HOW PREDICTABLE IS A LANGUAGE? COLLOCATIONS

Let’s take three sentences:

  1. Lions are roaring
  2. Dogs are barking
  3. Children are screaming

There is a certain similarity between the words across these sentences. Along the vertical lines we can distinguish two groups of lexemes: a) lions-dogs-children, and b) roar-bark-scream. Such vertical links in a text are called paradigmatic. Actually, all synonymic, antonymic, thematic and other notional groups of words are paradigmatic in character.

The horizontal analysis of the above sentences gives us three syntagmatic groups: a) lions-roar, b) dogs-bark, and c) children-scream.

Eventually, language skills depend on how well a learner masters paradigmatic and syntagmatic semantic fields. Plus grammar, of course.

In my previous blogs I spoke mostly about paradigmatic groups. This time I’m going to focus on syntagmatic (horizontally connected) combinations. The thing is that there exists a certain mutual expectancy between elements of syntagmatic fields. Answering the question about sounds produced by living beings, we’ll sooner say that lions roar and dogs bark, rather than *lions bark and *dogs roar. With children, however, the expectancy is much lower. Children not only scream, but they can also laugh, talk, shout, make noise, etc. Word combinations with a certain degree of horizontal expectancy, or predictability, are called collocations.

The notion of collocation focuses our attention on how much the preceding word may predict the following word. For example, sentences with like give us no clue about which word will come next. Almost anything that exists can be liked. Combinations with like are not collocations but free combinations. By contrast, the lexical items involved in a collocation, occur regardless of the interests or personality of the individual user. All mature native speakers use such sequences as commit a crime and not, say, *commit a task, even though the sense of carry out would be applicable in the latter case. And everyone says monumental ignorance, not *monumental brilliance.

Collocations may occur with apparent disregard for the observable situation to which they relate: we may be green with envy, and a book may have a purple passage, although no such colors are evident on the face or page. Collocations cannot be predicted from a knowledge of the world: depending upon how much milk we add into coffee and what kind of coffee it is, and how concentrated it is, the color of the coffee may be beige, buff, fawn, khaki, bronze, copper, amber, and various other shades of brown, but we normally call it white.

As it was mentioned, the predictability in collocations varies. It may be rather weak: heavy collocates with quite a diverse range of items (loss, wear, traffic, burden, defeat, etc.) Sometimes the predictability is rather strong: auspicious collocates mostly with occasion and a few other closely related items (event, moment, etc.). Sequences of words which are so highly predictable that they allow very little or no change in their elements (spick and span, run amok, etc.) are called set expressions, or idioms.

 

 

 

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