Monday, November 7, 2011

Boers and Stengers: "Adding sound to the picture" (2008)

This paper by Frank Boers and Hélène Stengers forms a part of the anthology Confronting Metaphor in Use (2008). It makes two points:
  1. Different languages apply source domains with different frequencies;
  2. the exact shapes of metaphorical idioms are motivated by sound.
Cross-lingual variation in source domain frequencies
The first point should be quite uncontroversial. Boers and Stengers give the example that Spanish has 42 bullfighting idioms, while English has three (p. 69)

However, as they note themselves (p. 69), they are not taking the frequency of the various idioms into account. Instead, they just count the number of dictionary entries.

Boers and Stengers try to patch this deficiency up by performing some corpus searches for the most common idioms in order to use those as an indicator for actual frequency (p. 69-70). This gives a couple of data points with indications of relative frequencies, but not more.

Idiom forms are based on sound
Boers and Stengers' second point is that phrases like it takes two to tango are selected over phrases like it takes two to waltz because of their attractive sound qualities. Further, they predict that English should have more phonetic motivation because of its relatively fixed word order and limited morphology.

Again, these claims are interesting, but their statistical methods for testing them are flawed. In particular, Boers and Stengers do not have any concept of accidental rhyme and alliteration in a language. This essentially means that the differences in "motivation" could be due to the fact that English simple rhymes more by accident.

They are, apparently, aware of this problem (p. 72), because they manually filter out Spanish post-fixes on adjectives and nouns (which would make anything in Spanish seem like it rhymed). They should have developed a methodology that could have done this more generally and quantitatively instead.

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