I remember in elementary school we learned about figurative
language, including similes and metaphors. Here are some examples of the
sorts of thing I have in mind:
This cake is as hard as a rock.
This cake is like a rock.
This cake is a rock.
(1) and (2) are both similes, but they differ in whether
or not they explicitly mention what feature is being referred to: (1)
specifies that the comparison I'm making between the cake and a rock
is based on hard-ness, whereas (2) leaves that implicit, and leaves
it up to context for the listener to figure out that the way in which
the cake is like a rock is that both are hard. (Note that these
non-literal uses of simile need to be contrasted with literal
comparisons, which may have the same syntactic structure
but are not figurative; "This bone is as hard as a rock"
or "This bone is like a rock" might be literal comparisons
rather than similes.) (3), on the other hand, is a metaphor.
Metaphors and similes each involve mapping something between
two concepts that usually don't go together (such as cakes
and rocks). Similes do it by raising an explicit comparison,
as in (1) and (2) above, while metaphors leave the comparison
For a more real and less simplistic example, let's
look at a metaphor used in the below interview between New York City
politician Zohran Mamdani and podcast host Briahna Joy Gray, in
which they are discussing a group of New York City taxi drivers
who had gone on a hunger strike in order to pressure the government
to change some laws which were making it very difficult for taxi
drivers to survive. In the relevant exchange shown below, Mamdani
is describing an earlier hunger strike in New York City that had
been successful. At one point he says,
"There were excluded workers who were on hunger strike for ...
23 days I think it was. North of 20 for sure." Note how he
uses "north of 20" to mean "more than 20". Here we see
another metaphorical mapping between two different concepts, this
time between numbers and cardinal directions—if we wanted to
make this metaphor look more similar to the first example, we could
restate it as something like "23 is north of 20". Larger
numbers are not literally further "north" (or even literally
"above" or "higher than") smaller numbers, but people often
describe them in that way. In other words, a metaphor like "23
is north of 20" non-literally expresses that 23 is a bigger
number than 20, just like "this cake is a rock" non-literally
expresses that this cake is hard.
Figurative language like metaphors is actually very
common. For example, just this morning I saw someone wearing a T-shirt
that said, "KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE STARS AND YOUR FEET ON THE
GROUND". The mapping between two different concepts is not
as obvious here as it is in the simple "X is Y" type of metaphors
(like "this cake is a rock"), but there still is such
a mapping: the word "on" is being used to describe two
very different relationships. Keeping your feet "on" the ground
means your feet (or at least your shoes) are physically touching
the ground, whereas keeping your eyes "on" the stars means your
eyes are focused on, pointed towards, or paying attention to the
stars. (If your eyes were "on" a star the same way your feet can
be "on" the ground, you would be dead!)
(In fact the above example has more metaphors
than just the use of the word on. "Keep your eyes on
the stars" metaphorically means to aim for high goals or
something like that, and "keep your feet on the ground" means
to stay practical and realistic or something like that.)
These are far from the only examples. Lots
of words show common metaphorical uses like this. For example,
et al. (2005) point out that verbs often mean
very different things depending on their objects; take
refers to very different actions depending on whether we
take a shower, take a bus, take a
phone call, take a book, etc. (They also point
out that Godzilla can "take a bus" in the way that the rest
of us "take a book".) You can see the same phenomenon with
the Chinese verb "打" ("hit"), which means very different things in
"打電話" (make a phone call), "打的"
(take a taxi), "打聽" (ask around), or
"打人" (hit a person). Lycan (chapter 14) suggests
that almost all utterances have something metaphorical in them.
How do we explain these different meanings? How
can "a rock" mean an actual rock but also also mean "anything
hard"; how can "north of" mean physically north of something but
also mean "a bigger number than"; how can "on" mean both "physically
touching" but also "pointed towards"/"focused on"? One possible
explanation could be that there are actually multiple words with
the same pronunciations and spellings but different meanings. For
example, maybe English has several different words on
with several different meanings; e.g., "on1"
means "physically touching" and "on2" means
"pointed towards or focused on". But a view like this would
quickly become unmanageable, because most words would turn out
to have tons of meanings (for example, "stand" would have
over 20 meanings).
A more plausible solution is to assume that on actually
has just one meaning, and is used figuratively in other contexts
by metaphorically extending its meaning. This is one of the main
benefits of pragmatic theory; if we can understand how certain
kinds of non-literal language (like implicatures and metaphors)
work, then we can explain a lot of this variation with just
one or two mechanisms (things like the Cooperative Principle),
rather than needing to arbitrarily list millions of different
meanings in our vocabulary.
How do we understand metaphors?
While some metaphors are "conventional" and
their meanings might just be memorized, we clearly have the
ability to understand metaphors we have never heard before.
For example, the below scene from Game of Thrones
includes at least four novel metaphors:
The realm is the thousand blades of Aegon's enemies.
The realm is a story we tell each other until we forget that it's a lie.
Chaos is a gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.
Chaos is a ladder.
While these might not make sense without
context, people who had been watching the show could understand
what all these metaphors meant. The first two metaphors both
express the idea that "the realm" is not a real thing, just
an idea (the first refers to the claim that the king's throne
is made up of "a thousand blades taken from the hands of [the
first king]'s fallen enemies", even though in reality there
are really much fewer than that). The third metaphor seems
pretty easy to understand even without specific knowledge of
the show. And the fourth metaphor, the most famous one from
this scene, expresses that chaos is an opportunity for someone
to increase his power and social position.
There must, therefore, be some explanation for
how we understand the meanings of metaphors we haven't heard
Early pragmatic theory argued that metaphor
is a kind of conversational implicature. Specifically, when
a speaker utters something that's literally false (like
"This cake is a rock"), we recognize that they
have violated the maxim of quality, and then we search
for a related meaning that would not violate the maxim.
To find that related meaning, we recognize some feature
that is typical of rocks and we reinterpret the
utterance as meaning that this cake has that feature
that is typical of rocks.
There are several problems with this
account. One is that not all metaphors come from utterances
that are literally false. Zufferey et al. give the example
"No man is an island". This sentence is literally
true, but nevertheless it's metaphorical; therefore, it
cannot have been derived from a violation of the maxim of
quality. (An extra complication here is that the sentence
has negation. So you might be able to rescue the pragmatic
account of metaphor by assuming that the way we understand
"No man is an island" is to start by thinking of what it
would mean for a man to be an island, then we have to
figure out the metaphorical meaning of that (i.e., a person
who doesn't depend on anyone else], and
then we negate that. Experimental pragmatics research, though,
challenges the idea that negation is processed in a two-step
fashion like this [see Noveck, chapter 13, for details].
Furthermore, there are other examples of metaphors that
come from literally true sentences and that don't involve
negation [see, e.g., Levinson, chapter 3].) Some have
suggested that metaphors can be realized from violations
of the maxims of quality or relevance. But it is not
clear to me how this account distinguishes between
quality/relevance flouts that lead to metaphors versus
those that lead to other types of implicatures.
Another problem is that, even if we assume
metaphors are triggered by a violation of Gricean maxims,
we still need an understanding of how people figure out
the metaphorical meaning—i.e., how they figure out
which features are the ones that are being highlighted.
There are lots of complicated theories about this (see
Levinson, chapter 3, or Lycan, chapter 14, for a review).
Where most have settled is this aspect of metaphor
comprehension is not a purely linguistic phenomenon, but
relies on general psychological mechanisms of analogical
reasoning. In this sense it is similar to other aspects
of pragmatics—for example, the Cooperative Principle
is also something that's not specifically about language,
but rather is a domain-general principle of communication
that happens to also apply to language.
The "pragmatic" account of metaphor we briefly sketched above necessarily assumes that
people first access the literal meaning of a metaphorical utterance, and only after
they access that meaning (and notice that it violates some Gricean maxim) do they
figure out the metaphorical meaning. So, for instance, when reading a sentence like
"Those lobbyists are hyenas", you would first recognize the literal features
of hyenas (furry, mammal, etc.) and only later recognize the metaphorical features
(aggressive, ruthless, etc.).
Another view of metaphor proposes that metaphorical meanings are access directly, i.e.,
without needing to first recognize the literal meaning.
Have students discuss which view they support, and why. (For a contemporary review with
experimental evidence, and discussion of more recent theories than these, see Noveck,