Formalizing the Pragmatics of Metaphor Understanding

Justine KaoStanford University
Leon BergenMassachusetts Institute of Technology
Noah GoodmanStanford University


While the ubiquity and importance of nonliteral language are clear, people's ability to use and understand it remains a mystery. Metaphor in particular has been studied extensively across many disciplines in cognitive science. One approach focuses on the pragmatic principles that listeners utilize to infer meaning from metaphorical utterances. While this approach has generated a number of insights about how people understand metaphor, to our knowledge there is no formal model showing that effects in metaphor understanding can arise from basic principles of communication. Building upon recent advances in formal models of pragmatics, we describe a computational model that uses pragmatic reasoning to interpret metaphorical utterances. We conduct behavioral experiments to evaluate the model's performance and show that our model produces metaphorical interpretations that closely fit behavioral data. We discuss implications of the model for metaphor understanding, principles of communication, and formal models of language understanding.


Formalizing the Pragmatics of Metaphor Understanding (141 KB)

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