The semantic principle of classification for phraseological units

The considerable contribution made by Russian scholars in phraseological research cannot be exaggerated. The classification system of phraseological units devised by V.V. Vinogradov is considered by some linguists of today to be outdated, and yet its value is beyond doubt because it was the first classification system which was based on the semantic principle.It goes without saying that semantic characteristics are of immense importance in phraseological units. It is also well known that in modern research they are often sadly ignored. That is why any attempt at studying the semantic aspect of phraseological units should be appreciated.

Vinogradov The semantic principle of classification for phraseological units’s classification system is founded on the degree of semantic cohesion(сцепление)between the components of a phraseological unit. Units with a partially transferred meaning show the weakest cohesion between their components. The more distant the meaning of a phraseological unit from the current meaning of its constituent parts, the greater is the degree of semantic cohesion. Accordingly, V.V. Vinogradov classifies phraseological units into three classes: phraseological combinations, unitiesand fusions (фразеологические сочетания, единства и сращения).

1) Phraseological combinationsare word-groups with a partially changed meaning. They may be said to be clearly motivated, that is, the meaning of The semantic principle of classification for phraseological units the unit can be easily deduced from the meanings of its constituents. E.g. to look a sight (coll.) (выглядеть пугалом), to take something for granted (принимать как должное), bosom friends (закадычные друзья).

2) Phraseological unitiesare word-groups with a completely changed meaning, that is, the meaning of the unit does not correspond to the meanings of its constituent parts. They are motivated units; the meaning of the whole unit can be deduced from the meanings of the constituent parts; the metaphor, on which the shift of meaning is based, is clear and transparent.

E.g. to stick to one’s guns (стоять The semantic principle of classification for phraseological units на своём) – (= to be true to one’s views or convictions); to sit on the fence (сохранять нейтралитет) – (= in discussion, politics refrain from committing oneself to either side); to lose one’s head (потерять голову) – (= to be at a loss what to do); to lose one’s heart to smb. (полюбить кого-либо) – (= to fall in love); to look a gift horse in the mouth (смотреть в зубы дарёному коню; критиковать подарок) – (= to examine present too critically); to ride the high horse (важничать) – (= to behave in a superior, haughty way); a big bug/pot, sl. (важная шишка) – (= a person The semantic principle of classification for phraseological units of importance); a fish out of water (человек не в своей тарелке; рыба без воды) – (a person situated uncomfortably outside his usual or proper environment).

3) Phraseological fusionsare word-groups with a completely changed meaning but, in contrast to the unities, they are demotivated, that is, their meaning cannot be deduced from the meanings of the constituent parts; the metaphor, on which the shift of meaning was based, has lost its clarity and is obscure.

E.g. to come a cropper (to come to disaster – попасть в беду; прямое значение – упасть с лошади вниз головой); at sixes and The semantic principle of classification for phraseological units sevens (in confusion or in disagreement – в беспорядке); to set one’s cap at smb. (to try and attract a man; spoken about girls and women - завлекать, охотиться за женихом).

It is obvious that this classification system does not take into account the structural characteristics of phraseological units. On the other hand, the border-line separating unities from fusions is vague and even subjective. One and the same phraseological unit may appear motivated to one person (and therefore be labelled as a unity) and demotivated to another (and be regarded as a fusion).


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