Send to

Choose Destination
Cogn Sci. 2017 Mar;41 Suppl 2:351-378. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12341. Epub 2016 Feb 17.

Metonymy as Referential Dependency: Psycholinguistic and Neurolinguistic Arguments for a Unified Linguistic Treatment.

Author information

Department of Linguistics, Yale University.
Department of Psychology, New York University.
Department of Diagnostic Radiology, Yale University.


We examine metonymy at psycho- and neurolinguistic levels, seeking to adjudicate between two possible processing implementations (one- vs. two-mechanism). We compare highly conventionalized systematic metonymy (producer-for-product: "All freshmen read O'Connell") to lesser-conventionalized circumstantial metonymy ("[a waitress says to another:] 'Table 2 asked for more coffee."'). Whereas these two metonymy types differ in terms of contextual demands, they each reveal a similar dependency between the named and intended conceptual entities (e.g., Jackendoff, 1997; Nunberg, 1979, 1995). We reason that if each metonymy yields a distinct processing time course and substantially non-overlapping preferential localization pattern, it would not only support a two-mechanism view (one lexical, one pragmatic) but would suggest that conventionalization acts as a linguistic categorizer. By contrast, a similar behavior in time course and localization would support a one-mechanism view and the inference that conventionalization acts instead as a modulator of contextual felicitousness, and that differences in interpretation introduced by conventionalization are of degree, not of kind. Results from three paradigms: self-paced reading (SPR), event-related potentials (ERP), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), reveal the following: no main effect by condition (metonymy vs. matched literal control) for either metonymy type immediately after the metonymy trigger, and a main effect for only the Circumstantial metonymy one word post-trigger (SPR); a N400 effect across metonymy types and a late positivity for Circumstantial metonymy (ERP); and a highly overlapping activation connecting the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (fMRI). Altogether, the pattern observed does not reach the threshold required to justify a two-mechanism system. Instead, the pattern is more naturally (and conservatively) understood as resulting from the implementation of a generalized referential dependency mechanism, modulated by degree of context dependence/conventionalization, thus supporting architectures of language whereby "lexical" and "pragmatic" meaning relations are encoded along a cline of contextual underspecification.


Contextual effects; Event-related potentials; Figurative language; Metonymy; Producer-for-product metonymy; Reference transfer; Self-paced reading; fMRI

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Wiley
Loading ...
Support Center