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Literal and figurative language

Many traditional academic analyses of language divided linguistic expressions into two classes: literal and figurative. Expressions said to be in figurative language are called figures of speech.

Table of contents
1 Traditional analyses
2 Operational definitions
3 Figurative as used by Searle and friends
4 Contesting the literal/figurative distinction
5 For Further Reading

Traditional analyses

In the traditional analyses, words in literal expressions denote what they mean according to common or dictionary usage, while words in figurative expressions denote something other than what they mean according to common or dictionary usage. Often, in this framework, a particular instance of figurative language can/must be reduced to literal language in order to find out what the expression might be intended to mean.

Sometimes the literal meaning of a particular figure of speech is clear. We can confidently interpret the figure, "The ground is thirsty," to mean "the ground is dry" because we know that the ground cannot literally feel thirst (or anything else, for that matter). Other times, it is harder to pinpoint the literal meaning of a figure of speech. If someone says, "When I first saw her, my soul began to quiver," he might mean, "When I first saw her, I began to fall in love," or "When I first saw her, I began to panic," or something else entirely. Whereas the ground's thirst can only sensibly apply to its dryness, the soul's quivering could refer to a whole range of feelings, including mutually exclusive ones. Only someone familiar with the speaker's feelings could accurately interpret this statement.

How many kinds of figurative language are there? Classical and traditional linguistics by some counts identified more than two hundred and fifty different figures. More recently, some have boiled the number into a much smaller number; some, for example, claim to be able to classify all figurative language as either metaphor or metonymy.

Operational definitions

XX has proposed an operational definition for an expression's literal meaning: it's whatever you would take the expression to mean if you were to receive a printed copy of the expression from an anonymous source and read it, having no context whatsoever.

Figurative as used by Searle and friends

...basically anything that fails the above "letter test". This is supposed to contrast not only with metaphor and poetic language, but also with, e.g., indirect requests.

Contesting the literal/figurative distinction

Note that most modern academic analyses of language no longer maintain a strict distinction between literal and figurative language. Cognitive linguistics, in particular, may ultimately declare all distinction between literal language and figurative language outdated. Consider what cognitive linguists Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner have to say:

...what gets called literal meaning is only a plausible default in minimally specified contexts. It is not clear that the notion "literal meaning" plays any privileged role in the on-line construction of meaning. (Fauconnier and Turner, p. 69)

In other words, "literal meaning" is not a special sort of meaning; it is only the meaning we are most likely to assign to a word or phrase if we know nothing about the context in which it is to be used.

For Further Reading