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Expressions to spice up language not always a walk in the park

The ability to speak a language at the level of a native is characterised by use of word combinations that mean something entirely different than the individual words suggest. Two examples in English are when you add fuel to the fire or put in your two cents. Native speakers of Swedish use a much larger number of such combinations in Swedish than people who speak Swedish as their second language. This is one of the conclusions presented in a new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Julia Prentice, doctoral student at the Department of Swedish, has explored how adolescents in multilingual urban environments deviate from the established usage of fixed word combinations, so-called conventionalized expressions, and to what extent they master around 50 different expressions. She has also studied how they use metaphorical word combinations in written Swedish.

'I found a tremendous variation in terms of the mental images that the adolescents base their use of conventionalized and metaphorical phrases on. For example, they may bite their nails like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on a camping trip (referring to a popular cartoon that most Swedes can relate to) when the problems are piling up like the pyramids of Egypt,' says Prentice.

The thesis shows that the phrases adolescents use may deviate from standard Swedish with respect to both meaning and how they are worded. They may for example say something similar to singing at the top of one's throat.

Some types of deviations are, as can be expected, much more common among adolescents with Swedish as their second language. Yet, so-called contaminations, or the mixing of two or more expressions - for example phrases similar to ants on the walls (ants in the pants plus climbing on the walls) - are equally common among native speakers of Swedish.

'Contaminations are especially interesting since they indicate that adolescents make associations between established phrases based on individual words or parts of meanings of phrases that may be the same for two or more expressions. These are interesting results, for example considering the role of fixed phrases in vocabulary learning,' says Prentice.

Author: Julia Prentice, tel: +46 (0)31 786 25 92 Email: julia.prentice@svenska.gu.se

idw :: 09.10.2010