Interpreting Metaphors through Theories of Meaning. Conventional and Literal Meaning

Essay, 2019
11 Pages, Grade: 70



1.1.Introduction to Metaphors
1.2. The Features of Metaphors
1.2.1. Metaphors as tropes
1.2.2. Conventionality issues
1.2. 3. Analogical mapping
1.2.4. Asymmetry
1.2.5. Systematicity
1.2.5 Abstraction
1.3. The Functions of Metaphors
1.3.1. Stylistic and ideological effects
1.3.2. Cognitive effects and theory drafting

2.1 Theories of meaning
2.2. Paper Thesis: The Importance of the Context

3.1. The Principles of Compositionality
3.2. The challenge metaphors pose to the Principles of Compositionality
3.3. How the Principles of Compositionality fail to interpret metaphors

4.1. Grice’s Principles of Communication
4.2. The challenge metaphors pose to Grice’s Principles of communication

5. Conclusion: The key importance of the context in the interpretation of metaphors


1.1.Introduction to Metaphors

A metaphor is a conventional use of language where one linguistic object, namely a target domain and the concept behind it is assigned to another linguistic object and the concept behind it, namely a source domain, from which it appears to have borrowed a determined feature even if the two concepts are unlike. For example, the sentence below:

(1) Juliet is the sun.

consists a metaphor where Romeo correlates Juliet, the girl he loves with the sun, since both the sun and Juliet give him a feeling of warmth and brightness. ‘Juliet’ serves as the target domain and she is correlated with the ‘sun’, which serves as the source domain which provides ‘Juliet’ with the quality of warmth and brightness. (Ortony 1993,pp.95,96)

1.2. The Features of Metaphors

1.2.1. Metaphors as tropes

Metaphors are tropes, meaning that in order for communication to occur the metaphor must fit within the context of communication. Metaphors may have a literal meaning along with their metaphorical meaning which can create ambiguity, however, when semantic rules apply to them their meaning appears obscured and unlikely.

1.2.2. Conventionality issues

Metaphors are faced with the issue of conventionality, meaning that some metaphors are newly coined, thus possessing new and overt correlations while other metaphors are used for so long that their correlations are no longer transparent and are termed as dead metaphors, For example, the metaphor:

(2) His theory is a house of cards.

is a novel comparison between two unsimilar concepts one of which is the theory, which is the target domain of the metaphor and the house of cards which is the source domain of the metaphor and we realize that perhaps the theory has a frail background as a house of cards is frail. But the metaphor:

(3) He kicked the bucket.

has been used for such a long time that even if we do understand that it means ‘he died’ we no longer understand to what the act of kicking a bucket correlates with undergoing the condition of death.

1.2. 3. Analogical mapping

Metaphors are mapped analogically, meaning that they undergo the process of establishing some structural alignment between two represented situations and project inferences.

1.2.4. Asymmetry

Metaphors are directional and asymmetrical, meaning that they don’t present a symmetrical comparison between the target domain and the source domain, but the interpreter should transfer the features of the source domain to the target domain.

1.2.5. Systematicity

Metaphors have the feature of systematicity, meaning that they can extend to set up more than a single point of comparison to correlate the target domain to the source domain. For example, the metaphor:

(4) Billy is a gorilla

Can as well be extended into “Billy is a gorilla, he is covered in hair and swings from trees.”

1.2.5 Abstraction

Metaphors may correlate a more abstract target domain with a more concrete source domain as to enable comprehension. For example, the metaphor:

(5) Life is a journey.

Correlates the elusive and abstract concept of life with the familiar and more concrete concept of a journey, to perhaps their timelines, since life begins from birth, proceeds to aging and finishes with death, like a journey begins with a place of departure and proceeds to shortening a distance until a destination is reached. (Saeed 2013, pp.348,349,350,351)

1.3. The Functions of Metaphors

1.3.1. Stylistic and ideological effects

In rhetorics metaphors function as stylistic embellishments to beautify speech and entertain a certain audience for purposes of an ideological effect, such as persuasion or motivation . (Dirven & Paprotté 1985, p.295) Namely they have the power to create new prejudices and beliefs and provide a new view of the world, such as the extended metaphor of Machiavelli in Sturdee (1993):

(6) “Fortune is a woman, and it is necessary if you wish to master her to conquer her by force.” (p.76)

with which correlates with a woman in an attempt to convince his audience that if one desires a situation, they will have to force the situation as if they were trying to forcefully engage in an intercourse with a woman. (Sturdee 1993, pp. 74,75,76)

1.3.2. Cognitive effects and theory drafting

Metaphors may also have broader cognitive effect as they can even be used to describe a concept that cannot be expressed literally which might be especially useful when drafting a new theory which has not yet been fully formulated. Dennet in Sturdee (1993) used the metaphor ‘’Consciousness is cerebral celebrity’’(p.71) when drafting his Theory of Consciousness, not as a part of his theory, but rather as a mean to emphasize the importance of consciousness for the brain and the theory he would develop. (Sturdee 1993, pp. 71,72,73,74)

2.1 Theories of meaning

In an attempt to explain how humans are able to decode language or to interpret, like the interpretations of the metaphors above, multiple theories of meaning have developed over the years of the scientific study of Linguistics. Theories of meaning seek to explain what it is to have concept expressible in a language along with decoding language. They can be further divided into semantic theories and pragmatic theories. Semantics is the scientific study of the meaning of the words abstracted from their use in a context and semantic theories in general speculate that the meaning of language signals corresponds to entities in the world. Pragmatics is the scientific study of meaning within the context it occurs and pragmatic theories seek to explain how the individual assigns meaning in the signals of a language according to the context in which they are transmitted. (Kearns 2011, p. 1)

2.2. Paper Thesis: The Importance of the Context

The anomalous nature of metaphors challenges both semantic and pragmatic theories of meaning in their interpretation mainly due to wether these utterances are true and there is a meaning encoded in them that should be interpreted or if the sentences are false and nonsensical. This paper supports the view that what determines the potential of interpretation for a metaphor is certainly the context in which it is met, which consists of an accumulation of all the entities surrounding a communicative event and provides the resources for its pragmatic interpretation since it is structured around the language as a separate entity and the particular social, physical, cognitive dimension in which a particular communicative act occurs, along with the background knowledge of the interlocutors, namely the implicature, which means that metaphors can only be interpreted through pragmatic theories and not semantic theories. (Fromkin et al. 2003, p.578) To provide evidence as to how this conclusion was reached a metaphor will be interpreted through both a semantic theory and a pragmatic theory, rendering the semantic theory unable to interpret the metaphor and the pragmatic theory challenged, but finally successful in interpreting the metaphor. (Stern 2000, p.13)

3.1. The Principles of Compositionality

The principle of compositionality is a semantic theory which supports that the truth conditions of the constituents of an utterance also determine the truth conditions of the utterance and consequently the meaning of the utterance. For example, in a sentence with a one place predicate:

(7) Dina swims

The argument ‘Dina’ refers to the individual DINA and the proposition swims refers to a set of individuals those perform the action of SWIMMING. In a syntax tree the structure of the sentence is revealed to be:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

In this sentence the NP and the VP combine to form the meaning of the S(entence) according to Semantic rule I of the principles, which states as Fromkin et al. (2010) refer:

‘’If the meaning of NP (an individual) is a member of the meaning of the VP (a set of individuals), then S is TRUE, otherwise, it is FALSE’’ (p. 185)

In the above sentence, the NP is Dina and the VP is the verb swims. Iff ‘Dina’ is an entity which exists and belongs to a set of individual those SWIM.

In a sentence with a two-place predicate:

(8) Jimmy eats chips

The agent-argument Jimmy refers to the individual Jimmy, the theme-argument chips refers to an individual set of chips individual chips and the predicate eats refers to the set of individuals those perform the action of eating in the case of the agent or the individuals those undergo the situation of being eaten in the case of the theme. In a syntax tree the structure of the sentence is revealed to be:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

As it is formally expressed by the Semantic rule II, again as referred by Fromkin et al. (2010):

“The meaning of [vp V NP] is the set of individuals X such that X is the first member of any pair in the meaning of V whose second member is the meaning of NP.” (p. 185)

Where one observes that the first semantic rule is applied in sentence (6) the truth conditions of the sentence will be determined by the confirmation of an entity JIMMY who belongs in a set of individuals who EAT CHIPS and then the second semantic rule will be applied and if there is an individual set of ‘chips’ those belong in a set of individual sets of ‘chips’ those are eaten by ‘Jimmy’ then the sentence is true.

3.2. The challenge metaphors pose to the Principles of Compositionality

The meaning of a metaphor may become obscured since compositionality calculates the sentence meaning based on the literal meaning of each word and the syntactic structure containing the words. More specifically, while some words contain a valid literal meaning as units, when combined as syntactic structures do not provide a valid literal meaning, creating a situation termed as a semantic anomaly. In such cases, the theory of compositionality is rendered unable to provide an explanation and truth conditions and renders the sentence false.


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Interpreting Metaphors through Theories of Meaning. Conventional and Literal Meaning
University of Greenwich  (New York College)
Meaning in Language
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
meeaning, theories, metaphors, language, Grice, semantic, pragmatic, compositionality
Quote paper
Georgia Foskolou (Author), 2019, Interpreting Metaphors through Theories of Meaning. Conventional and Literal Meaning, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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