Jamie Findlay at LEL seminar

Posted on November 26, 2018 by

This week, we welcome Jamie Findlay (Oxford) to the LEL seminar series. His talk, titled ‘When the cat you let out of the bag has claws: the role of metaphor in understanding idioms’ will take place on Tuesday 27th November at 4.15 in A102. It will be followed by a drinks reception. All are welcome! The abstract is below.

Featured photo sourced from Jamie’s website


When the cat you let out of the bag has claws: the role of metaphor in understanding idioms

Jamie Findlay, University of Oxford

(joint work with Sascha Bargmann and Manfred Sailer, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main)

Idioms, such as “let the cat out of the bag” – ‘reveal the secret’ or “cut the mustard” – ‘be up to standard’, are non-compositional chunks of language: their meanings cannot be computed from the meanings of their parts and their syntactic structure. Such arbitrary pairings of form and meaning are precisely the kinds of things which need to be stored, since they cannot be inferred. Many idioms, though, are also ambiguous: they have a literal interpretation in addition to their idiomatic interpretation (we can literally let domestic felines out of sacks, for example). This is unlike prototypical examples of words, such as “dog”, which has no interpretation other than the learned one. We therefore face a choice when it comes to storing the meaning of idioms: do we treat them as essentially ambiguous, representing two different parses of the sentence, or as encoding mappings between literal and idiomatic meanings? In other words, is the idiomatic meaning encoded directly or indirectly?

It turns out, I will argue, that the answer is both. On the one hand, there is ample evidence that (at least some) idioms must be stored lexically: syntactic/lexical idiomaticity, for instance, means that certain expressions have no literal interpretation in the first place (think of “trip the light fantastic” – ‘dance’, or “come a cropper” – ‘fall/suffer a defeat’). What is more, experimental evidence suggests that idiomatic expressions are generally processed faster than equivalent literal expressions, which strongly suggests lexical retrieval rather than any additional ‘mapping’ computation taking place.

But on the other hand, examples like the following can only be explained by reference to metaphor:

  1. When John let the cat out of the bag it was him who got scratched.
  2. This month, Meriden City Council’s chickens came home to roost, and they laid a big stinky egg on Meriden taxpayers.
  3. Sometimes the person you’d take a bullet for is behind the trigger.

If we simply treat the idioms here as special lexical entries then the continuations make no sense. For, at least on the most plausible readings, John suffers no literal scratches in (1), there are no actual eggs present in (2), and nobody has a gun in (3).

This is where formal linguistics usually signs off: these examples are ‘word play’, or ‘meta-linguistic’ – outside of the scope of the grammar. In this talk, though, I will present a model-theoretic account of metaphor mapping, based on Dedre Gentner’s Structure Mapping Theory, which goes some way to integrating such uses into formal linguistic analysis. After all, word play is still linguistic; the most fun and interesting aspects of human linguistic creativity should not be removed from the scope of linguistic theory by fiat.