Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


According to the 'Standard Pragmatic Model of Language', a person initially attempts to understand figurative sentences such as metaphors and proverbs in terms of their literal meaning and only processes the figurative meaning when the literal meaning is found inadequate. Experimental studies have failed to support this model; however, many of these studies confounded literalness with conventionality. Furthermore, the role of literal meaning during figurative language comprehension remains unresolved. The purpose of this thesis is to conduct a more valid test of the Standard Pragmatic Model, and to determine the role of literal meaning during proverb comprehension. In the first experiment it was shown that unfamiliar proverbs used figuratively take longer to read compared to unfamiliar proverbs used literally and compared to literal paraphrases of the proverbs' figurative meaning. In contrast, literal and figurative uses of familiar proverbs were read at the same speed. In the second and third studies it was shown that cues related to the literal meaning of a proverb were more effective recall aids for proverbs than were cues related to the figurative meaning of a proverb; however, cues related to the figurative meaning were effective if the proverb was familiar, or if the proverb was used figuratively. These data suggest that literal meaning plays an important role in proverb processing. Experiments four and five tried to determine if literal meaning leads to the comprehension of the abstract proverbial meaning with some use of either (1) verbal associative processes or (2) mental imagery processes. Participants read the proverbs in context while memorizing either a concurrent verbal or visual-spatial pattern. The results, although weak, suggest that proverb processing is more affected by a visual than a verbal distraction task and that reading a paraphrase of the figurative meaning is more affected by a verbal task. Taken together these data are evidence for a modified version of the Standard Pragmatic Model in which both conventional and literal meanings are processed in an obligatory manner. In addition, the results suggest that a proverb's literal meaning is used to generate a mental image that may play a role in proverb processing.



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