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Abstract Cienki & Müller

How metonymic are metaphoric gestures?

As cognitive linguistics has developed, the study of conceptual metaphor has played a prominent role, including in the study of gesture with speech. While scholars such as Barcelona, Radden, and Panther and Thornburg have made the case that many expressions claimed to be metaphoric actually involve metonymy in an important way, the role of metonymy in gesture has hardly been recognized. In this talk, whose title echoes that of Radden's (2000) paper ("How metonymic are metaphors?"), we will sketch out some significant ways in which metonymy can be seen to play a role in metaphoric gestures with speech.

Based on a qualitative study of manual gestures in videorecorded conversations in English, German, Russian, and Spanish, we have found two predominant functional categories of metonymy in metaphoric gestures. One category involves the metaphorical use of a hand gesture that also occurs in a particular non-metaphorical physical context. McNeill (1992) provides the example of a speaker holding out a hand, palm-up and slightly cupped, while saying "I have a question." He argues that it is as if the question were an object presented to the addressee on the palm of the speaker's hand. Indeed, this is often how one presents a small object to someone else for inspection. Therefore, in this sense, the gesture is also metonymic by virtue of only partially enacting that scene (e.g., since there is no actual object presented). Compare another example: the motion of brushing lint off of one's clothing with a flick of the back of the fingers. It can also be performed metaphorically in the air in the context of dismissing an idea or offer, and this usage also draws metonymically on an understanding of the non-metaphorical context from which it originates.

A different category of metaphoric gestures includes three sub-classes (identified in Müller 1998) and examples like the following:

  1. A student describes learning as building up layers of knowledge while making small horizontal chopping motions with her flat hand palm down. The hand represents the metaphorical layers.
  2. Someone describes the framework of a theory while holding two hands up with the fingers extended at right angles, as if holding the bottom corners of a rectangular picture frame. The hands conform to the shape of the metaphoric object held in the air.
  3. A speaker talking about the alternating good and bad parts of a relationship traces a sinusoidal curve in the air with her fingertip. The fingertip draws a curve as if on a graph which depicts the changes over time as motion, the good parts as up, and the bad as down.

These examples exhibit another kind of metonymy: the hand shows part of a whole object or scene which it would not be part of: (a) a structure with layers, (b) a picture frame, (c) a plotted graph. The hand metonymically shows part of a bigger whole which serves as the source domain in a gestural metaphoric expression.

We will argue that metonymy is an integral part of these (and perhaps most) metaphoric gestures because of the iconic basis of their forms. Visual expression with the hands (via gesture or indeed sign language) affords great potential for iconic spatial depiction of forms which can metonymically represent whole visual scenes. Furthermore, the variety of iconic representation in the visuo-spatial modality of gesture is much greater than that possible with spoken words (Taub 2001). Therefore, it appears that metonymy may play an even greater role in gestural metaphoric expressions than it does in purely verbal ones. We will conclude by discussing the potential implications this has for conceptual metonymy in thinking for speaking (Slobin 1987) and gesturing.