Figurative Language and Cognition

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Figurative Language and Cognition

Yanna Popova

The distinction between literal and figurative (nonliteral) language reflects a traditional understanding in linguistics and rhetoric of what constitutes the nature of meaning in language. Thus, it is commonly assumed that the literal meanings of words or sentences are somehow fixed, direct, and do not deviate from their respective dictionary meanings. Figurative meanings, on the other hand, involve indirectness and require further interpretation. There are several forms of figurative language (also known as figures of speech) such as metaphor, metonymy, simile, irony, idiom, and proverb. Some scholars include also oxymoron, hyperbole, and zeugma, among others. While providing a brief description of each major form of figurative language, this entry concentrates on theories and psychological data on metaphor as a main exemplar of the general human ability to speak and think figuratively. It summarizes the vast number of theoretical and experimental approaches to this most creative and intriguing human ability, namely the faculty to think and speak figuratively. In the rest of this entry, unless specifically stated otherwise, metaphor, figurality, and figurative language and meaning are used interchangeably.

The use of figurative language comes naturally and effortlessly to every person engaged in human verbal and nonverbal interaction. We make ample use of metaphor (“He is a lion in battle”) and metonymy (“The kidney from floor one is calling”) in everyday speech. We regularly tell stories that contain proverbs (“A wonder lasts but nine days”) and idioms (“She went through the roof when he told her the truth”), and often make a point with a remark that is ironic (“What lovely weather,” said on a rainy day) or hyperbolic (“I've been waiting an eternity”). Rather than being a special trait restricted to poetic usage, figurality is now believed to be a part and parcel of our everyday thought and expression. This new and changing status of figurative language has in turn transformed the way it has been traditionally studied and described. While historically the domain of linguists, rhetoricians, and philosophers, more recently the study of figurative language in general, and of metaphor in particular, has become a hot topic in the study of human cognition (see COGNITIVE).

Types of Figurative Language: Schemes and Tropes

The major forms of figurative language include metaphor, metonymy, simile, idiom, proverb, irony, oxymoron, and zeugma. There also exists a long list of figures of speech which classical Western rhetoric divides into schemes and tropes (Lausberg). Schemes are generally defined as those figures of speech that produce changes in the ordinary or expected form of words or word phrases. Alliteration (series of words in a phrase or sentence that begin with the same sound, as in “good as gold,” or “right as rain”) and anaphora (the repetition of a sequence of words at the beginning of neighboring clauses) are but two examples of schemes. Tropes, on the other hand, are defined as those figures of speech that produce a change not in the shape but in the meaning of words. All the figures listed above that are also the subject of the present discussion, such as metaphor, metonymy, simile, idiom, proverb, irony, oxymoron and zeugma, are therefore tropes.

Metaphor is based on a nonliteral analogical relation between two entities (words or concepts) that serves to highlight some similarity between them. The word itself has Greek and Latin origins and means “transfer” or “carrying over” of meaning. Metaphor is particularly abundant in literary and poetic discourse (“Life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly,” “All the world's a stage”), but is also widely present in everyday language (“smooth voice,” “break the silence”). The novel as a genre provides exceptionally fertile ground for exploring the important thematic role that metaphor often plays in it and which is most commonly revealed in the very title of a text. For example, John Fowles's The Collector (1963) is a chilling narrative about a young man who “collects” both beautiful butterflies and young girls, and his distorted way of viewing women as butterflies leads to a disastrous outcome. Wuthering Heights (1847) and Heart of Darkness (1902) are but two other titles of novels where the anguished mental states of the main protagonists are thematized in terms of a real natural environment or an actual physical journey. Metonymy involves understanding one thing in terms of something else that is closely associated (contiguous) with it, such as an artist for his work (“a Monet”), a place for an institution (“Rome” for the headquarters of the Catholic Church), and so on. A simile compares two entities by explicitly asserting that they are similar in some respect. In some similes the ground for comparison is made explicit and conventionalized: “She is as cunning as a fox”; and in others, it is only implicit and implied: “Fortune is like glass.” It is generally accepted that metaphors and similes perform similar functions but metaphors are assumed to be stronger statements than similes. Idiom is defined as an expression (word or phrase) whose meaning is noncompositional. The meanings of the individual words that make up an idiomatic expression do not motivate the figurative meaning of that expression. The words in an idiom only have meaning together as a unit and cannot be predicted from the analysis of the individual components: e.g., “die” for both “Kick the bucket” and “Pop one's clogs.” A proverb is a succinct and concrete statement that is understood to express important social or moral truth (“A burden of one's own choice is not felt”). In some sense proverbs can be seen as verbal puzzles requiring reasoning and problem-solving skills to be applied to a specific communicative context, while at the same time being applicable to a vast number of contexts. Irony is an expression where there is an incongruity between its meaning as expressed and as intended. Verbal irony (most commonly understood to be intentionally produced) relies on a distinction between reality (what is said) and expectation (what is meant). Situational irony describes events in the world where the result of an action is judged to be the opposite of its expected effect. Ironic simile, for example, is a clear instance of verbal irony—the intended meaning is the opposite of what is said: e.g., “as pleasant and relaxed as a coiled rattlesnake” (Kurt Vonnegut). An oxymoron is a figure of speech consisting of two elements whose meanings are contradictory or antonymous to each other: “cold fire,” “sweet sorrow,” “living death.” Oxymora are not restricted to literary language and can be found in everyday speech, where they can be so common that they barely get recognized as such: “pretty ugly,” “intense indifference.” As can be seen from these examples, both irony and oxymora reflect our ability to think of a situation in conflicting, incongruous terms. This has led some researchers to consider the oxymoron as a form of irony (Gibbs, 1994). Finally, a zeugma is a figure of speech in which a word stands in the same relation to two other words, one of which is used literally, and the other metaphorically. Most commonly a verb modifies two nouns, as in: “She picked up a house and a husband,” “The earth and his heart moved”).

Literal vs. Figurative: Three Approaches

The central question in research on figurative language has always been how to differentiate what is literal from what is not. An older view in semantics (Cohen) assumes that meaning in language is created on the basis of an established relationship between symbols (words) and things in the world. If a particular phrase or sentence describes a true and objective state of affairs, then that statement is judged to be meaningful. Meanings are also understood as compositional in that words are composed of abstract semantic features, and the compositionality of sentences becomes a matter of compatibility of the semantic features of the component words. “Sally is a block of ice” thus turns out to be semantically anomalous: it is both literally false (not representing a real state of affairs in the world) and literally meaningless (combining incompatible semantic features). This alerts us to the possibility that the sentence can be seen as meaningful only when interpreted figuratively (i.e., as a metaphor) by searching and finding some compatibility between the semantic features of its component words. The semantic approach to figurative language therefore accounts for figuration by assuming it inheres in the meanings of the words or phrases themselves and is thus independent of contextual effects such as inference, intention, world knowledge, and other extra-linguistic factors.

The pragmatic approach to figurative language (Searle) understands figuration not as a matter of what words and sentences mean but as a matter of how they are used in particular situations. Pragmatic approaches assume and openly recognize that meaning and understanding both involve intentionality. For a word or sentence to be understood as figurative, the speaker's communicative intention has to be recognized by the addressee. On this view, then, figurative language requires and presupposes a clear distinction between direct (explicit) meaning and indirect (implicit) meaning or use. The question of identifying literal versus figurative meanings becomes a matter of recognizing what the intended (implicit) meaning is, which can be at times problematic. A later development in pragmatic theories of figurative language, relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson), tries to solve the problem of how to ascertain intended meaning by postulating the principle of relevance: every act of communication is assumed to be maximally relevant, and the degree of relevance is dependent on two factors—context and processing effort. The optimally relevant interpretation of any phrase or sentence, be it literal or figurative, will be the one least costly in terms of processing effort and the one most extensive in its contextual impact. Both semantic and pragmatic theories rely strongly on an intrinsic distinction between literal and figurative language. The pragmatic view does not discard the notion of literal meaning but builds on its assumed primacy for its own two-stage theory of figurative—language understanding.

The conceptual (cognitive) approach in the study of figurative language proposes a radically different understanding of figuration not as a matter of language but as a matter of categorization and human thought processes (see COGNITIVE). This view has been formulated in a number of different ways by various researchers, and despite its most recent and prominent association with cognitive linguistics, it has a long history predating it. John Locke (1632—1704), Giambattista Vico (1668—1744), Immanuel Kant (1724—1804), and Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744—1803) are all thinkers who in their distinct ways acknowledged that neither human thought nor language are inherently literal and granted imagination a key role to play in both. A different, although related view, and perhaps one most familiar to students of literature, is the famous dictum by the linguist Roman Jakobson that the metaphoric and the metonymic poles are the two basic modes of thought reflected in all language and human behavior. Jakobson (1956) suggested that not just language but also various forms of nonverbal communication such as painting and film oscillate between a principle of substitution based on similarity (i.e., the metaphoric principle), and a principle of combination based on contiguity (i.e., the metonymic principle). Subsequent research within cognitive linguistics (see below) has tried to readdress the basic conceptual distinction between metaphor and metonymy within the context of current debates about their intricate patterns of interaction in actual language use. In essence, the present conceptual view places the source of figuration in human mental abilities that are essentially independent of language, though most commonly expressible through it. Of the three approaches identified above, the conceptual view is currently the most influential in its scope. Due to its success in explaining data on psychological processing of figurative language, as well as accounting for the systematicity and entrenchment of figurative language and thought, it will be singled out for further discussion in the next section.

The Need for Cognitive Explanation

The main impetus to study figurality (especially metaphor) as a conceptual process, rather than as a primarily linguistic phenomenon came from two seminal books written three decades ago: Metaphor and Thought (Ortony) and Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson). Their influence is still palpable today and continues to shape much current work in this area. Although concerned principally with metaphor, these two publications were instrumental in changing how figuration is understood in general. Philosopher Max Black proposed that metaphor is essentially a mapping between two conceptual domains, one of which is primary (the target) and the other secondary (the source). Metaphor works by “’projecting upon’ the primary subject a set of ’associated implications' ... that are predicable of the secondary subject” (28). Importantly, this account is cognitive because it understands metaphor as an instrument of thought that allows us to perceive analogies of structure between conceptually distinct entities. As one of Black's examples illustrates, in Pascal's roseau pensant (man as a “thinking reed”), it is the frailty and weakness of reed that gets projected onto human nature.

Conceptual Metaphor Theory

The “Conceptual Metaphor Theory” (CMT), as it is widely known today, was first formulated by Lakoff and Johnson in 1980. Like Black's, its basic premise is that metaphor is a cross-domain mapping in the conceptual system. Any metaphoric expression is then viewed as a surface (derivative) realization of an underlying conceptual metaphor. The theory's most radical claim concerns the ubiquity of metaphor in everyday language and thought. All traditional approaches accept the fact that figurative language is by definition novel, creative, imaginative, and distinctive. Lakoff and Johnson propose instead that, rather than being the exception, metaphor, metonymy, irony, and other kinds of figurative language are the basic means of structuring ordinary thought. Clearly, the language of great thinkers and poets is more creative and imaginative than that of ordinary speakers, but all language reflects the same cognitive processes of figuration. CMT thus claims that much of our commonplace knowledge and experience is structured in terms of conceptual metaphors. “Life is a journey” (“He has reached the end of his path,” “Look how far we've come”), for example, informs our everyday understanding of life in terms of a physical journey so that we map onto the domain of life what we know about journeys. These mappings are partial but detailed and systematic: they involve conceptual correspondences between elements, relations, and attributes in the source domain, and their projected counterparts in the target domain.

There are two critical implications of Lakoff and Johnson's CMT for how we understand figurative language. The first is that the notion of the literal has shrunk significantly, and literal now defines only those concepts that are not understood via conceptual metaphor. Examples would include statements such as “The blue balloon is rising” or “She wore a green dress.” This open acknowledgment of the ubiquity of metaphor in language may be interpreted by some as bearing certain similarity to particular poststructuralist notions of the endemic “undecidability” of meaning, as proposed in the work of Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida (see STRUCTURALISM). The point to be made here, however, is that, contrary to the poststructuralist notion of the indeterminacy of all meaning, CMT argues that the construal of meaning in language is regulated and constrained by inherent properties of the mind, as well as intention, context, and patterns of organized experience. The second implication of CMT concerns the issue of the directionality of mapping in figurative thought. The theory of conceptual metaphor, as developed by Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 1999), assumes that metaphor is a cognitive operation whereby abstract domains of experience are conceptualized in terms of what is physical and concrete. What this means is that conceptual metaphors are unidirectional and irreversible: the inferential structure that gets mapped is invariably from what is conceptually more accessible (i.e., more concrete or more salient) to what is less so, and not the other way round. There exists a great amount of detailed work in many areas of study that substantiates the claim of directionality. For example, it has been suggested that in many languages figurative expressions tend, in accordance with this principle, to become conventionalized (also called “frozen” or “dead,” as in “The river runs toward the village”) (Sweetser1990). It has also been argued that the principle of directionality of mapping largely determines regularities in patterns of polysemy and diachronic semantic change across a large number of Indo-European languages (Sweetser). Finally, in several psycholinguistic experiments it has been shown that figurative expressions consistent with the directionality principle are consistently judged to be simpler, more natural, and easier to comprehend and recall by native speakers of a language (Shen, 1997).

In addition to being a cognitive and linguistic fact, the directionality of mapping detected in conceptual metaphors and other forms of figurative language is a direct consequence of the importance given in CMT to embodiment as a factor grounding metaphoric meanings. As opposed to more traditional semantic theories described above, CMT assumes meaning in language and thought to be the result of how human minds conceptualize the world and not the result of some prior abstract relationship between language and reality. Our conceptual and linguistic system and their respective categories are created and constrained by the ways in which human minds perceive, categorize, and symbolize experience. Conceptual and linguistic categories are therefore ultimately grounded in experience: bodily, physical, social, and cultural. Every mental construct of the mind, be it literal or figurative, is a reflection of how the mind adapts to the world it inhabits and not a reflection of some abstract, true, and mind-independent world.

Blending Theory

A most recent development in conceptual metaphor theory is the so-called “blending theory” or “conceptual integration theory” (Fauconnier and Turner). As described above, CMT offers a model of metaphor understanding that includes two conceptual domains and a structured mapping from source (secondary domain) to target (primary domain). Blending theory proposes a model where the two-space model of CMT is replaced by a multi-space model of at least four spaces. In blending, cognitive operations of meaning construction are seen to work in the following way. When two concepts or conceptual domains (input spaces) are being compared, a common structure (“a generic space”) is extracted, which in turn makes possible the creation of a fourth space (“the blend”) that contains new emergent properties resulting from the mapping in context. Thus, in “This surgeon is a butcher,” a property (incompetence) is being evoked in relation to the metaphoric target (the surgeon), and that property is not typically one associated with the metaphoric source (a butcher). The inference that the surgeon is incompetent is seen not to project directly from source to target but to “emerge” in the process of blending itself, defined as a complex online set of mappings from source to target, as well as between both of them and the generic and blended spaces. As opposed to CMT, which relies on well-entrenched examples and is thus able to generalize across a wide range of cases, blending theory tries to capture the complexity and unpredictability of individual and novel metaphoric instances. It is proposed that blending processes operate in creative constructions of meaning that are not restricted to metaphor but include counterfactuals and various grammatical constructions. While assumed by its proponents to be superior to CMT due to its alleged status as a theory of online meaning construction, blending theory has received some criticism. The main line of critique comes from psychologists and concerns exactly the question of whether the single case interpretations based on introspection and provided by blending theorists are sufficient to make generalizations about how people think in different situations (Gibbs, 2000; see also Steen).

Empirical Study of Figurative Language

As mentioned above, traditional views on figurative language assume and grant primacy to literal meaning. This in turn entails that on these accounts interpretation of figurative expressions is seen to be always dependent on the literal meaning that gets to be processed first. But if the cognitive view is correct, as it is increasingly believed to be, figurative language processing should be no different from ordinary (literal) language processing. Various psycholinguistic experiments have been devised to test exactly whether or not there is a processing advantage for literal meanings. These experimental tasks are usually reaction-time studies that involve recording the amounts of time necessary for participants to read and interpret figurative vs. literal utterances. The conclusion of these kinds of experimental studies on metaphor, irony, idiomatic expressions, and proverbs, most prominently associated with the work of R. W. Gibbs (1994) and his colleagues, is that from the earliest moments of processing, figurative language comprehension is no different in kind from understanding literal language. Experimental evidence thus strongly indicates that figurative language comprehension is not a special, more complex type of mental processing: figurative language is readily understandable and just as easy to process as literary language, given an appropriate context. One concrete example is the psycholinguistic study of idiomaticity. Experimental work in this area has demonstrated that rather than having an arbitrary meaning, not accessed and not predictable from an analysis of their component parts, idioms like “flip your lid” or “blow your stack” are specific instantiations of conceptual metaphors (Gibbs and O'Brian). Thus, comprehension of a particular idiom presupposes a preexisting metaphorical mapping (i.e., conceptual metaphor) in long-term memory. Other related studies have found significant and consistent similarities in the mental images created by participants in response to some idioms and proverbs. Explanation for these consistencies is provided by specific embodied knowledge, shared among human beings, that helps structure human metaphorical understanding of various concepts.

The kind of experimental work performed by Gibbs and his colleagues has elucidated three important points, all of which lend support to the cognitive view of figurality. First, experimental data has shown that similar cognitive mechanisms drive the understanding of both literal and figurative speech. In some instances (as in novel metaphors) additional processing may be needed, but the vast majority of figurative language is understood as effortlessly, quickly, and automatically as is literal language. Second, it has revealed that figurality is not something that simply happens in and through language but is something that the mind does in its processes of categorization, inference, and reasoning about experience. Third, it has made clear that the conceptual contents of the human mind are not arbitrary but reflect a largely constrained, through embodiment, set of conceptual mappings. With the very notion of “embodiment,” which links bodily experience with the actual content of what people know and understand, both the theories and the experimental data supporting them are able to account for the systematicity and order of figurative language and thought.

Figurative Language and the Study of Literature

Perhaps the most interesting question in the study of figurality is to ask why it exists in the first place. One way to address this question is to say that it is able to express qualities and aspects of experience that cannot be otherwise conveyed. Figurative language is judged to be both more evocative and rich (due to the plurality of meanings that are created), and more equivocal (novel and imaginative). Nowhere is this more obvious than in the language of poetry and prose. That is perhaps why poetic language has always been studied as the best source of figurative language examples. Yet, despite its creativity and originality, poetic language, has also been found to conform to strict cognitive constraints. When examined across languages, historical periods, and literary genres, poetic language remains highly constrained with respect to permissible structures. Shen (1997, 2007), for example, has shown that novel instances of metaphor, simile, oxymoron, and zeugma all favor a cognitively simpler transfer of meaning. Thus, “sweet silence” (metaphor), “emptiness is like a weight” (simile), “sweet sorrow” (oxymoron), and “I packed my shirt and my sadness” (zeugma) are all examples where a more accessible and salient concept has been mapped onto a less salient one. Reversing the order of mapping, as in “weight is like emptiness” or “I packed my sadness and my shirt,” would produce expressions that are both highly incomprehensible (as is the case with the metaphor) and cognitively more complex. The creativity of figurative language in literary discourse should therefore be seen as more constrained than traditional literary criticism and theory have taken it to be.

The cognitive approach to figurative language understanding has already produced some valuable work when applied to the study of poetry, fiction, and drama, as well as newer multimedia forms such as advertising and film. The realization that figurative language plays a major role in human cognition makes literary texts ideal (because authentic) and legitimate sources of data for psychological models of language structure and use. Equally, cognitive research on figurativelanguage offers new perspectives on literary production, interpretation, and reception. Thus, cognitive poetics, a rapidly expanding field at the interface of literary studies, linguistics, and cognitive science has generated a range of innovative accounts of diverse literary phenomena (for a representative sample of these approaches, see the collection edited by Semino and Culpeper). The rise of cognitive metaphor theory, for example, has led to a major reassessment of the role of metaphor in literary and nonliterary language. While psychologists and linguists studying metaphor in language highlight the general metaphoric patterns within or across particular languages, literary scholars tend to emphasize the specific metaphoric patterns within particular genres, texts, or novelists. Studying conventional metaphor patterns in a novel has been shown, for example, to contribute to the creation of sustained ambiguity, or to the projection of an individual “mind-style” to characters in stories (see LINGUISTICS). Metaphoric patterns have also been shown to play a significant structuring role in narratives as a mode of narration or plot organization (see NARRATIVE STRUCTURE). Other figures of speech studied within cognitive poetics include irony and metonymy. Finally, most recent work on multimodal metaphor provides exciting evidence for the existence and interaction of metaphor and metonymy in visual images, cartoons, gestures, film, and music (Forceville and Urios-Aparisi).


All that has been said so far should emphasize the fact that a description of figurative language in the essentialist terms of traditional approaches is not adequate. Figurality is best understood as a continuum from more to less entrenched and conventionalized patterns of thought. Nor is it plausible to equate figurative language in any simple sense exclusively with the language of literature. Conceptually, the distinction between literal and figurative language is not well marked out, as both require rich contextual information for interpretation. Procedurally, the comprehension of nonliteral language is not dependant on a more procedurally basic comprehension of literal language. Yet, in arguing against the principled distinction between literal and figurative language, and against the primacy of the former, I have repeatedly referred to the notions of literal and figurative meaning. This should not be taken as a contradiction. The distinction between literal and figurative is still useful when recognized as context-dependent and functional, rather than absolute. It simply indicates a difference in the manner of use: often what is classified as a figurative expression is more automatic and salient than a literal one. Figurative language, as all language, appears forever poised between the wager of novelty and comprehensibility. As this entry attests, intensive multidisciplinary research since the 1970s has accumulated convincing evidence that figurative language is best described as a vital and unique aspect of how human beings reason about their worlds. As creativity and conventionality are the indispensable poles of that thinking process, it is easy to see how and why figurality partakes of both.


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