Monday, February 11, 2013

Corts: "Factors characterizing bursts of figurative language and gesture in college lectures" (2006)

Apparently, Daniel Corts and Howard Pollio published a study of the use of metaphor in college lectures in Metaphor and Symbol in 1999. Their conclusions were, unsurprisingly, that college lecturers tend to use figurative language when they have to explain something difficult. In 2006, Daniel Corts then published a new study which seem to cover pretty much the same ground.

What is a Metaphor "Burst"?

The data analyzed by Corts is a pair of videotaped lectures on geology and a pair on Greek mythology. Both pairs were held by a single lecturer.

The kind of "bursts" of metaphors that Corts has in mind are passages like the following, here taken from the geology lectures:
[269] That’s a glass with ice tea in it … this is the tea, and that is the ice … [272] so much sugar in there that it is very sweet … you drink that tea when it first arrives … it tastes very sweet … you come back later, and what’s happened to the iced tea there? … [276] The temperature melts the ice … changes the composition of the tea, and as you pointed out, it’s diluted … [279] That tea has a different chemical composition.
[316] That gets us to the end of … igneous rocks. Now I want to step across this line … move on to Objectives 3 and 4 … [319] This is kind of a gear shift … I want to help you through this gear shift.
[142] We have planes of weakness parallel to slope. Yeah, the best way to do that is a deck of cards. Take this deck of cards [places hands parallel to each other horizontally] and you tilt it [tilts hands]. Now, they’ll start sliding off one right after the other [after hands tilt, the top hand ‘slides’ off the other]. That’s in essence what we’re doing here – we’re taking a deck of cards … water gets in here...and then they’ll just get and go off these surfaces [hand slides off again].
The quotes are taken from his Table 4 on page 222. The numbers in square brackets refer to line numbers in the transcript.

As Corts notes, it is characteristic for all of these analogies that they are quite lengthy, quite novel, quite coherent, and that they are accompanied by suitable gestures. One might also add that they are quite explicit in nature, in the sense that no one listening to this lecture would doubt that we are talking in terms of analogies here.

Does Gesture Cohere With Speech?

According to Corts, one  of the conclusions of the original 1999 study was that gesture and speech appeared coherent in the college lectures:
When figurative language and gestures did overlap, they presented the same metaphorical concept rather than two different or independent representations of the concept. (p. 212)
This is true, he claims (p. 227), even for stock phrase metaphors such as
  • "Here's where we've been so far … and here's where we're going…"
  • "on one hand … but on the other…"
That's not quite consistent with the widespread speech/gesture incoherence that Daniel Casanto has reported in a number of studies. In fact, he claimed that the before/after dimension was almost always "conceptualized" as left/right by English speakers, not by behind/front, as Corts claims.

Wax Off, Wax On

It's difficult to assess whether this disagreement in the literature has come about because Corts has been overlooking contrary evidence, since we don't have his data. But at least one of his examples (p. 225) seems to indicate problems with a stricter version of the coherence claim:
Literature, especially oral literature [right hand loops backwards], reflects the way [right hand moves back and forth, flipping from palm up to palm down] the world is. It doesn’t generate the world [hands flip backward, palm down], it reflects it [hand flips forward, palm up].
OK, so if I'm a mirror, then I can "reflect" the world by holding up my hand, palm out, like a policeman stopping a car. But how does flipping my hand backwards, like I'm closing a cigar box, correspond to "generating" the world? This reminds me more of the weird examples Ray Gibbs cited in "support" of cognitive metaphor theory (1994, p. 165–67).

The real reason for this is probably rather that the gesture indicates contrast than that it has any inherent meaning on its own. Any sort of opposing hand movements could probably have done the same job (e.g., wave to the left, wave to the right).

And that's OK — it's only a problem if we claim that the gesture somehow reveals how this professor thinks about the subject, window-to-the-mind style. In that case, we would be forced into a highly awkward reading of the situation when we saw the "shovel water backwards" move next to the word generated.

Metaphor Comparison and Negation

Incidentally, this point is also confirmed by another of Corts' observations: In the discussion, he notes (p. 228) that we often find mixed metaphors in places where two analogies are explicitly compared, or one is negated:
  • "Drug abuse is not a disease, it is a game"
  • "Literature does not create the world as much as it reflects it"
The fact that we get the point of such comparisons, and especially of such negated metaphors, seems to indicate that we are less captives of our metaphors than the orthodox "conceptual structure" interpretation will have it. If anything, it is rather the metaphors that serve our purposes than the other way around.

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