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Formulaic sequences and language disorders

Wray, Alison ORCID: 2024. Formulaic sequences and language disorders. Ball, Martin J., Mueller, Nicole and Spencer, Elizabeth, eds. Handbook of Clinical Linguistics, 2nd ed., Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics, Wiley Blackwell, pp. 177-188. (10.1002/9781119875949.ch13)

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The term “formulaic sequence” refers to a range of types of multiword string that are, or at least seem to be, stored and accessed in a fully or partly prefabricated form (Wray, 2002). They encompass idioms and proverbs, -memorized texts including songs, rhymes and prayers, common phrases like see you later and well I never , filler phrases like you know , I mean and I guess , pro-forms like thingamajig and what d'ya call it and any personal turns of phrase that individuals happen to use repeatedly. Some are completely fixed, for example, high time; if I were you , and most others relatively so, like pull someone's leg; the first X of the Y . Many have a nonliteral meaning or connotation beyond the component words, for example, on paper; wet blanket . Some have a non‐canonical form, so they are not the most obvious way to express the idea, for example, in any event; woe betide . This chapter explores how (some types of) formulaic sequences manifest in three language disorders: aphasia, Alzheimer's disease and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), though many of the observations may apply to other disorders as well. It considers which areas of the brain have been associated with the production and comprehension of formulaic sequences. There is then a discussion of testing and measuring methods, which draws attention to the challenges of capturing an accurate picture of the amount of formulaicity in someone's language. The final section asks why formulaic sequences might play the roles that they do in disordered language. There is no question that certain types of formulaic sequence characterize a variety of language disorders, whether through their disproportionate presence (e.g. in ASD with intellectual impairment, Alzheimer's, aphasia) or relative absence (e.g. in ASD without intellectual impairment, Parkinson's, right hemisphere damage). But the picture is complicated. First, much more is known about what is produced than what is understood, since it is more difficult to capture and measure the latter. Second, our attention is easily drawn to the formulaic sequences that a person can produce, particularly if they are not generating much novel language. But the presence of, often, quite a small set can eclipse the fact that the vast majority of the formulaic sequences in the general language repertoire are not being produced. Third, there is no consensus on how to identify formulaic sequences (Wray, 2009), so different linguistic material might be captured in different studies. To understand why certain formulaic sequences are, or are not, being used, careful attention must be paid to what they are really for . In particular, insofar as they are a flexible resource for repairing problems in communication and social interaction (Wray, 2002, 2008, 2020, 2021), they are likely to respond dynamically to changes in a person's capabilities (see final section, below). Furthermore, since people's capabilities are a joint product of their pre‐existing behaviors, the nature of the disorder and their response to it, we would anticipate that the range and number of formulaic sequences used will be different even in people with similar language disorders. Indeed, although we obviously look for indications that specific areas of brain damage, or atypical development, are associated with the retention or loss of formulaic sequences, it is not always easy to distinguish pathological uses from neurotypical ones (Sidtis, 2022). Individual differences play a role at every level, from the precise nature and trajectory of someone's damage and the underlying brain on which it acts, to personality and context determined levels of resilience (Wray, 2020). Moreover, what a person is able to say once they have an acquired language disorder depends on what they previously knew and used. This information is typically not available at a granular level, leaving us to make assumptions about what someone's active and passive repertoire is likely to have been. At a broad‐brush level, such generalizations are unproblematic. For example, Gerstenberg and Hamilton's (2022) finding that “narrative crystals” occur in the discourse of older, unimpaired speakers helps us better understand the role they play in Alzheimer's discourse (e.g. Davis & Maclagan, 2013). Similarly, the recognized function of formulaic sequences in signaling social identity (Wray, 2002) and managing processing pressure (Wray, 2017) in unimpaired speakers gives us insight into both what their purpose might be in language impairment, and the potential impact on communication if they are not available for use. Nevertheless, individual variation makes it hard to gauge what has changed in response to an acquired disorder. These caveats are the necessary context for the accounts that follow. Understanding how formulaic sequences resist or succumb to developmental and acquired language disorders can help us not only map how the brain manages the components of language but also build better models of language as a complex phenomenon. It could also offer ideas for how to best support effective communication in those with language disorders (Wray, 2020, 2021).

Item Type: Book Section
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Publisher: Wiley Blackwell
ISBN: 9781119875901
Last Modified: 22 May 2024 09:57

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