Understanding figurative and literal language: The graded salience hypothesis

Author(s): Giora R



Understanding figurative and literal language:The graded salience hypothesisRACHEL GIORAAbstractIn this study I lest the prevalent Claims among contemporary psycholinguiststhat understanding metaphor does not involve a special process, and that it isessentially identical to understanding literal language. Particularly, I examinethe claims that figurative language does not involve processing the surfaceliteral meaning (e.g., Gibbs 1984), and that its comprehension is not process-ing-intensive, because it does not involve a trigger (e.g., Keysar 1989). Acritique, review and reinterpretation ofa number of contemporary researcheson literal and figurative language reveal that figurative and literal languageuse are governed by a general principle of salience: Salient meanings (e.g.,conventional frequent, familiär, enhanced by prior context) are processedfirst. Thus, for example, when the most salient meaning is intended (äs in,e.g., the figurative meaning of conventional Idioms), it is accessed directly,without having toprocess the less salient (literal) meaning first (Gibbs 1980).However, when a less rather than a more salient meaning is intended (e.g.,the metaphoric meaning ofnovel metaphors, the literal meaning of conven-tional Idioms, or a novel Interpretation ofa highly conventional literal expres-sion) comprehension seems to involve a sequential process, upon which themore salient meaning is processed initially, before the intended meaning isderived (Blasko and Connine 1993; Gerrig 1989; Gibbs 1980; Gregory andMergler 1990). Parallel processing is induced when more than one meaning issalient. For instance, conventional metaphors whose metaphoric and literalmeanings are equally salient, are processed initially both literally and meta-phorically (Blasko and Connine 1993). The directl sequential process debate,then, can be reconciled: Different linguistic expressions ( salient-less salient)may tap different (direct/parallel/sequential) processes.

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