Metaphor: What does figurative mean?

Random pile of colourful plastic letters
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.

Chopping down the Syntax Tree

Word-tree-5Blog 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

Bilingual Language Acquisition

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 by George Yule | 5th Edition

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.


The Study of Language

Paragraph above by Valerie Appleby, Development Editor, Cambridge University Press

2010 Language Teaching Christopher Brumfit Award winner Dr Susy Macqueen discusses her award winning dissertation

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

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The Signs of a Savant

The Signs of a SavantWritten 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