy,(red)) beans) that were as predictable as the idioms in the context. Importantly, this suggested that the idiom processing advantage might be conflated with predictability, as the idioms in studies are often significantly more predictable than the novel phrases they are compared to. Indeed, the results suggested that accessing idiom templates and activating the figurative meaning might be more cognitively demanding and hence potentially more costly than typically assumed. Overall the present findings indicate that idioms and their templates are flexible enough to accept modifications, without compromising the figurative meaning of the phrase. Nevertheless, the observed cost, and particularly that in Study 4, suggests that idiom templates do not yield an advantage for idioms over control phrases when they are matched for contextual predictability, even if idioms are encountered in their canonical (unmodified) form.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: Conklin, Kathy
Thompson, Dominic
Keywords: Idioms; Language and languages, Style
Subjects: P Language and literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Arts > School of English
Item ID: 59627
Depositing User: Kyriacou, Marianna
Date Deposited: 23 Sep 2020 13:06
Last Modified: 23 Sep 2020 13:15
URI: http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/id/eprint/59627

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