Language as an emergent construction-network:a close-up on Italian idioms

Torre, Enrico (2015) Language as an emergent construction-network:a close-up on Italian idioms. Ecological Psychology, 27 (3). pp. 202-221. ISSN 1532-6969

Full text not available from this repository.


In this contribution, I investigated the structure of Italian idioms from a perspective that combines insights from constructionist and dynamic-systems approaches to language. First of all, I empirically analyzed the occurrences of a sample of constructions downloaded from the itTenTen corpus, interrogated via the online corpus-query system Sketch Engine. On the basis of the tendencies observed in the analysis, I observed that the patterns of stability and variation of idioms in use can be satisfactorily accounted for in dynamic-systems terms. I then argue that the use of idiomatic constructions is governed by a principle of causal circularity, whereby the attractor state constrains the possible use of a construction, but at the same time the bulk of occurrences of an idiom shapes the attractor in an ongoing, nonlinear process of self-organization. Looking beyond idioms, I propose that similar mechanisms may regulate the functioning of the linguistic system as a whole, consistent with the constructionist view of language as a network of interconnected units. In this contribution, I address language as a system that emerges as a result of intersubjective experience and evolves over time in an ongoing process of self-organization. On this view, the nature of linguistic phenomena is context sensitive and extremely complex. As a consequence, language structure, variation, and change can only be explained if one takes into account the multiplicity of context-bound interactions between intentional agents and their physical and sociocultural environment at different timescales. Likewise, the choice of specific linguistic constructions in a given communicative event is both inherently grounded in historically established sociocultural practices and determined by (and embedded in) the immediate situated context (e.g., Madsen, 2014 Madsen, J. K. (2014). Approaching Bayesian subjectivity from a temporal perspective. Cybernetics & Human Knowing, 21, 98–112. ; Pedersen & Steffensen, 2014 Pedersen, S. B., & Steffensen, S. V. (2014). Temporal dynamics in medical visual systems. Cybernetics & Human Knowing, 21, 143–157. ). In this article I analyze how Italian speakers make use of a set of idiomatic constructions in a sample of real-language occurrences, which are accounted for by adopting an approach that combines the basic notions of two distinct theoretical traditions: Construction Grammar(s) and Dynamic Systems Theory. The choice of idioms as a target phenomenon is due to the fact that this kind of construction represents a rather problematic topic in linguistic studies (e.g., Philip, 2007 Philip, G. (2007). Idioms. In K. Malmkjaer (Ed.), The Linguistics encyclopedia (3rd ed., pp. 266–269). London, UK: Routledge. ). Indeed, idioms are ubiquitous in language use, and yet they tend to escape definition and categorization. Although many definitions of idioms have been provided throughout recent decades, I define idiomatic constructions as “conventional linguistic units, usually including at least two words, characterized by a figurative meaning.” Consider for instance the constructions illustrated here: Table CSVDisplay Table The existence of such linguistic units posits challenges for language theorists11 As Johnson-Laird (1993) pointed out, “If natural language had been designed by a logician, idioms would not exist” (p. vii). View all notes because they defy the long-standing computational view of language as a list of lexical items, which the application of a set of formal rules would combine into well-formed strings, whose meaning is entirely compositional. Traditional generative theories have usually eschewed the problem, dismissing idioms as nondecomposable items of nonliteral language (sort of “long words”), a peripheral and uninteresting phenomenon not worth investigating (e.g., Chomsky, 1980 Chomsky, N. (1980). Rules and representations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. ). Nevertheless, in the last decades a remarkable amount of psycholinguistic and corpus linguistic evidence has shown that idiomatic constructions are much more central than traditionally thought. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that they can often undergo structural modification and display different variation patterns (e.g., Glucksberg, 2001 Glucksberg, S. J. (2001). Understanding figurative language: From metaphors to idioms. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. [CrossRef] ; Moon, 1998 Moon, R. (1998). Fixed expressions and idioms in English: A corpus-based approach. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ; Naciscione, 2010 Naciscione, A. (2010). Stylistic use of phraseological units in discourse. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins. [CrossRef] ). These findings call the supposed fixedness of idioms into question, suggesting instead that they may be an inherently intricate phenomenon, subject to change and environmental influences (e.g., Vulchanova, Vulchanov, & Stankova, 2011 Vulchanova, M., Vulchanov, V., & Stankova, M. (2011). Idiom comprehension in the first language: A developmental study. Vigo International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 8, 207–234. [Web of Science ®] ). As a result, the adoption of a theoretical approach adequate to account for the nature of idiomatic constructions, taking into consideration the way they are actually used, is necessary. A specific issue to be addressed regards the way idiomatic constructions relate to the other linguistic constructions that are part of the inventory of units of a language. In the following section, I briefly introduce two approaches to the study of language, namely, Construction Grammar(s) and Dynamic Systems Theory, and propose a way their integration can help to shed light on these issues.

Item Type:
Journal Article
Journal or Publication Title:
Ecological Psychology
Additional Information:
Author no longer at Lancaster
Uncontrolled Keywords:
ID Code:
Deposited By:
Deposited On:
24 Oct 2016 15:46
Last Modified:
01 Jan 2020 10:01