Forming Collocations

As we know, collocations are one of the most important elements in our everyday language. Collocations are the ready-made constructions that help us pass on meaning and sense to other speakers of the language. Without collocations it would be difficult to understand one another. Collocations are often seen to be the key to fluency or native-like linguistic competence. A native speaker of English will say knife and fork, it’s raining cats and dogs not fork and knife or dogs and cats.

These may seem like minor differences but they make the native speaker sound native. Previous posts (click here and here) have shown the importance of collocations and the intrinsic link between culture and language.

A noteworthy fact visible within the world of politics is the ability to turn common collocations (or set phrases) into new phrases (calling them collocations would be an injustice). A good example of this are the two Polish phrases przerażające fakty, porażające fakty which in loose translation might be understood as frightening facts and paralysing facts.

Both phrases are extremely similar but show how politicians or other language users have the creative ability to take meanings a ‘notch up’ and ‘crank up’ the force of certain collocations. What is even more fascinating is the way in which these linguistic changes are understood by the audience. A scan of these two collocations phrases shows that language users believe them to be synonymous regardless of the intentions of the original user.

The conclusion therefore is that linguistic forces have the ability to ‘level off’ and ‘smooth out’ rough edges which are simply unnecessary. In the same way that erosion allows rivers to find the ideal route across a plain, so too language finds the ideal form through which communication is most effective.


6 thoughts on “Forming Collocations

  1. I keep hearing these “przerażające fakty” and “porażające fakty” and I think a decent enough translation of each would be “terrifying facts” and “shocking facts”, respectively.

  2. It’s very true that collocations are crucial in everyday language(and consequently in translation). But we cannot lump them together with idioms – ‘knife and fork’ and ‘it’s raining cats and dogs – because these are completely different language phenomena!!! Idioms (pure and semi idoms) are very often highly specific and sometimes untranslatable,whereas collocations are more general and in most cases they can be decently translated. Unfortunately, many people tend to mix them and this, in my view, should be avoided by all means. The majority of linguists and translators think that translation in order to sound natural and native ought to reflect idiomatic language of the original (e.g Mona Baker). But on the basis of my own observation and research to a BA thesis I conclude that in the majority of cases tranlation should include well used collocations. Only then translation can sound natural and be close to ‘perfect’. Why? Simply because collocations are much more common in a language(either Polish or English)than idioms, which very often become old-fashioned and don’t fit to a particular context.

  3. True. Idioms and collocations are very different phenomena. The point above concerns the order of the words in the two phrases: “cats and dogs”, “knife and fork” and not “dogs and cats”, “fork and knife”. The point concerns the nature of set phrases and here we can agree that both idioms and most collocations rely on a particular order for them to be the set phrases that they are.
    Agreed – collocations are far more common and are most certainly the key to an ‘easy’ translation.

  4. hi; could someone tell me what an idiom: “with knife and fork” really means?? I’d be very grateful… cannot find anywhere…

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