The Pragmatic Functions of Metaphorical Language

In Judit Gervain, Gergely Csibra & Kristóf Kovács (eds.), A Life in Cognition: Studies in Cognitive Science in Honor of Csaba Pléh. Springer Verlag. pp. 41-57 (2021)
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Abstract

Figures of speech have been suggested to play important pragmatic roles in language. Yet the nature of these pragmatic functions has not been specified in detail, and it is not clear what particular social-communicative purposes metaphors fulfill. I propose that metaphors are utilized in two distinct ways in communication. First, similarly to indirect speech, they enable social bargains: by expressing intentions, beliefs and desires in a veiled manner, they put the burden of interpretation on the hearer, which makes them revocable and thus a great tool for negotiations. Secondly, metaphors can be used to transform the meaning of words so that they describe phenomena and refer to concepts that do not have a lexical entry, by transferring an abstract sense figuratively to a new domain. The latter use is not only a tool of verbal creativity but a means of linguistic change as it adds novel senses to words. Metaphor does not seem to be a mere example of loose language use but a sophisticated communicational tool, either to deliberately create ambiguity in a deniable manner or to extend word meaning beyond the public lexicon, which puts the fundamental mechanisms of abstract thought to figurative use.

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