eesti teaduste
akadeemia kirjastus
The Yearbook of the Estonian Mother Tongue Society cover
The Yearbook of the Estonian Mother Tongue Society
PDF | doi:10.3176/esa60.12

Katre Õim, Asta Õim

Variation in Estonian idioms

The article explains the principles of natural use of idioms, presenting variation in idioms as a complex phenomenon.
Variation may be more effectively explained by collocation patterns than by the frequently cited principle of compositionality. Collocations containing idioms are quite flexible when the other elements of the collocation vary, but not as flexible when the idiom itself varies. This means that the idiomatic and non-idiomatic components of a collocation are of quite different importance from the perspective of the persistence of the collocation as a whole. This is confirmed by the fact that while over time, a collocation may come to allow various lexical verbs, or may come to feature one support verb in place of multiple lexical verbs originally appearing in it, the variation (more syntactic than lexical) of idioms is much more limited. The typology of lexical variation of idioms sketched out in the study is based primarily on material from the basic electronic dictionary of idioms (FES). Rigid and change-resistant Estonian idioms are characterized by peripheral use of forms. The lexemes that vary in idioms affect their denotative meaning differently depending on the content, scope and persistence of that meaning. The less lexical variation an idiom exhibits, the more precise the idiom’s denotation can be. When a referent has multiple lexically associated designators, it is likely that more than one of them express the same concept. Word choice in idioms varies based on semantic factors and emotional content.
The flexibility of an idiom depends on its interpretation: whether the variant means something to the speaker in comparison to the primary form. This is the case when the association between the variant and its base conceptual form is understandable. Idioms based on clearer or more typical conceptual metaphors can exhibit greater flexibility. For example, an idiom may have (according to FES) previously been flexible and/or its meaning and collocates may have been abstract, because the underlying metaphor was familiar and easily understandable to speakers, but today the idiom may have lost its flexibility and/or its meaning and collocates may be more concrete, because the underlying metaphor is no longer familiar or easily understandable.
In summary, idioms should not be considered inflexible and semantically indivisible; rather, there are certain restrictions on their use. More than anything else, variation in idioms is influenced by the way in which they are conceptualized.


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