Figures of speech and linguistics - Nguyễn Thúy Hường

It has been customary to think figurativeness is a linguistic feature exclusive to the language of literature, but it is actually not. When you ask somebody to “lend you his/her ear” or “give you a hand,” obviously you do not mean you are in need of those body parts. You are just using some figures of speech to express your need of attention and help. Such colorful and vivid expressions are innumerable in colloquial language, which makes figures of speech a pervasive linguistic phenomenon both in our daily discourse and in written language.

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INTRODUCTION I. Rationale I.1. Figures of speech and linguistics It has been customary to think figurativeness is a linguistic feature exclusive to the language of literature, but it is actually not. When you ask somebody to “lend you his/her ear” or “give you a hand,” obviously you do not mean you are in need of those body parts. You are just using some figures of speech to express your need of attention and help. Such colorful and vivid expressions are innumerable in colloquial language, which makes figures of speech a pervasive linguistic phenomenon both in our daily discourse and in written language. Some people may address themselves to the query as to where the study of figures of speech should be in the family of linguistic studies. Figurative language, by definition, is the language we use to mean something other than the literal meaning of the words. So essentially the study of figurative language concerns the meaning and use of language, which are respectively the subject matter of semantics and pragmatics. Apart from that, it is also closely related to discourse analysis and stylistics, especially literary stylistics, since different forms of literature tend to have different probabilities as to what group of figures of speech to be used and/or to what extent and at what levels they should be used. Given these interrelations between the study of figures of speech and other domains of linguistics, it comes as no surprise that a linguistic major would become interested in this phenomenon. In addition, figures of speech, as artistic ways of using language, are appealing by nature and their study is rewarding in that it does not only enhance our understanding of the special and effective way in which other people use the language but also helps to improve our linguistic competence, especially our figurative and literary competence. I.2. Figurative competence and communicative competence The use of figures of speech being so ubiquitous, it is virtually impossible for a language learner to communicate successfully in the target language without an adequate command of them. Second and foreign language researchers have coined the term “figurative competence” to denote this special ability. Some of them, including Danesi (1992, 1995) and Johnson and Rosano (1993), hold that second language curricula must include metaphors, idioms and other figurative language items in order to instill in language learners a functional communicative competence rather than just a traditional formal competence. Danesi (1995), for instance, argues that second language learners do not reach the fluency level of a native speaker until they have knowledge of “how that language ‘reflects’ or encodes concepts on the basis of metaphorical reasoning” (p. 5). To put it more simply, researchers in the field imply that figurative competence is “likely to contribute positively to an overall level of communicative competence” (Littlemore, 2000). Nevertheless, it is observable that this linguistic skill is almost neglected in Vietnamese EFL classrooms. From the author’s firsthand experience as a college English major, throughout her academic years, only once were figures of speech discussed, as part of an account of Lexical meaning, a chapter in the book An Introduction to Semantics. This part covers less than four pages of the textbook, without a single accompanying activity. It was evidently “introductory” and would by no means be able to equip students with a full understanding of those few figures of speech used as examples, not to mention an adequate command of figurative language in general. Their sole purpose, as stated in the preface (Nguyen Hoa, 1998, p. 2), is simply “to equip the student with an overview of” semantics, which has traditionally been regarded as a highly “knowledge-centered” course. In the author’s skills courses, there was no place for figures of speech, either. These facts spurred the author of this paper to do research on figures of speech, with the hope of drawing EFL teachers and course designers’ attention to this particularly interesting and useful linguistic phenomenon. I.3. Figurative competence and literary competence The term literary competence was first introduced in the book Structuralist Poetics by Jonathan Culler in 1975 (p.114). It soon became the central concept of structural literary criticism and has been repeatedly referred to by scholars in various related disciplines (see Brumfit, 1981; Isenberg, 1990; Lazar, 1994; Aviram, 2004.) Under the strong influence of Chomsky’s generative model, where linguistic competence is put in opposition to linguistic performance, Culler holds that literature, analogous with language, is also a structural system with its own “grammar” – its own rules and conventions. A competent reader of literature therefore needs to internalize that “grammar” in order to convert linguistic sequences into literary structures. For example, there are special conventions in reading poetry that readers should be aware of, such as the rule of significance, the rule of metaphorical coherence, the rule of totality, the rule of thematic unity, the convention of genre, and other poetic traditions regarding the use of certain symbols and images. (For the full argument, see Culler 1975, p. 162) Among the conventions in literature, rhetorical figures are said to “lie at the basis of interpretation;” therefore, “training in rhetoric” is thought of “as a way of providing the student with a set of formal models which he can use in interpreting literary works” (Culler, 1975, pp. 179-80). This naturally leads to the conclusion that figurative competence is an integral element of literary competence, which makes studies of figures of speech particularly interesting and beneficial to teachers of literature in second and foreign languages. I.4. Substitutive figures of speech Rhetoricians have catalogued more than 250 figures of speech and reasons of space do not permit us to discuss all of them. While many scholars working in the field go along with Jakobson (1963) and Ruegg (1979) that “of the many tropes and figures ... none [have] proved so popular as the pair ‘metaphor’ and ‘metonymy’” (Ruegg, 1979, p. 141), it must be admitted that “over the years, metonymy has received much less attention than metaphor in the literature” (Carita Paradis, 2003, p. 1). While metaphor has been investigated from many perspectives, metonymy has been mentioned mainly in the province of cognitive linguistics (see Barcelona (eds.), 2000; Panther & Radden (eds.), 1999; Dirven & Pörings (eds.), 2002). However, observation indicates that metonymy, as a rhetorical figure, along with synecdoche, deserves much more attention and research than what it has received so far; hence the focus of this paper on functions of these substitutive figures of speech. II. Scope of the study Although it is “impossible to isolate any single or special property of language which is exclusive to a literary work,” the fact is that in literature “language is used in ways which can be distinguished as literary” (Brumfit & Carter, 1986, p. 6). And it is this very literariness that creates trouble for readers in general and language learners in particular. Part of this literariness is formed by the special way in which figures of speech are used. While idioms or conventional figures of speech can be treated as separate linguistic items and their meanings can be deduced based on contexts, in reading literature, determining what a writer or a poet is referring to or implying when he/she uses a figure of speech is often not as easy. The reason is that it is his/her own figure of speech, one the reader might have never heard or seen before. This explains our inclination to investigate the figures under consideration in literary texts. However, given the limits of this paper, literature would still be too large a corpus to work on. Thus, we intend to examine these figures of speech in a special genre of literature – poetry – for the following reasons. Firstly, poetry is particularly rich in figurative language and can thus provide us with numerous examples of metonymy and synecdoche (although they are believed to function primarily in prose). A second reason, and probably the most important one, is that in poetry – “the form that most clearly asserts the specificity of literature, its difference from ordinary discourse” (Culler 1975, p. 162) – these figures of speech, together with other stylistic features, cause considerable difficulties for EFL readers and students alike. A survey carried out by Hirvela and Boyle (1988) on students’ attitudes towards literature genres reveals that poetry is the genre least enjoyed and most feared (Hirvela & Boyle, 1988, p. 180). Our study, while analyzing these figures of speech in poetry, seeks to find ways to help students to interpret these figures with less difficulty and more enjoyment. In helping them to analyze and appreciate these aesthetic devices in poetry, we hope to improve their knowledge of conventions in poetry and their literary competence in general. The last justification for our choice is that this form of literature, though special in many ways, is essentially an example of language in use. Hence, analysis of metonymy and synecdoche in this corpus will undoubtedly help illustrate their linguistic functions and conclusions drawn from the analysis will not only inform poetry readers, teachers and learners but also language learners on a larger scale. There is every reason for us to believe that once students are able to recognize and analyze those figures of speech in poetry, they will be able to recognize and analyze the figures in texts of other types. At the same time, the analysis will give us a better understanding of poetry in terms of stylistics. II. Aims of the study This study is carried out to serve two main purposes: 1. To explore the linguistic functions of metonymy and synecdoche with a focus on how these are used in poetry. 2. To give some suggestions on pedagogical issues relating to the teaching of these figures of speech in EFL skills classes and literature classes. III. Methods of the study With its subject matter being linguistic phenomena, this study is basically qualitative and descriptive. It is an attempt to answer several open-ended questions regarding functions, aesthetic effects, and pedagogical values of metonymy and synecdoche. These answers are grounded on a system of research methods, namely documentation, analysis and synthesis, all of which are used in combination in almost every chapter of the paper, though each of them prevails in a certain chapter or certain parts of a chapter. In the first part, we review the literature of figures of speech in general and the two figures of speech of metonymy and synecdoche in particular. Afterwards, we analyze the examples of these figures in some selected poems as illustrations of their functions. Based on conclusions drawn from those analyses, we pinpoint several ways in which foreign language teachers of English can teach these figures of speech to EFL students. Overall, the study is partly deductive and partly inductive. IV. Design of the study Apart from the introduction and the conclusion, the study consists of three chapters. Chapter I gives an overview on figures of speech in general and substitutive figures of speech in particular. Chapter II, the main part of the paper, focuses on two substitutive figures of speech, synecdoche and metonymy, providing an account of their definitions and linguistic functions, with each followed by an analysis of the figure of speech in poetry. Chapter III aims at raising some pedagogical issues concerning the teaching of these figures of speech and offers suggestions on applicable activities for use in EFL classrooms. CHAPTER I SUBSTITUTIVE FIGURES OF SPEECH I. An overview of figures of speech I.1. What are figures of speech? Answering this question, The Cambridge Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (2003) proposes the following definition: “an expression which uses words to mean something different from their ordinary meaning.” Along the same lines, The Oxford Advanced Learners’ Encyclopedic Dictionary (1992) describes a figure of speech as a “word or phrase used for vivid or dramatic effect and not literally.” The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (2003)’s full definition reads, “A form of expression (as a simile or metaphor) used to convey meaning or heighten effect often by comparing or identifying one thing with another that has a meaning or connotation familiar to the reader or listener.” There are varieties of slightly different ways in which people define figures of speech, but just as Quinn puts it, “the simplest definition of a figure of speech is ‘an intended deviation from ordinary usage’.” (1982, p. 6). According to this definition, there are two criteria for an expression to be distinguished as a figure of speech: first, it is a deviant of ordinary language usage; second, it is used in such a way as to serve a certain purpose of the writer or speaker. These definitions and criteria might evoke a chain of questions: What is the “ordinary”, or “literal” use of language? Must an intention be conscious? How do you know a deviant when you see one? Quinn does not give direct answers to these problematic queries, but his analysis of the ordinary and extraordinary ways to use the coordinator and convincingly proves the existence of a system of ordinary usage of language, which we call “grammar.” Take the agreement between subject and verb in a finite clause as an example: When we say, “We were robbed,” we use were because it is the rule that we goes with were, because were is the ordinary way to conjugate the verb to be in the past tense for that person. But if we say, “We was robbed,” then was is employed against the grammatical rule and therefore must be treated either as an error or a figure of speech. At this stage, the existence of an intention plays a vital role in determining whether this is a figure of speech or not. If an elementary foreign language learner is the one who writes the sentence, in a test, for instance, then we can certainly conclude that it is a mistake. But when Joe Jacobs, a professional prize fight manager, shouted into the ring announcer’s microphone “We was robbed” on the night of June 21, 1932, we knew that it was far from being a mistake. (Quinn, 1982, p. 5) He broke the rule for his own purposes of adding emotion and emphasis to the accusation of injustice. I.2. Why are figures of speech employed? Figures of speech have traditionally been thought to function primarily as a kind of adornment or “make-up” used solely for the purpose of adding beauty to the language of the literary work. Therefore, if there was a line between the form and the content of a literary work, figures of speech would obviously fit in the formal features and have nothing to do with the content. This implies that we can remove them from literary works without affecting their meanings. However, the interwoven and interdependent relationships between form and content or meaning are such that it is actually very hard for one to draw a clear line between the two. Even if one is persistent in separating the two, he/she is still unable to prove the foregoing claim valid in all cases. Many figures of speech, especially tropes, do help to create some aspects of meaning that an allegedly equivalent non-figurative phrase cannot convey. An example of this is the catachresis in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Instead of “I will say angry words to her,” he writes “I will speak daggers to her.” (Cited in Harris, 2002). The catachresis here not only helps to express the meaning in a more vivid way, but also forms part of the meaning. Daggers communicates much more than angry words. It expresses the speaker’s hatred and fury to such a point that he almost wants to stab her with his words. It is a feeling that would take a long sentence or even a paragraph to describe. In cases akin to this, one rationale for using figures of speech, as Cacciari suggests when addressing the question of why speakers use metaphors, is because literal language is not very good at expressing the complexity of perceptual experience (Katz, Cacciari, Gibbs, &Turner, 1998). To put it more simply, figures of speech are employed for their capability to speak the unspeakable. The same is not always true with other figures of speech, though. In most cases, particularly when the figure in question is one other than a trope, there is often an alternative mode to express the meaning. For instance, Sherwood Anderson may have well omitted the “ands” in italics in the following sentences in the short story “The Corn Planting.” “He made drawings of fish and pigs and cows and they looked like people you knew. I never did know, before, that people could look so much like cows and horses and pigs and fish.” He could have replaced these with commas if he had obeyed the “anding” rules. The removal of the polysyndeton in this situation, however, deprives the sentences of “the sense of an ever lengthening catalogue of roughly equal members” (Quinn, 1982, p. 11), but at least the denotative meaning remains the same. In analogous instances, the figures of speech create an emphasis, amplify a meaning, draw a comparison or contrast, make a rhetorical point, or, generally speaking, express an idea in a novel and more colorful manner. Commenting on “Philosophy of Style,” Herbert Spencer proves that a principle governing our communication is “the principle of economy,” by which he means language users normally try to express more meanings with fewer words. This principle, as demonstrated in his analysis, applies for the use of words, sentences, and figures of speech. Their efficiency can be seen from two angles. First, they help speakers to pack much meaning into a small space. Second, they save readers’ energy and time by “[bringing their minds] more easily to the desired conception” (Spencer, 1852). For example, perceiving the Pentagon would take much less time than perceiving U.S. Defense Department. While the second phrase activates in hearers’ minds the complex political system, the first one only calls up a picture. And pictures are always easier to remember and recall than abstract concepts. I.3. Classification of figures of speech Rhetoric, in its attempt “to analyse and classify the forms of speech and make the world of language intelligible” (Barthes, 1967, p. 817), named various figures of speech and over the centuries the number has reached many hundred. Rhetoricians have also categorized these figures of speech basing on different sets of criteria. Scholars of classical Western rhetoric have divided figures of speech into two main categories: tropes and schemes, with the former being figures of speech with an unexpected twist in the meaning of words, the latter figures that deal with word order, syntax, letters and sounds of words. Others further classify them into smaller groups. Robert Harris (2002), for example, writes “[More than 60] rhetorical devices presented here generally fall into three categories: those involving emphasis, association, clarification, and focus; those involving physical organization, transition, and disposition or arrangement; and those involving decoration and variety.” Rick Sutcliffe (2004) in his “Figures of Speech Dictionary” yields definitions of 100 figures of speech and puts them into six categories: figures of grammar, meaning, comparison, parenthesis, repetition, and rhetoric. The classifiers of these figures of speech, however, admit, “More often the effects of a particular device are multiple, and a single one may operate in several categories” (Harris, 1980). The classifications above are therefore, theoretically relative though they a
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