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Acquiring Figurative Meanings (completed)

This project investigated children’s developing ability to use and understand figurative language appropriately in context, focusing on metonymy and irony.

"This is not what I meant by lend me your ears it says with letters." Drawing of a man holding two ears in his hand. Illustration.


Acquiring Figurative Meanings: A Study in Developmental Pragmatics

About the project

Whereas children's competence with metaphor has been debated in the developmental literature for several decades, studies of irony acquisition have been far fewer, and metonymy acquisition has hardly been studied at all.

The project investigated and compared the developmental trajectories of metonymy and irony, with the aim of expanding our knowledge of children's skill with figurative language and their communicative competence more generally.

The project also investigated how the acquisition of metonymy and irony interacts with the development of two other communication-relevant abilities which plausibly influence figurative language comprehension: metalinguistic awareness (the ability to reflect on language) and so-called ‘epistemic vigilance’, that is, the ability to cope with lies and deception.

Traditionally, children's competence with figurative language devices has been studied largely independently of theoretical debates about how these devices are processed by adults.The project aims to establish a tighter link between developmental studies of metonymy and irony and pragmatic theories about the mechanisms underlying them, by putting some key theoretical claims to empirical test.


Metonymy development

This subproject investigated children’s use and understanding of metonymic expressions. Among the hypotheses to be tested are whether metonymy provides young children with a communicative strategy that could compensate for vocabulary gaps and/or limited expressive ability, and whether the development of metonymy comprehension correlates with the emergence of a metalinguistic ability.

Irony development

Few developmental studies of irony have specifically tested claims made by theories of adults’ understanding of verbal irony. This subproject aimed to test some of the predictions of the relevance-theoretic echoic analysis of verbal irony (e.g., Wilson & Sperber 2012) using developmental data, and whether irony understanding might be associated with the capacity for epistemic vigilance towards deception.

Time frame



The project is funded by The Research Council of Norway, as part of the FRIPRO scheme for Young Research Talents (project no. 240324).


The project was hosted by the completed Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN). 


Published Feb. 24, 2015 9:36 AM - Last modified June 13, 2022 8:51 AM