The social dimension of grammatical metaphor

Miriam Taverniers

Ghent University


In this paper I will explore ideational grammatical metaphor in terms of social meaning construction, focusing on two tensions:

(1) grammatical metaphor vs. transcategorization;

(2) grammatical metaphor as ‘empowering’ vs. ‘estranging’.

            (1) Grammatical metaphor is a corrollary of languages being dynamic open systems, with multiple levels of encoding (stratification) that are related through metaredundancy (Taverniers, 2017a, 2019): grammatical metaphor, like all metaphor (cf. Taverniers, 2017b), is a means of “using existing resources more than once” (Martin & Matthiessen 1991, p. 350). Transcategorization, or the shift from one category to another, including conversion (where transcategorization is unmarked), is likewise a typical feature of metaredundancy systems.

            What is the difference between those two phenomena? This question is especially relevant from the perspective of the social construction of meaning, since grammatical metaphor is typical of knowledge-based discourse formations, including especially academic genres, while transcategorization is a general feature of languages (Halliday & Matthiessen, 1999, p. 242), and also occurs in languages without elaborate academic repertoires, including emergent creoles (Blank, 2001). I will explore the difference between ideational grammatical metaphor and transcategorization, in terms of their grammar as different types of signs, and in terms of possible differences in the social communities using those sign types, by taking work on the social dimension of language change (Trudgill, 2011; Dąbrowska 2015) as a basis. A question to be addressed here is: How did grammatical metaphor ‘emerge’ and stick in scientific discourse, and how is this process of innovation in academic languages different from and/or similar to the use of transcategorization in non-academic languages?

            (2) The (popular) research on the use of grammatical metaphor in specific text genres (which forms a substantial strand of research for ideational metaphor) starts from the premise that “ideational metaphor equals power” (Halliday, 1990, p. 71) and oscillates between two ideological perspectives, one highlighting grammatical metaphor as a mechanism that has enabled (and that has even been essential in) the advancement of modern science (e.g. Goatly, 1996), and another view that focuses on the nominalized discourse of the expert as “a language of power and technocratic control” (e.g. Halliday, 1998, p. 228) that creates a distance between scientific knowledge and the everyday experience of life, between the expert and the layman or the learner. This tension too is highly relevant in relation to the social construction of meaning, especially in terms of access to knowledge discourse in societies that are increasingly knowledge based. I will explore it here in the context of language pedagogy, especially the teaching of writing, with a focus on English for academic purposes.



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