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A study of idioms by animals in english and vietnamese from component perspective

MINISTRY OF EDUCATION AND TRAINING
HANOI OPEN UNIVERSITY

M.A. THESIS

A STUDY OF IDIOMS BY ANIMALS IN ENGLISH AND
VIETNAMESE FROM COMPONENT PERSPECTIVE
(NGHIÊN CỨU THÀNH NGỮ THUỘC CHỦ ĐỀ ĐỘNG VẬT
TRONG TIẾNG ANH VÀTIẾNG VIỆT
TỪ BÌNH DIỆN HỢP PHẦN)
TRẦN THỊ NGA

Field: English Language
Code: 60220201

Hanoi, 2017


MINISTRY OF EDUCATION AND TRAINING
HANOI OPEN UNIVERSITY


M.A. THESIS

A STUDY OF IDIOMS BY ANIMALS IN ENGLISH AND
VIETNAMESE FROM COMPONENT PERSPECTIVE
(NGHIÊN CỨU THÀNH NGỮ THUỘC CHỦ ĐỀ ĐỘNG
VẬT TRONG TIẾNG ANH VÀTIẾNG VIỆT
TỪ BÌNH DIỆN HỢP PHẦN)

TRẦN THỊ NGA

Field: English Language
Code: 60220201

Supervisor: Dang Nguyen Giang, Ph. D.

Hanoi, 2017


CERTIFICATE OF ORIGINALITY
Except where reference has been made in the text, this thesis contains no
material previously published or written by another person.
I hereby state that this thesis is the result of my own research and the
substance of the thesis has not, wholly or in part, been submitted for any degrees
to any other universities or institutions
Student’s Signature

Tran Thi Nga

Approved by
SUPERVISOR

Dang Nguyen Giang, Ph. D.
Date:……………………

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This thesis could not have been completed without the help and support
from several people.


First and foremost, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dang
Nguyen Giang, Ph. D, my supervisor, who has patiently and constantly
supported me through the stages of the study, and whose stimulating ideas,
expertise, and suggestions have inspired me greatly through my growth as an
academic researcher.
Many thanks go to my colleagues and many others whose support and
encouragement help me to have this thesis accomplished.
Last but not least, I am greatly indebted to my family for their patience,
endless love, and devotion. Whatever choices I have made, they have always
stood by me and believed in me. I am immensely thankful for all the assistance
they have given me.

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ABSTRACT
An investigation of idioms by animals in English and Vietnamese in terms
of structural and semantic components is carried out in the present study.
Componential analysis, describing, comparing and contrasting, and experimental
research are regarded as the main methods used in the present thesis. The
findings of the study are concerned with the similarities and differences between
English and Vietnamese idioms by animals in terms of structural and semantic
components. In order to collect the data, a hand search approach of the
dictionaries in both languages has been conducted, which helps to establish a
corpus of 180 idioms by animals in English and 186 idioms by animals in
Vietnamese. In the present study, a common theoretical framework on idioms is
applied to both English and Vietnamese. The structural and semantic
components involve three types of idioms existing in our data: symmetrical,
similized, and non-symmetrical (Hoàng Văn Hành

(2008)). The structural

components of each idiom type are realized, described and analyzed according
to grammatical rules suggested by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, & Svartvik
(1985). The semantic components of each idiom type involve the motivation
degrees (transparent, semi-transparent, semi-opaque, and opaque) (Fernando &
Flavell (1981), Fernando (1996)). The findings of the current study also reveal
that most of the idioms in both English and Vietnamese are analyzable and have
meanings that are at least partly motivated. The main findings are also applied to
idiom teaching and learning at Nguyen Huu Tien High School in Ha Nam.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION .................................................................................... 1
1.1. Rationale ...................................................................................................................... 1
1.2. Aim(s) and Objectives of the Research..................................................................... 2
1.3. Research Questions .................................................................................................... 3
1.4. Methods of the Research ............................................................................................ 3
1.4.1. Major Methods ....................................................................................................... 3
1.4.2.

Data Collection Techniques .............................................................................. 3

1.4.3. Data Analysis Techniques..................................................................................... 4
1.5. Scope of the Research ................................................................................................. 5
1.6. Significance of the Research ...................................................................................... 5
1.7. Design of the Research ............................................................................................... 6
CHAPTER 2: LITERATURE REVIEW ........................................................................ 7
2.1. Previous Research ...................................................................................................... 7
2.1.1. Previous Research Works on Idioms in English ................................................. 7
2.1.2. Previous Research Works on Idioms in Vietnamese ........................................... 9
2.2. Theoretical Background .......................................................................................... 12
2.2.1. Idioms Defined .................................................................................................... 12
2.2.2. Idioms from Traditional, Cognitive and Perspective Component Views .......... 14
2.2.3. Idioms and other language units ........................................................................ 17
2.3. Summary ................................................................................................................... 20
CHAPTER 3: STRUCTURAL AND SEMANTIC COMPONENTS OF IDIOMS
BY ANIMALS IN ENGLISH AND VIETNAMESE ................................................... 21
3.1. Structural Components of Idioms by Animals in English and Vietnamese........ 21
3.1.1. Symmetrical Idioms by Animals ......................................................................... 21
3.1.2. Similized Idioms by Animals ............................................................................... 24
3.1.3. Non-Symmetrical Idioms by Animals ................................................................. 28
3.2. Semantic components of idioms by animals in English and in Vietnamese ........ 33
3.2.1. Motivation Degrees of Symmetrical Idioms by Animals ................................... 34
3.2.2. Motivation Degrees of Similized Idioms by Animals ......................................... 35
3.2.3. Motivation Degrees of Non-symmetrical Idioms by Animals............................ 37
3.3. Comparison between English and Vietnamese Idioms by Animals .................... 40

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3.3.1. In terms of structural components ..................................................................... 40
3.3.2. In terms of semantic components ....................................................................... 41
CHAPTER 4: IDIOM TECHING AND LEARNING THROUGH TRUCTURAL
AND SEMANTIC COMPONENT ANALYSIS ........................................................... 44
4.1. Idioms and their Importance for English Language Learners ............................ 44
4.2. Reality of Idiom Teaching and Learning at Nguyen Huu Tien High School...... 46
4.3. Idiom Teaching and Learning through Componential Analysis ......................... 48
4.3.1. Participants .......................................................................................................... 48
4.3.2. Data Collection .................................................................................................... 48
4.3.3. Findings and Discussion..................................................................................... 51
4.4. Summary ................................................................................................................... 53
CHAPTER 5: CONCLUSION ....................................................................................... 55
5.1. Recapitulation ........................................................................................................... 55
5.2. Concluding Remarks ................................................................................................ 55
5.3. Limitations of the Study ........................................................................................... 56
5.4. Implications for Idiom teaching .............................................................................. 56
5.5. Suggestions for Further Studies .............................................................................. 57
REFERENCES ................................................................................................................ 58
APPENDIX 1: A CORPUS OF 180 IDIOMS BY ANIMALS IN ENGLISH ...............I
APPENDIX 2: A CORPUS OF 186 IDIOMS BY ANIMALS IN VIETNAMESE VIII

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CHAPTER 1: INTRODUCTION
1.1. Rationale
English has long been regarded as a tool of international communication,
and together with its rising importance, the need of learning English is becoming
more and more urgent. It cannot be denied that all foreign learners in general
and Vietnamese learners in particular desire to master English as the native
speakers; however, they usually face a lot of difficulties that prevent them from
gaining successful conversations. One of the reasons for these problems lies in
the way they perceive and use idioms.
Each nation's language lies in itself similar and different concepts on
many fields of life such as humane values, ways of thinking, behavior standards,
religious beliefs, customs and traditions, social conventions, etc. Words and
expressions including idioms have formed the vocabulary system of a language.
Idioms are regarded as special factors of a language's vocabulary system
because they reflect cultural specific characteristics of each nation, including
material and spiritual values. Therefore, a lot of researchers have long shown
their concerns for idioms.
Structurally, English and Vietnamese are very different. English is
regarded as a semi- inflectional language (Crystal 1997) while Vietnamese is
completely isolating. It is interesting, nevertheless, that several idioms in
English have the same structural patterns as those in Vietnamese. For example,
like water off a duck’s back in English and như nước đổ đầu vịt in Vietnamese
are both prepositional phrases. It is more interesting that the idiomatic meanings
of the two idioms are also similar, and they both mean ‘have no effect’. In terms
of structural components, these idioms have both similarities and differences.
They are similized idioms introduced by prepositions as the first component
parts (like in English and như in Vietnamese). The differences lie in the rest of
component parts forming the idioms. The component parts after like in English
together form a noun phrase whereas those after như in Vietnamese together
form a clause. To the best of my knowledge, the structural components of

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idioms in both English and Vietnamese have not yet been investigated in this
way.
Although the component parts forming idioms expressing the same
concepts in English and Vietnamese are usually different, they have some
features in common. The idioms in both languages appear from totally
transparent to the totally opaque. The four degrees of motivation are transparent,
i.e. all the components are explicit; semi-transparent, i.e. some components are
explicit (the meaning focused) and the other are implicit; semi-opaque, i.e. all
the components are implicit but possibly interpretable; and opaque, i.e. all the
components are implicit (Fernando & Flavell 1981; Fernando 1996). However,
investigating semantic components of idioms based on these semantic criteria in
both English and Vietnamese is still the gap.
For the reasons presented above, we state that studying idioms by animals
from structural and semantic component perspective in both English and
Vietnamese in order to fill in the gap in research is necessary.
1.2. Aim(s) and Objectives of the Research
The study is conducted to improve the English teaching and learning in
general and idiom teaching and learning in particular. The findings of the study,
to some extent, help the teachers and the learners have a better understanding of
English and Vietnamese languages through the idioms by animals.
In order to achieve the aim, the study is expected to reach the following
objectives:
- to uncover how idioms by animals are organized structurally and
semantically in English and Vietnamese;
- to find out the similarities and differences between English and
Vietnamese idioms by animals in terms of structural and semantic components;
- to give some implications for idiom teaching and learning from the main
findings.

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1.3. Research Questions
The objectives of the study can be elaborated into the research questions
as follow:
- How are idioms by animals organized structurally and semantically in
English and Vietnamese?
- What are the similarities and differences between English and
Vietnamese idioms by animals in terms of structural and semantic components?
- What is the effectiveness of the main findings applied to idiom teaching
and learning at Nguyen Huu Tien High School?
1.4. Methods of the Research
1.4.1. Major Methods
Due to the main aims and objectives of the study, description,
componential analysis, contrastive exploitation and experimental method have
been chosen as major ones.
Firstly, the description, componential analysis are utilized in order to give
a full account of the structural and semantic components of English and
Vietnamese idioms by animals. Secondly, the contrastive method is applied to
identify the similarities and differences between English and Vietnamese idioms
by animals. Finally, the experimental method is used to uncover the effectiveness
of idiom componential analysis applied to idiom teaching at Nguyen Huu Tien
High School.
In conducting the research thesis, last but not least, setting up a regular
consultancy with supervisor for a guidance and academic exchange is a critical
technique to find out a right direction for doing the research successfully.
1.4.2. Data Collection Techniques
The monolingual and bilingual dictionaries of idioms in two languages are
useful instruments to collect data. Google search should be accounted because a
large number of relevant journals, newspapers, reference materials have been
taken thanks to this tool. Hence, to select an appropriate collection of English and
Vietnamese idioms by animals with illustrating examples, the following

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techniques have also been applied: dictionary checking, Google searching
techniques and data categorizing with determined criteria.
Regarding dictionary checking techniques, such key words as ‘idiom’,
names of animals are used to check the relevant meanings of English idioms
containing them. To categorize the data with determined criteria, some data
mining techniques like clustering technique and classification technique are used
for defining the various semantic features in accordance with certain meaning
categories. In addition, others minor techniques are also employed as reading
comprehension, meaning comparison and note-taking for selecting desired
material of various idioms by animals apart from the word processing technique
for archive of data categorizations.
Applying those data collection techniques, English and Vietnamese idioms
containing the component parts of animals have been collected. Simultaneously, a
collection of examples extracted from dictionaries and literature works have been
gathered as well.
1.4.3. Data Analysis Techniques
After finishing the collection of data, they are qualitatively described and
analyzed in terms of the structural and semantic components to create a full
picture of English and Vietnamese idioms by animals. In doing this thesis, the
data profiling technique is used in this research thesis to track the frequency,
distribution and characteristics of the values that populate the columns of a data
set; they then present the statistical results for review and drill-down analysis.
The selective idioms by animals are carefully sorted out together with illustrated
examples of the above-mentioned features to find out the similarities and
differences between English and Vietnamese idioms by animals.
Checklists and statistical techniques are utilized to quantitatively show the
frequency and distribution of English and Vietnamese idioms by animals. Statistic
tables for generalization, comparison and contrastive analysis are used with the
purpose of making the investigation clear for discussion and interpretation.

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1.5. Scope of the Research
The present study focuses on everyday idioms selected from recently
published dictionaries. All the authors of these works affirm that the idioms in
their books are both current and used, or at least understood, by most native
speakers. It means that the study is deliberately limited to idioms usually used in
daily conversations. It is noteworthy that the study investigates idioms by
animals in both English and Vietnamese from structural and semantic
component perspective. The components in the current inquiry are regarded as
elements which are hardly varied and together form a unit.

1.6. Significance of the Research
Theoretically, a common theory on idioms is applied to both English and
Vietnamese. This approach helps to find out the similarities and differences
between English and Vietnamese idioms by animals in terms of structural and
semantic components. This is a major contribution to the knowledge of
linguistics in general and that of idioms by animals in particular. Since language
and culture are closely intertwined, the findings will help improve the
knowledge of the two underlying cultures, which are expressed through those
idioms.
Practically, the work will provide assistance to English-speaking learners
of Vietnamese and Vietnamese learners of English in general and learners of
English at Nguyen Huu Tien High School to distinguish one kind of idioms by
animals from others in each language. The work will also enable learners to tell
when idioms by animals in English and Vietnamese are similar and different,
which is likely to be useful for their study. Language teachers will be aided to
help their learners to reach this communicative goal. For translation, knowledge
of idioms from this work will help translators find closest equivalents to the
expressions in the source language. Idioms and idiomatic expressions are the
most culture-bound part of any language, so their transfer is one of the most
problematic issues in translation. It is because transfer of language also involves

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that of culture, which is not always transferable. In this way, knowledge from
this sort of work will be of great benefit to translators, who should be able to
find the possible equivalents in the target language.
1.7. Design of the Research
The study consists of five chapters, in addition to the appendices and the
references.
Chapter 1, introduction, contains the rationale, the aims and objectives,
the research questions, the scope, the contributions, the methods, and the
structure of the study.
Chapter 2, literature review, is formed by two main parts: a review of
previous research works, and a review of theoretical background.
Chapter 3, structural and semantic components of idioms by animals in
English and in Vietnamese, is divided into three main parts: structural
components of idioms by animals in English and in Vietnamese, semantic
components of idioms by animals in English and in Vietnamese and a
comparison between idioms by animals in English and those in Vietnamese.
Chapter 4, applying the findings to idiom teaching, includes reality of
idiom teaching and learning, idiom teaching and learning through structural and
semantic components explanations, implications for idiom teaching and
learning.
Chapter 5, the last part, is the conclusion which includes the
recapitulation of the study as well as the concluding remarks and some
suggestions for further studies

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CHAPTER 2: LITERATURE REVIEW
The literature review is divided into two main parts. The first part gives
a review of theoretical background of idioms in English and in Vietnamese on
which the whole research has been based. The second one presents and
discusses the previous research works on idioms in English and in
Vietnamese.
2.1. Previous Research
2.1.1. Previous Research Works on Idioms in English
Makkai (1972) divides idioms into two main kinds: encoding and
decoding. Then, decoding idioms are subdivided into lexemic and semantic.
Semantic idioms consist of six categories: phrasal verbs, tournures,
irreversible binomials, phrasal compounds, incorporating verbs and pseudoidioms. Seidl and McMordie (1988), Cowie, Mackin & McCaig (1993)
mention the categories of idioms based on their topics and grammatical
patterns. From transformational grammar, Fraser (1970) regards an idiom as
a constituent or a series of constituents whose meaning does not come from
the meanings of individual parts. He also mentions six level scales of idioms:
unrestricted, reconstitution, extraction, permutation, insertion, adjunction
and completely frozen. Semantically, Quirk (1996) investigates idioms and
proverbs having constituents of animals in English. In this study, typical
cultural properties conveyed by this type of idioms and proverbs are
established. This is regarded as an initial research investigating English
idioms and proverbs in terms of their semantic properties from component
perspective.
Fernando & Flavell (1981) are the linguists who realize the limitations
of the previous scholars. They suppose that idiom and idiomaticity are not
the same. They focus on the nature of idioms such as morpho-syntacite
composition, semantic properties, homonymity, syntactic properties, etc.
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They also examine several issues which focus attention on the idiom as a
single lexeme that is non-correlative in its syntax and therefore non-literal
in terms of its constituents. The most satisfying and sensitive criterion to
establish idiomaticity is undoubtedly the semantic one. Semantically,
Fernando & Flavell (1981) establish the transparent-opaque axis for
analyzing idioms. In defining idiom, they stress three features in particular: a
non-correlative syntax resulting in non-literalness, homonymity and
institutionalization.
From cognitive view, Nunberg et al. (1994) divide idioms into
two categories (i) idiomatically combining expressions whose constituent
parts carry identifiable parts of their idiomatic meanings, and (ii) idiomatic
phrases whose idiomatic meanings cannot be derived from their parts (see
Section 1.1.3). Fernando (1996) also divides English idioms
categories:

pure

idioms,

semi-idioms

and

into

literal

three
idioms.

Grammatically, Taylor (2002) mentions the interrelated topics of idioms and
constructions. The topics are interrelated in that both idioms and
constructions are possibly considered as symbolic units, which associate a
phonological (or ‘formal’) representation with a semantic reading.
According to his points of view, constructions are usually specified at a high
level of schematicity and likely to sanction an open set of expressions.
Nevertheless, a construction’s usage range may not be fully predictable:
constructions, in other words, display varying degrees of idiomaticity.
Idioms generally need to be specified at a lower level of schematicity. Taylor
(2002) also points out that the difference between idioms and constructions
turns out to be a gradient distinction, having to do, essentially, with the
schematicity at which a unit is specified. Langlotz (2006) explores
alternative types of adnominal modification in occasional variants of English
verbal idioms. Following the cognitive-linguistic framework, he states that
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the dimensions of idiom-transparency result from the language user’s ability
to remotivate the bipartite semantic structure by conceptual metaphors and
metonymies.
In short, idioms in English are studied in terms of several aspects such
as grammar, semantics, rhetoric, pragmatics, etc which are investigated from
different views. However, the majority of scholars pay their attention to the
two approaches. Scholars who adopt the first approach are more structurally
orientated. They describe the idioms and their idiomaticity in terms of one or
more structural properties. The idiomatologists who adopt the second
approach study idiomaticity as manifesting hidden conceptual design of the
language. Such an approach leads to the nature of cognition itself and
accordingly has valid psycholinguistic.
2.1.2. Previous Research Works on Idioms in Vietnamese
In the vocabulary system of Vietnamese, idioms which are usually
placed in a certain position can define themselves with other linguistic units
such as compounds, collocations and proverbs. Due to this direction, it can
be seen that several studies on vocabulary and grammar or the boundary
issues among lexical units have been carried out (Đỗ Hữu Châu 1981,
Nguyễn Văn Mệnh 1986, Nguyễn Thiện Giáp 1985, Hồ Lê 1976, etc).
Some other Vietnamese authors such as Trương Đông San (1974), Hoàng
Văn Hành (1976) study the forms and meanings of similized idiom.
Nguyễn Công Đức (1995) studies Vietnamese idioms from formal-semantic
perspectives. It is a research investigating idioms quite systematically from
both structural and semantic perspectives. Based on the forms, he divides
Vietnamese idioms into three categories: idioms with symmetrical structure,
idioms with comparison structure and idioms with non-symmetrical
structure. For idioms with symmetrical structure, the most important
characteristic is the reciprocal or contrast of meaning of the two parts of
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idioms, i.e. it is the relation of symmetrical contents. From this relation, these
idioms form other relations such as the relation of symmetrical words, i.e.
symmetry or repetition between components. Like other linguists, he
supposes that idioms with comparison structure are formed according to a
general formula A như B (e.g. chậm như rùa (very slowly). Idioms with nonsymmetrical structure are generally formed by phrases, especially verb
phrases: bắt cá hai tay (too greedy). Additionally, this kind of idioms also
has subject – predicate pattern: chuột sa chĩnh gạo (be very lucky to have a
comfortable life), chó ngáp phải ruồi (be suddenly in luck), etc. The
meaning formation process of idioms consists of three stages: creating
constituent parts including explicit and implicit components, establishing the
meanings through the internal relations among components, generalizing
and identifying the idiomatic meanings with things and concepts in
everyday life. He also comments that the meanings of idioms are generally
formed according to symmetrical, contrastive, harmonious, convergent and
random relations.
Like other linguists, Hoàng Văn Hành (2008) regards idioms as fixed
groups of words having stable forms and fully figurative meanings. The
stable particularity of idiom forms is the stability of vocabulary components
(It is normally so fixed that they cannot be replaced by any synonyms). This
stable characteristic is the result of dimming or forgetting the relationship
between grammar and semantics. However, he also notes that the stability
of idioms in the standard system and their flexibility in usage are not two
contradict aspects and don’t exclude each other. The full particularity of
idiomatic meanings is also explained from nominal senses.

Differing

from other normal parts of speech, idioms are considered as the nominal
units of the second class. From this point of view, he emphasizes that
idioms have bipartite meanings: literal (base, origin); figurative (used in
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reality and formed by the emblematized process). The emblematized process
of idiom meanings is expressed by two forms: comparative and figurative.
Due to this, Hoàng Văn Hành (2008) classifies Vietnamese idioms as
follows:
i) Based on the formation of meanings, there are two kinds of idioms:
similized and figurative. Figurative idioms can be sub-classified into
symmetrical figurative and non-symmetrical figurative.
ii) Due to the structures, idioms can be classified into symmetrical and
non-symmetrical. Non-symmetrical idioms can be sub-classified into nonsymmetrical similized.
The differences in classification above are only in view, or rather
in selecting the criteria for each level of classification. Due to that thought,
Hoàng Văn Hành (2008) considers each sub-category as an issue for
investigation. And, basing on this way, he continually divides each subcategory into smaller sub-categories. For example, symmetrical figurative
idioms can be classified into two types: coordination - meeting of meanings
and no meeting of meanings. Symmetrical figurative idioms with noncoordination - meeting of meanings can be further divided into balance,
focus and alternative.
Hoàng Văn Hành (2008) also states that the general pattern of
similized idioms (A như B) given by the previous authors is right but very
reduced. It does not reflect the nature of comparison in terms of both logic
and language. According to him, in any case the logical structure of
comparison is At1 như Bt2 (t1 is the attribute of A; t2 is the attribute of B).
Based on that general model, he conducts an analysis to find out the structure
of idiomatic meanings and divides it into t như B and như B. t như B idioms
can be sub- divided into t như B (như B indicates the degree of t) and t như B
(như B indicates the manner of t). In addition, he does not only focus on the
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idiom structures but also their usage and values. From cultural perspective,
he supposes that the underlying cultural factors behind the idioms need
uncovering. Although he himself realizes that this approach of studying
Vietnamese idioms is still open, we can find his contribution in this aspect
through his works on idioms.
In short, in Vietnamese, although there exist several studies on
idioms, most of the scholars focus on the forms and meanings of idioms
from traditional view. It means that studies on idioms in general and idioms
by animals from cognitive view have not been paid much attention.
2.2. Theoretical Background
2.2.1. Idioms Defined
English is very rich in idiomatic expressions. It is difficult to
speak or write English without using idioms. An important fact that must be
taken into consideration is that idioms are not only colloquial expressions, as
many people believe. They can appear in formal style and in slang. They can
also appear in poetry or in the language of the journalist, the writer and the
Bible. What, then, is an idiom?
Many linguists such as Robins (1989), Palmer (1981), Jackson and
Amvela (1998) and others regard idioms as a special kind of collocation. The
meaning of an idiom, however, cannot be deduced from the meaning of its
constituents. An idiom is distinguished from a collocation, for a collocation is
a sequence of lexical items which habitually co-occur and each lexical
constituent of a collocation is a semantic component. Hornby (1995) argued
in his Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, an idiom is “a phrase or
sentence whose meaning is not clear from the meaning of its individual words
and which must be learnt as a whole unit”. Sharing the same point of view,
Seidl and Mordie (1988) defined “an idiom is a number of words which, taken
together, mean something different from the individual words of the idiom
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when they stand alone”. For instance, the collocation of kick and the bucket
forms an idiom meaning die, which is not systematically determinable from
the meanings of kick and the bucket. This idiom or phrasal lexeme is formally
identical with the phrase kick the bucket whose meaning is systematically
determinable on the basis of the meaning of the lexemes of which it is
composed – hit a certain type of container for liquids with their foot.
In Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics
(1992), an idiom is also regarded as “an expression which functions as a
single unit and whose meaning cannot be worked out from its separate parts”.
In addition, Cowie, Mackin & McCaig (1993) state that idioms are groups of
words with set meanings that cannot be calculated by adding up the separate
meanings of the parts. Fernando (1996) defines an idiom as “an indivisible
unit whose components cannot be varied or varied only within definable
limits”. This means that no other words can be substituted for those
comprising. Nor are the words of an idiom usually recombinable.
In Vietnamese, a great variety of definitions of idioms are also given.
Nguyễn Văn Mệnh (1972) and Đỗ Hữu Châu (1981) suppose that idioms are
available linguistic units which have stable structures, typical meanings and
nominative functions.
Having the same viewpoint, Nguyễn Đức Dân (1986) defines that an
idiom is a fixed group of words having a complete meaning and descriptive
value. To make it clearer, he also adds that idioms express concepts based on
separated images. It is the reason why idioms usually have their own
figurative meanings. For example, the phrase cưỡi ngựa xem hoa (do
something summarily and perfunctorily) is considered as an idiom because its
idiomatic meaning cannot be infered from the meanings of its constituents
(cưỡi, ngựa, xem and hoa). Another definition of idiom from Hoàng Văn
Hành (2008: 31) is that an idiom is a fixed group of words which is firm in
13


terms of structure, complete and figurative in terms of meaning, and is widely
used in daily speaking.
As can be seen from the above definitions, there are different ways of
defining an idiom. In general, most of the linguists share the same point of
view that an idiom is a fixed expression whose meaning cannot be worked
out by looking at the meanings of its individual constituents. What is given
below is regarded as a summary of the defining features of an idiom. Such an
idiom:
- is a fixed unit whose components cannot be varied or varied under
definable control;
- is regarded as a complex scene with a bipartite semantic structure: a
literal reading and an idiomatic meaning;
- has the meaning which is usually different from the meanings of the
combination of its components;
- expresses a pure concept.
2.2.2. Idioms from Traditional, Cognitive and Perspective Component Views
i) Idioms from Traditional Views
Traditionally, in English, idioms are considered to be unpredictable or
non-compositional (Chafe 1970, Chomsky 1965/1980, Katz 1973, Fernando
& Flavell 1981, etc). This results in the concept that although we have
learned the meaning and syntactic property of each word of an idiom, we are
still unable to capture its idiomatic meaning. In other words, the meaning of
an idiom cannot be derived from the meanings of its constituents. According
Fernando & Flavell (1981), the meaning of an idiom is not the result of the
compositional function of its constituent parts. They regard an idiom as a
lexeme.
Vietnamese idioms are traditionally thought to be unpredictable or
non-compositional (Nguyễn Văn Mệnh 1972, Đỗ Hữu Châu 1981, Nguyễn
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Công Đức 1995, Hoàng Văn Hành 2008, etc).
In summary, according to traditional view, the meaning of an idiom is
the special chemical mixture of all components’ meaning, which is
completely new in quality. It means that there is no link between the literal
reading and the idiomatic meaning. However, in fact there exist a lot of
idioms in English and in Vietnamese, the idiomatic meanings of which can be
derived from the meanings of their component parts, i.e. their syntax is
correlative. Indeed, the traditional view cannot be applied to explain all types
of idioms. It is regarded as the limitation of this view.
ii) Idioms from Cognitive Views
In English, from cognitive view, most idioms are believed to be
analyzable and have meanings that are at least partly motivated (Geeraets
1995, Gibbs 1990/1995, Kốvecses & Szabo 1996, Nunberg et al. 1994,
Fernando 1996, Taylor 2002, Langlotz 2006, etc).
According to Nunberg et al. (1994: 497), “saying an expression is an
idiomatic combination (i.e. idiomatically combining expression) doesn’t
require us to explain why each of its parts has the figurative interpretation it
does, so long as we can establish a correspondence between it and the
relevant element of the idiomatic denotation”. Nunberg et al. (1994) also
divides idioms into two categories. They are idiomatically combining
expressions whose constituent parts carry identifiable parts of their idiomatic
meanings, and idiomatic phrases whose idiomatic meanings cannot be
derived from their parts. For example, the phrase spill the beans, which
means ‘divulge the information’, can be analyzed by looking at the action of
‘spill’ as the action of divulging and ‘beans’ as the information. Gibbs (1990,
1995) supposes that most idioms are motivated by cognitive-semantic
mechanisms such as metaphors, metonymies and conventional knowledge.
According to cognitive view, most Vietnamese idioms are also
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believed to be analyzed and their meanings are at least partly motivated. For
example, the idiom “cưa sừng làm nghé” meaning “one who is old tries to be
young and innocent” in is analyzed in this way: cưa sừng refers to người già
lớn tuổi (the old), while làm nghé corresponds to cổ làm ra vẻ trẻ trung, ngây
thơ (try to be young and innocent).
In a word, the psychological experiments conducted by Gibbs (1990,
1995) prove that the figurative meanings of most idioms are not arbitrary.
Sharing the same points with the authors above, in the present study we once
again suppose that most idioms in both English and Vietnamese are
analyzable and have meanings which are at least partly motivated through the
component parts forming idioms.
iii) Idioms from Component Perspective view
According to Component Perspective view, idioms both in English and
in Vietnamese are made up of two components which are structural and
semantic.
In terms of structural components, idioms are divided into three types:
symmetrical, similized and non-symmetrical idioms. A symmetrical idiom
by animals is generally regarded as one which has two opposite component
parts (A and B). And these two parts are usually parallel. Asimilized idiom
by animals is similar to an ordinary comparison; however, they differ from
each other in some ways. An ordinary comparison refers to two things
belonging to the same category to show the degree of their similarity or
difference. On the contrary, a similized idiom involves one thing which is
put in the same line with another of a different category to emphasize or
exaggerate certain properties. It is called idiomatic comparison which is used
to make the language more vivid. Non-symmetrical idioms are idioms whose
structural components are different from those of symmetrical and similized
idioms. In detail, a non-symmetrical idiom does not contain two symmetrical
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parts, or it is not formed by its specific comparative means such as as…as,
like, as, in English and nhu in Vietnamese.
In terms of semantic components, idioms are classified according to the
motivation degree which is sub-divided into four degrees: transparent, semitransparent, semi-opaque and opaque. Transparent idioms are idioms whose
idiomatic meanings can be derived from the meanings of their constituent
parts. The constituents of these idioms are explicit, i.e. the idioms are
completely transparent. Semi- transparent idioms refer to the idioms having
both explicit and implicit component parts. The meanings of these idioms are
from one component or one component part of the idioms (Nguyễn Công Đức
1995; Hoàng Văn Hành 2008). Semi-opaque idioms are regarded as idioms
whose component parts are implicit but possibly analyzable. According to
Langlotz (2006: 91), ‘analysability is a dimension potentially affecting the
internal semantic structure of an idiomatic construction’. Opaque idioms are
idioms all the constituents of which are implicit. In other word, that the
idioms are completely opaque means that there is no link between the literal
reading and the idiomatic meaning. However, to some extent they can be
motivated by conventional knowledge.
2.2.3. Idioms and other language units
That idioms share some common syntactic and semantic features with
other phraseology units in the language makes it difficult for learners to
distinguish. The confusion often occurs between idioms and proverbs or
idioms and slangs.
i) Idioms versus Proverbs
According to Mieder , “a proverb is a short, generally known sentence
of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a
metaphorical, fixed and memorizable form and which is handed down from
generation to generation”. For example, ‘a leopard cannot change its spots’ is
17


used to say that one will stay true to one’s nature, even ì one pretends of
claims otherwise.
According to the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, a proverb is
defined as “a well-known phrase or sentence that gives advice or says
something is generally true”.
From such definitions, it is obvious that idioms and proverbs share
some common features and it is necessary to put them side by side to
distinguish. First of all, both idioms and proverbs are ready-made units which
are mainly orally transmitted from generation to generation and naturally
accepted in daily life. Secondly, both of them are set-expressions whose
components are stable and not able to be substituted. It is nearly impossible to
add, omit or replace any components of an idiom or a proverb because it will
make them lose their figurative meanings. In addition, the meaning of most
idioms and proverbs is understood metaphorically rather than literally. This is
the reason why it is arduous to discover their true meaning just by looking up
the individual words in a normal dictionary. Finally, some proverbs originate
from idioms. An example of this is the proverb ‘birds of a feather flock
together’ (similar people spend time together) which contains the idiom ‘birds
of a feather’ (similar people).
Besides the similarities, both idioms and proverbs have their own typical
features that distinguish one from another. The first and most obvious
difference lies in their syntactic structures. In terms of syntactic structures,
idioms are phrases which are parts of sentences; thus, they are equivalent to
words. In contrast, proverbs are complete sentences or phrases which can
express the whole idea by themselves. What is more, idioms and proverbs are
also different in terms of their functions. Proverbs are short well-known
sentences or phrases that express a judgment, general truth about life, advice or
moral lesson. They contain three main literature functions namely perceptive,
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