7 mar. 2011

Semantic Prosody

More thought about the idiom principle.

The British linguist John Sinclair developed the term "semantic prosody.' This is not really prosody at all, but the connotational pattern in which a word is found. For example, the word "budge" might have a pattern for being used in situations of recalcitrant resistance. Sinclair says that the word "happen" has a semantic prosody of negative events. In other words, the word happen is more likely to be found connected to words like "accident."

What makes this kind of linguistics possible are the existence of huge corpora of language use. You don't simply ask a native speaker for her intuitions about the word budge, but instead you look at a huge corpus of authentic material and see what actually happens. Sinclair's motto was "trust the text."

I'm finding Sinclair's book Trust the Text to be very stimulating reading. My idea is to give a course for advanced language students (the highest level language course we have for undergraduates graduating with a major in Spanish) on idioms and proverbs. Students will learn idioms, increasingly their fluency, and also explore some the concepts developed by linguists like Sinclair. I think certain words in Spanish proverbs have a certain "semantic prosody." Think of the word pan or bread. The meaning of this word is its semantic prosody, its tendency to co-occur with other words or concepts. A refranero of sufficient size would then constitute a corpus in which to analyze the "co-text" of certain words.

As Barthes wrote of LaRochefoucauld, you can look at an aphorism for its individual meaning, or structurally. We can learn the meaning of dozens of individual idioms (a valuable thing to do) or we can look for patterns, the semantic prosody of idioms.

The word santo occurs in several idioms. "No es santo de mi devoción." (He is not saint to which I am particularly devoted.) Or "a santo de qué" (what the hell gives you the right?). One thing we could do, then, is look for the semantic prosody of idiomatic uses of this word.

My hypothesis is that the proverb is the idiom at the level of the sentence. You could use part of a proverb in another sentence, citing it fragmentarily or paraphrasing it. Then that part of the proverb would be an idiom or modismo.