Blog post written by Herb Colston, author of, Using Figurative Language.
Many people think figurative language is special or unusual somehow, used only or mostly in poetry, song lyrics or other creative outlets, or just when a speaker/writer is being flamboyant. Some people even think it’s a bad form of language, used to baffle or mislead people, or to be uncooperative in some way, or that it’s incomprehensible (or just hard to comprehend) and thus not how we ought to communicate. Even if people are more appreciative of figurative language they still often acknowledge its presumed higher potential for being misunderstood.
A common question thus posed about figurative language is why it even exists. Why do people speak (write) figuratively when more direct ways are available? Or, put most pointedly, why don’t people just say what they mean?
Using Figurative Language attempts to address this question. It reviews and discusses several decades’ worth of interdisciplinary research and theorizing which show first that the question itself is a bit odd. Many people don’t realize that speakers have been using figurative language as long as we’ve had language, and that on some level, there isn’t even a principled way to distinguish figurative from other supposedly nonfigurative language. Figurative language is also way more prevalent in normal everyday talk and writing than most people recognize. Although many of its instances can be creative and colorful as in song lyrics etc., most of it shows up right under our noses in ways we may not notice as figurative. By way of example, although Linguists and Psycholinguists would certainly argue over this specific quantity, one could readily claim the text I’ve used thus far in this blog post has well over three dozen figures in it, far more than the perhaps more obvious, ‘colorful’ and, ‘under our noses’. Figurative language is stealthy.
As for the misinterpretation likelihood, true, figurative language can be and is misunderstood occasionally, but so is purported non-figurative language in all the ways it can be unclear. Figurative language can also provide incredibly rich meaning. I’ve often described it as, “Meaning in concentrate—just add brain”. So the above question presumes we have the option of just omitting figurative language from talk and text to improve communication when doing so would be effectively impossible.
Despite the oddity of the question, though, the book also gives us the general answer to it— we use figurative language because it does things for us, things not as easily done with other kinds of language. These ‘things’ include meaning enhancement (for instance, by metaphor – “That job interview was a root canal”), negativity management (by rhetorical questions – “Are those your dirty dishes?”, or verbal irony – “Yeah right, just hysterical”), persuasion hyperbole – “Doing it that way will take forever”, or idioms – “That’s a tough row to hoe”), compliance improvement (by indirect requests – “Could I ask you a question?”), as well as social engineering, humor, bonding, tantalization and many, many others. The book not only documents that figurative language does these things, it also explores how it does so. For this the book gathers explanations from psychology, linguistics, evolutionary biology, anatomy, neuroscience, the history and variety of communication methods, semiotics, philosophy and other fields interested in figurative language.
The book also goes beyond the general usage answer though to show that understanding what figurative language accomplishes requires thinking about more than just language or communication. Figurative language is intertwined with our senses (seeing, hearing, touching, etc.) how we move physically (walking, jumping, reaching, etc.) our emotions, our broader concepts, our mind-reading and memory abilities, the actual physiology of pronunciation and many other diverse aspects of human life.
Figurative language is perhaps especially intermingled in our social interactions with other people. It can function as social honey, glue, lubricant, a lever, a ladder, a weapon, a pedestal, a pillow, a trap, a Trojan Horse, territory marking, handcuffs, a Band-Aid and perfume, among many other things. As just one brief concrete example, speakers use more figurative language when interacting with people they like, admire or wish to impress in some contexts, and using figurative language for this succeeds generally for speakers—other people like you back or are impressed if you use it right. Poetry and romance are connected for a reason!
The book also deals with many other questions one can ask about figurative language. How should we study it? How has it changed over time? Have we exhausted its potential? How might we best explain it? How does it arise in children? Why is there occasional resistance to it? How prevalent is it out there in the world?
Finally, the book treats all these issues concerning figurative language with many examples taken from authentic recorded talk and text by speakers as well as from diverse instances in popular culture (e.g., movies, television, advertisements, news sources, cartoons, novels, commercials, the internet and others). It thus provides a treatment scholarly readers can appreciate, but also might be enjoyed by broader audiences as well.
Thanks to Cambridge for publishing it and future-thanks to everyone who reads it. I hope you find it enlightening and enjoyable.
Blog post written by Yellowlees Douglas author of The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You A Better Writer
Journalists, particularly those writing for American audiences, practically have transitions drilled into their heads from their first forays into writing for the public. Where’s your transition? their editors persist, as they linger over each sentence. However, those editors and newsroom sages handed on advice with well-established roots in psycholinguistics—and with particularly striking benefits for the reading public. I explore what linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience can teach us about writing in my forthcoming The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. And using an abundance of transitions is perhaps the simplest advice you can follow to make your writing easy to read, in addition to bolstering your readers’ speed and comprehension of even complex, academic prose.
As a species, we evolved to learn from observing cause and effect—and from making predictions based on those observations. For example, your everyday survival relies on your ability to predict how the driver to your right will behave on entering a roundabout, just as we predict hundreds of events that unfold in our daily lives, all of which dictate our behavior. But we feel relatively minimal cognitive strain from all these predictions, mostly made without any conscious awareness, because we can make predictions based on prior experience. We expect the familiar.
Similarly, in reading, we expect sequential sentences to relate to one another. However, most writers assume that their readers see the ideas represented in one sentence as inherently connected to the preceding sentence. But sentences can become islands of meaning, especially when writers fail to provide explicit linguistic cues that inform readers how one sentence follows another.
Take, for example, your typical university mission statement, the kind invariably featured in American university catalogues and websites:
Teaching—undergraduate and graduate through the doctorate—is the fundamental purpose of the university. Research and scholarship are integral to the education process and to expanding humankind’s understanding of the natural world, the mind and the senses. Service is the university’s obligation to share the benefits of its knowledge for the public good.
Chances are, even if someone offered you the lottery jackpot for recalling this content in a mere half-hour, you’d fail—at least, not without some serious sweat put into rote memoriziation. Why? Despite the mission statement containing a mere three sentences, nothing connects any sentence to the others—aside from the writer’s implicit belief that everyone knows that universities focus on teaching, research, and service. Unfortunately, only an academic would understand that research, teaching, and service form the bedrock of any research university. As a result, we can safely guess that the writer was an academic. Sadly, the actual audience for the mission statement—the family members tendering up their retirement savings or mortgaging the house for tuition—fail to see any connections at all. As studies documented as early as the 1970s, readers read these apparently disconnected sentences more slowly and with greater activity in the parts of the brain dedicated to reading. In addition, readers also show poorer recall of sentences lacking any apparently logical or referential continuity.
Because prediction is the engine that enables readers’ comprehension, transitions play a vital role in enabling us to understand how sentences refer to one another. In fact, certain types of transitions—particularly those flagging causation, time, space, protagonist, and motivation—bind sentences more tightly together. When you use as a result, thus, then, because, or therefore, your reader sees the sentence she’s about to read as causally related to the sentence she’s just read. Moreover, when writers place transitions early in sentences, prior to the verb, readers grasp the relationship before they finish making predictions about how the sentence will play out. These predictions stem from our encounters with tens of thousands of sentences we’ve previously read. But put the transition after the verb, and your readers have already completed the heavy lifting of prediction. Or, worse, they’ve made the wrong predictions and need to reread your sentences again.
You might think that a snippet like too or also or even flies beneath your readers’ radar. Think again. Transitions are your readers’ linguistic lifelines that link sentences and ideas smoothly together, making your reading easy to understand and recall. You can discover more about not only transitions but also of how your readers’ brains work through every facet of your writing—from the words you choose to the cadence of your sentences in The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer.
Post written by Jeannette Littlemore, author of Metonymy
Metonymy is a kind of shorthand that people use all the time but don’t always think about that much, which is a shame because, when used well, metonymy can have significant persuasive powers and when used badly, can lead to severe misunderstandings. In a nutshell, metonymy is a process whereby one entity is used to refer to another. For example, in the UK we use the term ‘Number 10’ to refer to the Government, whereas in the USA it’s ‘the White House’; and in South Korea, it’s the ‘Blue House’. All of these examples involve a metonymic relationship in which a place stands for an institution. However, this is not the only kind of metonymic relationship. There are many others. The word ‘Hoover’ can be used metonymically to mean vacuum cleaner, via a producer for product relationship, or we might say that we ‘need a drink’, to refer specifically to alcoholic drink, which would evoke a whole for part metonymic relationship. We might say that we need ‘some muscle’, when what we need is a strong person to help us move some furniture, thus evoking a defining property for category metonymic relationship, and so on and so forth.
Unlike metaphor, which usually involves a comparison between two unrelated entities, metonymy is a process whereby one thing is used to refer to something else, to which it is closely related or even forms part of. The best way to illustrate this is with an authentic example such as the following from the ‘Bank of English’ (BofE) corpus:
Do you want me to pencil you in for the time being?
In this example, ‘pencil you in’ is used metonymically to mean ‘make a provisional appointment’. The secretary offers to write the appointment in pencil rather than pen so that the customer can make last minute changes if necessary. ‘Pencil in’ thus stands metonymically for what one might do with a pencil (i.e. write something down which can subsequently be erased).
This example is typical of the way in which metonymy is used in everyday language as a kind of communicative shorthand, allowing people to use their shared knowledge of the world to communicate with fewer words than they would otherwise need. In this particular example, metonymy serves a mainly referential purpose, but it can be used for a wide variety of communicative functions, such as relationship-building, humour, irony and euphemism.
Metonymic meanings can be very subtle and easily missed, especially in communication between people with different linguistic or cultural backgrounds.
In my new book with Cambridge University Press, Metonymy: Hidden Shortcuts in Language, Thought and Communication, I explore and discuss its relationship with metaphor. I then move on to discuss the various models that have been proposed within Cognitive Linguistics to explain how metonymy operates, and highlight the benefits of each. In the book, I outline some of the key functions that metonymy performs in various forms of expression (language, gesture, art, film, dance and music), whilst maintaining a key focus on metonymy as a first and foremost cognitive process, which leave sits traces in these various forms of expression. After having briefly discussed difficulties in identifying metonymy, I examine the extant research into the neuro-linguistic processing of metonymy. Finally, I look at variations and similarities in the ways in which metonymy manifests itself across these different modes of expression and across different languages and cultures. The book is illustrated throughout with real-world examples of metonymy in different forms of expression.
Find out more on Jeannette Littlemore’s book Metonymy, published by Cambridge University Press.
Figurative Language, written by Barbara Dancygier and Eve Sweetser, is a lively, comprehensive and practical book which offers a new, integrated and linguistically sound understanding of what figurative language is. The following extract is taken from the Introduction.
Thinking about figurative language requires first of all that we identify some such entity – that we distinguish figurative language from non-figurative or literal language. And this is a more complex task than one might think. To begin with, there appears to be a circular reasoning loop involved in many speakers’ assessments: on the one hand they feel that figurative language is special or artistic, and on the other hand they feel that the fact of something’s being an everyday usage is in itself evidence that the usage is not figurative. Metaphor, rather than other areas of figurative language, has been the primary subject of this debate. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) recount the story of a class taught by Lakoff at Berkeley in the 1970s in which he gave the class a description of an argument and asked them to find the metaphors. He expected that they would recognize phrases such as shoot down someone else’s argument, bring out the heavy artillery, or blow below the belt as evidence of metaphoric treatment of argument as War or Combat. Some class members, however, protested, saying, But this is the normal, ordinary way to talk about arguing. That is, because these usages are conventional rather than novel, and everyday rather than artistic, they cannot be metaphoric. However, there are many reasons to question this view, and to separate the parameters of conventionality and everyday usage from the distinction between literal and figurative. One of these is historical change in meaning: historical linguists have long recognized that some meaning change is metaphoric or metonymic. For example, around the world, words meaning ‘see’ have come to mean ‘know’ or ‘understand.’ Indeed, in some cases that past meaning is lost: English wit comes from the Indo-European root for vision, but has only the meaning of intellectual ability in modern English. But in other cases, such as the see in I see what you mean, metaphoric meanings in the domain of Cognition exist alongside the original literal Vision uses. This knowing is seeing metaphor is extremely productive: transparent, opaque, illuminate, and shed light on are among the many English locutions which are ambiguous between literal visual senses and metaphoric intellectual ones. Do we want to say that because these are conventional usages, they are not metaphoric? In that case, we would have to separate them completely from less entrenched uses which show the same metaphoric meaning relationship: if someone says they have examined a candidate’s record with a magnifying glass, we probably don’t want to say that there should be a dictionary entry for magnifying glass listing this usage. Still less would we want to make a new dictionary entry if someone said they had gone over the data with an electron microscope. As has been widely argued, starting with Lakoff and Johnson, the most plausible hypothesis here is that while wit is no longer metaphoric, transparent and shed light on are metaphoric – and that it is precisely the habitual use of conventional instances of the knowing is seeing metaphor which helps motivate innovative uses.
It is thus possible for metaphor or metonymy to motivate conventional extensions of word meanings – and figurative links which are pervasively used in this way shape the vocabularies of the relevant languages. At a first approximation, then, we might say that figurative means that a usage is motivated by a metaphoric or metonymic relationship to some other usage, a usage which might be labelled literal. And literal does not mean ‘everyday, normal usage’ but ‘a meaning which is not dependent on a figurative extension from another meaning.’ We will be talking about the nature of those relationships in more detail soon, but of course metaphor and metonymy are not the only motivations for figurative usage. In this context, we might say that polysemy – the relationship between multiple related conventional meanings of a single word – is often figurative in nature. English see continues to manifest simultaneously meanings related to physical vision and ones related to cognition or knowledge: Can you see the street signs? coexists with Do you see what I mean?.
Read the full excerpt here or find out more about Figurative Language here.
Blog post by Remi van Trijp based on a recent article in Language and Cognition
One of the most notorious problems in linguistics is how to handle “long-distance dependencies”: utterances in which some elements seem to have been taken away from their original position and then moved to a different place. Typical examples are WH-questions such as “What did you see” in which the direct object (“what”) takes sentence-initial position instead of following the verb, as it would do in a declarative utterance (e.g. “I saw the game”).
But what makes long-distance dependencies so difficult? Most linguists assume a tree structure (or “phrase structure”) for analyzing utterances. As a data structure, trees consist of nodes that have at most one parent node, which means that information in a tree can only trickle down from a parent to its immediate children, or percolate upwards in the other direction. A tree structure is thus hopelessly inadequate for representing dependencies between nodes that are in the top of the hierarchy and nodes that are situated somewhere below. The most common solution to this problem is to say that there is a “gap” where we would normally expect a part of the utterance. Information about the gapped element then has to be communicated node-by-node upwards in the tree, until the “filler” of the gap is found.
In recent years, however, a cognitive-functional alternative has started to crystallize in which long-distance dependencies spontaneously emerge as a side effect of how grammatical constructions interact with each other in order to cater for the different communicative needs of language users. For example, the difference between “I like ice cream” and “Ice cream I like” can be simply explained as the tendency for speakers to put the most topical information in the front of the sentence – suggesting that word order should be decoupled from an utterance’s hierarchical structure.
While this view has for a long time been dismissed for being ad-hoc and not lending itself to proper scientific formalization, there now exists a formally explicit computational implementation of the cognitive-functional alternative in Fluid Construction Grammar, which works for both parsing and production. The implementation eliminates all formal machinery needed for filler-gaps by chopping down the syntax tree: rather than taking a tree structure as the sole device for representing all information of an utterance, different linguistic perspectives are represented on equal footing (including an utterance’s information structure, functional structure, illocutionary force, and so on).
The implementation shows that a cognitive-functional approach to long-distance dependencies outperforms the filler-gap analysis in several domains: it is more parsimonious, more complete (i.e. it includes a processing model) and it offers a better fit to empirical data on language evolution.
Access the entire article without charge until 31st July 2014
How do children develop bilingual competence? Do bilingual children develop language in the same way as monolinguals? Set in the context of findings on language development, Bilingual Language Acquisition examines the acquisition of English and Spanish by two brothers in the first six years of their lives. (The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1).
Bingual language acquisition
The terms bilingual and bilingualism have received diverse definitions. In this book, bilingual (the person), and bilingualism (the condition or state of affairs) refer to the use of two (or more) languages in everyday life. Two major patterns of language acquisition have been identified in studies of early bilingualism: simultaneous bilingualism and sequential bilingualism, but no agreement exists with respect to the age at which bilingual development would be considered to be sequential. In simultaneous bilingualism, the child acquires two languages at the same time from birth or, as some researchers propose, before 3 years of age. Here, I use the term Bilingual First Language Acquisition (BFLA, or 2L1) to refer to situations where the child’s exposure to two languages begins at birth (cf. De Houwer 2009: Ch. 1). This means that the question of the effect that different ages of first exposure to a language may have on the development of bilingual competence is not relevant in BFLA, but it is in sequential bilingualism. The latter could be differentiated, depending on when acquisition of a second language begins, into: (a) successive bilingualism, when the child’s exposure to a second language starts sometime between the first and third birthdays; and (b) early second language acquisition, a form of early bilingualism that happens when a child has one established language before starting to hear and learn a second language (De Houwer 2009: 4). This book focuses on BFLA – that is, on the acquisition of two languages from birth, Spanish and English in this case. The overall goal is to examine whether bilingualism affects the course of development in each language, and if so, how. course of development in each language, and if so, how.
Download the full excerpt here
The Study of Language has proven itself to be the student and instructor choice for first courses in language and linguistics because of its accessible approach to, what is often, a complicated subject. In every edition, readers have praised the book for being easy to follow, simple to understand, and fun to read, with its quirky anecdotes and examples of languages from around the world. Now in its fifth edition, it is further strengthened by the addition of new student ‘tasks’ (guiding readers to connect theory to real-world scenarios), including examples from even more foreign languages, and updating the text to reflect the most current linguistic theory. We will also be offering an enriched learning experience with our new enhanced eBook (publishing in Autumn), which will include pop-up glossary terms, embedded audio and interactive questioning. All of these features make this the most student-friendly edition of the textbook yet.
Paragraph above by Valerie Appleby, Development Editor, Cambridge University Press
When we become highly proficient in a language, we tend to use it in chunks or patterns. For a native language especially, we learn and become adept at manipulating masses of word patterns such as absolutely not, as it were, in light of the fact that, curry favour, I think that, scattered showers, it’s worth –ing, just a sec, etc. Language patterns like these make communication efficient – we don’t need to spend time piecing together the smallest bits of language. Rather, we work with larger bits that are easily accessed in the memories of both the user and the receiver. However, the pervasiveness of patterning makes it quite a challenge to sound ‘natural’ in second languages. Grammatical rules themselves are patterns, but they are more broadly applicable. Beyond these general patterns, there are masses of idiosyncratic lexicogrammatical patterns that form the stuff of communication. I set out to find out how second language users deal with the massive task of learning such patterns. In order to do this, I traced the development of chunks in the writing of four ESL users as they prepared for university study and later once they were in their university courses.
Second language users embark on a program of chunk-making and chunk-breaking. That is, they build up a stock of formulae and at the same time, they start learning how these can be applied and manipulated. One way the students in my study did this was through experimentation with patterns they had seen or heard. For some language learners, receiving teacher feedback can be an opportunity to experiment with chunks of language. If it doesn’t ‘work’, the teacher will provide feedback. The feedback process is therefore a safe place where students can take risks with language. This is significant for language teachers who may think that their students always aim to produce language they believe to be nativelike. In fact, students may be trying something they suspect is not nativelike, even if they know a nativelike alternative.
The language users in my study also actively sought to imitate the language of expert users. Imitation has a troubled history in the field of second language learning; it has behaviourist overtones and, in university contexts, it is haunted by the spectre of plagiarism. Imitation is, however, central to language learning. Chunks have to come from somewhere. It isn’t necessarily a mindless copying activity, however. The process revealed in the writing of these language users was one of adaptive imitation – ‘the purposeful detection and imitation of lexicogrammatical patterns which are adapted in order to participate in a discourse community’. Over time, it was possible to see how the learners gained increasing control over the discipline-specific language patterns that they gleaned from expert sources. Since lessons, language textbooks and teacher feedback can only provide a small sample of the number of patterns required to operate in a university context, it is arguable that most pattern learning occurs through this transformative process of imitation-for-learning.
Dr Susy Macqueen
Find out more -http://languages.unimelb.edu.au/about/staff/profiles/macqueen.html
Written by Neil Smith, Ianthi Tsimpli, Gary Morgan & Bencie Woll
Every once in a while Nature gives us insight into the human condition by providing us with a unique case whose special properties illumine the species as a whole. Christopher is such an example. On first inspection his fate may not seem fortunate. Because he is unable to look after himself, he lives in sheltered accommodation; on a variety of standard tests of intelligence he scores poorly, with particular difficulty on non-verbal tests; his horizons seem to be limited to the performing of routine tasks of a non-demanding nature. His life looks sadly circumscribed. Until one turns to language.
Despite his disabilities, which mean that everyday tasks are burdensome chores, Christopher is a linguistic wonder: with varying degrees of fluency, he can read, write, speak, understand and translate more than twenty languages. Playing noughts and crosses is beyond him, but interpreting between German and Spanish is easy; he doesn’t understand the kind of make-believe play that 3 or 4 year old children indulge in – pretending that a banana is a telephone for instance, but he learns new languages, from Berber to Welsh with enviable ease. His drawing ability indicates a severely low IQ of between 40 and 60 (a level hinting at ineducability), yet his English language ability indicates a superior IQ in excess of 120 (a level more than sufficient to enter University). Christopher is a savant, someone with an island of startling talent in a sea of inability.
When you meet Christopher for the first time you are not sure of the best way to interact with him, as he is very shy but nonetheless interested in you. For anybody who studies language though, the way to communicate becomes immediately clear. You have to talk about language with him, not just what languages you speak but why you speak them, how you learnt them, how much you know them and what words you can share from those languages with him. For someone who loves language and the things you can do with languages it’s easy to talk to Christopher.
In an earlier book The Mind of a Savant we documented Christopher’s linguistic abilities in his first language, English, and his many ‘second’ languages, showing him to be an exceptional individual manifesting unusual and unattested asymmetries between abilities and deficits within and outside language. In our new book The Signs of a Savant we revisit Christopher, elaborating on his obsession and talent for language, but concentrating on how we taught him British Sign Language. BSL is a fascinating challenge for Christopher since it confronts his genius for language with a new modality which requires abilities where he is weakest. He is mildly autistic, severely apraxic and visuo-spatially impaired, a combination which augurs poorly for his learning a signed language, which necessitates making eye-contact and the production and perception of fine motor differences of hand-shape and facial expression.
Somewhat surprisingly he wanted to learn to sign immediately even though he was faced with obvious barriers to picking it up: there are no books; you have to learn by looking into other people’s faces and you have to move your hands in complicated and coordinated ways. All of these factors caused Christopher problems but because the desire to learn about sign language burned so bright for him he slowly overcame these barriers and learned to sign. This book is about that journey and what we all learned from Christopher’s learning process: about language, about signing and ultimately about how the human mind works.
Although his production of BSL was considerably poorer than that of his spoken languages, his comprehension fell within the range defined by the students in the comparator group. Interestingly, he showed an asymmetry in his control of linguistic phenomena from the formal domain of language, such as negation, questions and agreement on the one hand, and his failure to master the classifier system – a domain where the control of topographic space is also required on the other. So our study sheds light on the similarities and differences between BSL and spoken languages: the similarities have to do with what is known as Universal Grammar – the language faculty as an autonomous component of human cognition; the differences have to do with the visuo-spatial Modality whose use represents a serious challenge to autistic individuals. At the same time, the asymmetries in his abilities provide evidence for the Modularity hypothesis of human cognition; the results of some of the tests we carried out support a particular theory of Memory, and Christopher’s case in general gives us insight into the nature of the human Mind. We emphasize ‘human’: despite the uniqueness of his case, Christopher is not a ‘Martian’. As we document in detail, the dissociations and asymmetries he manifests can be seen in other populations both pathological and typically developing.
If you want insight into a unique mind read The Signs of a Savant.
Out now in Paperback | 978-0-521-61769-7 | 232 pages | £21.99