What is formulaic language?
There is no single satisfactory definition of formulaic language, and researchers differ in what they consider formulaic. Potentially part of formulaic language are:
- turns of phrase
- preferred ways of saying things
- set phrases
- rhymes and songs
We may notice formulaic language in:
- ritualised events
- structured events such as weather forecasts
- the language of very young children
- the materials in foreign language textbooks, especially for beginners, and in phrasebooks
- the speech of people with acquired language disabilities such as aphasia
In addition, the absence of formulaic language may be what marks out competent language learners as non-native speakers.
One definition, which is intended to be as inclusive as possible, so that the boundaries of the phenomenon can be examined without excluding anything too precipitately, is as follows. A formulaic sequence is:
a sequence, continuous or discontinuous, of words or other elements, which is, or appears to be, prefabricated: that is, stored and retrieved whole from memory at the time of use, rather than being subject to generation or analysis by the language grammar (Wray 2002:9).
This definition indicates that formulaic language may be a product of a particular kind of processing, which by-passes the procedure of assembling words out of morphemes, phrases out of words, and sentences out of phrases. This is only one of several possible theoretical positions, however, and there is still a great deal of scope for exploring others.
For a general overview of research in formulaic language, and how the many findings might be explained, the following may be useful:
Wray, A. 2000. Formulaic sequences in second language teaching: principle and practice. Applied Linguistics 21 (4): 463-489.
Wray, A. & Perkins, M. 2000. The functions of formulaic language: an integrated model. Language & Communication 20 (1): 1-28.
Wray, A. 2002. Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.