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Language structure: variation and change


“The syntax of idioms” workshop, Utrecht University, 20th January 2017

The NWO/FWO-funded project “The syntax of idioms” is happy to announce a one-day workshop on idioms to mark the conclusion of the project. In the morning, the researchers from Utrecht University and KU Leuven who carried out the work will present the main results of the project. In the afternoon, three renowned idiom experts will give an invited presentation.

[UPDATE: This post now includes slides and handouts presented during the workshop.]


Date:               Friday, 20th January

Time:              9:30 – 17:15

Location:        Drift 21, 3512 BR Utrecht, Sweelinckzaal (room 0.05)



09:30 – 10:00          Reception with coffee & tea

10:00 – 10:05          Welcome

10:05 – 10:30          Introduction to the project and the database (Part 1 – Project and database)

10:30 – 11:30          The regular syntax of idioms (with new evidence from Dutch dialects) (Part 2 – Regular syntax)

11:30 – 12:30          Idioms: phasehood and compositionality (Part 3 – Idioms & Phases)

12:30 – 14:00          Lunch break

14:00 – 15:00          Manfred Sailer (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main): The meaning of “meaningless” idiom parts (Sailer – utrecht17)

15:00 – 16:00          Julia Horvath (Tel Aviv University): Idioms and ‘Constructions’: Implications for the Architecture of Grammar (Horvath & Siloni Handout)

16:00 – 16:15          Coffee & tea break

16:15 – 17:15          Martin Everaert (Utrecht University): Idioms: what you see is what you get? (Everaert – Utrecht-hnd-ppt-idioms)

17:15 Drinks


Abstracts for the afternoon talks:

The meaning of “meaningless” idiom parts
Manfred Sailer (joint work with Sascha Bargmann)

Recent formal analyses of idioms follow Kay et al. (ms.) in rejecting an “en bloc” insertion for idioms with a regular syntactic shape and rather assume that their component words combine in a syntactically normal way. This raises questions regarding the semantic combinatorics, in particular for non-decomposable idioms. Kay et al. attribute the complete semantics of a non-decomposable idiom to its syntactic head and assign the other idiomatic words an empty semantics.

I will argue that the constraints on the syntactic flexibility of decomposable and non-decomposable idioms can be described more adequately if we assume that the semantically “empty” components of non-decomposable idioms make a non-empty, though redundant, semantic contribution, i.e. that their semantics overlaps with that of the head of the idiom.

Kay, Paul, Ivan A. Sag & Dan Flickinger. ms. A lexical theory of phrasal idioms. http://www1.icsi.berkeley.edu/~kay/idiom-pdflatex.11-13-15.pdf. Based on an earlier version by Kay & Sag.


Idioms and ‘Constructions’: Implications for the Architecture of Grammar

Julia Horvath (joint work with Tal Siloni)

We will present a study of the distribution of idioms across diatheses in English and Hebrew. The findings will turn out to provide evidence against usage-based Construction Grammar (CxG) (Goldberg (2006) and related work), under which there is no syntactic derivation, but instead, a lexical component of stored ‘constructions’ (from morphemes to abstract phrasal patterns) labeled construct-i-con. Investigating the distribution of idioms across diatheses (transitive, unaccusative adjectival passive and verbal passive), we observe contrasts between the cross-diathesis distribution of two distinct syntactic types of idioms. One type of idiom (which we label ‘phrasal’) distributes differently in the verbal passive diathesis versus the transitive, unaccusative and adjectival passive diatheses. Another type of idiom (to be labeled ‘clausal’), in contrast, does not discriminate between diatheses. We outline our analysis of these patterns of distribution, and then show that a construct-i-con type of theory cannot account for these findings (in spite of idioms being the archetypal ‘construction’ à la CxG).


Idioms: what you see is what you get?
Martin Everaert (Utrecht University)

I will put forward the following propositions:

  1. Idioms are normal phrases with all the morpho-syntactic flexibility one would expect, were it not …
  1. If one believes in a fundamental I-language/E-language distinction, idioms are the domain of E-language; even worse, there is no way of defining idioms in terms of an I-language vocabulary, unless…

I will discuss some proposals in the literature that use idioms as arguments to argue for specific I-language notions (such as phase) and will try to explain that it is based on a misunderstanding on what idioms are.