February's Author of the Month is Charles Denroche of the University of Westminster, author of the recently published Metonymy and Language. He studied at the universities of Oxford, Florence, Düsseldorf, London and Westminster. He has worked as a language teacher, translator and lexicographer.
The author discussed his powerful and innovative new book in an interview with Routledge. He talked about his reasons for writing this book, what sets it apart from other similar titles, the defintion of ‘metonymy,’ and more.
Why did you decide to write Metonymy and Language?
Writing Metonymy and Language came from a conviction that there is a common mental procedure underlying many of our daily activities and that this important phenomenon, though evident to me, hadn't yet been written about in this way. It seemed to me that there was one mental operation which recurs right across the whole range of procedures we perform on language, the ability to recognize part-whole relations between signs and parts of signs. In writing this book, I chose to analyse this skill in terms of ‘metonymy’ and to focus particularly on its manifestation in language.
Can you provide a basic definition of what ‘metonymy’ is and what led you to connect this concept with language and communication?
Most people, if they know the term ‘metonymy’ at all, know it from literature classes at school in the sense of a part referring to a whole, like the crown for ‘the royal family’. I am using the term like this but in a much wider sense than these familiar textbook examples indicate. I am using ‘metonymy’ to refer to all situations where processing part-whole relations and recognizing approximations, partial matches, and overlaps play an important role. It is the mental process involved and the frequency it is used which interest me, rather than individual examples which have become fossilized in the language.
What’s the one thing you hope readers take away from your book?
I would like readers to take away with them the idea of metonymy as central to thinking and behaving, and processing metonymy as a phenomenon which occurs at every level within language, making it an essential part of all communication. I argue that the ability to manipulate part-whole relations is key to understanding how a relatively fixed ‘code’ (the language system) is modified to afford the extraordinary subtleties of expression we expect, while involving a minimum of misunderstanding.
What do you think makes Metonymy and Language different from any other book on the topic?
No book to date has taken the notion of metonymy as far as I have in Metonymy and Language. No one has shown a commonality across such a wide range of linguistic and non-linguistic phenomena based on the ability to identify part-whole relations. Some might not like what I have done here but my approach is far more than just an exercise in renaming; it offers a powerful heuristic tool for understanding linguistic communication better, demonstrated in the book through the examination of a wide range of linguistic, social and cultural data.
Is there anything you’d like to highlight about this topic or your book in particular?
Identifying approximations, partial matches and overlaps in language is so common that carrying out these manipulations seems effortless and has almost gone unnoticed, but this belies their importance. Because in metonymy access to a concept as a whole is achieved through a part, the speaker is able to choose which part, and each choice they make brings about a slightly different emphasis or spin. An awareness of this powerful, but little recognized, aspect of communication, while interesting in itself, becomes particularly relevant when applied to the training of professionals who work with languages, such as editors, language teachers and translators/ interpreters.
What’s a common misconception about this topic that you’d like to clear up?
Figurative language is crucial to the way we think and live. Metonymy, like metaphor, is now seen as being about thought rather than just about text, functional rather than decorative, and occurring universally across all fields of human endeavour, not just confined to literary texts. This has been the big shift in thinking in this field which cognitive linguistics has brought about. Metonymy has been misconceived as merely a device for referring but it actually has a far more important role in allowing the speaker to give shades of meaning, nuance and colour. The language system offers the basic buildings blocks; messages are arrived at through interpretation according to pragmatic principles; and between the two is metonymy which enables us to achieve the remarkably subtle gradations and nuances of meaning which we have learnt to expect from language.