Phraseology in Intercultural Communication

A contrastive approach towards German and English phraseological units of fire and water

Term Paper, 2011

33 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

List of abbreviations

List of tables

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical foundations on phraseological units
2.1 Definition
2.2 Characteristics
2.3 Motivation
2.4 Transformation

3 The relevance of phraseological units for the intercultural communication ...
3.1 The cultural boundedness of phraseological units
3.2 The comprehension of phraseological units by non-native speakers
3.3 Phraseological units in conversations between native speakers and non-native speakers
3.4 The translation of phraseological units

4 A contrastive description of German and English phraseological units of fire and water
4.1 Method
4.2 Results
4.2.1 Conceptual target domains
4.2.2 Variations and creative exploitations

5 Conclusion



List of abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

List of tables

Table 1: Similar phraseological units in German and English with the source domain ‘water’

Table 2: Similar phraseological units in German and English with the source domain ‘fire’

Table 3: Phraseological units with ‘water’ as source domain

Table 4: Phraseological units with ‘fire’ as source domain

1 Introduction

“idioms, the colourful side of languages, are one of the symbols used while we are communicating our thoughts and feelings. They are used to give life and richness to the language by taking the existing words, combining them in a new sense, and creating new meanings, just like a work of art." (LEN­NON, 1998, cited in BULUT; QELIK-YAZICI, 2004: 105)

This combination of existing words “like a work of art” represents a huge challenge for non-native speakers they have to cope with in their language learning process. In the context of intercultural communication[1], non-native and native speakers interact with each other and often make use of idioms and other fixed expressions as “the colourful side of languages”, because they are used to it from their usual communication in their first languages. However, theses fixed expressions constitute a special part of the lan­guage use due to particular characteristics, which will be explored further in this term paper. Consequently, communication between non-native and native speakers does not always runs smoothly when phraseological language comes into play. Amongst others, the cultural boundedness as well as native-like creative exploitations of the fixed expressions represent probable causes for misunderstandings. These aspects will be presented hereafter. Given the limited space of this term paper, the focus is on communication between non-native and native speakers. Phenomenon connected to the phraseological language in a lingua franca[2] setting cannot be examined further.

Within the scope of intercultural communication, contrastive linguistics is one approach towards interactions across language borders. “Contrastive linguistics focuses on pairs of languages and explores similarities and differences between them.” (KRZESZOWS- KI, 1991: 10) In the tradition of contrastive linguistics, the second part of this term pa­per focuses on the contrastive description[3] of the phraseological language of two dif­ferent languages, namely German and English. The collection of phraseological units (PUs) is narrowed down to facilitate the comparison. PUs, whose source domain origi­nates either from the concept ‘fire’ or from the concept ‘water’, are chosen for this comparison. However, in order to set the frame for the examination of different PUs, it is important to look at some theoretical foundations on the topic of phraseological lan­guage first.

2 Theoretical foundations on phraseological units

2.1 Definition

The definitions of phraseology vary from scholar to scholar (cf. LIU, 2007: 3). Some use a more narrow approach employing the term ‘phraseology’ as a synonym for ‘id­iom’. Other scholars follow a wider perspective and define ‘phraseology’ as a hypernym of a whole class of fixed expressions, such as idioms, proverbs, or collocations (cf. DOBROVOL’SKIJ, PIIRAINEN, 2002: 45).

GRIES focuses on the polylexemic structure of phraseologisms respectively phrase­ological units[4] in his definition:

“In sum, a phraseologism is defined as the co-occurence of a form or a lemma of a lexical item and one or more additional linguistic elements of various kinds which functions as one semantic unit in a clause or a sentence and whose frequency of co-occurence is larger than expected on the basis of chance.”

(GRIES, 2008: 6)

FIEDLER, in addition, includes the syntactic and semantic stability, a possible figurative character and the function of PUs into her definition:

“Unter einem Phraseologismus soll entsprechend dem gegenwartigen For- schungsstand eine usuell verwendete polylexikalische und zumeist idiomatische sprachliche Einheit verstanden werden, die durch (relative) syntaktisch-seman- tische Stabilitat gekennzeichnet ist und vom Sprecher / Schreiber als fertige Einheit des Lexikons reproduziert und mit zumeist intensivierender Funktion (...) im Text eingesetzt wird.“

(FIEDLER, 2006: 453)

2.2 Characteristics

As the definitions above already indicated, PUs show different characteristics. Again, there are variants of typologies of characteristics depending on the scholar cited (BURGER, 2010: 14ff; FIEDLER, 2007: 17ff; ISHIDA, 2008: 276). Below, the main characteristics, which are mentioned by most of the authors, are presented:

Polylexemic structure: As polylexemic items, PUs consist of at least two constituents. The upper limit is defined with a whole sentence (cf. BURGER, 2010: 15; FIEDLER, 2007: 17f).[5]

Stability: “In contrast to ad-hoc constructions, a PU is conventionalized in content and structure.” (FIEDLER, 2007: 19) On the one hand, PUs are subject to lexico-semantic restrictions. Usually, constituents cannot be replaced or deleted without risking the phraseological meaning of the whole unit (e.g. ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.' [6] and ‘*A sparrow in the hand is worth two in the bush.’) (cf. BURGER, 2010: 22; FIEDLER, 2007: 19f; ISHIDA, 2008: 276). On the other hand, PUs also underlie mor- pho-syntactic restrictions. Transformations, such as passivization, pluralization, ortopi- calization are not always possible. For instance, the phraseological meaning of the German PU ‘Das ist kalter Kaffee’ [7] is lost with the pluralized ‘Das sind kalte Kaffees’. Moreover, for some PUs, only a particular tense might be appropriate (cf. BURGER, 2010: 21ff; FIEDLER, 2007: 26; ISHIDA, 2008: 276).

However, the criterion of stability has to be put into perspective. There are also lexical- ized variants of several PUs. In addition, the creative use of language is often applied (see also chapter 2.4, p.5) (cf. BURGER, 2010: 24ff; FIEDLER, 2007: 20). In this con­text, the semantic transparency of a PU correlates with its syntactic stability. In other words, the less transparent a PU is, the more unlikely are transformations (cf. FELL- BAUM, KRAMER, NEUMANN, 2006: 45)

Lexicalization: PUs are part of the collective memory of a language community. This means, that they are memorized holistically by the language users. Thus, this criterion is linked to the stability of PUs (cf. FIEDLER, 2007: 21).

Idiomaticity: Often, the phrasal meaning of a PU cannot be derived from the meaning of its individual constituents. One can also state, that its meaning is not (fully) transpar­ent or that the figurative meaning of the PU differs from the literal one (cf. FIEDLER, 2007: 22; ISHIDA, 2008: 276).

Connotations: PUs are often used in order to express particularly the intention of the speaker or writer. Stylistically, PUs can vary from informal to formal expressions. Moreover, PUs can add to the revealing of the speaker’s subjective attitude towards the denoted person or entity (cf. FIEDLER, 2007: 23ff).

Types of anomalies: A few PUs show grammatical ill-formedness, which is only ac­cepted in the scope of the particular PU, e.g. by and large [8] , or fossilized elements, such as kith and kin [9] . They are a result of language development in the history (CHAFE, 1968, cited in FIEDLER, 2007: 27; FIEDLER, 2007: 28).

Finally, it is important to note, that individual PUs vary with regard to the degree of each ofthese characteristics (cf. ISHIDA, 2008: 276).

2.3 Motivation

Cognitive linguists state that a PU “is not just an expression that has a meaning that is somehow special in relation to the meaning of its constituting parts, but it arises from our more general knowledge of the world embodied in our conceptual system.” (KOVECSES, 2002: 201) Metaphors[10], metonymies[11] [12] and cultural knowledge represent the basis of the cognitive mechanisms that link the source domains of PUs to their phraseological meaning (cf. KOVECSES, 2002: 201ff). The term motivation refers to the transparency of the realization of a PU’s meaning (cf. DOBROVOL’SKIJ, PIIRAINEN, 2002: 109). This means, that the conceptual knowledge of the connections between the source and the target domain enables the language user to understand (partly) the meaning of a metaphorical or metonymical PU, which themselves constitute the majority ofthe PUs (cf. LIU, 2007: 71).

As an example, in the sentence ‘The fire between them finally went out.’ the underlying conceptual metaphor links the source domain ‘fire’ to the target domain ‘love’ (cf. KOVECSES, 2002: 202).

However, motivation works mainly retrospectively. Underlying conceptual metaphors or metonymies do not entail automatically the predictability of a PU’s meaning. With many PUs, the motivation becomes fully clear once the language user knows the phrase­ological meaning. Furthermore, some PUs do not even contain any motivation, such as the well-worn PU to kick the bucket'2. These kinds of PUs are completely opaque (KOVESCES, 2002: 201).

In the context of the comparison of English and German PUs in chapter 4 (see p.10ff), the underlying conceptual metaphors and metonymies will be studied and will be re­lated to possible cultural influences, too.

2.4 Transformation

Although information on the characteristics of PUs in chapter 2.2 (see p.2f) showed that lexico-grammatical stability represents one of the central preconditions to define phraseology, the fixedness of this characteristic has to be limited. In the context of the creative use of language, many PUs are manipulated or transformed in different ways by the actual language user in order to adapt them to the communicative needs (cf. FERNANDO, 1996: 43). This kind of marked use of the language raises difficulties in particular for non-native speakers, be it in the comprehension or in the production of such a creative usage of language (see also chapter 3.2, p.7f and 3.3, p.8f).

There are different sorts of transformations of PUs. The most important ones are the following:

Substitution: Beyond the limits of institutionalized lexical variations of PUs, such as to view / look at / observe so. / sth. through rose-coloured / rose-tinted lenses / glasses [13] , lexical elements are replaced by others without losing the idiomaticity (FERNANDO, 1996: 43ff).

Addition: Language users may include additional elements into a PU. These additions sometimes refer fully to the figurative meaning of the PU. In other cases, an additional element is treated as if it were literal, but actually the figurative meaning is striven for (cf. FERNANDO, 1996: 47f), e.g. “One of his examiners said that this was a feather in his cap [14] but he said it was a small feather.” (FERNANDO, 1996: 48)

Permutation: Lexemes, but also phonemes and morphemes are sometimes inter­changed within a PU. However, the distinction between usual variation and the creative use of language is often difficult to make (FERNANDO, 1996: 50ff).

Deletion: Lexical elements may also be deleted. Some PUs, proverbs in particular, are well established and consequently are used in their truncated form, such as a rolling stone from a rolling stone gathers no moss[15] (cf. FERNANDO, 1996: 51f).

When playing with the language, the speaker or author always implies that the com­munication partner or reader knows the original PU. In addition, these innovations in­volve some kind of intuitive feel concerning the limits of the idiomaticity of a PU (cf. FERNANDO, 1996: 47f).

Chapter 4.2.2 (see p.14ff) will show to which extent the analyzed PUs allow for varia­tions. Furthermore, examples from corpus data will be examined regarding the type of possible underlying creative transformations of original PUs.

3 The relevance of phraseological units for the intercultural communication

3.1 The cultural boundedness of phraseological units

Wilhelm von Humboldt already considered language as a reflection and extension of the so-called ‘Weltansicht’ (world-view). Generally speaking,

“(...) culture is assumed to be implemented, one way or another, on the content plane of linguistic expression, reproduced in an act of denomination and transmitted from generation to generation through linguistic and cultural norms of usage. Thus, language can be looked upon as a crucial mechanism contributing to the formation of a collective cultural identity.”

(TELIYA, 1998: 56)

Particularly, PUs can be influenced by several aspects of culture[16]. First of all, within the context of a textual dependence, images of some PUs date from identificable tex­tual sources, such as the Bible or other Holy Scriptures (e.g. black sheep'[17] ), fairy tales, original quotations, or titles of books and films. Furthermore, an influence of pre- scientific conception of the world, such as folk beliefs or superstitions, is possible (e.g. to thank one’s lucky stars'[18] ). Cultural symbols, as for instance symbols from mythology, religions, popular customs, and fine arts, represent another type of influencing factor. Moreover, aspects of material culture, embedded in everyday life in the past or in the present, play a role in the creation of PUs (e.g. achievements of modern technology culture: to be at the same wavelength as sb.[19] ). Some features of material culture are unique in a particular country, such as the concept of sauna and its influence on the Finnish phraseology. Finally, also aspects of culture-based social interaction find their way into the phraseological language, such as semiotised gestures (e.g. to take off one’s hat [20] ), gender specifics (e.g. to wear the trousers at home /in the family[21] ), bans and taboos, and routine formulae (cf. PIIRAINEN, 2008b: 210ff; BALZER, 2004: 255ff).

Overall, these cultural features represent the basis of several PUs by constituting the source domain for the individual cognitive concepts (see also chapter 2.3, p.4f). These concepts can be different from country to country (cf. LIU, 2007: 41). For instance, the concept of bullfighting in Spain contributed to about 500 PUs to the Spanish language (cf. PIIRAINEN, 2008b: 216). By implication, a lack of culture-specific knowledge of the underlying cognitive concepts has been found out to cause difficulties for non-native speakers to understand PUs (see also chapter 3.2, p.7f) (cf. LIU, 2007: 71).

Nonetheless, one can also argue critically that the beliefs and assumptions expressed in many PUs are not any more part of a language user’s world view or even part of a whole language community. Because of the historical nature of language, there is usu­ally a time-lag between the creation and the usage of a PU at present days. Some PUs may not be semantically transparent to speakers and thus are used holistically in a conventionalized way (cf. SABBAN, 2008: 234ff). “(...) and even if they are transparent, using them does not require that the speaker actually subscribes to the views or beliefs on which the idioms are based.” (SABBAN, 2008: 238)

3.2 The comprehension of phraseological units by non-native speakers

Whereas highly proficient learners of a second or foreign language (L2) are capable of applying grammatical rules and vocabulary without remarkable mistakes, they usually lack knowledge of PUs of the L2 (FIEDLER, 2006: 453). The mastery of L2 phraseol­ogy seems to constitute the barrier between the non native-like command of language on a high level and the native-like command of a language (PRODROMOU, 2003: 45).

On the one hand, non-native speakers typically have gaps in the conceptual knowledge of the culture connected to the L2 (cf. MEDGYES, 1994, cited in PRODOMOU, 2003: 45); one can state that they lack “linguo-cultural competence” (TELIYA, 1998: 57). This conceptual knowledge is usually acquired by children during their linguistically most formative years of first language (L1) acquisition, for instance by means of games, stories, or nursery rhymes (cf. MEDGYES, 1994, cited in PRODROMOU, 2003: 45; cf. TELIYA, 1998: 57). Furthermore, the shared knowledge of language and culture (see also chapter 3.1, p.6f), which are expressed in PUs but not signalled any­where in the text represent one of the obstacles for L2 learners (cf. PRODROMOU, 2003: 45).


[1] Intercultural communication “can be defined simply as the exchange ofverbal messages (spoken or written) between individuals from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds by means of a common language.” (DANESI, ROCCI, 2009: 3)

[2] ‘Lingua franca’ is a term “for a second acquired language system that serves as a means of communi­cation between speakers of different first languages (or extremely distinct dialects)” (BUSSMANN, 1996: 281).

[3] The author avoids deploiting the term ‘contrastive analysis’ because this concept is already used by an approach as part of research on second language acquisition. It involves the prediction and explanation of language learners’ problems based on a comparison of two languages (cf. SAVILLE-TROIKE, 2007: 34).

[4] With regard to consistency, the term ‘phraseological unit’ or ‘PU’ is used in this term paper.

[5] The criterion of a polylexemic structure sometimes contradicts the actual language use. For instance, a phraseological word group can be transformed into a compound, e.g. eye-catcher from to catch sb.’s eye (cf. FIEDLER, 2007: 18). Furthermore, it is problematic for agglutinative languages, such as Fin­nish, in which meaning is largely conveyed with the help of affixes (cf. DOBROVOL’SKIJ, PIIRAINEN, 2002: 46).

[6] ‘It is better to keep what you have than to risk losing it by trying to get something better.’

[7] the equivalent to the English PU “That’s old hat!”

[8] ‘generally’ or ‘mostly’

[9] ‘friends and relatives’

[10]..Metaphors are linguistic images that are based on a relationship of similarity between the object or concepts; that is, based on the same or similar semantic features, a denotational transfer occurs.“ (BUSSMANN, 1996: 304)

[11] A metonymy is a .replacement of an expression by a factually related term. The semantic connection is ofa causal, spatial, ortemporal nature (...).” (BUsSmANN, 1996: 305)

[12],to die‘

[13] ‘to perceive something with an attitude that things are better than they really are’

[14] ‘something very good that someone has done’

[15] ‘Someone, who does not settle in one place, rarely prospers.’

[16] Within the context ofthis term paper, culture should be defined as follows: “By culture, we understand the ability of members of a speech community to orientate themselves with respect to social, moral, political, and so on values in their empirical and mental experiences. Cultural categories (...) are con­ceptualized in the subconscious knowledge of standards, stereotypes, mythologies, rituals, general habits, and othercultural patterns.” (, 1998: 57)

[17] ‘someone who is thought to be a bad person by the rest of their family’

[18] ‘to be grateful for a good fortune‘

[19] ‘If two people are on the same wavelength, it is easy for them to understand and agree with each other.’

[20] ‘to show one’s admiration for sb./sth.’

[21] ‘to be the person in a relationship who makes all the important decisions’

Excerpt out of 33 pages


Phraseology in Intercultural Communication
A contrastive approach towards German and English phraseological units of fire and water
University of Erfurt  (Philosophische Fakultät - Fachbereich Anglistik)
Intercultural Communications
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Linguistik, Sprachwissenschaft, linguistics, Interkulturelle Kommunikation, Intercultural Communications, idioms, phraseology, phraseological units, contrastive analysis, contrastive linguistics, Redewendungen, Phraseologie, Kontrastive Linguistik
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Annegret Gelbrecht (Author), 2011, Phraseology in Intercultural Communication, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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