The goal of pragmatic accounts of metaphor is to explain how hearers infer the intended meaning of a metaphorical use of language. The standard Gricean account, which treats metaphor as a blatant violation of a norm of literal truthfulness, is increasingly questioned on both empirical and theoretical grounds. By rightly emphasising the variety of directions that metaphor interpretation can take, the original alternative accounts being developed in the cognitive linguistics and psycholinguistic literature (see the papers in Gibbs 2008) raise in particularly acute form the question of what triggers the metaphor interpretation process, what direction it takes and when it stops.
In this paper, I will outline a pragmatic account of metaphor which makes three main points: first, that metaphor is merely a special case of a much more general phenomenon whereby encoded lexical meanings are broadened or narrowed in use; second, that there is a continuum of cases ranging from literal use through approximation, hyperbole and metaphor, which are all interpreted in the same way; and third, that what enables the hearer to infer the speaker’s intended meaning is a pragmatic expectation of relevance raised specifically by utterances and other communicative acts (Sperber & Wilson 2008, Wilson & Carston 2007). I will end by briefly comparing this account with alternative accounts (e.g. Glucksberg 2008, Gibbs & Tendahl 2008), and considering some of its implications for the treatment of creativity, entrenchment and conventionality in metaphor interpretation (Vega-Moreno 2007).
Carston, R. 2002. Thoughts and Utterances: The Pragmatics of Explicit Communication. Blackwell: Oxford.
Gibbs, R. (ed.) 2008. The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought. CUP: Cambridge.
Glucksberg, S. 2008. How metaphors create categories – quickly. In Gibbs 2008: 67-83.
Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. 2008. A deflationary account of metaphors. In Gibbs 2008: 84-105.
Tendahl, M. & Gibbs, R. 2008. Complementary perspectives on metaphor: Cognitive linguistics and relevance theory. Journal of Pragmatics 40: 1823-1864.
Vega Moreno, R. 2007: Creativity and Convention: The Pragmatics of Everyday Figurative Speech. John Benjamins: Amsterdam.
Wilson, D. & Carston, R. 2007. A unitary approach to lexical pragmatics: Relevance, inference and ad hoc concepts. In N. Burton-Roberts (ed.) Pragmatics, 230-259. Palgrave: Basingstoke and New York.