An Unusual Use for a Romance

By Laura Vivanco on

I just happened to come across this abstract (from the Formulaic Language Research Network's 2016 conference) and thought it was an interesting way to use a bit of Georgette Heyer, whose use of obscure slang can, perhaps, be rather off-putting to some readers.


Alison Wray (Cardiff University)

Getting a shoehorn in: how we work out the meaning of unknown formulaic expressions

‘Took it off of a fat old gager a couple o’ years back,’ he explained, with engaging frankness. ‘Prigged his tattler, too, but I sold that. I’m a great one for a pinch o’ merry-go-up, and this little box just happened to take my fancy, and I’ve kept it. I daresay I’d get a double finnup for it, too,’ he added, sighing over his own prodigality. ‘It’s worth more, but when it comes to tipping over the dibs there ain’t a lock as isn’t a hob-grubber.’ (The Toll-gate, Georgette Heyer, 1954).

When we first encounter a new expression, how do we work out what it means? Although there has been research into how L2 learners approach unknown formulaic expressions, it has been difficult to make direct comparisons with what native speakers do, because of the ceiling effect that would arise in giving them ecologically valid expressions in their L1 – in other words, if an expression is formulaic in the L1, they will tend to know it already. In this talk, I describe an experiment (co-researched with Huw Bell and Katie Jones) that was able to present both L1 and L2 speakers with genuine, contextualised, formulaic expressions of English that were not known to either group. They were historical phrases researched and used by the British novelist Georgette Heyer in her works set in the Georgian and Regency periods (c.1800-1837). Through a think-aloud approach, participants gave commentaries on what they thought the expressions meant, and why. The results showed some important differences between the approach taken by L1 and L2 speakers, and suggest that increased knowledge of, and/or confidence with, an L2 enables a learner to get increasingly closer to behaving like an L1 speaker when encountering new expressions.