Idioms in Bilingual Dictionaries

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Idioms in Bilingual Dictionaries

A dictionary is a collection of words in one or more languages, and it reflects the vocabulary of a language. Its purpose is to provide information on the meaning of words, combinations with other words, sometimes also pronunciation and other aspects of a language. Dictionaries can be classified by many different aspects – for example, a dictionary can be monolingual, bilingual, bilingualised or even multilingual.

If the dictionary is bilingual, it can be either unidirectional or bidirectional. Dictionaries can deal with general language, with special terms or specific area of a language and dictionaries vary for their purposes. Thus, dictionaries can also be classified according to their size. Usually the most popular dictionaries are monolingual and bilingual, and this essay aims at exploring the usage of multiword expressions, idioms in particular, in bilingual dictionaries.

Burkhanov (1998) defines a bilingual dictionary as “a work of reference whose word list is organized in the following way: L1>L2, which means that lemmata of one language usually referred to as an object of language, are explicated using another language – a target language” (Burkhanov, 1998: 29). Bilingual dictionaries have a longer history than monolingual, and their position is already well-established. Typically bilingual dictionaries are translation dictionaries, and at this point the treatment of idioms and other multiword expressions should be seriously considered.

Bilingual dictionaries can be general or specialized, encyclopaedic or linguistic, alphabetical or thematic, diachronic or synchronic, in print or electronic format and they also vary according to various user groups and various sizes. Bilingual dictionaries can be divided according to their purpose – if your native language is the SL, then the dictionary is for encoding needs (also called an active dictionary), but if your native language is the TL, then the dictionary is for decoding needs (also called a passive dictionary).

This active-passive parameter is “often equated with encoding vs decoding or productive vs receptive parameters” and “is used to classify bilingual dictionaries with respect to tasks for which they are employed by their users” (Podolej, 2009: 25). Dictionaries are organised in word entries or lexical items, and “a lexical item is any word, abbreviation, partial word, or phrase which can figure in a dictionary (often as the headword of an entry)” (Atkins, B. T. and Rundel, M. , 2008: 163).

As the authors point out, “it is important to be aware of the various kinds of lexical item, as there are important differences in the way each is handled in the dictionary” (ibid. ). Lexical items are grouped as the single items and multiword expressions (ibid. ). Among multiword expressions there are classified fixed and semi-fixed phrases, phrasal idioms, compounds, phrasal verbs and support verb constructions, and the authors have raised a question of “which multiword items should be treated as ‘multiword expressions [… in our dictionaries? ” (ibid. : 166). Multiword expressions, including idioms, constitute a very important part of the vocabulary and need to be included in both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, but it is of particular importance to include them in bilingual learners’ dictionaries, since “language learners may not recognize them as significant units of meaning, cannot usually compose them, and will often have problems understanding them” (ibid. : 167).

The authors have provided several types of multiword expressions, the first of them being fixed and semi-fixed phrases, for example, transparent collocations (to risk one’s life), fixed phrases (ham and eggs), similes (white as snow), catch phrases (horses of courses), proverbs (too many cooks), quotations (to be or not to be), greetings (good morning), and phatic phrases (have a nice day) (ibid. ). Other type are phrasal idioms that are “the most difficult [… ] to handle in lexicography” (ibid. : 168). The third type that the authors provide are compounds that “belong mainly to three word classes: nouns (the most frequent case, e. . , lame duck, civil servant), adjectives (e. g. , sky blue, stone deaf), and verbs (of which by far the most common are the phrasal verbs” (ibid. : 169). The fourth type is a phrasal verb – “a multiword expression consisting of a verb plus one or more particle(s)” that can “function either as an adverb (away, out) or as a preposition (with, to), or both (in, through)” (ibid. : 171). The fifth type is the support verb construction, of which the most frequent are make, take, have, give, and do (ibid. : 175).

Other authors have made this classification in a more simple way – they argue that there are five types of multiword expressions distinguished, and they are idioms, collocations, phrasal verbs, compounds and support verb constructions (Atkins, B. T. and Rundel, M. , 2008: 359). In order to distinguish between different multiword expressions, the difference between a collocation and an idiom must be stated. Cruse (1986) has argued that collocations are “sequences of lexical items which habitually co-occur, but which are nonetheless fully transparent in the sense that each lexical constituent is also a semantic constituent” (Crude, 1986: 41).

Idioms, on the contrary, are expressions “whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meaning of its parts” (ibid. : 37) and they are usually translated in bilingual dictionaries not with lexical, but semantic equivalents. According to Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “idiom” is derived from late Latin idioma, meaning “a peculiarity in language” and Greek idioma, “peculiarity, peculiar phraseology” (Online 1), but “with a passage of time this word has acquired quite different denotations” (Cruse, 1986. : 176).

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English provides the following explanation for the word “idiom”: “a group of words that has a special meaning that is different from the ordinary meaning of each separate word” (Online 2). Oxford online dictionary provides quite similar explanation – “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words” (Online 3). One more interesting definition of an “idiom” is that it is “a meaning where the sum’s meaning is different from that of the parts” (Jones and West 1992, Johnson and Schlichting, 2004, quoted in Fuste-Hermann, 2008:4).

Dictionaries have existed for hundreds of years and they have been developed to meet practical needs of people. The language evolution throughout centuries has been “towards more idiomatic usage and more lexicalized combinations” (Yong and Peng, 2007: 175). Idioms are “a unique part of the lexicon and have proved to be the most difficult part in vocabulary acquisition for both native learners ad foreign language learners” (ibid. ).

Each language contains a large number of idioms, and consequently, “the treatment of idioms in dictionaries, particularly in bilingual dictionaries, has become an essential issue in dictionary compilation and research” (ibid. ). As the authors argue, idioms started to attract the focus of language researchers only quite recently, and a lot of work still has to be done in this field, “either from the position of compiling a dictionary of idioms or from the position of treating idioms as an essential part of the process of making a dictionary” (ibid. . Idioms “are not a separate part of the language which one can choose either to use or to omit” (Seidl and McMordie, 1978:1, quoted in Yong and Peng, 2007: 175). Idioms form “an essential part of the general vocabulary of language, thus accounting for a large proportion of the dictionary text in both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries” (Yong and Peng, 2007: 175).

Both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries should “decide where in the ordering of the entry should go compounds, phrasal verbs [… ] and other MWEs, if they are to be included within the entry of one of their component words” (Atkins, B. T. and Rundel, M, 2008: 253). Usually they are considered as secondary headwords or they can be located in a separate section, entitled ‘Compounds’ or “Phrases’, but there is another option of giving them a separate entry distinct from any related entry (ibid. ).

In general there are five most common options of handling the multiword expressions, including idioms, in dictionaries – there is a possibility to make each multiword expression as a headword; to make selected types of multiword expressions in their own right; to put all multiword expressions within the same entry, at the very end in separate blocks for each type; to put all multiword expressions within the same entry, within the ‘appropriate sense’ in separate blocks and there is an option of putting all multiword expressions within the same entry, within the ‘appropriate’ sense, but without differentiating the multiword expression type (ibid. : 254).

However, according to Atkins, B. T. and Rundel, M. “the tendency nowadays is to avoid secondary headwords if possible, as embedding one entry (however reduced) within another simply makes it more difficult for the user to find anything” (Atkins, B. T. and Rundel, M. , 2008: 493). Idioms should be covered to some extent in general bilingual dictionaries, but usually they are found in subordinate parts of entries. When compiling a bilingual dictionary, the question of classification of idioms must be decided according to a key word in idiom. For example, the idioms pigheaded person and to eat like a pig could be found together under one entry word pig. In practice most of bilingual and monolingual dictionaries use this approach that seems the easiest way to decode a language.

However, the second possibility involves “identifying the underlying function expressed and recording idioms under this category; for example, the previous two examples would be classified under the function to insult someone” (Akbarov, 2010: 137). Idioms do not co mply with other aspects of language that can be more easily explained “in terms of rules and semantic characteristics” (ibid. : 140). As idioms and other multiword expressions are quite hard to treat in dictionaries, the compilers of bilingual dictionaries have to be very careful towards this question because we all know how annoying it is to open a dictionary and fail to find a word that we were looking for.

There is no dictionary that could include all words, and therefore lexicographers have to make decisions on selection of words in it, including idioms. Dictionaries are often regarded as a basic tool in the process of foreign language learning. Bilingual dictionaries have been the traditional lexical resource for learning a new language. Change is not something that dictionaries undertake very easily as their purpose and place is indisputably significant. Of course, modern dictionaries come in different formats – they can be monolingual, bilingual, paper or electronic dictionaries, but when it comes to defining the meaning and giving definitions or equivalents in other languages, the dictionary is the same.

There are many problems the lexicographer has to deal with when compiling a bilingual dictionary and the main problem is the basic lack of equivalence which exists between different languages. According to Nida (1958: 279), the semantic problems that occur in compiling a bilingual dictionary are different from and also more complicated that those problems that occur in the compilation of a monolingual dictionary. The reason for that is the fact that monolingual dictionaries are compiled mostly for users who participate in and understand the culture being described, whereas bilingual dictionaries describe a culture that differs from that of the users. Baker and Kaplan (1994: 7, quoted in Gauton, 2008: 108) argue that “equivalence is nebulous in nature, and cannot be represented by way of neat translation equivalents”.

The perfect translation in a bilingual dictionary where the SL word is translatable perfectly is very rare, and in the case of multiword expressions and idioms compilers have to be ready to face problems. As Atkins, B. T. and Rundel, M argue, “the equivalence relationship between a pair of words, SL and TL, varies from exact to very approximate, from perfect to just-adequate” and the factors that play a role in evaluating SL-TL equivalence are the semantic content (single words and multiword expressions), collocational context (mainly single words), vocabulary type (single words and multiword expressions), message (of phrases, including idioms and sayings) and function (Atkins, B. T. and Rundel, M, 2008: 468). Thus, there no right and wrong about how to present the various types of multiword expressions (ibid. : 491).

As Yong and Peng (2007) argue, “idioms are the evolutional product of national culture and social life” (Yong and Peng, 2007: 176), thus “they are conventionally lexicalized linguistic units and ‘ready-made utterances’” (Crystal,1985: 152, quoted in Yong and Peng, 2007: 176). “Structurally, the elements in idioms are usually bound together” and they “often do not permit the usual variability they display in other contexts” (ibid. ). Thus, “from the semantic point of view, idioms must be interpreted in connection with the historical and cultural contexts from which they emerged” (Yong and Peng, 2007: 176). Idioms are unified and the meaning cannot be guessed without knowing its “sociocultural context” even though the meaning of separate words is clear (ibid. ). However, “some idioms are historically traceable with translations in several languages” (Fuste-Hermann, 2008:5).

The sociocultural context is of extreme importance in dealing with idioms in bilingual dictionaries as there are the so-called “culture-bound” words that denote objects or concepts peculiar to some particular SL culture (Gauton, 2008: 110). It means that for these culture-bound items there are no translational equivalents in the TL and in order to overcome this lack, lexicographers use the explanatory equivalent in their illustrative sentences (ibid. : 110-111). Mtuze (1990, quoted in Gauton, 2008: 111) illustrates that “cultural issues could create problems for lexicographers because they might not comprehend certain concepts foreign to their own culture”. As Fuste-Herrmann argues, “there are three major factors affecting idiom comprehension: semantic transparency, familiarity and context” (Fuste-Hermann, 2008: 6).

The first one, the semantic transparency, deals with “the relative correspondence of an idiom’s literal and figurative meanings” (Nippold and Taylor 1995, quoted in Fuste-Hermann, 2008: 6). There can be a transparent and an opaque idiom, “a transparent idiom’s meaning matches closely with the image conjured up by that idiom” and in contrast “an opaque idiom conjures up an image that is not helpful in interpretation” (Fuste-Hermann, 2008: 6). For example, the idiom a piece of cake could associate with some enjoyable task, whereas beat around the bush has nothing to do with its meaning (ibid. ).

Therefore “the previous studies have concluded that transparent idioms are generally easier to decipher than opaque idioms” (Nippold and Taylor 1995, quoted in Fuste-Hermann, 2008: 6). The transparency of idioms can be also discussed “in terms of their decomposition” (Glucksberg, 2001, quoted in Fuste-Hermann, 2008: 6). Idioms that are decompositional “are able to be modified” – for example, “he broke the ice, she breaks the ice, after the ice was broken etc” (Fuste-Hermann, 2008: 6). Therefore “the noncompositional idioms cannot survive the same alterations” (ibid. ). In general “decompositional idioms are likened to transparent idioms, and less decompositional idioms are equated with opaque idioms” (ibid. ). The other factor is familiarity – “the frequency with which an idiom occurs in a language” (ibid. : 7).

It is “relative and depends on such factors as geographical location, linguistic background [… ], culture and age” (Nippold and Rudinski 1991, quoted in Fuste-Hermann, 2008: 7). The main idea is that the more frequently the idiom is used, it becomes more familiar (Fuste-Herrmann, 2008: 7). The third factor is context – “contextual cues are imperative for comprehension of unfamiliar idioms in either the written or oral modality, particularly if idioms are more opaque in nature” (Qualls et. al. , 2003, quoted in Fuste-Herrmann, 2008: 8). According to Fuste-Herrmann, “in the last several decades many researchers have speculated about how idioms are interpreted” (Fuste-Herrmann, 2008: 8).

The first hypotheses that she advances is the “Early Hypotheses” that implied the idea of idioms when encountered for the first time in spoken or written language, “the listener or reader tries to interpret the idiom literally”, thus, “when the literal meaning fails to make sense, the listener/reader hen accesses a mental idiom list, described as a sort of a mental idiom dictionary, in order to determine the figurative meaning” (Searle, 1979, quoted in Fuste-Herrmann, 2008: 9).

Swinney and Cutler (1979) have “challenged the existence of a mental idiom list” and also proposed that “the meaning of idioms were processed simultaneously as figurative and literal” and “the most appropriate interpretation wins” (Fuste-Herrmann, 2008: 9). Idioms are quite hard to acquire when learning a second language and it is considered that their arbitrary nature makes it difficult for learners to learn them, thus they are not easy to translate. Translating multiword expressions requires that they are not the exact word-to-word translation, but a translation of semantic equivalence should be offered.

Traditionally idioms are perceived as rather fixed expressions that learners have difficulties with, but more and more modern dictionaries include idioms as well as other multiword expressions in their word lists that facilitate the language comprehension. As idioms can be found in either separate or sub-entries, sometimes it could be quite hard to find its location in a dictionary. For this purpose electronic dictionaries could be more useful than paper ones as it is more easy to locate the necessary idiom. Bilingual dictionaries are meant for learning a new language, and as idioms constitute a substantial part of any language, they should be treated properly and with care.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 13 November 2016

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