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From Frequency to Formulaicity: Morphemic Bundles and Semi-Fixed Constructions in Japanese Spoken Discourse


This dissertation investigates patterns and functions of fixedness, or formulaicity, in Japanese spoken discourse. A growing number of language researchers have pointed to the centrality of formulaicity and idiomaticity in understanding what native speakers know and do with the language. However, an overwhelming majority of evidence comes from English, which differs from Japanese typologically. In particular, agglutinating morphology poses methodological and conceptual challenges for examining formulaicity in Japanese language. As a result, not much is known about Japanese formulaicity, except for fixed idioms and phrases, such as te o yaku `have difficulty with' (lit. `burn one's hand') and o-tsukare-sama deshita `thank you for your hard work' (lit. `(you) were honorably tired' or `(you) seemed tired').

The present study is an attempt to explore formulaicity in Japanese spoken language by employing a morpheme-based, frequency-driven approach with large corpora. It identifies the most frequently recurring multi-morphemic sequences, or morphemic bundles, in three spoken registers, ordinary conversation, formal interview, and academic speech. Detailed analysis of the morphemic bundles reveals structural and functional characteristics of fixedness in spoken language that are linked to particular communicative needs of different registers and contexts. Findings in this study, however, also indicate that the morphemic bundles do not necessarily represent form-function units. Most significantly, about half of the morphemic bundles are encompassed by three partially-filled, or semi-fixed, constructions, with open slots and variations in some forms. Rather than adding to the conceptual meaning of utterances, the three semi-fixed constructions serve as discourse frames for fluent, socio-pragmatically appropriate, and idiomatically natural utterances, thereby contributing to the smooth on-line production and comprehension of spoken language.

Findings and discussions in this study provide new insight into the formulaic and socio-interactional nature of native speakers' language use in real context. The new insight also has important implications for Japanese as a foreign language learning and teaching, as a significant part of language acquisition takes place in learning idiomatic ways of saying or doing things in the target socio-linguistic community.

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