TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 5.6. Vom kreativen Denken zum kreativen Handeln - Kreativitätsprobleme in der Sprache, Ausbildung und Erziehungionstitel
Sektionsleiterin | Section Chair: Tamara Janssen-Fesenko (Bad Zwischenahn, Deutschland)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Three Levels of Phraseological Unit Cultural Peculiarities

 Elena Arsenteva (Kazan, Russia)



The problem of phraseological unit (PU) cultural peculiarities has attracted much attention in the works of modern linguists. V.N.Telia, for instance, points out that the typical feature of phraseological units is their image-based motivation, which is directly connected with the nation world outlook [Telia 1996]. V.A.Maslova stresses the close connection of PUs with the cultural-historical traditions of people speaking the language [Maslova 2001]. D.O.Dobrovolsky distinguishes between cultural-historical associations and national-cultural specific character of phraseological units [Dobrovolsky 1997].

On the whole we may distinguish three levels of manifestation of phraseological unit cultural peculiarities:

  1. in their joint phraseological meaning;
  2. in the meaning of separate lexical components;
  3. in the direct meaning of a variable word combination the meaning of which was transferred (i.e. in PU prototypes).


  1. The first level is closely associated with phraseological units having no phraseological counterparts in another language (other languages). This phenomenon may be expressed by the selective properties of phraseological nomination of peoples speaking different languages. At the same time concepts revealing the meaning of PUs having no counterparts in other languages exist in the “language picture” of this or that nation. That’s why the meaning of such units is expressed in another language by means of lexical units or word combinations. Such phraseological units are translated with the help of separate lexemes or a set of lexemes (lexical way of translation), descriptive translation, or word for word translation when the image of the original PU is understandable in the receiving language.
  2. Such phraseological nits exist both in the Russian and English languages but in comparison with PUs having phraseological counterparts their number is small. Let’s give some examples of such units in both languages:

 дать шпоры - spur on;
делать жест какой. сделать жест какой - act in such a way as to make /produce/ an impression on smb;

обламывать зубы кому. обломать зубы кому - subdue smb; curb smb; quiet smb;
ветром обдует кого - smb will distract himself, refresh himself while taking the air, traveling, etc; 
бедный родственник - a poor relation, i.e. a humble person who depends on others;
gentle and simple – люди всякого звания;
let George do it – пусть кто-нибудь другой это сделает, мне-то то за дело, пусть несет ответственность другой;
spot one’s /the/ oak – запереть наружную дверь (в знак того, что посетители нежелательны);
go nuts – спятить, рехнуться;
a bright spot – светлое пятно, радостное событие;
hit the high spots – касаться только главного, говорить о главном; обращать внимание на самое существенное.

  1. Phraseological units of the second level are presented by a rather small group of units, the components of which present some national realities. The number of phraseological units having in their lexeme structure a national-cultural component is not great in both languages. National peculiarity marking is created by the presence of words specific of the definite nation. These words are either some reality definitions known only to the bearers of one or several nations connected by joint culture and religion or topographical, anthropological and hydrological names typical only of the definite country [Selifonova 2002].

An interesting example may be presented in Russian. “Вяземская лавра” is obsolete nowadays in Russian, it has the emotive seme of disapproval and its meaning is “a haunt, a place where people leading an immoral way of life gather”. The origin of the phraseological unit is connected with the name of prince Vyazemsky whose house in St. Petersburg went under an ill report and was known as a haunt for people leading an immoral way of life. The expressivity of the expression is revealed in the combination of the definite name and the transferred word  “лавра” – “a large male monastery under the authority of Synod”. It also gives the expression its ironic coloring [Birikh 1998:328-329]. The word “бирюльки” (birulki) is a national Russian reality: birulki is a child’s play. First a handful of cut straw, then some other tiny things (miniature axes, oven-forks, boat-hooks, stoke-holds, shovels) are heaped up. Those playing the game choose one of them by turns on condition all other things are not displaces. Straw may have resembled piped (withy or reeden) which were called birulki, that’s why the name of the game may have originated from the word “birulka” – “a pipe” [Birikh 1998:47]. This cultural specific word is a component of the PU “играть в бирюльки” with the meaning “waste one’s time on trifles”. 

The word “квас” is used as a component in the phraseological unit “перебиваться с хлеба на квас .на воду.” with the meaning “live from hand to mouth”, be extremely poor”. Kvass (квас) is a national drink made from rye bread and malt.

Phraseological units containing such national components also exist in the English language. For example, the name of the English river Avon is a component of the phraseological expression “Sweet Swan of Avon” (W.Shakespeare was called so by Ben Johnson) [Koonin 1984:738].

The English anthropological word John o’Groat served as a part of the English PU “from John o’Groat to Land’s End”, the meaning of it is “from North to South (or from South to North) of England, from one part of the country to another”. The etymological information gives us the following explanation: John o’Groat is the northernmost part of great Britain named after John Groat, an emigrant from Holland who settled near the northern end of Scotland in the reign of Jakob IY (1473-1513) [Koonin 1984:417].

The Americanism “flume” – “a mountain gorge with stream” serves as a component of the polysemantic  PU “be /go/ up the flume” with the stylistic label “Amer.” And the meanings: 1. “collapse, be destroyed”, 2. “kick the bucket”.

The large frequency of the English name John serves as the basis of the phraseological unit “John Bull” – “a mocking nickname of English people which has gained wide popularity”. This unit is characterized by bright national coloring, hence ironic “John-Bullish” – “typically English”, “John-Bullism” – “typical features of the English character”, “John Bullist” – “an adherent of everything which is English” [Koonin 1984:418].

  1. National specific features of phraseological units may reflect the history of the nation, its original traditions and customs, its character primordially laid in PU prototypes. Let’s take as an example three Russian phraseological units.

The stable unit  “во всю ивановскую” – 1. “very loudly (cry, snore, etc.); 2. “very quickly, using all one’s force” is derived from the expression “звонить во всю ивановскую” – with the etymology “in all the bells of Ivan the Great bell tower in Moscow Kremlin” and “кричать во всю ивановскую” – “from the name of Ivan’s square in Moscow Kremlin where tsar’s edicts were formerly announced”[PDRL 1967:177].    

The phraseological unit “сам себя высек” iron. – “about a person who ran into trouble caused by himself by acting in some way or saying something” is a genuine Russian expression which appeared in the middle of the XIX century. The expression is a transferred word combination pronounced by the Governor in Gogol’s comedy “Inspector” (Revizor) (1838). Answering the complaints of a non-commissioned officer’s wife who was illicitly flogged by the authorities the Governor justifies himself preposterously alleging that it was she herself who did it [Birikh 1988:105].

Two explanations of the prototype of the PU “не вытанцовывается” iron. оr jocular – “things won’t get going, it doesn’t work” is presented in “Historical and Etymological Reference Book”: 1. “the expression is taken from Gogol’s story “A Spellbound Place” in which a melon-field watchman while being in his cups is trying to dance before his hut. At first he puts to shame even young dancers but then a spellbound place appears  each time before him and he can’t continue his dance when he reaсhes the place: his legs fail him and he has to begin the dance again and again. At last the old man has to give up and says bitterly: “It is not coming off!” (“не вытанцовывается!”); 2. The expression is connected with the habit of arranging balls in winter in the houses of noblemen in Moscow, Petersburg and other cities at the beginning of the XIXth century. A.Pushkin, P.Vyazemsky and other writers recollected such balls. People danced there not only to have a good time but also to strike up an acquaintance or establish advantageous relations and settle some matters. It was possible “to dance” (“вытанцевать”) a bridegroom, a rich bride or a good job. D.Grigorovich wrote about Guards officers attending all balls “to dance a rich bride or aiguillettes”. Hence the meaning of the words “to dance something or not to dance something” – “to be successful or to fail in some intended affair” [Birikh 1998:105].

The English phraseological unit “have kissed the blarney stone /the Blarney Stone/” – “be a flatterer” is also characterized by national coloring. The expression is based on the old legend according to which a person who will kiss the stone in the Irish castle of Blarney gets the ability of being a flatterer [Koonin 1984:725].

The expression “Kilkenny cats” – “mortal enemies” (as a rule “fight like Kilkenny cats” – “fight to the death /to the finish/” goes back to the legend about the violent struggle between two towns: Kilkenny and Irishtown in the XYIIth century which brought them to destruction [Koonin 1984:133].

Phraseological units in both languages may have the same meaning but be based on different images of highly national character. The typical example of such kind of expressions is the units “ездить в Тулу со своим самоваром” and “carry coals to Newcastle” with specific topographical denominators.

V.Maslova points out that we can’t overstate the role of national peculiarities in the phraseological picture of the world [Maslova 2001]. There are a lot of international phraseological units and expressions based on the knowledge of the real world common to all mankind in the phraseological systems of the Russian and English languages. The differences in PU images can be explained by the lack of coincidence of the technique of secondary nomination in different languages rather than by their cultural peculiarities.



5.6. Vom kreativen Denken zum kreativen Handeln - Kreativitätsprobleme in der Sprache, Ausbildung und Erziehung

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For quotation purposes:
Elena Arsenteva: Three Levels of Phraseological Unit Cultural Peculiarities - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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