Language can be used to stretch our imagination, to make the impossible sound possible, and to bring abstract ideas to life. What kind of language use are we talking about? Figurative language is a broad term to describe language that is not intended to be taken literally but instead paints a picture in the mind of the reader.
As we will learn in this lesson, there are several types of figurative language. We will study the use of figurative language in the famous speech by Martin Luther King, 'I Have a Dream' and his less famous letter written from a Birmingham jail. Although these texts are works of non-fiction, they are nevertheless literary.
Studying this text will help us meet one of the learning outcomes for Part 4, where we want to 'understand and make appropriate use of literary terms.' Below you find several activities to help you engage with both the speech and a letter.
The first step to understanding figurative speech is to learn to differentiate between concrete objects and abstract ideas. As you read the speech, 'I Have a Dream' by Martin Luther King, look for words that depict tangible objects in the mind of the reader. Then look for words that state abstract ideas. The opening lines of the speech have been split up into six parts. In six groups, focus on different paragraphs each, finding examples of concrete objects and abstract ideas. Groups should present their findings to others so that everyone can complete the worksheet below.
|Concrete objects||Abstract ideas|
'I Have a Dream'
Martin Luther King
Figurative language takes on several forms. Being able to identify these will most certainly be useful when analyzing texts in any part of the course and on all forms of assessment from the individual oral commentary to Paper 1. We will define six forms of figurative language here. After you have studied all five, break up into five group. Each group is responsible for finding one example of their key term. Explain what the effect is of using this literary device on the audience. What is their effect on you as a reader?
Metaphor - A comparison or analogy in which an one thing or idea resembles another thing or idea, for example 'My home is my castle."'
Simile - A comparison or analogy between to ideas or things using the words 'like' or 'as', such as 'Life is like a box of chocolates.'
Metonymy - When an object is referred to, not by its name but by something closely associated with it, for example 'The Greens are in office.'
Synecdoche - When an object or idea is referred to by one of its parts, not by its whole, for example 'I am their eyes and ears on the Internet.'
Allusion - When reference is made to another text, event, person or place. An implicit relationship is made between what is presented and what is known, for example 'She was my Waterloo.'
Here are a few lines taken from the 'I Have a Dream' speech. For each line state which form of figurative language is being used. Each form introduced above is used once in the quiz below.
Quiz on figurative language
- I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
Correct answer is 'simile' because a comparison is made between these little black girls and boys who hold hands AS brothers and sisters. Synecdoche may also be right as 'hand holding' is only one part of the whole notion of friendship which is being referred to.
- Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
By naming both the larger and the smaller parts of Mississippi (i.e. 'every hill' and 'molehill'), King is using synecdoche to suggest how prevalent freedom must be there.
- We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
These words have been taken from the Bill of Rights, a constitutional document in the United States of America. Martin Luther King uses this allusion because his target audience will most likely know and believe in these words. There's an argument for answering 'synecdoche': 'Men' is often used to refer to humanity, comprised of both men and women.
- With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
King uses may noun phrases that include both the abstract and the concrete. They follow the pattern 'the x of y' in which x equals the concrete and y is the abstract. 'Discords of our nation' and 'symphony of brotherhood' are two examples. In these noun phrases y is compared to x. 'Brotherhood' IS a symphony. Our 'nation' IS 'discords'. These are metaphors.
- But not only that: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Stone Mountain is heavily associated with the history of the South. In Stone Mountain are carved the heads of three Confederate leaders of the Civil War. The Klu Klux Klan is also associated with this mountain. In brief, by way of metonymy, it stands for racism. It is quite bold of King to refer to Stone Mountain in his speech.
A few month before Martin Luther King gave his speech in Washington D.C. he was imprisoned for protesting in Alabama. His non-violent protest was not supported by all, including eight white Alabam clergymen who openly criticized his approach. In their 'Call for Unity' letter in a local newspaper, they criticized King for his methods. They felt human rights issues belonged in the courtrooms and not on the streets. King wrote his response, now known as 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'.
Answer the following quesitons after reading the letter.
How does King use literary devices in this letter that are similar to those in his 'I Have a Dream' speech?
What is the effect of writing one very long sentence?
Where do you see evidence that this letter is like a draft for his 'I Have a Dream' speech?
Individual oral commentary - Try to find examples of metonymy, synecdoche, allusion, simile and metaphor in the texts that you are studying for Part 4. How would you describe the effects of these devices on their readers? How does figurative language play a role your texts?