Understanding Figurative Language: From Metaphors to Idioms

Understanding Figurative Language: From Metaphors to Idioms

Understanding Figurative Language: From Metaphors to Idioms

Understanding Figurative Language: From Metaphors to Idioms

Synopsis

This book examines how people understand utterances that are intended figuratively. Traditionally, figurative language such as metaphors and idioms has been considered derivative from more complex than ostensibly straightforward literal language. Glucksberg argues that figurative language involves the same kinds of linguistic and pragmatic operations that are used for ordinary, literal language. Glucksberg's research in this book is concerned with ordinary language: expressions that are used in daily life, including conversations about everyday matters, newspaper and magazine articles, and the media. Metaphor is the major focus of the book. Idioms, however, are also treated comprehensively, as is the theory of conceptual metaphor in the context of how people understand both conventional and novel figurative expressions. A new theory of metaphor comprehension is put forward, and evaluated with respect to competing theories in linguistics and in psychology. The central tenet of the theory is that ordinary conversational metaphors are used to create new concepts and categories. This process is spontaneous and automatic. Metaphor is special only in the sense that these catagories get their names from the best examples of the things they represent, and that these categories get their names from the best examples of those categories. Thus, the literal "shark" can be a metaphor for any vicious and predatory being, from unscrupulous salespeople to a murderous character in The Threepenny Opera. Because the same term, e.g.,"shark," is used both for its literal referent and for the metaphorical category, as in "My lawyer is a shark," we call it the dual-reference theory. The theory is then extended to two other domains: idioms and conceptual metaphors. The book presents the first comprehensive account of how people use and understand metaphors in everyday life.

Excerpt

How do people understand utterances that are intended figuratively? In figurative language, the intended meaning does not coincide with the literal meanings of the words and sentences that are used. In metaphor, for example, literal meaning is often patently absurd, as in “New York may be the next Orange County.” In idioms, the relation between literal meaning and idiomatic meaning may be totally opaque, as in kicked the bucket or bought the farm. Both of these idiomatic phrases mean “died,” but people have no idea of how or why these idioms have come to mean what they do.

Traditionally, figurative language such as metaphors and idioms has been considered derivative from and more complex than ostensibly straightforward literal language. A contemporary view, as exemplified not only in psychological but also in linguistic and philosophical research, is that figurative language involves the same kinds of linguistic and pragmatic operations that are used for ordinary, literal language. Put another way, we can identify two sets of operations that people use in comprehending discourse. One set consists of purely linguistic operations, such as lexical access, syntactic analysis, and so forth. A second set consists of a less welldefined grab-bag of operations, usually grouped under the term pragmatics. Whatever the utility of this distinction, so-called literal language requires the full use of both kinds of operations, no less and perhaps no different than that required for figurative language.

Over the past decade my colleagues and I have studied how people use and understand metaphor and idioms. We have focused exclusively on ordinary language, expressions that are used in daily life, including conversations about everyday matters and that appear in newspapers, magazines, and other media. We have explicitly excluded the more complex uses of figurative language in poetry, fiction, or other forms of creative writing. We have also excluded consideration of metaphor's intricate and . . .

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