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Widespread Idioms in Europe and Beyond

Toward a Lexicon of Common Figurative Units


Elisabeth Piirainen

This groundbreaking book in theoretical and empirical phraseology research looks at Europe’s linguistic situation as a whole, including 74 European and 17 non-European languages. The occurrence of idioms that actually share the same lexical and semantic structure across a large number of languages has never been demonstrated so clearly before Widespread Idioms in Europe and Beyond. This book answers significant questions regarding hitherto vague ideas about the phraseological similarities between European languages and their cultural foundation, ranging from intertextuality, aspects of European mental, material, and social culture, to culturally based perception of natural phenomena. This inventory, which analyzes 190 out of a total of 380 widespread idioms and includes maps, is valuable for academic teaching and further research in the fields of phraseology and figurative language, areal and contact linguistics, and European cultural studies.


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The languages of Europe, with their intense cultural interconnections and their common intellectual and literary traditions, have been exposed to mutu- al influences for centuries, a fact that has led to a wide range of cross- linguistic similarities. These similarities have been observed at diverse lin- guistic levels, including the level of elements of the figurative language, such as idioms. The most intriguing question, however, namely which Europe- wide common idioms actually exist, has not yet been answered. This ques- tion was the first impulse for my book. A good seven years ago, I sent an initial questionnaire that consisted of twelve idioms to about 40 idiom research experts of various languages – the result was encouraging: ten of these idioms showed lexical-semantic equi- valents in almost all of the participating languages, ranging from Icelandic to Spanish, from Estonian and Latvian to Hungarian, Romanian, and Greek. The next task was to identify as many of such figurative units as possible by means of systematic investigation, that is, to discover idioms that exist in a large number of European languages (and even beyond) showing a similar lexical structure and figurative core meaning, for which I coined the term widespread idioms. After some preliminary tests, I came to the decision to include all European languages accessible to my research. My starting point was the idea that today, in an increasingly uniting Europe and with modern means of communication at our disposal, it should be possible, perhaps more easily than ever before, to find...

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