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Review of  Figurative Language

Reviewer: Dennis Alexander
Book Title: Figurative Language
Book Author: Dmitrij Dobrovol’skij Elisabeth Piirainen
Publisher: Elsevier Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Subject Language(s): Dutch
Greek, Modern
Issue Number: 16.3421

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Date: Fri, 25 Nov 2005 10:31:44 +1100
From: Dennis Alexander
Subject: Figurative Language: Cross-cultural and Cross-linguistic

AUTHORS: Dobrovol'skij, Dmitrij; Piirainen, Elisabeth
TITLE: Figurative Language
SUBTITLE: Cross-cultural and Cross-linguistic Perspectives
SERIES: Current Research in the Semantics/Pragmatics Interface
PUBLISHER: Elsevier Ltd.
YEAR: 2005

Dennis Alexander, School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics,
University of New England, Australia

This monograph contains: a preface, an introduction, fourteen
chapters, references, abbreviations, an index of linguistic units, a
subject index, and a name index. The book appears to be printed on
semi-gloss paper in an 8 point font. The languages examined include:
English, German, Dutch, Swedish, French, Russian, Lithuanian,
Greek, Finnish, a German dialect WML, and Japanese.


In the preface, the authors assert the need to address issues outside
of linguistics proper in the study of conventional figurative language
(CFL). The project for the book is the development of a linguistic
theory capable of taking into account the image component and
cultural content included in idioms and lexicalised metaphors. The
introduction also identifies the scope of the topic covered as including
idioms, proverbs, one word metaphors and similar conventionalised
figurative units in the lexicon of a given language. It also explains the
need to go beyond linguistics to look in other cultural codes than the
natural language system. The approach is identified as cognitive
because it is uses ''different types of knowledge as an explanatory
basis for linguistic phenomena.''

Chapter 1 introduces the six working hypotheses underlying the
research, the languages analysed and how various criteria can be
applied to distinguish conventional figurative units (CFUs) from other
related phenomena. For their distinction between literal, non-literal,
and figurative phenomena they rely on the notion of an image
component as a conceptual structure that mediates between the
lexical structure and the actual meaning of figurative units. They also
use the notion of 'additional naming' as a means of identifying CFUs.
By 'additional naming' a CFU is seen as another way to say something
that can already be said in a more direct and primary way.

Chapter 2 contains significant explanation of CFL and conventional
phraseology. It also develops a typology of CFUs as phrasemes. It
deals with idioms, similes, restricted collocations and proverbs using
examples from a range of languages.

Chapter 3 deals with the idea of cross-linguistic equivalence of
idioms. Many idioms are examined with respect to their semantics,
syntactics, and pragmatics. They show how the image component is
crucial to cross-linguistic analysis and how it is not definitive of
equivalence because of functional and syntactic factors. This is
achieved through careful and subtle analysis of differences between
posited semantically equivalent idioms in a range of languages. They
develop a notion of functional equivalence in place of what they view
as the traditional idea of ''full equivalence''.

This is a crucial chapter. Here the authors draw some fine grained
distinctions relating to the motivation of CFUs and their relations to,
among other things, conceptual metaphors, rich imagery, stereotypes,
kinegrams, and textual dependence. The differences between index-
based, iconic, and symbol-based motivations drawn in this chapter
become important in later chapters. The blending of different kinds of
motivation is also examined briefly.

Chapter 5 is an extended treatment of the notion of phraseological
and idiomatic 'false friends' across languages. It shows how CFUs
from two languages can have similar mental images and lexical items
in their composition yet have quite different semantics. Different
salient features of the knowledge of the source domain are shown to
come to the surface in each of the CFUs in a 'false friends'
relationship. An interesting notion here is the quasi-false friends
relation identified between a Finnish and a Japanese idiom based on
spoons: arising from different source concepts with similar targets,
they have similar meaning but are not true false friends.

Chapter 6 is an examination and critique of the Cognitive Theory of
Metaphor (CTM) and its application in CFU analysis from a number of
perspectives including linguistics and anthropology. The conclusion of
this chapter is that rich images are more promising than CTM for
revealing semantic and pragmatic features of every single CFU – not a
small claim.

Chapter 7 is an implementation of some ideas developed so far in the
book to the field of idioms of fear. The empirical results canvassed
demonstrate that cognitively based semantic theories are compatible
with the ideas of semantic decomposition developed in structural
semantics. However, the examination of fear idioms here does not
find support for the traditionally posited oppositions applied to fear
(strong vs. not strong; expectations vs. reaction; personal vs. general;
etc). However a connection is found between imagery and
oppositions such as acceptable vs. unacceptable fear; serious vs. not
serious causes; and, quality of the person vs. external conditioning. In
particular, Dobrovol'skij and Piirainen find that the same emotion
expressed by different means can invoke different parts of people's
conceptual knowledge and thus not remain completely the same

Chapter 8 is a development and application of cognitive modelling,
based on Fillmore's Frame Semantics, to CFU analysis. A number of
analytical and operational concepts and tools are developed and
applied to notions such as the fifth wheel of a car/cart and 'black
sheep'. Again the orientation is towards uncovering motivational links
between the composition and the meaning of CFUs.

Chapter 9 is an extended application and demonstration of the
analytical techniques of Chapter 8 to the concept of HOUSE as used
in idioms from mainstream European languages, WML, and
Japanese. The conceptual differences and their realisations in CFUs
are profound and revealing, though, on occasion, do appear almost

Chapters 10 and 11 deal with the difficult issue of culture. In so doing
they develop an elaborate technology for analysis of culture and
cultural symbolism in relation to CFUs. Dobrovol'skij and Piirainen
identify and develop five types of culture-based knowledge applicable
to CFUs: social interaction; material culture; inter-textual phenomena;
fictive conceptual domains; and, cultural symbols. They then examine
the notion of blending of these phenomena. A brief set of applications
to names, idio-ethnic realia, and culture specific targets demonstrates
that CFUs can be profoundly affected by culture. A particularly
interesting element of this examination is that of the GDR idioms, their
motivation and embeddedness in a particular culture.

Chapter 11 pursues the concept of culture into symbolism. While
Dobrovol'skij and Piirainen eventually opt for a Saussurian approach
to symbolism, they also consider other approaches including, briefly,
the Peircean sign functions. In this chapter they draw and
demonstrate a particularly important distinction between 'metaphor'
and 'symbol' as figurative devices, with the latter being more deeply
embedded in culture than the former. The idea that an analysis of
symbols in CFUs requires the analyst to look outside the domain of
linguistics into other cultural codes is presented with compelling clarity.

Chapters 12 and 13 are applications of the theory developed in the
previous chapters to the fields of number and animal based CFUs.
The cross-linguistic and cross-cultural underpinning and analysis
arising from this examination is both informative and revealing in both
depth and detail. The peculiarities of the symbolism of 'quatre' in
French are pertinent and well contrasted with other European
languages. The contradictory symbolism of WOLF and its roots in, for
some languages, a distant past is also valuable in an age where in
some views yesterday is ancient history.

Chapter 14 summarises and re-presents the theory of CFLT in a
comprehensive and concise manner. While it does canvas future
applications of the theory, it does not do so at the expense of clear


This is a very detailed work based on a sizable corpus from the
languages examined. It is rigorous and comprehensive as well as
comprehensible in its synthesis of concepts, techniques, and
perspectives from sometimes divergent fields. For those working in
the fields of cross-cultural, cross-linguistic, and figurative linguistics,
this book is an important theoretical contribution.

While it does canvass the work of a number of authors in relation to
cross-linguistic and cross-cultural studies, there does seem to be
scope for fruitful examination of Wierzbicka's Cultural Scripts
approach (Wierzbicka 1990), especially in relation to explication of
underlying cultural symbolism. In relation to this, and notwithstanding
the critique of Wierzbicka's analysis of Russian cultural scripts, the
work of Goddard on Peircean sign functions (Goddard 2002) is also
relevant to the discussion of cultural symbolism.

The theoretical exposition is well supported by the data adduced. The
extensive application of the theoretical framework across different
languages and semantic domains is a real strength of this book. In
their synthesis of different analytical frameworks and their analysis of
competing theoretical perspectives, Dobrovol'skij and Piirainen remain
focussed on conventionalised figurative language. This focus is
maintained in their application of their theoretical insights into the data.

The theory and its application by the originators is well demonstrated,
and is itself very practical: not quite a cookbook, but it both explains
the theory and demonstrates its application in comprehensible steps.
In the case of this book, the use of an idiom of evaluation is almost
mandatory. The utility of the theory can only be assessed by ongoing
application, development, and dialogue with other users: i.e. the proof
of the pudding is in the eating.


Goddard, C. (2002). Ethnosyntax, Ethnopragmatics, Sign-functions
and Culture. Ethnosyntax, in Explorations in grammar and culture ed.
by N. J. Enfield. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1: 52-73.

Wierzbicka, A. (1990). Cross-cultural pragmatics: the semantics of
human interaction. Berlin, Walter de Gruyter.

Dennis Alexander is a PhD student at the University of New England.
His research interests are figurative language, semantics, corpus
linguistics, language, culture and cognition, and the philosophy of
language. His work to date has used NSM as a tool in the
investigation of the semantics of abstract and figurative expressions.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0080438709
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 419
Prices: U.S. $ 99.95
U.K. £ 62.99