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Metonymy in communication

One may say that metonymy, judging by its widespread occurrence in

natural languages, fulfils important functions in everyday communication. The

questions that appear in this context are, first of all: Why and how do speakers

encode meaning in a metonymic way? and secondly, How do hearers arrive at

the relevant interpretation?

Starting with the first question, most importantly metonymy has a referential

function, and there are several pragmatic reasons for the referential use of

metonymies. According to Nerlich, Clarke and Todd (1999:362), metonymy is an

abbreviation device which allows us to […] say things quicker, to shorten

conceptual distances. In other words, due to the use of metonymic expressions

speakers are capable of limiting the number of referents. In this way, for

example, the word form school contextually comes to refer to an institution,

whose existence is determined by a number of components, like for instance

lessons, staff, schoolyear, etc. Frequently, explicit reference to these components

is superfluous, or even their usage would necessitate in introduction of many

further referents (Dirven 1993:22).

What is more, referential metonymy often proves to be the only

unambiguous expression, in comparison to particular paraphrases, even though

apparently it may seem vague and imprecise, e.g.: Different parts of the country

don’t necessarily mean the same thing when they use the same word (Dirven

1993:6). Here, the phrase different parts of the country, which is interpreted

metonymically in the context of the rest of the utterance, combines the meanings

of particular geographical areas with individual inhabitants. A possible

paraphrase like People living in different parts of the country don’t […] would

put more emphasis on individuals than on the regional variation, which – to

some extent – changes the original interpretation inherent in the metonymic

phrase. Similarly, a paraphrase In different parts of the country people don’t

[…], would highlight the regional rather than individual variation.

Thirdly, by means of metonymy, the danger of ambiguity can be avoided as

to which part of the referent’s meaning is considered the most relevant. For

instance, the phrase the Crown, as used in The Crown has not withheld its assent

to a Bill since 1707 (Dirven 1993:17), suggests that what is meant is the

institution, whereas the person, i.e. monarch is totally irrelevant.

The answer to the question of how speakers encode meaning in the

metonymic way must rely on the discussion of entities that are chosen to serve

as vehicles to give access to required targets. In an attempt to deal with this

question Kövecses and Radden (1998:62–71) specify what the authors refer to

as principles of relative salience, i.e. principles determining the natural cases of

metonymy. The authors differentiate between principles having a cognitive basis

and communicative principles. The cognitive principles are determined by three



general determinants of conceptual organisation, namely human experience,

perceptual selectivity and cultural preference. The human experiences, derived

from the anthropocentric view of world and our interaction with the world, lead

to the following principles for choosing the vehicle entities:

HUMAN OVER NON-HUMAN,

CONCRETE OVER ABSTRACT,

INTERACTIONAL OVER NON-INTERACTIONAL,

FUNCTIONAL OVER NON-FUNCTIONAL.

On the other hand, the perceptual selectivity accounts for the following

principles:

IMMEDIATE OVER NON-IMMEDIATE,

OCCURENT OVER NON-OCCURENT,

MORE OVER LESS,

DOMINANT OVER LESS DOMINANT,

GOOD GESTALT OVER POOR GESTALT,

BOUNDED OVER UNBOUNDED,

SPECIFIC OVER GENERIC.

Thirdly, cultural preferences result in the following principles:

STEREOTYPICAL OVER NONSTEREOTYPICAL,

IDEAL OVER NON-IDEAL,

TYPICAL OVER NONTYPICAL,

CENTRAL OVER PERIPHERAL,

BASIC OVER NONBASIC,

IMPORTANT OVER LESS IMPORTANT,

COMMON OVER LESS COMMON,

RARE OVER LESS RARE.

Finally, communicative principles relevant for the choice of the preferred

vehicle, as distinguished by Kövecses and Radden (1998), are:

CLEAR OVER LESS CLEAR,

RELEVANT OVER IRRELEVANT.

Notice that the former of the two principles is clearly a counterpart of Grice’s

(1975) maxim of manner, whereas the latter one relies on Sperber and Wilson’s

(1995) principle of relevance. At first sight, the reconciliation of the two principles

might seem unfeasible. Nevertheless, as Langacker (1993:30) puts it:

[…] metonymy allows an efficient reconciliation of two conflicting factors: the need to be

accurate, i.e. of being sure that the addressee’s attention is directed to the target; and our natural

inclination to think and talk explicitly about those entities that have the greatest cognitive salience

for us.

Thus, by means of metonymy, two apparently conflicting aims can be

achieved, namely accuracy and economy of speech. Furthermore, the

communicative principles of clarity and relevance simultaneously provide an

answer to the last one of the three questions posed in this subsection. They

account not only for the process of encoding, but also of decoding the meaning

of an utterance.


Date: 2015-02-16; view: 1124


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