Are Idioms Metaphorical?

LCO 2015 coverBlog Post Written by Daniel Sanford, based on an article in Language and Cognition

Idiom is so interesting to linguists because it exists at the intersection of the study of figurative language and of syntax effects, and has proven a singularly problematic issue in both areas of inquiry. For syntacticians who have challenged the Chomskyan model of language that’s been dominant since the 1960s, idiom has demonstrated the impossibility of drawing a clear distinction between lexical items and rules which operate upon them. Cognitive linguists and student of figurative language, meanwhile, have asked about the relationship between idiom and metaphor: Are idioms processed, on the fly, as metaphors? Or is the role of metaphor purely historical, with idiomatic meaning accessed simply as lexical entry?

These questions are related, and considered together, they point to a resolution shy of Lakoff’s claim that conceptual metaphors are as active in idioms as in novel metaphors, but well beyond the traditional view that idioms as a class are non-metaphorical, their meanings retrieved as an irreducible whole from the lexicon: idioms can be a little bit metaphorical. The extent to which an idiom is metaphorical is a function of the extent of its autonomy from a sanctioning metaphorical schema. Idioms are ready-made metaphors: their meaning can, in many cases, be analyzed out on the basis of reference to existing forms, but the idiom itself, with a set metaphorical interpretation, is entrenched discretely from an overall metaphorical mapping. Metaphorical idioms cannot be wholly understood as highly entrenched instances of metaphorical mappings, nor can they be analyzed entirely as syntactic constructions: it is out of the interaction of these two types of schemas that the rich properties of idioms emerge, and a complete understanding of figurative idioms is possible only when this dual nature is embraced.

We invite you to read the full article, Idiom as the Intersection of Conceptual and Syntactic Schemas, here.

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