Interpreting Visual Metaphors: Asymmetry and Reversibility
In a verbal metaphor, the target and the source domains can usually be distinguished clearly, and some features of the source domain are mapped to the target domain, and not vice versa. This asymmetry of metaphor has been acknowledged in conceptual metaphor theory, as well as in interaction theory. However, the asymmetry of visual metaphor, in which concepts are depicted in images, is debated in the existing literature. The authors argue that the main reason behind this is that images lack an explicit copula (“X is Y”); so it is not always clear what a visual metaphor is about (what its target is). The authors explore the asymmetry of visual metaphors by considering a number of examples, and also by using the results of an empirical study they conducted with forty-four participants. Their study shows that, although the source and the target of visual metaphors are reversible more often than in their verbal counterparts, the transferred features usually change drastically by the reversal. This essay argues that the visual metaphors can appear to be symmetric more often than the verbal metaphors because the lack of copula can turn the focus on the comparison between the source and the target, instead of the target itself. The examples demonstrate that context plays a major role in this process by identifying the source and the target of a visual metaphor.
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