The interpretation of metonymy by Japanese learners of English

Jeannette Littlemore, Alice May, Satomi Arizono

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Figurative language can present both difficulties and opportunities in cross-linguistic and cross-cultural communication. Previous studies have focused on metaphor comprehension by speakers of different languages, but metonymy comprehension is a relatively under-researched area. In this paper, we describe a two-part study exploring metonymy comprehension by Japanese learners of English. In the first part of the study, ten Japanese learners of English were asked to explain the meanings of twenty expressions instantiating a range of metonymy types. Comprehension problems included: the missing of, or misuse of, contextual clues; reluctance to ‘make a guess’; positive and negative interference from Japanese; ‘underspecification’; and a tendency to interpret metonymies as if they were metaphors. The second part of the study focused on the functions performed by metonymy. Twenty-two Japanese learners of English were asked to interpret a set of twenty metonymies, each of which performed a particular function. Metonymies serving complex functions such as humour, irony and hyperbole were significantly more difficult to understand than ones that served more ‘straightforward’ functions, such as hyperbole and positive evaluation. Comprehension difficulties were related to the extent to which the examples violated the cognitive principles underlying ‘typical’ vehicle selection.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-72
Number of pages22
JournalReview of Cognitive Linguistics
Issue number1
Early online date27 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Metonymy
  • Language Learning


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