IDIOMS AND IDIOMATICITY - [Oxford University Press Publication) BY DR. CHITRA FERNANDO
A USEFUL REFERENCE BOOK TO UNDERSTAND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.


Review By THILAK S. FERNANDO - Oct 1997

" The invasion of one' s mind by ready made phrases can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one's brain" - George Orwell - 1946.

When people talk or write their language is a mixture of already known phrases and new ones invented by the language-user. Familiar ready-made phrases such as bread and butter 'livelihood' or how are you? 'greeting' are known as idioms. So are other commonplace expressions such as catch a bus/a train etc, take a holiday, gin and tonic, a merry Christmas and happy New Year. Idiomatic English usage does not allow for example, tonic and gin or a merry New Year. In other words, we can't take it for granted that anything goes. Incidentally, the foregoing sentence uses three idioms: in other words, take something for granted and anything goes, a telling illustration of how idioms (ready-made expressions) and idiomaticity (acceptable usage) pervades language, in this case (another idiom) English. Idioms and idiomaticity, while closely related, are not identical. The basis of both is a habitual and, therefore, predictable co- occurrence of specific words, but with idioms signifying a narrower range of word combinations than idiomaticity. Idioms are indivisible units whose components cannot be varied or varied only within definable limits.

Dr. Chitra Fernando's reference book, 'Idioms and Idiomatcicity' (Oxford University Press Publication - Describing English Language Series - ISBN 0-19-437199-9) aims to explore the functions of idioms, what purpose they fulfil and aims to show how they are used.

Dr. Chitra Fernando, born in Sri Lanka, was a senior lecturer attached to School of English, Linguistics and Media at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia from 1968 to 1994. Prior to her Australian career she worked in the English Language unit of the Department of Education in Colombo, and in the English Department of the Government Teacher Training College, Colombo District, Sri Lanka. While at Macquarie University, she taught courses in syntax, semantics, language and culture contact the language component in migration studies and English to migrants. Her research for the doctorate has been in the areas of idiomatology, bilingualism and language policy.

In Dr. Chirtra Fernando's book, the theme of the ubiquity of idioms dominates Chapter two (Conventional ways of saying) and six (Idiomatic expressions as a vocabulary resource). Chapter two has short sections on Sri Lankan English and Australian English.

Chapter three of 'Idioms and Idiomaticity' shows how talk and writing are enlivened by unusual variation of common idioms e.g. red herring ' something used to deliberately draw attention away from the truth or from what is important in a situation': A seemingly solid case mounts against Wallace as the narrative darts like a fish through flashbacks and time shifts. Herrings, reddish abound…. The scent of doubt (or is it herring?) is pervasive in a classic piece of work. (TV Guide 13-19 January 1992).

Unusual combinations are also to be found giving bizarre images, if taken literally, which of course they are not meant to be. Some examples are:

ALP plans to tighten government fat cats' belts (The Sydney Morning Herald 13 May 1991:5)

"Children dying of AIDS are brushed under the carpet," she said. (The Sydney Morning Herald 13 January 1990:1) These examples bring out another important feature of many idioms: they can't be taken literally.

Chapter four of ' Idioms and Idiomaticity' deals with idioms used in talk and range from service encounters of various sorts to small talk and seminar discussions. This chapter deals with how the use of the right idioms promotes conviviality, especially by softening power play (I am afraid so, I am sorry to say etc); conversely, other idioms signal conflict and are used to heighten power play (you don't know what you're talking about, let me tell you, etc.)

Chapter five focuses on those expressions like in connection with, with regard to, on the one hand… on the other, first and foremost, in the meantime etc., which lead to the composition of well connected pieces of writing where one point leads logically to another. Detailed analyses are given of texts, both long and short.

Dr. Chirtra Fernando's description of English in Idioms and Idiomaticity and the conclusions drawn therein are based on a consideration of material gathered from talk, letters, the media, literature and academic writing. Her aim throughout has been to exemplify naturally occurring English, arguably also the most idiomatic.

Idioms and Idiomaticity could be useful to the general reader with an interest in language, especially those with an interest in communicative skill, for example media persons. It will be most useful to undergraduates and post-graduates and so will provide a good reference work for native and foreign speakers of English for this part of the vocabulary if required by university libraries and language centres. In ' Idioms and Idiomaticity' Dr. Fernando has kept technicalities to a minimum, assuming that the reader is familiar with basic grammatical terms and basic linguistic concepts.

A review on Dr. Chitra Fernando's book, 'Idioms and Idiomaticity by Peggy Goldsmith, part-time lecturer in English as a second language at the University of Western Sydney (Nepean) has been re-produced in the Australian Style Journal June 1997 issue as follows:

' There have been a few reference books that a teacher might turn to in order to explore the functions of idioms in the context of communication. This new publication by Fernando uses a Hallidayan functional grammatical framework, whilst keeping to aminimum of those grammatical terms essential to the connective functions inherent in idiomaticity. (There is a short glossary).

The Chapters dealing with conventional ways of saying things (Chapter 2), images of the world (Chap.3), interpersonal idiomatic expressions (Chap.4) and relational idiomatic expressions in exposition and narrative (Chap.5) have much to offer the teacher of English. A broad knowledge of idioms particularly in current use would seem to be a standard requirement of such a teacher.

Whilst primary school teachers may prefer to focus on semantic aspects of idioms as students encounter them in reading or conversation, the secondary teacher of English literature and facilitator of essay writing will find this a useful text. As Fernando suggests " ….. Idioms offer familiar, succinct ways of getting across complex information packages…." (p.143) to the language user.

Mainstream teachers of English, secondary ESL teachers and possibly some teachers in Intensive English Centres with advanced students of English would find much to assist them in their analysis of English literature and newspaper journal articles, especially in the area of imaginary.

In introducing idioms to trainee teachers of English to speakers of other languages, it seems to me that there are two dangers: (1) that idioms will go unrecognised or will be misunderstood; and (2) that they will be thought to be old-fashioned language and outside teachers' own language repertoire.

Part of this difficulty lies in the fact that we are training significant numbers of teachers for whom English is not their first language, as well as educating students who are the first in their families to aspire to be university graduates. The implication here is that there is neither evidence in such students' background of a broad literary knowledge nor, frequently, of educated conversation in English. This is not a cause for despair but points to a need t ensure that teacher educators are skilled in linguistic as well as literary analysis.

Fernando reminds us that grasping only the stable basic meaning of words, whether idioms or non-idioms, is not enough. If language-users want advanced compositional and comprehension skills, they must acquire the ability to create and respond to variable contest-specific meaning deriving from a number of factors, including the etymological origins of words. (p.110).

As an example, amongst idioms selected for detailed analysis by Fernando's red herring. The benefit of analysing a number of instances of such an idiom's use is suggested: i.e. the greater the clarity of " its informational components, its meaning and function, the greater its capacity for helping the language-user make sense of the world he/she inhabits". (p.112).

If there are any doubts about the continued use of an idiom such as red herring, they can be put to rest in reading Peter Smark's article: "Beware of dubious arithmetic on jobs" (SMH 22.3.97) where he quotes Michael Dobbs-Higginson, as saying " Unfortunately, however, APEC is a red herring, if not a red whale! The sooner the Australian Government realises this the better."

Of course, not all analyses of red herring will go as far back as the original context where pickled herrings were once used to throw hounds off the scent in a fox hunt, but they will certainly point to the deliberate drawing of attention away from the truth, or be glossed as " decoy", "misleading diversion". It would have been useful for teachers had there been an index of discussed idioms. A dictionary of idioms would appear to be a necessary companion of this text.

I can recommend ' Idioms and Idiomaticity' as a useful reference book particularly if you are a linguistically and grammatically literate teacher or you simply want to learn more about idioms. In assisting students' writing to the point of inventive imitation or partial variation on known idioms, you will have educated your students indeed'.

The first edition of Idioms and Idiomaticity was released in 1996 and its second edition is due to be out in 1997. Dr.Chitra Fernando took early retirement in 1994 on medical grounds.