Idiomaticity and classical traditions in some East Asian languages

Ka Yin Benjamin TSOU

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers

8 Citations (Scopus)


Idiomatic expressions can be understood to consist of two or more words with semantic content other than the literal meaning of its constituent words. This was illustrated by the famous Chafian differentiation between the ambiguous "John kicked the bucket" and the relatively unambiguous "The bucket was kicked by John". Such expressions abound in all languages as a means to expand and enhance semantic content, often through the incorporation of some compact structures. Typically they may involve relatively prescribed formats with parallel linguistic patterns and the use of conventionalized cultural icons, and are useful to discussions on idiomaticity. The Sanskritic tradition had an important and common role to play as a High language associated with elevated societal functions in the broad context of diglossia among a number of South East Asian languages. While the function of Sanskrit is much less prominent in these languages than before, many words of Sanskrit origin remain in their present day language and the Devanagari writing system of Sanskrit has left its imprint on a number of writing systems in this region. On the other hand, East Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean have shared a common classical tradition based on the Classical Chinese language which has a more pronounced roleamongst them than to Sanskrit amongst the other languages. Moreover,the Chinese logographic writing system has contributed to these development of their written language and has even continued to be used in some cases. The typological differences between Chinese and these languages often entail considerable modification in the process of adaptation, especially with respect to the Quadrasyllablic Idiomatic Expressions (QIEs) of Sinitic origin. These QIEs involve culture bound metaphorical references readily comparable to Achilles' heel (weakness), Waterloo (defeat), [Shylockian] pound of flesh, etc. They also constitute a distinct linguistic structure of relevance to linguists in general and those interested in construction grammar. This paper proposes to explore some salient characteristics unique to this venerated mode of expressions and how they are accommodated and adopted cross-linguistically. At the same time, questions are raised on why such cognitively demanding and socially costly mechanisms areselectively adopted in Asia within the larger context of language and society.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2012


Tsou, B. K. (2012, November). Idiomaticity and classical traditions in some East Asian languages. Paper presented at The 26th Pacific Asia Conference on Language Information and Computation (PACLIC 26), Universitas Indonesia, Indonesia.


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