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Literal and Figurative Languages have been divided into two separate classes by more traditional systems for analyzing language. In short, literal language refers to stating the facts without any exaggerations or alterations of the subject at hand while figurative language states the facts with comparisons to similar events and some possible exaggerations; these comparisons and exaggerations are known as figures of speech.

Literal Language

In traditional analysis, words in literal expressions denote what they mean according to common or dictionary usage, while words in figurative expressions connote additional layers of meaning. When the human ear or eye receives the message, the mind must interpret the data to convert it into meaning. This involves the use of a cognitive framework which is made up of memories of all the possible meanings that might be available to apply to the particular words in their context. This set of memories will give prominence to the most common or literal meanings, but also suggest reasons for attributing different meanings, e.g., the reader understands that the author intended it to mean something different.

For example, the words, "The ground is thirsty and hungry", mixes the usages. The ground is not alive and therefore does not need to drink or have the essence of life to be able to obtain the characteristics needed to eat. The reader can immediately understand that a literal interpretation is not appropriate and confidently interpret the words to mean "the ground is dry": The stimulus that would trigger the sensation of thirst in a living organism. But a sentence, "When I first saw her, my soul began to quiver", is more difficult to interpret. "When I first saw her, I began to panic", or something else entirely. Whereas the ground's thirst can only sensibly refer to its dryness, the soul may quiver to represent a whole range of feelings, including mutually exclusive ones. Only someone familiar with the speaker's feelings could accurately interpret this statement. A different way of expressing the difficulty is that, without a context, a few words can only be given a provisional set of meanings, the most appropriate only becoming apparent when more information is made available.

Figurative Language

Classical and traditional linguistics by some counts identified more than two hundred and fifty different figures of speech. More recently, some have reduced the list to more manageable proportions; others have claimed to be able to classify all figurative language as either metaphor or metonymy.

Easier definition- Figurative language or speech contains images. The writer or speaker describes something through the use of unusual comparisons, for effect, interest, and to make things clearer. The result of using this technique is the creation of interesting images.

Harder definition - Figurative language is not intended to be interpreted in a literal sense. Appealing to the imagination, figurative language provides new ways of looking at the world. It always makes use of a comparison between different things. Figurative language compares two things that are different in enough ways so that their similarities, when pointed out, are interesting, unique and/or surprising.

It has been customary to characterize literal as the antonym of figurative as if the two are in dialectical opposition. But this view is not sustainable. Each semiotic niche within a culture will reach agreement about the usual or actual meaning of words in common use. This will not be fixed but will change over time. Hence, for example, the original definition of wicked referred to behaviour that was immoral or sinful, but in some subcultures, the word now carries connotations of positive approval. So, when the audience begins to decode the incoming message, the literal meaning of the whole will be the one using the commonly-used meaning for each word. Word-for-word translation between two languages won't translate the understanding of the original. The full system of interpretation requires the application of a complex set of rules to place the provisional meanings allocated to the individual words into a full context in which all the available information, linguistic and nonlinguistic, will be applied to determine where the final translation will sit on the spectrum of meaning from literal to figurative.

Cognitive linguistics, in particular, may ultimately declare all distinction between literal and figurative language irrelevant. Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner say

What gets called literal meaning is only a plausible default in minimally specified contexts. It is not clear that the notion "literal meaning" plays any privileged role in the on-line construction of meaning.(Fauconnier and Turner, p. 64)

The "literal meaning" is not a special form of meaning, as demonstrated by the example above; it is only the meaning the reader is most likely to assign to a word or phrase if he or she knows nothing about the context in which it is to be used.

One example is the popular usage of the word "literally" itself. As in "I was literally caught with my pants down", "literally" is usually an example of hyberbole. While using "literally" in that way may seem a gross error, it has literary precedent, appearing in the works of such writers as Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James. The usage is now widespread. Other, more intuitive choices, such as "metaphorically", might seem to diminish, rather than emphasize, the point of the story, and are therefore avoided.[1]

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