The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 9/19 - Julia Horvath

Speaker: Julia Horvath (Tel Aviv University)
Title: Phrasal Idioms and the Architecture of Grammar
Date/Time: Thursday, Sept 19, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

(Joint work with Tal Siloni, Tel Aviv University.)

The investigation of idioms is important not only per se but also because it has consequences with regard to our choice of theory and for the architecture of grammar. The focus of this talk will be phrasal idioms, as defined by the Type-Sensitive Storage Model (H&S), such as the verb phrase idioms “shoot the breeze,” “spill the beans,” “put (something) on the back burner,” namely idioms headed by a lexical category (not by clausal functional material).

Idioms exhibit an inherent duality. On the one hand, they are complex entities whose internal makeup reflects structural properties of phrasal units. They have syntactic structure similar to phrases built in the syntax. On the other hand, they have conventionalized meanings that cannot be predicted by semantic composition. This means that they must be stored. Since they involve syntactic structure, the question as to how they are stored is especially intriguing and important.

The talk will report three studies (one corpus-based study and two psycholinguistic studies) that help us decide between the various possible hypotheses as to how phrasal idioms are stored in mental representations.

Theoretically, the studies to be discussed provide evidence against theories such as Construction Grammar, as developed by Goldberg 2006 a.o. Such theories advance the claim that our knowledge of language is nothing but a stored set of constructions (their “Construct-i-con”) — a construction being the association of form and semantic-pragmatic function including abstract patterns, idioms, words and morphemes. Constructions on this view are formed on the basis of general cognitive mechanisms, reflect functional needs, and they are all stored. Our study of idioms turns out to offer an elegant argument against such views. Moreover, the findings on phrasal idioms provide evidence with regard to the nature of the lexical component.