Semantic Resonance
Patrick Hanks
Research Institute for Information and Language Processing,
University of Wolverhampton;
Bristol Centre for Linguistics, University of the West of
Talk Outline
• Possible definitions of metaphor
• The central role of resonance in linguistic metaphors
– An aside on conceptual metaphor
• Metaphorical resonance
• Measuring the (metaphorical) ‘resonance quotient’ of texts
• Three kinds of resonance
– Verbal resonance
– Experiential resonance
– Intertextual resonance
• Conclusion(s)
How to tell a metaphor from a
• Which of these sentences is literal, which is metaphorical?
– A car backfired. [Briefly frequent; now rare]
– The gun backfired. [More frequent in C17]
– His plan backfired. [Very frequent these days, but is it a
metaphor? Somehow we feel it to be metaphorical,
don’t we?]
What criteria are there for recognizing
a linguistic metaphor?
• Frequency? The metaphorical sense of a word is sometimes
more frequent than its literal counterpart.
• In some cases, there may not even be a ‘literal counterpart’.
– launch a new product vs. launch a ship;
– grasp an idea vs. grasp a physical object.
– his plan backfired (what is the literal counterpart?);
• Historical development? Metaphors can ‘become’ literal over
– an awful experience, ardent feelings, a subject, a camera.
• Abstract vs. concrete? Maybe – if there is a concrete sense (but
words like idea do not have a concrete sense).
• Resonance between a concrete sense and an abstract sense.
– Any metaphorical use of a word or phrase depends on its having two
senses – one literal, the other exploiting the literal
Conventional linguistic metaphors and
their literal counterparts
Blowing a gasket:
– Dado Prso has been a tremendous asset, and I'm hoping he doesn't
blow a gasket, because his work rate has been phenomenal;
– the FNM was responsible for the Prime Minister literally [?!]
blowing a head gasket; vs.
– The Austin blew a head gasket.
Blowing the / a whistle:
– She was right to blow the whistle;
– Workers find it hard to blow the whistle on wrong-doing; vs.
– Someone blew a whistle, which caused all of the students to
immediately shut up
– the teams were tied when the referee blew the final whistle.
Zoltan Kövecses
• Distinguishes conceptual metaphors from metaphorical
linguistic expressions.
– Conceptual metaphors are systematic.
– Many conventional linguistic metaphors are instantiations of a
conceptual metaphor.
– But some are not.
– Some people are good at producing “novel linguistic metaphors
based on conventional conceptual metaphors.”
– Others simply exploit the literal meaning of any word or phrase.
Applying these insights to word
A word meaning is a linguistic gestalt – a cluster of attributes.
– Such attributes are not necessarily mutually compatible with one
– Neither a word meaning nor a metaphor meaning is an
‘experiential gestalt’ (pace Lakoff and Johnson).
•An abstract meaning is often expressed in terms of a
conventional secondary senses of a word that has an equally
conventional concrete primary sense.
•In such a case, the abstract meaning of the word(s) resonates
with the concrete meaning.
Resonance quotient
• See handout (news story from the Guardian, 26 August).
• Some clauses are completely literal, e.g.
– This week the US tested a hypersonic prototype missile.
• Others are equally clearly metaphorical, e.g.
– [Its failure is] unlikely to cool the enthusiasm for developing such
a weapon.
• Some clauses are debatable.
• If we can decide what counts as a metaphor, we can measure the
metaphorical resonance of a text (its ‘resonance quotient’) by
dividing the total number of words in the text by the number of
expressions used metaphorically.
– The text on the handout has a resonance quotient of 19.11.
– Some texts have a resonance quotient of 0. They are totally literal.
The role of resonance in literature
• Writers (poets) are “makers” (etymology: Greek ποιητής
‘maker’, from ποεῖν ‘to make’)
• They make texts out of words; in doing so they play with
words in all sorts of different ways.
• Among other things, they exploit the shared cognitive
associations of words and names in a language.
• ‘Shared cognitive associations’ resonate in various ways.
• Part of the aim of a writer is to fire up the imagination of
the reader or hearer.
• Grabbing the reader’s attention is a function of figurative
language – especially similes.
Three kinds of resonance
• Verbal resonance
– linguistic metaphors; similes; etc.
• Experiential resonance
• Intertextual resonance
Intertextual Resonance in The
Waste Land
T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is crammed full of literary allusions, from which it
derives much of its meaning -- e.g. to the Bible; Aldous Huxley; Polybius (Battle
of Mylae, 260 BC), Wagner's Tristan and Isolde; Baudelaire; Shakespeare, John
Webster, and other Jacobeans; Milton's Paradise Lost; Ovid; Marvell; etc., etc.
A central theme is Wagnerian:
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein irisch Kind
Wo weilest du?
Oed’ und leer das Meer.
Experiential and Intertextual
From T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922); I: THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD, 8-17:
evoking nostalgia for the lost charm and innocence of pre-1914 Europe.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
ASSOCIATIONS: resort frequented by Bavarian royalty; “mad” King Ludwig II
(patron of Wagner) was found mysteriously drowned here in 1886.
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the Colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
ASSOCIATIONS: an elegant park in Munich (visited by Eliot in 1911)
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
ASSOCIATIONS: querulous assertion of national identity. Why included?
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
ASSOCIATIONS: echoes of the Hapsburgs; Sarajevo; World War I.
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
Experiential Resonance
(distant echoes)
We've both been sound asleep
Wake up little Susie and weep
The movie's over, it's four o'clock
And we're in trouble deep
Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie
Well, what are we gonna tell your Mama
What are we gonna tell your Pa?
What are we gonna tell our friends
When they say, "Ooh la la!”
Wake up, little Susie
Wake up, little Susie
Well, I told your Mama that you'd be in by ten
Well, Susie baby, looks like we goofed again
--The Everly Brothers
Experiential Resonance
In Don Maclean's American Pie (1971):
•February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver…
I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.
Resonance contributes largely to
meaningful communication
• There can be no metaphors if there are no literal meanings;
there can be no literal meanings if there are are no
• Metaphors resonate. For many polysemous words, sense 2
(conventional metaphor) resonates with sense 1 (literal,
• Writers and speakers evoke experiential resonance
A usage-based, corpus-driven
theory of language
• The Theory of Norms and Exploitations (TNE) agrees that
language is indeed a rule-governed system BUT:
• There are two sets of rules, not just one:
Rules for using words normally, “correctly”, boringly
Rules for exploiting normal patterns of word use. Exploitations
include not only metaphors and similes, but ellipsis, anomalous
arguments, irony, other figures of speech, etc.
• The two rule systems interact. Today’s exploitation may
become tomorrow’s norm.
Compare Bowdle and Gentner: ‘the Career of Metaphor’.
• The rules are probabilistic, not deterministic.
• Hanks (2013): Lexical Analysis: Norms and Exploitations.
MIT Press.
Conclusion: Meaning and
• Meaning in text is only partly literal.
• Other kinds of meaning depend on three kinds of
– Verbal
– Intertextual
– Experiential
• Experiential resonance can evoke distant echoes of
someone else’s experience.

Semantic Resonance