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Gibbs 3. Figurative Language Understanding: A Special Process?. What’s an implicature?. What’s an implicature?. --Would you like a piece of cake? --I’m on a diet. (= No thanks) Implicatures are problematic because they violate Grice’s cooperative principle. Grice’s cooperative principle.

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Gibbs 3

Figurative Language Understanding:

A Special Process?



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What’s an implicature?

--Would you like a piece of cake?

--I’m on a diet. (= No thanks)

Implicatures are problematic because they violate Grice’s cooperative principle.


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Grice’s cooperative principle

  • Maxim of quantity

    • Be only as informative as necessary

  • Maxim of quality

    • Don’t deceive or make unfounded claims

  • Maxim of relation

    • Say only what is relevant

  • Maxim of manner

    • Be brief but clear


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Grice’s assumptions

  • If a person flouts a maxim, they are implying something.

  • Figurative language requires extra effort to understand because it violates maxims.

    Gibbs, however, asks: Is there any evidence that figurative language is more difficult to understand than literal speech? (His answer is NO, and he tests uses in context.)


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Gibbs’ research

  • In a series of experiments, Gibbs (along with collaborators) shows that there is no difference in processing time between figurative and literal senses for the following types of language: Indirect speech act, Idiom, Slang, Proverb, Metaphor, Metonymy, Irony


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Are Literal and Figurative Language Processing Identical?

  • Gibbs has two suggestions:

    • 1. Comprehension of figurative language does not take place in 3 distinct stages (literal, disharmony, figurative), does not follow after an obligatory literal misanalysis.

    • 2. Identical mental processes drive the comprehension of both literal and figurative utterances.


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Evaluating Gibbs’ suggestions

  • Gibbs considers 1 to be uncontroversial (given his experimental results)

  • 2 is more problematic. It is impossible to rule out a special process for figurative language. But it is possible to provide an account that has no special process, and that is what Gibbs sets out to do.


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Alternatives to special processes:

  • Understand with respect to conceptual knowledge (including conventional metaphor in the given language)

  • Understand with respect to “common ground” (including shared knowledge between speaker and hearer)

    These processes are not special and are used for all types of language.


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The processes and products of understanding

“One reason why many scholars believe that figurative language violates communicative norms is that they confuse the processes and products of linguistic understanding.”


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The processes and products of understanding

“One reason why many scholars believe that figurative language violates communicative norms is that they confuse the processes and products of linguistic understanding.”

Recognizing that figurative language is different is a product, not a process -- it comes about in the final phase of interpretation, which is appreciation.


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