Monday, November 7, 2011

Gibbs, Lima, and Francozo: "Metaphor is grounded in embodied experience" (2006)

This is a very interesting paper that reports on an experiment investigating the relation between folk theories of hunger and folk theories of desire. It is written in defense of cognitive metaphor theory but raises a whole array of interesting problems.

Postulates: Embodied primitives and non-embodied compounds
The authors claim that
the poetic value and the communicative expressiveness of metaphoric language partly arises from its roots in people's ordinary, felt sensations of their bodies in action. (p. 1190)
And, in the conclusion, they add that "a significant aspect of metaphoric language is moetivated by embodied experience" (p. 1208).

Following Joe Grady, they also claim that primary metaphors are more likely to be translatable or perhaps universal, since compound metaphors may have different ingredients in different languages:
One implication of our findings is that the ability to translate various linguistic metaphors from one language to another rests on the degree to which these verbal expressions instantiate primary metaphors. (p. 1208)
The authors use a quite interesting experimental paradigm to test their claims with respect to the example metaphor DESIRE IS HUNGER.

Basically, they a group of students to rate a number physical symptoms for relatedness to hunger and another group to rate the same symptoms for relatedness to desire.

This first gives them a list of symptoms seen as typical for hunger in Brazil and in California. Many of these are the same, such as the stomach grumbling or the mouth watering.

The relativity of hunger
But there are also exceptions. Thus, the Brazilian Portuguese speakers generally found that a dry mouth was related to hunger, while being annoyed or depressed isn't. The American English speakers found the opposite.

According to the authors, these differences "reflect something of how cultural experiences shape some of our embodied understandings of hunger," and they speculate a bit about the cultural causes (p. 1204). They repeat this point later:
For instance, the linguistic items She drooled anytime she saw Bob and My stomach aches in anticipation of having sex with Mary were rated as much more acceptable in English than in Portuguese. These differences indicate that the salience of particular, localized bodily experiences of desire as hunger may differ across the two languages. (p. 1207)
Testing for correlation between hunger and desire
After having rated various symptoms with respect to their relation to hunger, the authors are able to see if this relation is mirrored in linguistic items expressing sexual desire, romantic desire, and other desire.

The authors affirm that this is indeed the case, but the details are telling.

For English and Portuguese, the various symptoms are put into two categories, one set strongly correlated with hunger (stomach grumbling) and another only very weakly correlated with hunger (knees swelling). This yields two "weak" sets and two "strong" sets.

The theory is then that this correlation can be rediscovered in the realm of desire. This hypothesis is tested in two ways.

First, some subjects are asked to rate whether certain symptoms are characteristic of desire. For instance, they are asked whether people feel dizzy when they are "deeply in love" (p. 1205). That is the "body questions" experiment.

Second, a number of sentences are produced by the experimenters in which the symptoms are used to talk about desire. For instance, the experimenters ask the subjects to rate the naturalness of the sentence I have a strong headache for you. That is the "language questions" experiment.

In their table of results (p. 1206), the authors have lumped all symptoms in the same block together.

For instance, they have treated all sentences in the cell "English" x "Linguistic" x "Lust" x "Strong" as data points from the same distribution and checked whether that distribution differs significantly from the distribution in the cell "English" x "Linguistic" x "Lust" x "Weak". These contrasts generally do exist.

Averaging over the symptoms gives a general sense of whether hunger and desire correlates, given the dimensions selected by the experimenters. The authors admit that
our findings on DESIRE IS HUNGER do not imply a complete equivalence between desire and hunger, but only a [sic] strong correlations between them" (p. 1207).
This averaging over all items also smooths out the problem that many sentences are natural in one realm, but not the other.

I would, for instance, like to know how exactly the subjects responded to sentences like My stomach was aching for you. But these interesting differences are blurred because the data is reported without distinctions between various sentences.

It would also have been natural to have a linguistic test for hunger as well as for desire. Consider for instance pairs such as these:
  1. ?I'm becoming weak for you. (p. 1205)
  2. ?I'm becoming weak for food.
  1. ?I have a strong headache for knowledge. (p. 1205)
  2. ?I have a strong headache for sugar.
Giving such pairs to different subjects would give a more even experimental paradigm and filter out the effect of the (sometimes quite helpless) prose in the test sentences.

I would also very much like to know if such pairs could indeed produce significant differences. Currently, the paper can't tell me because it only used linguistic stimuli in one part of the study, and doesn't report the responses to individual items.

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