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Thu Sep 06 2018

Review: Cognitive Science; Linguistic Theories; Pragmatics; Psycholinguistics: Athanasiadou (2017)

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Date: 09-Feb-2018
From: Nina Julich <>
Subject: Studies in Figurative Thought and Language
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Angeliki Athanasiadou
TITLE: Studies in Figurative Thought and Language
SERIES TITLE: Human Cognitive Processing 56
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2017

REVIEWER: Nina Julich, Universität Leipzig

Athanasiadou, Angeliki (ed.) (2017). Studies in Figurative Thought and Language. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins (Human Cognitive Processing 56), pp. 327


The volume consists of three parts: figuration in grammar, figuration and the lexicon, and figuration from a cultural-anthropological perspective. It is inspired by the 1st international symposium on “Figurative Thought and Language“ held in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 2014.

In the following paragraphs each individual contribution will be reviewed. Subsequently, the volume will be briefly evaluated.

In the introduction to the volume (pp. 1-14), editor Angeliki Athanasiadou discusses recent trends in the study of figuration within the framework of Cognitive Linguistics, such as the interaction between figurative tropes and constructions. She provides a brief overview of the volume’s contributions and draws attention to areas of future research that are tackled by the contributions, such as the universality vs. specificity of figuration across cultures and languages, linguistic constraints on the interpretation and verbalisation of figures of thought as well as the need for a more thorough inclusion of a cognitive pragmatic-approach to the study of figurative meaning.

The chapters in Part I “Figuration and Grammar“ all stress the importance of metaphor and metonymy in the meaning creation and extension of grammatical constructions. The focus is primarily on metonymy, which is assumed to play a fundamental role in grammar. The workings of metaphor on grammar are usually based on pre-existing metonymies (cf. Athanasiadou p. 152). Apart from the influence of figurative tropes on the shape of grammar, the reverse influence, in particular that of grammatical systems on metonymic instantiations, is also considered (Brdar & Brdar-Szabó’s contribution) rendering Part I a coherent account of current trends in the interaction of metonymy and metaphor in grammar.

In “Exploiting wh-questions for expressive purposes” (pp. 17-40), Klaus-Uwe Panther and Linda L. Thornburg analyse the Wh-x do you think + complement clause construction. They are particularly interested in how the conventionalised expressive target sense of disapproval, e.g. What do you think you are doing?, relates to the neutral sense of a question, e.g. What do you think I should do? Based on examples retrieved from the COCA corpus, the authors discuss the neutral and the expressive usages of sub-constructions depending on the concrete instantiation of the wh- interrogative. The authors show that the expressive sense is derived from the neutral sense via a number of pragmatic inferences (Table 1, p. 30), which are potentially motivated by high-level metonymies such as Cause for Effect (instantiated by Action for Evaluation of Action) and Concept for Opposite Concept (instantiated by Rational Thinking for Irrational Thinking).

In “Construing and constructing hyperbole” (pp. 41-73), Sandra Peña and Francisco J. Ruiz de Mendoza investigate the cognitive processes involved in the production and comprehension of hyperbole. The authors argue that hyperbole is based on a conceptual mapping between a hypothetical source scenario that is mapped onto a real-world scenario (Fig. 1, p. 52). The example they discuss is “This suitcase weighs a ton”. In the source scenario, a concept (here: weight) is scaled up beyond proportion via the cognitive operation of ‘strengthening’ to reflect the speaker’s emotional reaction of the real-word situation (here: frustration). Hyperboles are either inferential, as in “My sister lives at the other end of the world,” or constructional, as in “It’s been ages since we all sat down together”. The construction “It’s been ages since XP” is conventionally associated with a hyperbolic meaning, whereas in the first example the hyperbolic meaning is not constructionally cued and has to be inferred from the context. The authors focus on two hyperbolic constructions (X is not Y but Z and ‘God-related’ constructions) discussing different types of instantiations and their entrenched meaning implications based on corpus attestations. In the final section, the authors suggest possible constraints on the production and comprehension of hyperbole, especially the Principle of Relevance.

Annalisa Baicchi investigates how indirect meaning is constructed in interrogative illocutions such as Can I X? or May I X? in “How to do things with metonymy in discourse” (pp. 75-104). Based on work by Thornburg and Panther (1997), mentioning one part of the illocutionary scenario affords access to the whole scenario, as in asking about the hearer’s ability to perform an action for requesting, which underlies an expression like “Can you bring me my coffee? ” This process gives rise to illocutionary constructions, i.e. entrenched form-function parings (p. 82). In a qualitative analysis of 15 interrogative illocutionary constructions based on corpus attestations from the BNC, COCA, and WebCorp, Baicchi complements Thornburg and Panther’s analysis by including socio-cultural variables such as politeness, forcefulness, social power or optionality to explain how specific indirect meanings arise metonymically in communication. In the final part, Baicchi argues that her analysis of illocutionary constructions in terms of metonymies is compatible with Slobin’s Thinking-for-Speaking hypothesis (1996) and suggests extending his framework by complementing linguistic constraints posed on thinking for speaking by socio-cultural constraints of the specific language community.

Evgenia Vassilaki examines the “Cognitive motivation in the linguistic realisation of requests in Modern Greek“ (pp. 105-124). Vassilaki’s study is particularly interesting because it looks at Modern Greek, which in contrast to English is an inflectional language. Vassilaki claims that apart form inferential operations, formal inflectional properties motivate entrenched request interpretations. The feature of optionality referring to the degree to which the addressee “is allowed the option of not performing the intended action” (Leech 1983: 109) is taken to be the most central conceptual element of the request scenario. The author demonstrates how optionality is encoded grammatically in three entrenched patterns of Modern Greek requests: imperatives, modal interrogatives and present tense interrogatives, the latter being language-specific to Modern Greek. In a qualitative analysis of corpus attestations, Vassilaki analyses these constructions with respect to their temporal, modal and sentential grounding and argues that degree of optionality is metaphorically reflected by the distance between the grounding of the proposition (i.e. tense and mood and sentence type of the proposition) and the here-and-now of the speech event: the more immediate the construction, the lower the optionality; the more distal the construction, the higher the optionality.

In “How metonymy and grammar interact. Some effects and constraints in a cross-linguistic perspective” (pp. 125-149), Mario Brdar and Rita Brdar-Szabó acknowledge the important impact of metonymy on grammar; however, they are interested in whether metonymy can also be constrained by grammar. By analysing corpus attestations of various languages, they show that whether a certain metonymy is available in a given language depends on conditions of the respective grammatical system. In Australian English, embellished clippings, i.e. clippings extended by diminutive or hypocoristic suffixation like “ambo” for either ‘ambulance station’ or ‘ambulance driver,’ the possibility of clipping whole compounds or phrases as well as the possibility for conversion / zero-derivation allow for metonymic extensions that are not possible in Hungarian, Croatian or German due to the fairly strict gender system of the latter three languages. The authors further discuss the local genitive in constructions like “We’ll meet at Joe’s,” pointing to a difference in productivity between English and German that is based on the strong syncretism of -s as a plural as well as a genitive marker in English, whereas in German plural -s is rather infrequent compared to competing plural markers.

Like the previous contributions, the volume’s editor Angeliki Athanasiadou in “If-clauses and their figurative basis” (pp. 151-175) is interested in the role of figurative language in shaping the form and meaning of grammatical constructions. She focuses on two subtypes of conditionals: Course of Events Conditionals (CECs) or ‘factual conditionals’ as in “If there is a drought like this year, the eggs remain dormant,” and Hypothetical Conditionals (HCs) as in “If the weather is fine, we’ll go for a swim”. The analysis is based on data drawn from previous publications (Athanasiadou & Dirven 1996, Dirven & Athanasiadou 2005) and online dictionaries. For Hypothetical Conditionals, Athanasiadou claims that these are basically hypothetical statements which due to high-level metonymies such as condition for cause and consequence for result come to be understood as predicative, precondition or supposition hypothetical conditionals. These target meanings are highly conventionalised, which is reflected by the use of grammaticalised subordinators other than “if” (e.g. for the precondition subtype: “The clove-pink needs no special cultivation, provided it has well drained soil,” p. 162). CECs, in turn, are claimed to be motivated by the conceptual metaphor HYPOTHETICALITY IS POTENTIAL REALITY which speakers deliberately (Steen 2008) exploit to appear less opposing towards the addressee.

In the first chapter of Part II, Ad Foolen explores the concept of “The hand in figurative thought and language” (pp. 179-198). His analysis is based on conventional expressions from languages all over the world but he mainly focuses on Dutch. Foolen briefly considers cases in which the concept of hand itself is expressed figuratively and serves as target domain, e.g. in some languages the word for “hand” actually refers to the whole arm, including hand and fingers. The main part of his chapter discusses hand as a source domain, which may refer to nine broad target domains: activity / inactivity, control, possession, positive human relations, negative human relations, certainty, evidentiality, emotions, time. He also presents a detailed analysis of the concept of the hand for the system of numerals (both in speech and writing) for various languages. Figurative uses of the hand also reflect associations with handedness: expressions involving the right hand tend to be positive whereas those involving the left hand tend to be negative. Drawing on previous studies, Foolen highlights that the concept of the hand is highly frequent both as a single figurative lexeme as well as part of fixed figurative expressions emphasising the special importance of the hand to human history and cognition. Foolen concludes that the majority of figurative expressions has a metonymic basis supporting the importance of embodiment to human cognition and in particular the theory of enactive cognition (Stewart et al. 2010).

In “Shakespeare on the shelf, Blue Helmets on the move. Human-related metonymic conceptualisation in English and Serbian” (pp. 199-229), Katarina Rasulić explores human-related metonymies from a cross-linguistic perspective. Rasulić analyses 900 examples in English and Serbian, which are drawn from 1) the cognitive linguistics literature on metonymy, 2) electronic corpora, and 3) selected informal sources like personal conversations and internet forums or chats. The data is analysed qualitatively. First, metonymies are classified with respect to whether humans function as the source or the target of the mapping. Second, conceptual metonymic mappings are assigned to the examples and together with their particular lexico-grammatical features are compared between English and Serbian. Rasulić finds that human-related metonymies, e.g. producer for produced or piece of clothing/uniform for person, are shared between English and Serbian. Metonymies with humans as target occur less frequently and are more constrained whereas metonymies with humans as source are more frequent and can refer to virtually any kind of target. There are some differences in the realisation of the metonymies, which pertain to different collocational patterns and culture-specific motivations of the metonym as well as grammatical aspects, which are based on the fact that Serbian in contrast to English is an inflectional language.

In “Metaphor, conceptual archetypes and subjectification. The case of completion is up and the polysemy of shàng in Chinese” (pp. 231-249), Wei-lun Lu analysis the polysemy of the Chinese particle “shàng” which corresponds to English “up”. Previous work has shown that in English the particle, apart from expressing vertical elevation, can function to express the end of a process as in “drink up” or “finish up” reflecting the conceptual metaphor completion is up (Lakoff & Johnson 2003: 21, Hampe 2000: 91, Kövecses 2001: 105). It is the aim of Lu’s contribution to analyse the semantic extensions of Chinese “shàng” in order to better understand the motivation and workings of this conceptual metaphor. For the study, Lu extracted 300 instances of the string “V-shàng” from the Sinica Corpus of Modern Chinese. The semantics of V-shàng were examined applying the Principled Polysemy framework, which assumes that an expression’s grammatical profile influences its semantics (Tyler & Evans 2001, 2003, Evans 2004). Based on this analysis, Lu identifies four senses of “shàng” – ‘vertically higher’, ‘vertically attained’, ‘attached’ and ‘completive’ – and sketches out their image-schematic representations. In the discussion, Lu draws on the notions of semantic attenuation and subjectification (Langacker 1999, 2006) as well as conceptual archetypes (Langacker 2006) to explain the semantic route of “shàng” from ‘vertically higher / attained’ to ‘completive’.

In Part III of the volume, “Figuration from a cultural-anthropological and psycholinguistic perspective,” the scope of the study of figuration is extended to psycholinguistic endeavours and to the impact of culture.

In “Metaphor and metonymy as fanciful ‘asymmetry’ builders” (pp. 253-271), Ioannis Veloudis emphasises the fundamental role of metaphor and metonymy to human cognition by bringing together assumptions from neuroscience, ethology, anthropology, art, philosophy and linguistics. Part of his argument consists of relating the ‘peak shift effect’ (Ramachandran 2011) to an expressive construction for negation in Greek. The ‘peak shift effect’ describes the phenomenon that exaggerated stimuli can function to be much more persuasive and appealing than the original. He gives examples from sea gull and rat behaviour and relates the same principle to the interpretation of the Greek expression “LEPI!,” which literally translates as ‘scale (of a fish)!’ but is interpreted as “We did not even catch a fish” via a mix of metonymic and metaphoric mappings. Furthermore, Veloudis discusses the role of metaphor and metonymy in prehistoric handprints found in caves. He relates metaphor and metonymy to dichotomies such as Saussure’s associative and syntagmatic relationship and Peirce’s icon and index among others. Veloudis concludes by arguing that metaphor and metonymy are playful and innovative ways of seeing something new (or from a new perspective) against the background of something known.

In “Pragmatic effects in blended figures. The case of metaphtonymy” (pp. 273-294), Herbert L. Colston investigates pragmatic effects of figurative tropes in expressions when tropes are mixed. Colston’s considerations are exploratory drawing on psycholinguistic evidence from previous research. His analysis starts out by discussing pragmatic effects of figurative tropes in isolation focusing on how metaphor, synecdoche, and verbal irony may achieve a derisive effect. Synecdoche, for example, achieves derision via a part-for-whole reference violating the exceptionality of human beings by ignoring a person’s entirety (p. 281). Colston then discusses possible pragmatic effects for combinations of figurative tropes. Based on findings in Colston & Gibbs (2002), Colston argues that metaphor and irony interfere with each other, compromising possible pragmatic effects. Especially when it comes to expressing derision, metaphor and irony seem to cancel each other. Verbal irony and synecdoche, on the other hand, are assumed to enhance each others’ pragmatics effects as suggested by work on hyperbole and irony (Colston & Keller 1998). Metaphor and synecdoche (and also metonymy more generally) are particularly “blendable” (p. 288) because they overlap in the way they function. In terms of pragmatic effects, however, it is often impossible to identify which effect can be contributed to which trope. In conclusion, Colston identifies questions for further research.

In “The psychological reality of spatio-temporal metaphors” (pp. 295-321), Panos Athanasopoulos, Steven Samuel and Emanuel Bylund review empirical evidence put forward for the psychological reality of the time is space conceptual metaphor. The authors also review previous findings with respect to linguistic relativity and the impact of cultural conventions on patterns of mental representations of time. Athanasopoulos et al. first discuss metaphors in which time is construed as deictic motion through space and present a detailed review of experiments conducted by Boroditsky (2000), which is complemented by more recent findings suggesting that time may also be construed by non-deictic motion (Núñez et al. 2006) and relies on cross-cultural differences with regard to temporal frames of reference (Rothe-Wulf et al. 2014). As a second topic, the authors discuss orientational metaphors for time showing, for example, that for the Aymara as well as in co-speech gestures in Darija (Morocco, De la Fuente et al. 2014) the future is ‘behind’ and the past ‘in front’ (Núñez & Sweetser 2006). The next section discusses how spatial concepts influence the perception of temporal duration reviewing work by Casasanto (2005, 2008, 2010) and Alards-Tomalin et al. (2014). The authors conclude that the empirical findings reviewed indeed indicate that time is construed and understood in terms of space; however, work by Sinha et al. (2011) indicates that the conceptualisation of time instead of being universal and pre-linguistic might as well be based on cultural conventions as well as cultural practices for representations of time (e.g. clocks, calendars).


The volume presents state-of-the-art research into the field of figuration. The individual contributions do not only focus on metaphor but particularly highlight understudied tropes such as metonymy or hyperbole and focus on their importance for the construction of semantic, grammatical and pragmatic meaning.

The value of the volume’s contributions lies particularly in the focus on pragmatic phenomena. The contributions of the first part highlight the role of figuration and particularly metonymy for the construction of meaning in utterances in language in context via pragmatic inference. The authors stress that Cognitive Linguistic research needs to focus more on inferential phenomena and how they can be explained by cognitive principles such as metaphor or metonymy. A second relevant topic extensively discussed in the volume is the relation between figurative mechanisms and grammar. The contributors show how figuration may license or constrain grammatical functions as well as how figuration can be constrained by the grammatical system of a particular language. In relation to that, the volume highlights the importance of cross-linguistic findings to put theoretical considerations to the test.

The study of figuration, especially of relating figuration in language to processes in thought, poses difficulties from a methodological point of view: How can we reliably and systematically identify as well as classify figurative processes in language? In the majority of contributions, assumptions are based on attestations retrieved either from corpora, previous publications or from real-life conversations (personal or overheard). The sources for the data are always made explicit. The analyses are all qualitative in nature. Some of the examples, which serve as the basis for theoretical assumptions, present cases of “cherry-picking” (Johansson Falck 2016: 30) i.e. rather than analysing a fixed set of data exhaustively and systematically, examples that are particularly interesting or that serve to support a certain theory are singled out and there is no indication of whether the example presents a typical case in question or not. This kind of approach is relevant to devise, refine or refute a theory; however, an adequate description of figuration in thought and language should also include information on how frequently speakers use a figurative expression as opposed to an alternative non-figurative expression. More quantitative approaches would also allow for significance testing of the influence of a particular variable on meaning construction via figurative thought. The volume’s contributions present a valuable source of hypotheses that can be put to the empirical test for corpus linguistics, acceptability judgements tasks or psycholinguistic experiments.

A further methodological issue relates to how we can draw conclusions about mental representations from the analysis of linguistic evidence alone. Some of the contributions in part III review psychological evidence; however, the main body of studies is based on linguistic analyses. Yet, Lu (pp. 231-249) shows that findings about conceptual structure might be inferred from a set of linguistic data that is clearly restricted in its semantic and grammatical scope arguing that the scope of semantic research needs to be set within the same grammatical constructions (p. 244). Thus, Lu stresses the “usefulness of a corpus-based and polysemy-informed approach to conceptual metaphor” (p. 247).

All in all, the volume presents a highly coherent set of contributions, which are of great interest to scholars particularly working within the field of Cognitive Linguistics. The volume is well edited and has a name and subject index at the end, which facilitates searching for and cross-checking individual topics.


Athanasiadou, A. & R. Dirven. 1996. Typology of if-clauses. In E.H. Cased (ed.), Cognitive linguists in the Redwoods: The expansion fo a new paradigm in linguistics, 609-654. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Dirven, R. & A. Athanasiadou. 2005. If and is near synonyms. In A.J. Schuth, K. Horner & J.J. Weber (eds.), Life in language, 97-120. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier.

Leech, G. 1983. Principles of pragmatics. London & New York: Longman.

Steen, G. 2008. The paradox of metaphor: Why we need a three-dimensional model for metaphor. Metaphor and Symbol 23(4). 213-241.

Stewart, J., O. Gapenne, E.A. Di Paolo (eds.). 2010. Enaction: Toward a new paradigm for cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lakoff, G. & M. Johnson. 2003. Metaphor we live by (2nd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hampe, B. 2000. Facing up to the meaning of ‘face up to’: A cognitive semantic-pragmatic analysis of an English verb-particle construction. In A. Foolen & F. van der Leeck (eds.), Constructions in cognitive linguistics: Selected papers from the Fifth International Cognitive Linguistics Conference, Amsterdam 1997, 81-102. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Kövecses, Z. 2001. Learning idioms in an FLT context. In M. Pütz, S. Niemeier & R. Dirven (eds.), Applied cognitive linguistics II: Language pedagogy, 87-115. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Tyler, A. & V. Evans. 2001. Reconsidering prepositional networks: The case of over. Language 77. 724-65.

Tyler, A. & V. Evans. 2003. The semantics of English prepositions: Spatial scenes, embodied meaning and cognition. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, V. 2004. The structure of time: Language, meaning and temporal cognition. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Langacker, R.W. 1999. Grammar and conceptualization. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Langacker, R.W. 2006. Subjectification, grammaticalization and conceptual archetypes. In A. Athanasiadou, C. Canakis & B. Cornillie (eds.), Subjectification: Various paths to subjectivity, 17-40. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Ramachandran, V.S. 2011. The tell-tale brain: Unlocking the mystery of human nature. London: William Heinemann.

Colston, H.L. & R.W. Gibbs. 2002. Are irony and metaphor understood differently? Metaphor and Smybol 17(1). 57-80

Colston, H.L. & S.B. Keller. 1998. You’ll never believe this: Irony and hyperbole in expressing surprise. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 27(4). 499-513.

Boroditsky, L. 2000. Metaphoric structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors. Cognition 75(1). 1-28

Núñez, R.E., B.A. Motz & U. Teuscher. 2006. Time after time. The psychological reality of the ego- and time-reference-point distinction in metaphorical construals of time. Metaphor and Symbol 21(3). 133-146.

Rothe-Wulf A., S. Beller & A. Bender. 2014. Temporal frames of reference in three Germanic languages: Individual consistency, interindividual consensus, and cross-linguistic variability. The Quarterly Journal of Eyperimental Psychology. 1-23.

De la Fuente, J., J. Santiago, A. Roman, C. Dumitrache & D. Casasanto. 2014. When you think about it, your past is in front of you: How cultures shape spatial conceptions of time. Psychological Science 25(9). 1682-1690

Núñez, R.E. & E. Sweetser. 2006. With the future behind them: Convergent evidence from Aymara language and gesture in the crosslinguistic comparison of spatial construals of time. Cognitive Science 30(3). 401-450.

Casasanto, D. 2005. Perceptual foundations of abstract thought. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Casasanto, D. 2008. Who’s afraid of the big bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic differences in temporal language and thought. Language Learning 58(s1). 63-67.

Casasanto, D. 2010. Space for thinking. In V. Evans & P. Chilton (eds.), Language, Cognition and Space: The State of the Art and New Directions, 453-478. London: Equinox.

Alards-Tomalin, D., J.P. Leboe-McGowan, J.D.M. Shaw, L.C. Leboe-McGowan. 2014. The effects of numerical magnitude, size, and color saturation on perceived interval duration. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 40(2). 555-566.

Sinha, C., V.D.S. Sinha, J. Zinken & W. Sampaio. 2011. When time is not space: the social and linguistic construction of time intervals and temporal event relations in an Amazonian culture. Language and Cognition 3(1). 137-169.

Johansson Falck, M. 2016. What trajectors reveal about TIME metaphors. Analysis of English and Swedish. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 21(1). 28-47.


Nina Julich is a PhD candidate at Leipzig University, Germany. Her research interests include the study of conceptual phenomena in language particularly conceptual metaphor and fictive motion, as well as metaphors for specific target domains (particularly motion metaphors in music criticism).

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