View Our Catalog

Join Our E-Mail List

What's New

Sign Language Studies

Press Home

Metaphor in American Sign Language

Phyllis Perrin Wilcox

Chapter One: What is a Metaphor?

What Is a Metaphor?

Scholars who study metaphor theory have not always agreed on what constitutes metaphor as a unit of discourse. Traditionally, metaphors were considered to be full sentences (Black 1962). More recently, metaphors have been identified in different grammatical components and can be contained in a word (Sweetser 1987b); a phrase (Kittay 1987); an entire poem, proverb, or literary passage (Lakoff and Turner 1989); or even at the morpho-phonemic feature level (Boyes-Braem 1981). A metaphor might even be only implied within the text (Kittay 1987).

The most consistent description found in both classical and experiential definitions of metaphors, however, is that a metaphor represents two domains of semantic fields. These two different semantic domains can be labeled and defined in various ways and have different meanings.

Richards (1936) was the first to coin terms for the two concepts that operate simultaneously in the formation of a metaphor: tenor and vehicle. He did not explicitly define these concepts, but Kittay later suggested that “the vehicle is the idea conveyed by the literal meaning of the words used metaphorically. The tenor is the idea conveyed by the vehicle” (1987, 16). However, context becomes essential when defining referents, as shown in the following sentence: man is a wolf. The metaphorically used “wolf” and the term wolf with its usual beastly connotation lend ambiguous readings to this one word. Kittay suggests that additional confusion is created if the vehicle is perceived as being equivalent to what was traditionally called the image (1987, 25). Images occur more frequently with traditional metaphors than with nonmetaphorical language.

Black calls the metaphorical unit (in his view, the sentence) the frame, and the word or words otherwise used metaphorically, the focus (1962, 39). Meaning is imposed on the focal word by the entire frame of the sentence. Kittay describes the frame as “that minimal unit which establishes the incongruity” (1987, 24). The frame might be as small as a phrase or greater than the passage that the focus word is in, or it may not even be a part of the contextualized language being addressed. The less explicit the frame, the more possibilities there are in determining the metaphorical interpretation.

Black originally referred to the tenor as principal subject and the vehicle as subsidiary subject. Kittay retains the use and definition of Black’s vehicle, with its suggestion of transport, to denote the focal term in a metaphor (1987, 26). She refers to the tenor, however, as the topic. This topic suggests what the text is about and picks out what is named or spoken of in the metaphor. Thus, for metaphorical extension to take place, a transference of relations from the semantic field of the vehicle to the conceptual domain of the topic occurs.

Next Page