Transference Of Meaning

One of the reasons why figurative interpretation is not completely random is that language contains rules op transfep ice, or particular mechanisms for deriving one meaning of a word from another.2 A general formula which fits all rules of transference is this:

'The figurative sense F may replace the literal sense L if F is related to L

in such-and-such a way.'

A simple example is the rule which allows one to use a word denoting such-and-such a place in the sense 'the people in such-and-such a place'; the following sentences illustrate this rule:

The whole village rejoiced.

(= All the people in the village rejoiced.)

Washington has reacted cautiously to the latest peace proposals.

(= The people in Washington. .., i.e. The people in Washington who run the American government...)

Our road is very friendly.

(= The people in our road are very friendly.)

The relation between figurative and literal senses can be represented by the formula F='the people in L'. The above statements are ridiculous on a literal plane, because they attribute the behaviour of human beings to places, which are inanimate. In a description of a rural celebration of Eucharist, Tennyson applies the same rule in a less hackneyed manner:

Or where the kneeling hamlet drains

The chalice of the grapes of God.

Once more the figurative meaning becomes necessary because the literal meaning is absurd; hamlets, literally speaking, cannot kneel, so for 'the hamlet' we substitute, in sense, 'the inhabitants of the hamlet'.

Another rule of transference might be called the 'Quotation Rule'; it is the one we encountered in interpreting the paradox 'That truth is a lie' (§8.1.2). In that case, we made sense of an apparent absurdity by reading it as if part were enclosed in quotation marks. This is a common device of popular irony: 'He did it accidentally on purpose' is best construed as if quotation marks enclosed accidentally; the sense is then: 'He did it on purpose (although he claims to have done it accidentally)'. A literary parallel is Jane Austen's 'You have delighted us long enough', spoken by Mr Bennett [Pride and Prejudice, Chap. 18] to his daughter, who is overzealously entertaining the company with her mediocre musical talent. The superficial oddity of this remark lies in the qualifying of'delighted' by 'long enough', which suggests paradoxically that after a certain period delighting no longer delights. (Compare W. S. Gilbert's 'Modified rapture!' from Act I of The Mikado.) As an irony, the import of Mr Bennett's assertion is: 'I use the word "delighted" because that is the word one conventionally uses of a young lady's performance at the pianoforte; however, by adding "long enough", I intimate that tills performance has really beenfar from delightful.'

'The work(s) for the author' is a further standard example of transference of meaning: for example, when we say 'I love Bach' referring to the music, not the man; or 'I've been reading Dickens'. We apply these rules automatically in our daily speech, and are scarcely aware of their existence.

In literature they are used more daringly, just as the rules of word-formation (see §3.2.1) are applied beyond the usual restrictions.

9.1. i Synecdoche

Particular names have become attached to certain rules of transference. The traditional figure of synecdoche is identified with a rule which applies the term for the part to the whole. This is of little literary interest, but is found in proverbs:

Many hands make light work. Two heads are better than one.

Also in conventional expressions such as sail for 'ship'. A variant of this rule of synecdoche is found in the following:

When by thy scorn, O murd'ress, I am dead, And that thou think'st thee free From all solicitation from me, Then shall my ghost come to thy bed, And thee, feign'd vestal, in worse arms shall see ... [Domie, The Apparition]

where 'worse arms' requires the interpretation ' the arms of a worse person'.

The use of a particular term for a corresponding general term is also commonly treated by textbooks as synecdoche; for example, when a proper noun is handled as if it were a common noun:' His true Penelope was Flaubert' [E. Pound, Mauberley, I]; 'A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard' [H. Melville, Moby Dick, Chap. 24].

A further illustration of the ambiguity of the term 'synecdoche' is its occasional use for the converse substitutions of the above two types: i.e. the term for the whole for the part, and the general term for the particular. Sometimes the latter is interpreted to mean 'abstract property for possessor of abstract property', as in 'Farewell, fair cruelty' [Twelfth Night, I.v].

9.1.2 Metaphor metaphor is so central to our notion of poetic creation that it is often treated as a phenomenon in its own right, without reference to other kinds of transferred meaning. Yet I believe that it cannot be properly understood unless seen against the background of the various other mechanisms of figurative expression. In fact, metaphor is associated with a particular rule of transference, which we may simply call the 'Metaphoric Rule', and which we may formulate: F== 'like L'. That is, the figurative meaning F is derived from the literal meaning L in having the sense ' like L', or perhaps 'it is as if L'. We have already seen the twofold application of this rule to 'a human elephant'; but perhaps the simplest kind of metaphor to use as an illustration is that based on a clause structure with the verb to be:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

At face value, this purports to be a series of definitions of life; but they are plainly not the definitions for that term we would expect to find in a dictionary. In the literal parts of our minds, we know well enough that life is not a walking shadow, nor a poor player, nor a tale told by an idiot. We therefore realize that either the one or the other, the definiendum or the definition, is to be taken in a figurative sense. With the aid of the metaphoric rule, we actually understand 'Life is a walking shadow' as 'Life is like a walking shadow', or 'Life is, as it were, a walking shadow'. In notional terms, 'life' is the tbnor of the metaphor - that which is actually under discussion - and the purported definition 'a walking shadow' is its vehicle - that is, the image or analogue in terms of which the tenor is represented.3 Metaphor, in these terms, may be seen as a pretence - making believe that tenor and vehicle are identical. But as many writers have observed, the pretence often seems more serious and more real than the 'real' world of literal understanding. Macbeth's very words are appropriate (though not his sentiments): 'life' may seem to be a mere 'shadow' of the inner reality captured through metaphor. Nevertheless, from a linguistic point of view, the literal meaning is always basic, and the figurative meaning derived.

Naturally enough, metaphoric transference can only take place if some likeness is perceived between tenor and vehicle. This brings us to the third notional element of metaphor: the ground of the comparison.4 Every metaphor is implicitly of the form 'X is like Y in respect of Z', where X is the tenor, Y the vehicle, and Z the ground. Reading 'human elephant' so that elephant is figurative, we most commonly take Z to be either clumsiness or long memory. In similes such as 'His face was as white as a sheet', tenor, vehicle, and ground are all explicitly mentioned.

9.1.3 Metonymy

Definitions of the figure metonymy are often broad enough to include the preceding two tropes synecdoche and metaphor. Webster's Third New International Dictionary, for instance, calls it 'A figure of speech that consists in using the name of one thing for that of something else with which it is associated'. This covers all rules of transference, including that of metaphor, since similarity is a form of association. However, in practice metonymy is treated as a residual category including all varieties of transference of meaning apart from those separately classed as synecdoche or metaphor. Thus the first examples I gave of rules of transference in §9.1 are standard examples of metonymy: 'The whole village rejoiced'; 'I've been reading Dickens'; etc. Webster gives, as further examples from common usage, 'lands belonging to the crown' (concrete symbol representing abstract institution) and 'ogling the heavily mascaraed skirt at the next table' (article of clothing for person wearing it). One can very often give a literal paraphrase of a sentence containing metonymy simply by inserting one or two extra words: 'I've been reading the works of Dickens'.

In literature, metonymy is often overlooked because of the more powerful effect of metaphor, but is all the same extremely important. From Tennyson, who provided the 'kneeling hamlet' example of§9.i, are taken these further illustrations:

the sinless years

That breathed beneath the Syrian blue.

[In Memoriam, LI]

(A reference to the life of Christ; 'the sinless years' is approximately equivalent to 'the years lived by one who was sinless, and who breathed ...')

Led on the gray-hair'd wisdom of the east.

[The Holy Grail]

('gray-hair'd wisdom' = 'gray-hair'd possessors of wisdom', i.e. sages.)

And all the pavement stream'd with massacre.

[The Last Tournament] ('with massacre'= 'with the blood of massacre'.)

Metonymy can be regarded as a kind of ellipsis: its obvious advantage in poetry is its conciseness. Yet as with metaphor and synecdoche, the expanded paraphrase seems to fail in capturing the immediacy of superimposed images, the vivid insight, which is characteristic of figurative expression. With 'sinless years' we feel that the perfection of Christ's life has somehow been transferred by contagion to the years through which he lived; with 'gray-hair'd wisdom' we somehow see wisdom and hoary-headedness merging into a single indivisible quality. The compressed allusive character of metonymy is well expressed in the following quotation by G. Esnault, which also perceptively sums up the relation between metonymy and metaphor: 'Metonymy docs not open new paths like metaphorical intuition, but, taking too familiar paths in its stride, it shortens distances so as to facilitate the swift intuition of things already known.'6

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  • elvia
    Is metaphor a kind of transference of meaning?
    8 months ago

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