1. Language Nominations, Universality and Human Culture

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František Čermák: Somatic Idioms Revisited

In EUROPHRAS 95 Europäische Phraseologie im Vergleich: Gemeinsames Erbe und kulturelle Vielfalt, Hrsg. W. Eismann. Universitätsverlag Dr. N. Brockmeyer, Bochum. (Studien zur Phraseologie und Parömiologie 15), 109-119.

1. Language Nominations, Universality and Human Culture

The topic of somatic idioms addressed yet again in this paper is a rather old one and well worn-off, for that matter. I do not propose to sum up all what has been written here so far as the very number of contributions made here is vast. In fact, it seems that there is no escaping the field of somatic idioms once any attempt is made at a more general description of idioms in any language. Also, even a cursory glance at the field readily suggests that it is very difficult to find a language which does not have this sort of idioms: it is not really relevant whether one looks at Chinese, Arabic, Indonesian, Quechua, Turkish, Finnish, Czech, German or English. Obviously, a tentative universal seems to offer itself here for formulation and a subsequent corroboration but that is a goal to be pursued elsewhere or by others (Čermák 1993a, 1994a).

Yet, on a closer look, there are obvious differences here, too. To be able to say something about these, one can either resort to repeating, yet again, the few commonplaces usually mentioned, or to draw not very far-reaching conclusions based on few randomly chosen examples, or, finally, to undertake a systematic and exhaustive contrastive analysis of at least two languages, which is, however, not available so far. In turn, I will try to say a few words on each of the possible approaches.

It has often been stressed that (1) it is necessary to study language in the context of culture (Dell Hymes 1964 and many others), which implies that it is not possible to have any beforehand universal conception, a view very much rejected by such linguists as N. Chomsky. I do not propose to go into this matter now, let me only suggest that it very much boils down to the very essence of what language is made of; obviously, it is a question going beyond the scope of our current concern. Yet, if the idea is reformulated somewhat more narrowly as the relation of language nominations (names), of which idioms are a prominent part, to the culture in question it becomes meaningful. In fact, all one is faced with here is still another version of the Saussurean idea of arbitrary segmentation of reality by the language, itself being a reformulation of a much older approach which leads us back to ancient Greeks.

It is, however, the arbitrary aspect of this which has to be stressed and inspected together with somatic idioms: human body, being generally the same for everyone, offers, so to speak, a ready-made segmentation in its parts which leaves very little option for the language variation here (rarely, there may be, however, such unique and exceptional names as Chinese zang being a name for the group of five organs, namely heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys). As constituent parts of somatic idioms names of body parts are used together with most of their traditional functions and symbolism: nose as instrument for smelling but also spotting eventual danger, heart is viewed as centre of love, courage and other feelings, etc. Indeed, in its firm anchorage in our body reality, this part of language nominations reminds us, surprisingly, of interjections, although semiotically the phenomenon is not quite the same; one cannot observe here any motivation by reality. However, once the body parts function is separated from their symbolism, differences in the latter field appear, both minor (also among closely related languages) and greater (as in Chinese where heart, i.e. xin, is traditionally a centre of intelectual, thinking processes, while gall(-bladder), i.e., dan, is a centre of courage or devotion etc.). It is here where one finds beginnings of all subsequent types of variation and differences. On the whole, it does seem, however, that, apart from frequency of use of body-parts names as idiom constituents, peculiarities in their use may be explained simply by the chance factor: it is hard to see from our point of view why there are so few idioms anywhere using as constituents such words as brain, ankles, kidney or appendix where idiomatics clearly goes against functionality; thus in Czech, brain (mozek) is attested in 4 idioms only while, for example, nose (nos) is found in 65 idioms. This chance factor related to the external and more prominent body parts to the exclusion of internal ones can be reformulated as historical one, basically. The obvious conclusion in this respect, then, is that no direct outstanding relation between body-parts names as idiom constituents and culture can be sustained.

Yet there is another, very general dependence one can observe here with a high degree of certainty, namely a more than chance occurrence of somatic idioms of verbal type combining with human type of subjects; in this, verbal somatic idioms seem to follow the bulk of verbal idioms, in fact. For the Czech language, the statistics show that the overwhelming 95,93% of all verbal idioms combine with human subjects (subject arguments), the meagre rest being distributed among subjects representing animals, concrete matters, abstract matters and place names (0,09%, 0,57%, 3,22% and 0,19% respectively), with some overlapping. Now, this kind of figure has not been calculated for the bulk of somatic idioms, but a single illustration will do, too. The Czech somatic verbal idioms based on the component ruka (hand), representing the total of 222 separate idioms, follow, basically, the general line already outlined: there are 92,3 % taking "human" subjects. To give some comparison and hint at a possible generality of this feature, let us look at other languages: in French (Dubois) the figure, based on some 132 verbal idioms containing la main, is very similar: 93,19% of these idioms do require a human subject; only such rare cases as changer de main, fondre entre les mains, or passer de main en main do not take this kind of subject. One could go on and arrive at similar results elsewhere. Thus, Barron's dictionary suggests, due to a single idiom with non-human subject (hang heavy on one's hands), 97,14% of this kind of subject for English, Russian (Molotkov) 94,1 % (schodiť s ruk, goriť v rukach, popadať v ruki, prochodiť čerez ruki), while Taylor-Gottschalk registers a somewhat lower percentage of 87,5% for German, perhaps due to a special character of the dictionary (weder Hand noch Fuss haben, auf der Hand liegen, durch viele Hände gehen etc.) etc.

There seems to be at least one more rather general relationship between culture and somatic idioms which is worth examining, namely that between some somatic idioms and paralanguage of gestures but I shall come to that later (in 3.). To conclude this part, an even more prominent relation between somatic idioms and anthrocentric principle of the language (anthropomorphism) has to be mentioned and duly stressed. Thus somatic idioms may not be such a surprising and unique phenomenon if they are viewed on a par with and within the framework of all other and well pronounced anthropomorphic features one finds in language in general, such as major and general tendencies of polysemy growth of human vocabulary, which is based on metaphor and metonymy, cf. time goes, the door leads somewhere, the foot of a hill, or the shoulder of a river, to give only a few English examples, limited, moreover, to the lexicon only.

However, a note of caution is due here. As I have not deliberately stated what exactly I may mean by somatic idioms I must do it now and for a good reason which must seem quite evident by now: somatic idioms are simply idioms (phrasemes), or idiomatic (phraseological) combinations of various functions containing at least one obvious body-part name. By stressing the quality of obvious I want to exclude such historically less-known human organs as appendix, uvula or hypothalamus as well as minor parts of other, better-known organs. Now, to relate the field, which has been thus limited, to the anthropocentric principle, one has to realize that "human presence" in idioms, so to speak, is not limited to somatic idioms only. On the contrary, it is extremely hard to limit the universe of idiomatic components only to those which would not, one way or another, be related to man and to what might be called human. An extensive analysis including, next to proper somatic parts of idioms, such noun types as types of persons (such as idiot, gentleman etc.), human products and utensils (bed, beer, ruler etc.), abstract priori notions related to human culture and civilization (such as honesty, truth, Friday) and abstract states (such as pension, need, comfort etc.), has been undertaken in this sense for the Czech language, and it gives some unexpected results. It may come, perhaps, as no surprise, that somatic idioms proper, i.e. verbal idioms in this case only, amount to over 1 700 idiomatic combinations in Czech, i. e. slightly less than 20 % of all Czech verbal idioms. Yet what may be really surprising is that over 75 % of all Czech idioms do belong to one or another of the anthropomorphic types outlined above (Čermák 1994d). Thus idioms containing other types of noun constituents, such as animals, plants, insects, nature formations and the like, are in clear minority amounting to less than a quarter of the whole.

2. Meaning-Form Relation

To ask whether there is any relation between the language idiomatic form and its meaning may both be misleading and rewarding. A comparison of some carefully chosen items across languages may give encouraging results and tempt one to suspect a deeper relationship, if not a downright motivation of some sort. Thus, the idiomatic meaning "to help somebody in his/her difficult situation" does yield highly comparable items based on HAND constituent in most of the Germanic, Romance and Slavonic languages, such as Engl. give/lend s.o. a hand, Germ. Hand an etw. anlegen, Dutch de behulpzame hand bieden, Swed. räcka n†gon en hjälpande hand, French donner/pręter la main … qn, or tendre une main secourable, Ital. dare mano forte a qc, Span. dar la mano a un persona, soltar la mano, Russ. podáť/protjanúť ruku pómošči, Pol. podać komu pomocn dłoń (being part of hand, in this case) or Czech podat pomocnou ruku někomu, but Finnish, despite its coexisting with and being influenced by Indo-European languages, does not have a comparable equivalent (the Finnish equivalent auttaa miestä mäessä "help man/s.o. in the hill" suggests quite a different solution).

But this rather coherent picture begins to disappear if we go on with the comparison of the adjacent or opposite meaning of "not to help somebody" where the same languages differ either in the verb used or even drop the HAND constituent altogether, e.g. Engl. not lift/raise a hand or sit on one's hands), Germ. keine Hand rühren or die Hand von jm abziehen, Dutch zijn hand voor iets niet omdraaien or geen hand uitsteken voor iem., Swed. ta sin hand ifrĺn nĺgon, French ne pas en ficher une rameé, Ital. non muovere un dito per qualcuno, Span. quedarse con las manos cruzadas, Russ. siďeť složá/podžáv ruki, Pol. nawet nie ruszyć dla kogo palcem or Czech nehnout prstem pro někoho. The Finnish language has a calque here probably: ei heilauta kättään ("not wave a hand") but it prefers to use an equivalent very similar to Czech ei sormeansa liikuta. The lesson to follow from this is obvious: while the former meaning examined seems to have come, by having been translated gradually, from the same source and to be probably of an older date, the latter, opposite meaning did not have any such common source, as the verbs seem to suggest ("lift/raise, move/stir, turn/put out, take from, knock in, move, fold, move") or choice nouns used here (hand, foliage, finger). Thus, one can hardly look for any motivation or well-established relation between the idiomatic form and meaning here, despite the seemingly apparent similarities due to historical reasons, in most cases. Apart from common history and its influence, there is, in fact, very little in common here (as the second set of examples suggests) and even the apparent cases where the actual movement or gesture may seem to be the only possible or imaginable one may turn out to be deceptive or are not mirrored by actual idioms at all.

Thus, it is hardly worth saying that even such prominent fields of idioms as those inspected above abound in specific, original and idiosyncratic formations not to be found elsewhere. Let us take a couple of more examples from the same field of HAND which seem to be language-specific: Engl. sit on one's hands, try one's hand, Germ. auf der Hand liegen (be as clear as daylight), etw. kurzer Hand ablehnen (reject sth out of hand), Dutch iets achter de hand hebben (have sth in reserve), met de handen in het haar zitten (be at one's wits' ends), Swed. ha ingen hand med n†got (be clumsy with sth), French ne pas avoir trente-six/quatre mains (have only one pair of hands), avoir des mains de beurre (to be butter-fingered), Ital. avere le mani bucate (spend unreasonably), avere le mani di pasta frolla (be clumsy dropping things), Span. dar una mano a una persona (scold somebody, give somebody a good talking-to), Russ. vzjať sebja v ruki (pull oneself together), nagreť sebja ruki na čem (gain money in sth), Pol. mieć lehk rk (spend unreasonably), urabiać sobie rc (po okcie) (plod, sweat one's guts out), Czech mít volšový ruce (be a butterfingers, be very clumsy), Finn. hakea jotakin käsiinsä (fish out something, find) or, not surprisingly, Chinese, as in zuo shou jiao (cheat/trick someone, lit. make hands and feet) etc. There is no doubt that the field is made up, primarily, of idiomatic constructions of considerable diversity of finer, less conspicuous, or larger proportion, such as those above, and that such examples could be easily multiplied.

3. Gestures and Idioms

If minute analysis may not yield much, one may ask whether there are at least some statistical tendencies between form and meaning. Now, if Czech idioms with the HAND constituent which happen to be also names for gestures are examined, over 20 meanings, closely-knit together, may be discerned, such as capitulation (zvednout ruce nad hlavu), congratulation (potřást někomu rukou), despair (spínat ruce/lomit rukama), esteem (políbit někomu ruku), expectancy (zamnout si ruce), lack of interest (mávnout nad něčím rukou) and the like. Some tendencies, then, are quite apparent, even more so should they be compared with those for other somatic constituents:

(1) 100% of the hand-idioms of this type are, in various degree, oriented towards a second agent, usually human (expressed as an object), i.e. none of them has an expressive function only, e.g. friendship, as in podávat si ruce.

(2) Over 97% of hand-idioms express intellectual attitudes or reactions, e.g. recognition, as in potřást někomu rukou (the exception being piousness as in sepnout ruce), i.e. although some emotional colouring may be present with some of the idioms (e.g. indignation as in dát ruce v bok), none of them is of a primary emotional nature.

(3) Over 97% of these idioms seem to be reactions to abstract, human or cultural stimuli (the only exception is that of feeling cold: mnout si ruce).

(4) Although some attitudes expressed may be quite strong none of the hand-idioms may be labelled as expressing aggressive meaning, implying attack or threat to someone else.

(5) All idioms express processes, and none of them designates a mere state of affairs, static relation or physical/local relation or, even, a real action.

Of course, much can be added here on the nature of these somatic idioms which have the function of gestures. One can, basically, speak here of at least three important features:

(1) These idioms have a double denotate, a concrete (the movement itself) and an abstract one (attitude or stance), and they are semiotically of symbolic nature (Čermák 1982, 1988). The existence of their double denotate is supported by a possibility of using these gestures without any verbal counterpart. In fact, there seems to exist a neat distributional difference: while pure gestural use tends to be limited to direct speech, idiom use prefers the indirect speech; also, while direct gestures may not be, as a rule, used with the other than 1st person, idioms are mainly used with other than the 1st person of the verb (they seem to be non-performative, in fact).

(2) These idioms belong to paralanguage, or kinesic part of it accompanying the verbal communication proper; as a rule, there seems to be no other way how to link the verbal and non-verbal part of communication than by idioms of this type.

(3) In general, these idioms are very much culture-dependent, both in degree of gestures used and their selection.

4. Czech and Chinese and Some Open Questions

To round up these remarks, I propose to return back to a relatively exhaustive analysis of the field. A recent and particularly revealing comparison and analysis of the Czech and Chinese language of this sort has been undertaken (Song Fen-Yuen) based on the same methodology (Čermák 1982, 1988) which makes it possible to offer more than fragmentary information, so typical of other approaches. On the basis of the overall number for somatic idioms of all types encountered in Czech and Chinese, i.e. 2101 and 2861 respectively, it has been found that some 72% of Czech and 52% of Chinese somatic idioms belong to the field of verbal collocations, i.e. to the verb-noun structure and its variants, primarily.

It is quite surprising, given the great disimilarity of Czech and Chinese,

that a basic general correspondence of more than 70%, both in general function and general meaning, could be established between the two languages as far as their somatic idioms are concerned.

This overall correspondence is to be seen in the 70% general match of the first 10 somatic noun constituents, ordered by their frequency:

Czech: hlava, oči/oko, ústa, nohy, nos, jazyk, ruce/ruka, krk, srdce, nervy (i.e. head, eye(s), mouth, feet, nose, tongue, hand(s), neck, heart, nerves)

Chinese: heart, eyes, head, mouth, body, hand, face, feet, ears, skin

The obvious differences are in the use of nose, tongue, nerves in Czech and of body, ears and skin in Chinese. However, if this general figure is compared, e.g., with that of the Czech verbal somatic idioms only, a somewhat different sequence obtains: hand, eye, head, mouth (huba), foot, nose, heart, finger, ear, tongue. At the same time, the hand constituent happens to be the most frequent one Czech verbal idioms use here (unlike, for example, in comparisons, where it is dog (pes) which is most heavily employed).

To conclude, a number of questions, rather than answers, offers itself here:

(1) Are somatic (or, anthropomorphic) idioms universals?

(2) Are somatic idioms always linked to gestures?

(3) Are there gestures (completely) outside somatic idioms, too?

(4) Are there new somatic idioms still being formed or is it a closed, very old historic chapter?

(5) Can one observe here a microsystem of some sort?


-Boatner M.T., J.E. Gates (1975), A Dictionary of American Idioms. Barron's Woodbury New York.

-Cowie A.P., R. Mackin (1975, 1983), The Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English. Vol. 1: Verbs with Prepositions & Particles, Vol 2: Phrase, Clause and Sentence Idioms. Oxford University Press Oxford.0

-Čermák F. (1982), Idiomatika a frazeologie češtiny. Univerzita Karlova Praha.

-Čermák F. (1988), On the Substance of Idioms. Folia Linguistica XXII: 413- 438.

-Čermák F., Hronek. J., Machač J. eds., Slovník české frazeologie a idiomatiky. Přirovnání (1983), Výrazy neslovesné (1988), Výrazy slovesné (1994) A-P, R-Ž. Academia Praha.

-Čermák F. (1993a), Povaha univerzálního ve frazeologii a idiomatice. In Frazeológia vo vzdelávaní, vede a kulture. Phraseology in Education, Science and Culture, ed. E. Krošláková. Vysoká škola pedagogická v Nitre, FHV-KSJ, Nitra, 45-52

-Čermák F. (1993b), Funkce frazémů a idiomů. In Česká slavistika 1993. České přednášky pro XI. mezinárodní sjezd slavistů Bratislava 1993. Slovanský ústav Praha, 331-336.

-Čermák F. (1994a), On the Nature of Universality in Phraseology and Idiomatics. In Z problemów frazeologii polskiej i słowiańskiej VI, PAN Slawistyczny ośrodek wydawniczy, Warszawa, 15-20.

-Čermák F. (1994b), Idiomatics. In The Prague School of Structural and Functional Linguistics, ed. P. A. Luelsdorff, John Benjamins Publ. Comp. Amsterdam, 185-196.

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-Čermák F. (1994d), České frazémy a idiomy verbální. In Slovník české frazeologie a idiomatiky, 597-630.

-Dubois M.M. et al. (1973), Dictionnaire franais-anglais de locutions et expressions verbales. Librairie Larousse Paris.

-Hymes Dell, ed., (1964), Language in Culture and Society: A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology. New York, Harper and Row.

-Kopecký L.V., Leška O. et al. (1978), Rusko-český slovník. SPN Praha, Russkij Jazyk Moskva.

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-Song Feng-Yun (1993), Srovnávání somatických frazémů a idiomů v českém a čínském jazyce. FFUK Praha (=unpublished doctoral dissertation).

-Taylor R., W. Gottschalk (1966, 2. Aufl.), A German-English Dictionary of Idioms. Max Hueber Verlag München.


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