Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 14. Nr. April 2003

Interlanguage Relations of English and Russian Phraseological Units

Elena Arsentyeva (Kazan, Russia and Warsaw, Poland)


Introduction: general outlook on phrasological units

By phraseology I mean the branch of linguistics dealing with stable word-combinations characterized by a certain transference of meaning.

Despite differences of opinion, most authors agree upon some points concerning the distinctive features of phraseological units, such as:

  1. Integrity (or transference) of meaning means that none of the idiom components is separately associated with any referents of objective reality, and the meaning of the whole unit cannot be deduced from the meanings of its components;
  2. Stability (lexical and grammatical) means that no lexical substitution is possible in an idiom in comparison with free or variable word-combinations (with an exception of some cases when such substitutions are made by the author intentionally). The experiments conducted in the 1990s showed that the meaning of an idiom is not exactly identical to its literal paraphrase given in the dictionary entry. That is why we may speak about lexical flexibility of many units if they are used in a creative manner. Lexical stability is usually accompanied by grammatical stability which prohibits any grammatical changes;
  3. Separability means that the structure of an idiom is not something indivisible, certain modifications are possible within certain boundaries. Here we meet with the so-called lexical and grammatical variants. To illustrate this point I shall give some examples: "as hungry as a wolf (as a hunter)", "as safe as a house (houses)" in English,
    " " ,
    " " in Russian.
  4. Expressivity and emotiveness means that idioms are also characterized by stylistic colouring. In other words, they evoke emotions or add expressiveness.

On the whole phraseological units, even if they present a certain pattern, do not generate new phrases. They are unique.

Interlanguage comparison, the aim of which is the exposure of phraseological conformities, forms the basis of a number of theoretical and applied trends of modern linguistic research, including the theory and practice of phraseography. But the question of determining the factors of interlanguage phraseological conformities as the main concept and the criterion of choosing phraseological equivalents and analogues as the aspect concepts is still at issue.

The analysis of special literature during the last decades shows that the majority of linguists consider the coincidence of semantic structure, grammatical (or syntactical) organization and componential (lexeme) structure the main criteria in defining the types of interlanguage phraseological conformities/disparities with the undoubted primacy of semantic structure.


The Problem of Semantic Equivalents and Analogues

The primacy of semantic conformity/disparity is determined by the nature of human logical thinking as well as by the nature of real objects and the use of it may be substantiated by such realities as the well-known common character of human experience in the process of cognition.

The process of defining semantic conformity/disparity of English and Russian phraseological units can be shown in the following way:

  1. presentation of phraseological meaning of the given English unit (or its phrase-semantic variant) as a set of minimum semantic components;
  2. search for a corresponding semantic unit in the Russian language;
  3. presentation of phraseological meaning of the Russian unit found (or its phraseo-semantic variant) as a set of minimal semantic components;
  4. measurement of the componential (seme) structure of the English and the Russian phraseological unit (phraseo-semantic variant or variants) for the purpose of determining their identity or revealing their difference.

The seme organization identity of Russian and English idiom meanings or semantic equivalence means full seme organization coincidence of significational-denotational microcomponents and connotational components. After studying idioms in terms of groups, classes and categories, we must mention the fact that they

"...serve chiefly for the connotational (subjective, evaluative, emotive and expressive) designation of objects and notions and that their prevalence and role are especially high in those fields where either connotational meanings (for example, feelings, affects) are expressed spontaneously, or where the question is about things and phenomena causing maximum inner interest and emotional experience of a person." (Reichstein, 1980).

The adherents of the so-called "traditional" conception of connotation include emotive, evaluative, expressive and functional-stylistic components into it. So we may also speak of four types of connotational semes: evaluative, emotive, expressive and functional-stylistic.The seme organization coincidence of significational-denotational microcomponent means the coincidence of integral and differential semes in the structure of phraseological meaning of Russian and English idioms.

Here is an example of phraseological semantic equivalence:

The Russian unit " " and the English phraseological unit "cast (throw) a stone (stones) at smb (somebody)" are characterized by common semes "a person", "a person's action","human relations", semes, depicting such actions as "to accuse smb", "to slander smb", negative evaluative seme and the emotive seme of disapproval. Both idioms belong to interstyle units and are deprived of expressive seme. So we can consider them full semantic equivalents. At the same time some differences may be typical of the componential structure of Russian and English unit phraseological meaning. In the first place such differences may be observed in their connotations, first of all, in their functional stylistic and emotive components. We can also observe some minor partial differences in the seme structure of their significational-denotational microcomponents (according to Reichstein in this case we meet with ideographic synonyms and hyperhyponymy), i.e. we observe the presence of one or several additional differential semes both in the Russian and the English phraseological units. In this case three connotational components - emotive, expressive and functional-stylistic - may differ or coincide. Such partial divergence with close resemblance is typical of semantic analogues.

Let us take two examples:

The Russian unit "" and the phraseo-semantic variant of the English phraseological unit "take (`seldom' lay) smth (something) to heart" differ only in their functional-stylistic components ("" belongs to colloquial style).

The Russian set phrase "" and the English unit "Johny Head-in-(the)-air" are semantic analogues due to the presence of the additional differential seme "irrationality" in the significational-denotational meaning of the Russian phraseological unit, so they are characterized by a hyper-hyponimic type of relations.

While analyzing the vast phraseological stock of the two languages, we have come to the conclusion that only two types of phraseological relations (equivalents and analogues) cannot cover all the units, which are beyond the boundaries of phraseological lacunarity. Such units differ, in the first place, in their differential seme/semes, and sometimes, in one of their integral seme. The idea of their separation is dictated, first of all, by the practical needs of phraseography.

Let us analyze, for example, the Russian phraseological unit "", meaning "to be the chief in some affair", and the phraseo-semantic variant "to take an active part, to play the leading role, to bear the main responsibility for smth" of the English unit "carry the ball". The idioms are characterized by common semes "a person", "a person's position in some affair" and the concretizing seme "the main position". The English unit is also defined by the integral seme of action, and the differential semes of mode of action (active) and responsibility (the main role in smth). Their functional-stylistic connotations are also different ("carry the ball" is a colloquial unit). Such idioms may be called partial semantic analogues.

Let us use the scheme of semantic scaling in defining the levels of semantic conformities/disparities of phraseological units of different languages.


Semantic equivalents

high level of semantic conformities


Semantic analogues

medium level of semantic conformities


Partial semantic analogues

low level of semantic conformities


It is out of question that the scheme presented above can be considered only as an outlined model, which, in a way, simplifies the real situation. Sometimes it is difficult to draw a boundary-line between semantic analogues and partial semantic analogues, and in the group of semantic analogues, phraseological units, having some differences only in their connotational microcomponent, are characterized by the larger semantic conformity.

But, as we know, the complex nature of any phenomenon assumes the application of different approaches to its study.


Russian-English Phraseological Equivalents and Analogues

The semantic division of phraseological units touches upon the subject of only one, the leading level of interlanguage phraseological unit study. The other two levels are structural-grammatical (according to the terminology used by other authors - structure, syntactical organization, grammatical forms, syntactical structure) and componential or lexeme (also called lexical).

Structural-grammatical level presupposes the comparison of PU structural models based on structural models of free word-combinations and sentences, characteristic of both languages or typical of only one of them. It also deals with the adequate substitution of structural divergences. It is necessary to take into consideration the main structural peculiarities of the English and Russian languages, which leave an imprint on PU structural-grammatical organization:

  1. the presence of indefinite and definite articles in the majority of English phraseological units as a grammatical category of the English language;
  2. the pronounced case system of the Russian language and only two cases (common case and possessive case) in the English language: the opportunity to convey the meaning of Russian cases with the help of prepositional-nounal constructions;
  3. the frequent usage of the component "one's" in English idioms which is replaced in context by the required possessive pronoun, and its incomplete conformity with the Russian reflexive pronoun "", which does not change its form contextually.

The componential or lexeme level presupposes the exposure of image creating identical, similar in meaning or different elements in the composition of phraseological units compared. This level happens to be the most mobile and specific of both languages.

By taking into account the above-mentioned levels we can distinguish the following types of interlanguage phraseological relations:

  1. Phraseological equivalents (full and partial);
  2. Phraseological analogues (full and partial);
  3. Phraseological units having no phraseological counterparts in another language.

It goes without saying that the high level of semantic conformities is typical of interlanguage phraseological equivalents, the medium level corresponds to interlanguage full analogues while the low level of semantic conformities indicates partial phraseological analogues.



In this paper I have tried to summarize the most important information about interlanguage relations of phraseological units in two languages, namely, in English and Russian. The primacy of semantic conformity/disparity is considered to be of paramount importance.

On the whole my approach to the problem of interlanguage phraseological conformities/disparities may be regarded as one of the attempts at solving one of the most important and complex problems of comparative phraseological analysis in the field of semasiology and phraseology.

© Elena Arsentyeva (Kazan, Russia and Warsaw, Poland)

TRANSINST       Inhalt / Table of Contents / Contenu: No.14


Reichstein A.D. 1990. Comparative Analysis of German and Russian Phraseology. Moscow: Vyschaja shkola.

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Elena Arsentyeva (Kazan, Russia and Warsaw, Poland): Interlanguage Relations of English and Russian Phraseological Units. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 14/2002.

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