ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2019, Vol. 51 ›› Issue (12): 1306-1317.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2019.01306

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Processing of Chinese homophonic two-part allegoric sayings: Effects of familiarity and homophone

MA Lijun1(),MA Yunxiao1,HE Xiaoqing2,LIU Haitao2,ZHANG Jingyu3,4()   

  1. 1 Department of Psychology, Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, Guangzhou 510006, China
    2 School of Education, Guangzhou University, Guangzhou 510006, China
    3 International School, Guangdong Food and Drug Vocational College, Guangzhou 510520, China
    4 School of Interpreting & Translation Studies, Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, Guangzhou 510420, China
  • Received:2018-09-11 Published:2019-12-25 Online:2019-10-21
  • Contact: Lijun MA,Jingyu ZHANG;


Two-part allegorical sayings are a typical language form in Chinese. Understanding two-part allegorical saying involves the ability to understand figurative meanings. Chinese two-part allegorical sayings convey figurative meanings by activating either homophonic or conceptual associations. Homophonic associations are realized based on a conceptual connection between the two homophonic expressions: the second part of the sayings and the expression of the idiomatic meaning. Within the example of Lao tai tai shang ji wo (老太太上鸡窝)—ben dan (笨蛋), a situation is described as an old lady (lao tai tai or老太太) is about to walk towards a henhouse (shang ji wo or上鸡窝), which is reflected in the second part that the purpose of doing this is “heading for eggs” (ben dan or奔蛋). The intended interpretation of the saying “an idiot” (ben dan or笨蛋) could not be worked out without the help of a very crucial apparatus—sound association; that is, “heading for eggs” is pronounced the same with “an idiot” in Chinese with respect to the same segmental combinations and tone patterns. Within the paradigm of sound association, the meaning identified in the source domain (the first part; in our example, the old lady’s behavior) is also observed in the target domain (the second part; in our example, the figurative meaning of the old lady’s behavior) in a metaphoric way through mapping between the two domains, resulting in a shifting from a concrete concept to an abstract one. Mapping, which was described by Lakoff and Johnson in their Conceptual Metaphor Theory, has been considered a powerful theory in interpreting metaphors. Fauconnier proposed Conceptual Blending Theory, emphasizing that mapping happens across spaces via connecting counterparts in the input mental spaces. In our example, it connects one mental space contained the image of an old lady walking towards a henhouse and another mental space describing the purpose of carrying out this behavior. Then the mapping happens when the mental apparatus identifies the sound similarity and generates the intended meaning. Meanwhile, the knowledge of recognizing implicature (Xu, 2005) in pragmatic inference also plays a crucial role in processing two-part allegorical sayings. From this perspective, Chinese two-part allegorical sayings are one of the ideal languages. The successful understanding of them couldn’t be accomplished without considering how people interpret in their real usage. There are three theories relevant to interpreting of Chines two-part allegorical sayings, but what we wonder is which theory is more powerful in explaining the processing of homophonic two-part allegorical sayings in terms of various degrees? Does sound association play a crucial role in the processing? In order to answer these questions, two experiments were designed by using eye-movement instrument: experiment 1 investigated the effect of various degrees of familiarity on the processing of two different types of back parts (homophonic association/ phonography), for example, 老太太上鸡窝—奔蛋 is phonography because there is no metaphoric inference between front and back parts, but老太太上鸡窝—笨蛋 is with homophonic association because the implied meaning (笨蛋) is inferred from the words (奔蛋) through sound similarity. We asked the participants to judge the semantic relatedness between front and back parts and we found that the judgment was determined by the type of back parts, that is, the homophone facilitated the participants’ judgment because of the sound association; while phonography forced participants to infer the implied meaning of the sayings. Meanwhile, participants took longer time to process the sayings with high familiarity and made more errors in the judgment task, the reason of which might be caused by the negative effect of long-term memory. The result supported the Conceptual Metaphor theory and Conceptual Blending theory. However, participants adopted a quite different processing strategy called the on-line processing strategy when the sayings were with low familiarity. The result supported the Pragmatic Inference theory. Experiment 2 investigated how various intonations affected the judgment of semantic relatedness between front and back parts. The results showed that the characters with the same sound pattern but not with the same intonation (e.g. 笨、本、奔) exerted different influences on the judgment. Specifically, the character “本”, which does not fit into the meaning of any of the two parts, did not play a role in the processing. The result does not support the Conceptual Blending theory.

Key words: homophonic two-part allegoric sayings, eye-movement, concept metaphor theory, conceptual blending theory, pragmatic inference theory

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