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LINGUIST List 24.1751

Fri Apr 19 2013

Review: Psycholinguistics: Gibbs & Colston (2012)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 08-Apr-2013
From: Donatella Resta <donatella.restasns.it>
Subject: Interpreting Figurative Meaning
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-5325.html

AUTHOR: Raymond W Gibbs
AUTHOR: Herbert L. Colston
TITLE: Interpreting Figurative Meaning
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Donatella Resta, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa


The book “Interpreting Figurative Meaning”, by Gibbs and Colston, examines
very important, but still unsolved, questions related to the processing and
interpretation of figurative language. The main aim is to overview available
evidence and propose a “theoretical umbrella” framework of figurative language
interpretation that may account for the diversity of previous approaches.
Indeed, plenty of theories and experimental studies have contributed to create
a complex picture of figurative language and a number of confusing
conclusions. The book by Gibbs and Colston offers a comprehensive overview of
the available theoretical approaches and empirical work --from
psycholinguistics to neurolinguistics -- and paves the way for a new approach
to figurative language interpretation, namely, the “dynamical overview of
language” (p. 339). The book is intended for audiences interested in
figurative language from both a theoretical and experimental point of view at
all levels. It is also suitable for beginners, since it is detailed but not
excessively technical.

The book is composed of seven chapters (including an Introduction) that guide
the readers through a series of outstanding questions and possible new
research lines.

The introductory chapter sets up the core focal points of the book. The
authors discuss how the cognitive effort required to interpret figurative
meanings and the derived cognitive effects have been discussed in previous
literature. The chapter introduces all the main issues that the book tries to
solve, outlining both the merits and shortcomings of existing studies on
figurative language.

Chapter 2, entitled “Identifying figurative language”, addresses the
specificity of figurative language, as opposed to non-figurative language.
Experimental studies assume that figurative language is somehow “different”
from non-figurative language (often addressed as “literal” language). The
authors raise skeptical questions about the definition of “figurative” and
“literal” and the reliability of the assumptions behind this difference. They
try to evaluate attempts to identify figurative language and meaning and point
out that the dichotomy between “figurative” and “literal” is based on an
insufficient description of what is “literal”. They argue that “literal” may
not refer to the same conceptual entity across experiments (p. 22). The widely
accepted idea of a literal‒figurative continuum (Giora, 2002) is considered
problematic since it may not fully include, for example, poetic instances of
figurative language, which differ from literal language along several

In Chapter 3, entitled “Models of figurative language comprehension”, the
authors review the most important theoretical frameworks in which experimental
data on figurative language comprehension have been framed. They start from
traditional models, namely the Standard Pragmatic View (Grice, 1989), as
opposed to the Direct Access View (Gibbs, 1994). As widely discussed, both of
these traditional models deal with the early stages of processing and argue
about whether the comprehension of figurative language passes through a
mandatory step of literal meaning comprehension and rejection (Grice, 1989) or
is direct (Gibbs, 1994). Both approaches are supported by a wide range of
online studies -- including a wide number of very sensitive online studies
such as Event-Related Potential (ERP) studies -- that actually do not give a
definite answer to the literal-first question (cf. Bambini & Resta, 2012). New
models, supported by behavioral findings, are also reviewed. Specifically, the
Graded Salience Hypothesis (Giora, 2002), the Constraint Satisfaction View
(Katz & Ferretti, 2001), Relevance Theory (Sperber & Wilson, 1995/2008;
Carston, 2002), Conceptual Blending Theory (Fauconnier & Turner, 2002),
Embodied Simulation Theory (Barsalou, 2008), and the Dynamical Systems View
(Gibbs, 2006) are all discussed.

In Chapter 4, entitled “Interpreting specific figures of speech”, Gibbs and
Colston sum up empirical research concerning the main instances of figurative
meaning: metaphor, metonymy, idioms, irony, and proverbs. They suggest that it
is unlikely that a single theory is able to account for the variety of
existing figurative language uses. The authors address this issue by
discussing two main points. First, regarding the materials used in
experimental protocols, the choice of specific stimuli may strongly affect
results. If stimuli do not sufficiently represent real figurative language
use, neither will the results. Second, concerning the tasks used in
experimental protocols, one should keep in mind that the use of a specific
task, or alternatively, of no task, affects the results -- as confirmed by
neurolinguistic evidence -- and that some tasks, such as those used in
psycholinguistics, do not help in understanding the real process of

Chapter 5, entitled “Indeterminacy of figurative experience”, examines the
communicative role of figurative language in depth and pays attention to how
figurative language conveys complex social and pragmatic meanings. A separate
section is devoted to each trope, namely metaphor, metonymy, idioms, proverbs,
and irony. The detailed theoretical framework is enriched by a discussion of
the main empirical findings regarding each specific trope, involving several
experimental techniques (e.g. ERP, functional magnetic resonance (fMRI), and
Eye Tracker). The discussion shows that simply differentiating between the
efforts required by figurative versus non-figurative language does not allow a
full discrimination of the indeterminative nature of different figurative
meanings and the way people experience them.

Chapter 6, entitled “Factors shaping figurative language understanding”,
describes the factors that affect figurative language comprehension. The focus
is on a multiplicity of factors that include, but are not limited to,
experimental materials, which are often addressed as the fundamental element
to modulate while designing experiments. Specifically, the discussed factors
are people, language materials, understanding the goal/task, and empirical
methods used to assess understanding. Within each factor, some possible
modulations are reviewed and some others are suggested. For example,
differences due to “people” are discussed in terms of age, language
experience, gender, occupation, culture, political backgrounds, cognitive
differences, bodily experience/bodily action, geographic origin, personality,
social relationship and common ground. Detailed references to previous
literature (if available) are provided.

Chapter 7, entitled “Broadening the scope of figurative language studies”,
provides a final summary of research on figurative language and outlines the
authors’ recommendations for future research. According to them, future
studies should present a more precise vision of figurative language, while
paying more attention to its communicative power and its underlying cognitive
architectures, without disregarding real-contexts of use. Their proposal is
summed up in five points: (1) using realistic speech and writing; (2) paying
attention to experimental effects caused by multiple interacting forces; (3)
seeking convergence between different levels of analysis; (4) analyzing the
temporal unfolding of figurative language across a variety of discourse types
and knowledge domains; (5) situating research findings within the wider
context of brains, bodies, and world interactions. A context-sensitive
dynamical approach is claimed to capture real differences in how people use
and are affected by figurative language. The Dynamical Overview of Language, a
theory not specifically concerned with figurative language, is considered
relevant to a correct explanation of people’s use and interpretation of
figurative meanings, and is identifiable as the authors’ proposal.


Gibbs and Colston present a comprehensive and detailed review of the available
findings related to figurative language research. The book also highlights
shortcomings, both in experimental designs and interpretation of data, and
opens up several new research lines. The book may be considered one of the
most complete reviews of figurative language. The authors have fully achieved
the goals expressed in the introduction, namely to critically evaluate recent
empirical work on figurative language, and to propose a theoretical umbrella
that can accommodate data.

The book enters a long-lasting tradition and it is outstanding for its high
quality. Summing up the main questions raised by the authors may allow for
understanding the role of the book within the context of previous literature
on the topic. The first question addressed concerns the oversimplification of
the label “figurative language” versus “literal language” and the assumptions
behind this differentiation. “Figurative language” refers to a highly complex
set of phenomena based on different conceptual assumptions that are likely to
evoke very different cognitive effects. Scholars must be aware of these
issues. The second question concerns criticisms toward all aspects involved in
figurative language comprehension, namely the materials, the people, the
communicative context, and the reliability of the indicators of people’s
online processing when encountering figures of speech. Researchers are
strongly encouraged to investigate the modulation of these factors.

Several merits of Gibbs and Colston’s work should be acknowledged. First, they
have made room for all approaches to figurative language, which allows the
reader to have a comprehensive view of the questions at hand. Second, they
have addressed quite complex experimental issues without overburdening the
reader with excessive technical details. For example, ERP, fMRI, and Eye
Tracker studies are discussed while avoiding excessive technical details that
non-experts might not understand. The result is a book that helps experts
recapitulate what was previously known about figurative language in the most
complete way, and as such, beginners gain an extensive picture of issues and,
arguably, may be prepared to start their own research lines. At both levels,
the book provides scholars with the tools required to derive remarkable
research questions.

Interestingly, the book sheds light on the complexity of studies on figurative
language by paying attention to different kinds of tropes and a number of
issues that are not often addressed in the literature (e.g. among others, the
modulation of features concerning subjects). For this reason, Gibbs and
Colston’s book is a valuable addition to the existing series of books on
figurative language, which has focused mainly on metaphor (e.g. Gibbs, 2008).
It represents a complete “handbook” for those who would like to address the
issue of figurative language, from both a theoretical and experimental point
of view, with references to the most outstanding problems.

The need for a comprehensive account of figurative language, and of an
“umbrella” theory, emerges as a necessary condition for reconciling the
variety of available accounts and interpretations. Interestingly, Gibbs and
Colston propose a new vision of figurative language and point toward
communicative effects and cognitive architectures as they are modulated in
real-world contexts.

Overall, this well-organized and highly stimulating book is a major
contribution to figurative language studies and paves the way for greater
attention to context and ecologically valid materials and tasks in
experimental research on figurative language, without disregarding a closer
look at theory.


Bambini, Valentina & Donatella Resta. 2012. Metaphor and experimental
pragmatics: When theory meets empirical investigation. Humana. Mente--Journal
of Philosophical Studies 23. 37-60.

Barsalou, Lawrence W. 2008. Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology
59. 617-645.

Carston, Robyn. 2002. Thought and utterances: The pragmatics of explicit
communication. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fauconnier, Gilles & Mark Turner. 2002. The way we think: Conceptual blending
and the mind’s hidden complexities. New York: Basic Books.

Gibbs, Raymond W. Jr. 1994. The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language
and understanding. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gibbs, Raymond W. Jr. 2002. A new look at literal meaning in understanding
what is said and implicated. Journal of pragmatics 34. 457-486.

Giora, Rachel. 2002. On our mind: Salience, context, and figurative language.
New York: Oxford University Press.

Grice, Paul. 1989.Studies in the way of words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.

Katz, Albert N. & Todd R. Ferretti. 2001. Moment-by-moment comprehension of
proverbs in discourse. Metaphor and Symbol 11. 17-37.

Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson. 1995/2008. Relevance: Communication and
cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.


Donatella Resta is Research Fellow in Linguistics at Scuola Normale Superiore
(Pisa, Italy) and collaborates with the CRIL Laboratory (Lecce, Italy). Her
research interests concern neuropragmatics and, specifically, the neural
correlates of literary metaphor.
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