Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

13.1. Migration als Faktor sozio-kultureller Innovationen
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Attributive Metonymy in the English Works of Russian Emigrants

Alexey A. Lukyanov (State University Tambov, Russia)


Metonymy is traditionally viewed either as a means of creating imagery in works of art or as a means of secondary nomination, i.e. as a mechanism allowing a word to acquire a new meaning, a mechanism for the broadening of polysemy.

Meanings appearing in the language undoubtedly depend on the nation that speaks it. Foreigners immigrating into the country bring new traditions, new culture, new mentality. These socio-cultural innovations affect every part of life, and the language being the cultural environment of its native speakers reflects all of these changes. This presentation is aimed at an investigation of the literary works of Russian emigrants writing in English. The object of the research is to identify the new trends of thought expressed by the attributive metonymy that Russian emigrants bring into English literature and English mentality.

Metonymy is traditionally viewed either as a trope - a means of creating imagery in works of art -- or as a means of secondary nomination, i.e. as a mechanism allowing a word to acquire a new meaning, a mechanism for the broadening of polysemy. In the light of the advancement to the foreground of representing the world through "events" and "descriptions", the greatest interest on the contemporary scientific stage is attracted to the role of metonymy in the process of conceptualizing events and phenomena.

Meanings appearing in the language undoubtedly depend on the nation that speaks it. Foreigners immigrating into the country bring new traditions, new culture, new mentality. These socio-cultural innovations affect every part of life, and the language, being the cultural environment of its native speakers, reflects all of these changes. This research is aimed at an investigation of the literary works of Russian emigrants writing in English. The object of the research is to identify the new trends of thought expressed by the attributive metonymy that Russian emigrants bring into the literature and mentality of the English-speaking society.

The principal attention in this investigation will be paid to the creative work of Vladimir Nabokov - a unique bilingual writer, whose legacy (both in Russian and English) is truly boundless. Emigration undoubtedly left a serious mark upon the writer’s way of thinking; his works frequently have a political and social purpose. Attributive metonymy plays a very important role as a clear means of expressing V. Nabokov’s ideas:

"Given this atmosphere of florid hooliganism and reactionary smugness ..., the intelligentsia could hardly bear to visualize the disaster of identifying the pure, ardent, revolutionary-minded Perov as represented by his poems with a vulgar old man wallowing in a painted pigsty." [Nabokov, "A Forgotten Poet"]

"I visualized the fellow as a young, very White émigré, of the automatically reactionary type, whose education had been interrupted by the revolution and who was successfully making up for lost time along traditional lines." [Nabokov, "Conversation Piece, 1945"]

"Germans, Austrians, Italians, Rumanians, Greeks, and all the other peoples of Europe are now members of one tragic brotherhood, all are equal in misery and hope..." [Nabokov, "Conversation Piece, 1945"]

"But the disreputable St. Petersburg Record, a lurid and reactionary rag edited by brothers Kherstov for the benefit of the lower middle class ..., blazed forth with a series of articles maintaining that the "regrettable incident" was nothing less than the reappearance of the authentic Perov." [Nabokov, "A Forgotten Poet"]

One of V. Nabokov’s favorite techniques for intensifying his expressions is the use of partial metonymy [Lukyanov 2003]:

"‘The tragedy of Germany,’ said Dr. Shoe as he carefully folded the paper napkin with which he had wiped his thin lips, ‘is also the tragedy of cultured America.’" [Nabokov, "Conversation Piece, 1945"]

"The wording is muddled but the gist is clear: intellectual Russia was less afraid of falling victim to a hoax than of sponsoring a hideous blunder." [Nabokov, "A Forgotten Poet"]

Nevertheless, the main goal of the present research is not V. Nabokov’s socio-political ideas. It is my aim to investigate the human cognitive trends of thought that Russian emigrant writers, and among their number V. Nabokov, bring into the English language literature.

The active role of a man in cognition is revealed partly in the fact that the dynamic process of categorization as the mental correlation of an object of the real world with a specific category, the conferring of a name of the category to this object and consequently the description of the object is based on the comparison of the objects to a certain standard. Between the objects of comparison there is always a human being as a separate individual, a social group, or the entire language community. It is the entry of a certain object or event into the world of human life that generates their comparison. The parameters of comparison and consequently of characterization can be associated with the physical qualities belonging to the objects of the real world themselves, and thus they can have mainly an objective, logical nature, or they can be based on an individual’s subjective, personal experience, knowledge, opinion or attitude [Boldyrev 2002].

The potentialities of expressing thoughts and evaluations in the metonymic model of categorization increase at the expense of the erosion of secondary meanings. Speech activity and its creations, on the one hand, are opposed and parallel to the human world and activities, but, on the other hand, the latter includes the first as its important part. Thus the analysis of meaning requires knowledge of the world in its various manifestations. The main interest is provoked by the prototypical effects of the functioning of metonyms, which are expressed in the fact that the nuclear parts of a category display cognitive characteristics that are different from those of the periphery, i.e. when an element or a part is used instead of the whole category.

Today linguistics is becoming more and more anthropocentric, as it is turning towards questions that used to be untraditional before - language ethnography, social status language, national and the cultural specific character of language semantics, etc. The present research is an attempt to investigate the semantic spheres that are actually used for characterizing a man in various aspects of his state and activity, and to ascertain the degree of productivity achieved by using attributive metonymy to verbalize these frames in the works by V. Nabokov. In the present research we will focus on the frames depicting a man’s "social status", "exterior" and "personal qualities". In every case the foreground is occupied with the most urgent element of the metonymic transference content. And a very important role in this undertaking is the analysis of the attributive metonymy from the standpoint of the degree of its association with the subject (man) [Lukyanov 2003]. According to the "windowing of attention" principle proposed by L. Talmy, it is possible to distinguish the "Figure" and the "Ground" - concepts determined and characterized in relation to each other. The Figure is the principal, most meaningful, actual element of content in a context, contrary to the Ground, which is the referent to the Figure element of content [Talmy 1985, 1987, 1991]. The peculiarity of the primariness/secondariness in the present research is that in the indirect (secondary) metonymic transference there is an "intermediary" that moves to the foreground and becomes the Figure of the metonymic transference in attributes.

It is known that communication is often determined by a certain extralinguistic situation. These limitations can be of different nature. Group norms of communicative behavior reflect special features of the intercourse attached by the culture to certain professional, social, gender and age groups. There exist peculiarities of the communicative behavior of men, women, lawyers, doctors, children, parents, etc. Thus, the limitations in the social status of the communicators allow us to distinguish two variants of communicative behavior - vertical (superior - subordinate) and horizontal (equal - equal), i.e. it is possible to speak about the use of attributive metonymy in describing a man who is superior, subordinate, and equal in his status. When a man’s status is described through the attributive metonymy, one should, in order to achieve a more complete evaluation, take into consideration the degree of association between the pointed meaning and the subject (man). In addition to the description of a man’s social status metonymically transferred in terms of its quality or indication (direct metonymic transference of meaning), a technique widely represented in V. Nabokov’s creative works, there is the secondary metonymic characterization of the social status expressed through the description of such components as sex, age, nationality, cultural and social origin, education, profession and environment. One of the examples of the direct (primary) metonymic shift can be found in V. Nabokov’s story "Conversation Piece, 1945":

"They innocently expected the same friendly attitude on the part of the population."

As we see, the author directly describes initially the "horizontal" communication of two parties, transferring the attribute "friendly", which is characteristic of people, onto their relations. The indirect attributive metonymic description is used in the following example:

"They dismissed him from their consciousness and flocked out onto the severely lighted platform where another committee table, draped in solemn red cloth, with the necessary number of chairs behind it, had been hypnotizing the audience for some time with the glint of its traditional decanter." [Nabokov, "A Forgotten Poet"]

In this case, the social superiority of the committee members to the ordinary participants of the meeting is evident, because it is emphasized through the description of the condition of the first and, in particular, through the attributive metonymy " solemn ... cloth". The intermediary of the indirect metonymic transference is the element of furniture - "cloth".

In the following example, indirect metonymy in the attribute indicates the deferential (at least for witnesses) attitude of the subject of the statement towards the other person, which is dictated by the age difference. The transference intermediary in this case is a part of the subject appearance:

"Under the public disguise of a polite smile he whispered to the patriarch that he would have him ejected from the hall if he did not let go the back of the chair..." [Nabokov, "A Forgotten Poet"]

The component of a man’s characterization that is not less important in V. Nabokov’s creative works is the semantic sphere of language representing the frame "exterior". Within this frame there can be described both objective (clothes colour and quality, facial features, peculiarities of gesticulation) and subjective characteristics, with the latter often including some component of evaluation.

"To the left of this, one could admire the oil painting loaned by the Sheremetevski Art Gallery: it represented Perov at twenty-two, a swarthy young man with romantic hair and an open shirt collar." [Nabokov, "A Forgotten Poet"]

In this example, the attribute "romantic", related to the noun "hair", in reality characterizes the person - the hair owner - himself. This characterization is undoubtedly objective, as it describes the person’s appearance - basing our view on these words, we cannot ascertain his "romantic" soul. The following example demonstrates subjective metonymic characterization: the attribute describing both external and internal condition of a person possesses a pronounced positive connotation:

"Dr. Shoe smiled a tired smile." [Nabokov, "Conversation Piece, 1945"]

Generally speaking, the communication of people represents multifunctional interaction, including information exchange, contact support, interpersonal relationships, regulation, etc. That is exactly why in V. Nabokov’s English language works there is a much broader use of subjective description, based on the use of the attributive metonymy.

In his works, one can find cases of both direct and indirect metonymic transference, depending on the semantic load the author put into a certain statement. For example:

"Early the next morning I opened the door in answer to a ring, and there was Dr. Shoe, bareheaded, raincoated, silently offering me my hat, with a cautious half-smile on his blue-and-pink face." [Nabokov, "Conversation Piece, 1945"]

In this case, the subjective characterization is direct - the person’s appearance is described through his smile. The next example demonstrates the indirect description, and the subject’s emotion acts as an intermediary of the metonymic transference:

"... I admit deriving a certain grim satisfaction from the vision of my frivolous double inevitably bursting in, flowers in hand, upon Alphonse and his wife." [Nabokov, "Conversation Piece, 1945"]

Speaking about the semantic sphere representing the frame "personal qualities" in V. Nabokov’s creative work, it is necessary to note that the usage of the primary (direct) metonymic shift of meaning in the attributive metonymic description of human personal qualities is almost impossible. Firstly, it is stipulated by the fact that the characterization of a person’s internal world is always subjective, always carries the author’s attitude, either positive or negative, as distinct from that of a person’s appearance. As an intermediary of the indirect metonymic description of personal qualities in V. Nabokov’s works, there can be represented emotions, feelings of a person, his actions, etc. Due to the absence of objective characterization, one can speak only about the gradation of the author’s attitude, distinguishing, for example, a more and less negative evaluation:

"One shudders to think that a gift of destiny unparalleled in history, the Lazaruslike resurrection of a great poet of the past, may be ungratefully ignored - nay, even more, deemed a fiendish deceit on the part of a man whose only crime has been half a century of silence and a few minutes of wild talk." [Nabokov, "A Forgotten Poet"]

In this example, the description of the subject is expressed indirectly in the words "wild talk". The subject’s action, to which his quality is attached, moves to the foreground, becoming the Figure of the statement. Such a characteristic indisputably carries some negative connotation, however, this shade of meaning is not so clear, so evident, as in the following example:

"His fame was sluggish: a passage from the Georgian Nights, always the same one, in all anthologies; a violent article by the radical critic Dobrolubov, in 1859, lauding the revolutionary innuendoes of his weakest poems ... - this was about all." [Nabokov, "A Forgotten Poet"]

The intermediary of the indirect transference in this example is the creation, through the metonymic description that characterizes its creator (Dobrolubov).

Thus, the analysis of metonymic epithets from the standpoint of the degree of a described meaning’s association with the subject of a statement (man) allows us to reveal the intensity of the semantic load the author put into a statement. The use of the attributive metonymic description of a person brightly characterizes V. Nabokov as a great master in his line. His English language works, just like the creations of many other Russian emigrants, undoubtedly enriched not only the English language, but also the entire world literature and languages with new trends of thought, with new brilliant masterpieces.

© Alexey A. Lukyanov (State University Tambov, Russia)


Boldyrev, N.N. Cognitive Semantics: The Course of Lectures in English Philology. - TSU Press, Tambov, 2002. - 123 p.

Lukyanov, Alexey A. The Metonymic Way of the Attributive Description of the Subject: Cultural Aspect. - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften, No. 15/2003. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/15Nr/04_09/lukyanov15.htm

Talmy, L. Lexicalization Patterns: Semantic Structure in Lexical Forms. - In: T. Shopen (editor). Language Typology and Syntactic Description. - Cambridge University Press, 1985. - PP. 1-74.

Talmy L. Lexicalization Patterns: Typologies and Universals. - Cognitive Science Report, No. 47. - University of California, Berkeley, 1987.

Talmy L. Path to Realization: a Typology of Event Integration. - In: Buffalo Papers in Linguistics, No. 1. - State University of New York, Buffalo, 1991.

13.1. Migration als Faktor sozio-kultureller Innovationen

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For quotation purposes:
Alexey A. Lukyanov (State University Tambov, Russia): Attributive Metonymy in the English Works of Russian Emigrants. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW: ../../../index.htmtrans/16Nr/13_1/lukyanov16.htm

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