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Transfers of Meaning

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Journal of Semantics 12:109-132 © Oxford University Press 1995Transfers of MeaningGEOFFREY NUNBERGXerox Palo Alto Research Center and Stanford UniversityAbstract'Transfers of meaning' are linguistic mechanisms that make it possible to use the sameexpression to refer to disjoint sorts of things. Here 1 discuss predicate transfer, an operation thattakes names of properties into new names that denote properties to which they functionallycorrespond. It is this operation that is responsible for the new meaning of the predicate parkedout back in the utterance 'I am parked out back', as well as for the lexical alternations that figurein systematic polysemy. Predicate transfer is subject to two general conditions, which requirethat basic and derived property stand in a functional correspondence and that the derivedproperty should be a 'noteworthy' feature of its bearer. I argue that by appealing to predicatetransfer we can maintain a very strict definition of syntactic identity, which rules out all casesof'sortal crossing', in which a term appears to refer to things of two sorts at the same time, as inexamples like Ringo squeezed himself into a tight space; in such a case, the reflexive is strictlypreferential with its antecedent.1 INTRODUCTIONBy 'transfers of meaning' I mean the ensemble of productive linguisticprocesses that enable us to use the same expression to refer to what areintuitively distinct sorts of categories of things. Broadly speaking, transfersinvolve all the figures that traditional rhetoric describes as metaphors,synesthesias, metonymies, and synecdoches, in all their synchronic manifesta-tions. The difference is that transfers are linguistic processes, whereas therhetorical figures are defined and classified according to the independent con-ceptual relations that they exploit. The difference between metaphors andmetonymies, for example, is that the first presupposes a resemblance and thesecond a contiguity. And we can go on to classify figures according to theparticular conceptual schemas they rest on, either as general correspondenceslike 'abstract for concrete', 'part for whole', and 'animate for inanimate', or asmore specific schemas like 'life is a journey' or 'polities are bodies'. But taken bythemselves, these schemas and principles aren't sufficient to explain thelinguistic phenomena of transfer. Granted that there is a salient correspondencebetween monarchs and crowns, for example, it still has to be explained why theword croum can be used to refer to monarchs—or for that matter why this factno Transfers of Meaningshould have any linguistic consequences at all. For this we have to look tospecifically linguistic mechanisms, which is what I will be talking about here.1These mechanisms exist in the service of the expression of conceptual regu-larities, but they are in principle independent of them, and are constrained inways that don't permit a purely pragmatic explanation. They are the linguistichandmaidens of figuration, but each is specialized in her offices.2 MECHANISMS OF TRANSFERThe easiest way to appreciate the difference between rhetorical figures and thelinguistic mechanisms is to consider how we can exploit the same sorts ofcorrespondences among things in the world to effect two different kinds oftransfer. A customer hands his key to an attendant at a parking lot and sayseither (i) or (2):1. This is parked out back.2. I am parked out back.Both these utterances involve metonymies. In (1), for example, we would beinclined to say that the subject refers not to the key that the speaker is holding,but to the car that the key goes with. And in fact all the linguistic evidencesupports this analysis. For example, the number of the demonstrative isdetermined by the intended referent, not the demonstratum. So even if the cus-tomer is holding up several keys that fit a single car, he would say 'This isparked out back', whereas if he's holding up a single key that fits several cars, hewould say, 'These are parked out back'. We can make the same point looking atlanguages that mark demonstratives and adjectives for grammatical gender. InItalian, for example, the word for key is feminine, la chiave, and the word fortruck is masculine, il camion. And if a customer gives the attendant the key to atruck it will be the referent, not the demonstratum, that determines the genderof the demonstrative and the adjective for 'parked', as in (3):3. Holding up a key (la chiave, fern, sg.) to refer to a truck (il camion, masc.) Questo(masc. sg.) e parcheggiato (masc. sg.) in dietro. 'This (masc.) is parked (masc.)in back.'One final example to the same effect: we can conjoin another predicate thatdescribes the car, but not a predicate that describes the key:4. This is parked out back and may not start.5. ??This fits only the left front door and is parked out back.So there's every reason for saying that the subject of sentences like these refersto the car.Geoffrey Nunberg 111But what of an utterance like (2), 'I'm parked out back'? This too is plainly ametonymy of some sort, and there may be a temptation to analyze it as wewould (1), saying that the subject of the sentence refers not to the speaker, but tothe speaker's car.2 But the tests we have used to validate this analysis for thedemonstrative in (1) give a different answer here. For example, if the speaker hastwo cars he wouldn't say:6. We are parked out back.(though of course this would be an appropriate utterance if there were twopeople who were waiting for the car). By the same token, an Italian man whowas waiting for his car would express this by using a masculine adjectiveparcheggiato for 'parked', even though the word for 'car' is feminine, la macchina.7. Io sono parcheggiato (*parcheggiata, fern, sg.) dietro.And in this case, we can conjoin any other predicate that describes the speaker,but not always the one that describes the car:8. I am parked out back and have been waiting for 15 minutes.9. *I am parked out back and may not start.The conclusion is that the subject of (1) refers to the speaker, and the transferinvolves the predicate.3 That is, the predicate parked out back contributes aproperty of persons, the property they possess in virtue of the locations of theircars.Now the difference between these examples clearly doesn't have anything todo with the kind of relations they exploit. In both cases we assume acorrespondence between the things in one domain, the cars parked in variouslocations, and the things in


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