Analysis sheds light on how metaphors like 'sheds light' evolved

June 19, 2017
Note. Each row shows (1) a type of model, (2) examples of metaphorical domain-to-domain mappings consistent with the predicted mapping directions ofthat model, (3) sample words that have senses within each of the domains, and (4) the first attested time period in which senses exemplifying the domain to-domain mapping emerged. Credit: Yang Xu, Barbara C. Malt, Mahesh Srinivasan

As language develops over time, its limits have forced us to economize. In the evolution of English, the most common way this is accomplished is through imbuing existing words with multiple meanings.

"New word meanings come about when there's a need to express something new," says Barbara Malt, professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Science Program at Lehigh University. "For instance, the original meaning of the word 'grasp' only described holding something physically. Later, 'grasp' also came to mean holding something in a metaphorical sense, such as 'grasping an idea.'"

Is this crossing-over from one realm of meaning to another random? Or does it follow a pattern?

In the first study of its kind, Malt and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley have found that this evolution of word meanings from one "domain" to another (called metaphorical mapping) occurs in a systematic - even, predictable - way.

"We found that a compact set of variables, including externality, embodiment and the degree of emotionality explain the directionality in the majority of about 5,000 metaphorical mappings recorded over the past 1100 years," said Malt.

In other words, over the past millennium, word senses have largely evolved from literal domains to metaphorical domains. Words that originally had only concrete or external meaning have grown to also have meaning in the realms of the abstract and internal. This team of researchers - Malt , as well as Mahesh Srinivasan, a developmental psychologist who studies metaphor and Yang Xu , a computational linguist who uses big data to uncover patterns in language, both at University of California, Berkeley - is the first to show that this progression has followed a compact set of psychological and cognitive principles and that the movement across realms can be predicted.

Their findings will be published in an article in a forthcoming issue of Cognitive Psychology called: "Evolution of word meanings through metaphorical mapping: Systematicity over the past millennium."

Using cognitive psychology, computational and historical linguistics and big data, the trio determined the strongest sources of metaphorical word senses have been in the following domains: textiles; the supernatural; digestive organs; hardness; softness; ruminants (a category of mammal); cultivated plants; wetness; darkness; and, solidity and density.

Each white dot in the matrix shows a source domain (in the rows) that has beenmetaphorically mapped to a target domain (in the columns). Due to the large number of domains, we only plot every tenth domain (following the order inthe MME database). Credit: Yang Xu, Barbara C. Malt, Mahesh Srinivasan

They also discovered that the most negatively or positively-charged emotional realms were the strongest targets (most likely to become metaphors). The most common target domains are: excitement; pride; anger; hatred and hostility; bad; behavior and conduct; money; literature; fear; and, vigorous action and degrees of violence.

"The idea that language moves from describing concrete phenomena to abstract ideas has been around for a few decades," says Malt. "But, nobody has taken that idea and looked at how word meanings have evolved over time - until now."

How a word becomes a metaphor

They began with the premise that the original meaning of a word or set of words is related to that which is most immediate, concrete, physically experienced and emotionally neutral.

"The development of language starts with the need to express something immediate about the world," says Malt, whose work focuses on how word meaning relates to thoughts and how meaning differs across languages. "Our hypothesis was that word meanings, over time, likely moved away from solely expressing immediate and physically-experienced matters toward expressing more complex, abstract and subtle ideas."

Malt and her colleagues wanted to test whether the direction of word sense evolution could be predicted. For example, could one predict that certain domains of meaning—such as "light"—were likely to be sources and that other realms of meaning—such as "thought"—were likely to be metaphors?

To do this, they studied approximately 5,000 recorded metaphorical mappings derived from the Metaphor Map of English (MME) database which identifies changes in word meanings over more than a millennium. The words in the database are classified by the source domain (the original meaning) and the target domain (the metaphorical meaning).

The team established a set of six variables to describe the domains. The variables—based on previous research into the nature of word meanings—were: Concrete ? Abstract; Embodied ? Disembodied; External ? Internal; Animate ? Inanimate; Less valenced ? More valenced (a measure of emotionality from neutral to highly charged); and, More Intersubjective ? Less intersubjective (the degree to which people experience something the same way).

In the first large-scale study of its kind, researchers from Lehigh University and University of California, Berkeley analyzed 5,000 English-language metaphorical mapping records over the last 1100 years and found the evolution of word meaning to be highly systematic--following predictable patterns. The research will be published in an upcoming issue of Cognitive Psychology. Credit: Yang Xu, Barbara C. Malt, Mahesh Srinivasan

To establish an objective rating system, they recruited human participants to rate word domains (such as "light" or "thought") based on the six variables. Data were collected from 1,439 online survey participants who self-reported as native English-speakers. The participants rated 400 domains for concreteness vs. abstractness, animacy vs. inanimacy, etc.

The team ran a variety of analyses on the data and found it could predict directions in historical mappings above chance. In particular, externality (accuracy = 73.9%) and concreteness (73.5%) were most accurate. In fact, they found that externality and concreteness were roughly equivalent to one another and play a dominant role in predicting the directionality of historical metaphorical extension. These were followed by intersubjectivity (60.7%), valence (59.6%), embodiment (56.7%), and animacy (52.6%).

Their results indicate that historical metaphorical mappings follow systematic and predictable directions, such that between a pair of domains, the domain that is rated higher on these variables is more likely to be the source, and the remaining is more likely to be the target.

Surprising systematicity in word meaning evolution

In other words, yes - one can predict that the external category of "light" is likely to be a source of word meaning and that the more internal category of "thought" is likely to become a metaphor. Thus, over time, a word like "reflect" - which originally had only concrete as way to describe what light does—evolved to also describe internal experience related to thought: "self-reflection."

Malt and her colleagues report that, in many respects, their findings are surprising.

"Not everyone would have forecast that we would find this level of systematicity and predictability," adds. "One could certainly see how the evolution of word sense could have come about more randomly, given ever-changing cultural conditions."

In the paper, the authors state that cultural conditions and communicative needs have indeed shaped metaphorical extension in many cases: "For instance, mouse would never have been extended to a computer accessory if the invention of the computer had not come about, nor would file or folder have been extended from objects held in the hand to virtual ones without specific cultural developments."

However, they conclude: "Our data demonstrate that, in spite of the effects of complex and dynamic cultural conditions, there is an underlying regularity to the direction of metaphorical sense extension driven by measurable communicative and cognitive principles."

Explore further: What the pupils tells us about language

More information: Yang Xu et al, Evolution of word meanings through metaphorical mapping: Systematicity over the past millennium, Cognitive Psychology (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.cogpsych.2017.05.005

Related Stories

What the pupils tells us about language

June 15, 2017
The meaning of a word is enough to trigger a reaction in our pupil: when we read or hear a word with a meaning associated with luminosity ("sun," "shine," etc.), our pupils contract as they would if they were actually exposed ...

It's really about me, not 'you': People often use the word 'you' rather than 'I' to cope with negative experiences

March 23, 2017
To cope with negative experiences or to share an insight, people often use the word "you" rather than "I."

Neural sweet talk: Taste metaphors emotionally engage the brain

June 25, 2014
So accustomed are we to metaphors related to taste that when we hear a kind smile described as "sweet," or a resentful comment as "bitter," we most likely don't even think of those words as metaphors. But while it may seem ...

Word choice—hidden meanings can influence our judgment

June 7, 2016
Why is it worse when someone causes work for us rather than produces work for us? Why does each word prompt a different interpretation of "work," with "caused" work seeming burdensome and "produced" work seeming advantageous?

Motor cortex contributes to word comprehension

February 16, 2017
Researchers from HSE, Northumbria University, and Aarhus University have experimentally confirmed that comprehension of a word's meaning involves not only the 'classic' language brain centres but also the cortical regions ...

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.