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Metaphor in American Sign Language

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Theorists in the first half of the twentieth century who attempted to understand the cognitive framework of metaphor held various perspectives on the crossing of semantic domains and the transference found in metaphorical mappings. The experiential metaphor, as described later in this chapter, is the foundation for research in this book. Nevertheless, an understanding of the traditional components of metaphorical extension and how they function is important for the subsequent analysis of ASL metaphors.


The study of metaphor will inevitably involve a discussion of tropes, which are categories of figures of speech. People studying tropes have placed the number of tropic categories to be anywhere from several to more than sixty. Linguists, researchers, anthropologists, philosophers, and educators studying tropes have recognized a variety of categories of tropes: Friedrich (1991) looks at the categories of metaphor, modal, and contiguity, each of which maintains subgroups of polytropic interaction; Crystal’s (1987) Encyclopedia of Language cites metaphor and simile as the most widely recognized forms; Lévi-Strauss (1967) and Fernandez (1986) offer primacy to metaphor over metonymy; Quinn (1982) defines and documents over sixty tropes in his Figures of Speech, including antithesis, metonymy, syncope, and synecdoche, but not metaphor. There is controversy over which trope should be designated a “master” trope, with candidates other than metaphor being considered (Friedrich 1991; Ohnuki-Tierney 1991). I do not designate any of the commonly researched tropes as most important, but it is important to examine several tropes other than metaphor in order to better understand what constitutes a metaphor.

Traditionally, tropes have been studied in a compartmentalized manner, with each tropic category serving as a mutually exclusive model. For example, metaphor is often discussed as if it “consisted only of the figurative identification of the features of source and target overtly involved in the metaphoric comparison” (T. Turner 1991, 153). Goossens differentiates between metonymy (as well as synecdoche) and metaphor: “in a metaphoric mapping two discrete domains are involved, whereas in a metonymy the mapping occurs within a single domain” (1990, 325). Even though metaphor and metonymy are generally recognized as being distinct cognitive processes, Goossens coined a term for the interaction of metaphor and metonymy in expressions for linguistic action: metaphtonymy (323). He uses this term to generate awareness of the fact that metaphor and metonymy can be intertwined in countless linguistic situations. The fuzzy boundary lines between domains, as well as the nonlinguistic and linguistic action of a reading, can affect the interaction of tropes. For example, to catch someone’s ear can have a literal meaning, as well as a metonymical mapping (an ear representing a whole person) to designate the process of getting someone to listen and pay attention (334–35).

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