Interdisziplinäres Zentrum für Kognitive Sprachforschung

Links und Funktionen



Abstract Dowbor & Snoek

Metonymy in a Construction-based Account of Indirect Speech Acts

It has been shown that the literal (‘direct’) meaning of indirect requestive speech act constructions is accessible to speakers and can be exploited in order to take into account potential “obstacles” to the fulfillment of the request (cf. e.g. Francik and Clark 1985, Gibbs 1994). In our paper, we show that the degree of accessibility differs across different indirect speech act constructions. We investigate a range of conventionalized indirect speech act constructions (CISAs) in English that differ with respect to their degree of conventionalization. We present speakers visually with speech act scenarios involving various kinds of obstacles and ask them to select one or more appropriate requestive CISAs from a list. We will be able to show that more strongly conventionalized constructions are less sensitive to potential obstacles and are thus used more freely across different scenarios. In contrast, less strongly conventionalized CISAs show clear preferences for situations involving obstacles referred to by the literal meaning of the construction. There is also a general preference for constructions involving literal meanings that relate directly to the situation the speaker was being faced with over highly conventionalized expressions – this confirms that speakers are sensitive to the direct meanings of indirect speech act constructions. Our conclusion is that the literal meaning of CISAs is retained, but that it is backgrounded or foregrounded to varying degrees, depending on the degree of conventionalization and the situation the speakers are faced with.

These findings are readily interpretable in a Cognitive Linguistics/Construction Grammar framework. Stefanowitsch (2003) has argued that conventionalized indirect speech act constructions are related to their direct counterparts via a metonymic link. We argue that the strength of this link can vary, allowing for the meaning of the direct counterpart to motivate the CISA to varying degrees. This variation of the presence of the meanings falls along a continuum with conventionalized expressions at one pole and non-conventionalized expressions at the other. Our results add further detail to Gibbs’ (1994) experimental findings on the presence of literal meaning in conventionalized indirect speech acts, Francik and Clark’s (1985) Obstacle Hypothesis, and Panther and Thornburg’s (2004) view of metonymy as a process of meaning evocation. The meaning of the modal allows the speaker to tap into and highlight certain aspects of the request scenario, such as the WILLINGNESS or ABILITY component, because it is perceived to be salient to the situation at hand. By doing so, the speaker can optimize the chances of the action being successful. On a more general level, our paper highlights an aspect of language which has not been dealt with in detail by Construction Grammarians, namely the question how continua can be incorporated into a formal theory of grammar.



Francik, E. P. and H. H. Clark (1985). “How to Make Requests That Overcome Obstacles to Compliance.” In: Journal of Memory and Language 24: 560-568.

Gibbs, Raymond W. (1994). The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Panther, K.-U. and L. Thornburg (2004). “The Role of Metonymy in Meaning Construction.” In: 06: 91-116.

Stefanowitsch, Anatol (2003). “A Construction-based Approach to Indirect Speech Acts.” In: Panther, K.-U. and L. Thornburg (eds.), Metonymy and Pragmatic Inferencing, 105-126. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins.