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Bodily action and metaphorical meaning.

The human body serves as a frequent source of our metaphorical thought and language. This is not surprising given that metaphor provides the resource to understand ideas, events, and objects in terms of what is most familiar and well-understood. We know many things about the world around us. But the thing we are most familiar with, and have a felt understanding for, is our own bodies. Consider a typical use of metaphor in a literary text. The following is the opening verse of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop titled "Varick Street":
At night the factories
struggle awake,
wretched uneasy buildings
veined with pipes
attempt their work
trying to breathe
the elongated nostrils
hatred with spikes
give off such stenches, too.

Most readers get an immediate sense of Bishop's intention to draw a metaphorical comparison between the operations of a factory and the human body (i.e., a kind of personification). Our understanding of Bishop's intentions, and the underlying motive for her creating this poem in the way that she did, depends crucially on our ability to think metaphorically about ordinary objects, events, and people in the world.

Abstract concepts such as truth, thought, justice, and friendship are also talked about in concrete ways, as if they are items that can be physically manipulated. For example, in his poem "Ultimately," Ernest Hemingway writes of truth as if it is something physical that can actually be spit out:
He tried to spit out the truth;
Dry-mouthed at first,
He drooled and slobbered in the end;
Truth dribbling his chin.

Our understanding of truth as something that can be spit out, in the above case with great difficulty for the person trying to speak honestly, is dependent on some recognition of a metaphorical idea (e.g., truth as a substance that can be ingested and regurgitated when needed). Again, there is an essential tacit connection between human embodiment, especially embodied action, and how we think about different physical and non-physical concepts. Writers like Bishop and Hemingway elaborate on these bodily-based metaphorical concepts in new, creative ways that ordinary readers understand given their own embodied experiences.

An increasing body of research in cognitive science suggests that significant aspects of metaphorical thought and language arise from, and are constrained by, human embodiment (Gibbs, Poetics; Gibbs and Berg; Gibbs, Lima, and Francuzo; Kovecses; Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy). Many conceptual metaphors have source domains that are rooted in pervasive patterns of bodily experience. For instance, the way we talk about life, or love, as a kind of journey refers to the very embodied experience of people moving from some starting point, along a path, to reach, or attempt to reach, some destination. This embodied, conceptual mapping underlies people's use and understanding of conventional expressions like "We are just starting off our marriage," "I am at a crossroad in my career," and "Their marriage is on the rocks" (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors).

Our purpose in this article is to explore the role that bodily action has in motivating different aspects of metaphorical meaning. We present findings from different linguistic and psychological studies showing that people's intuitive sense of pervasive bodily actions constrains their understanding of many types of metaphorical language. More specifically, the precise metaphorical meanings associated with many conventionalized utterances can be explained by an examination of the ways people move and experience their bodies. Many people may already acknowledge that bodily metaphors are quite common in language. But our claim is that when the body is examined as a source domain for metaphors of language, emotion, and other things, we see that bodily metaphors taken as a group, form a coherent system that is supported by a few image schemas such as containment, source-path-goal, balance, in-out, and front-back. These image schemas are combined with other basic bodily actions such as touching, eating, grasping, t hrowing, etc. to provide the conceptual foundation for many aspects of thought and language.

This article describes four kinds of linguistic and psychological studies: work on bodily processes and talk of linguistic action, movement and immediate metaphor processing, a case study on how desires are conceptualized as hungers, and embodied metaphors in American Sign Language. In general, the diverse set of research findings we report illustrate the linkages between phenomenological experience, concrete and abstract concepts, and both conventional and poetic uses of language.

Talking of Linguistic Action

The excerpt from Hemingway's poem, shown above, indicates one instance of how people refer to linguistic action (e.g., speaking about the truth) in terms of associations to bodily actions (e.g., spitting out something that has been ingested). Experiences of the body in action, especially those related to oral and head activities and their related body parts, provide a critical source domain for structuring a variety of speech events. For example, one analysis of 175 body-part metaphors in a large corpus showed that body parts and bodily functions are essential source domains for characterizing people's description of talk (Goossens, Pauwels, Rudzka-Ostyn, Simon-Vanderberger, and Varpays). There are several ways through which people's understanding of human embodiment is metaphorically projected to structure linguistic action.

The first way involves body-parts that play a role in speaking, but which are put to a different use (e.g., eating and breathing). For instance, phrases such as "feed" and "force/ram/thrust something down someone's throat" depict specific interactions between two people in which the speaker transmits something to a listener, and the listener obtains the information by eating it.

A second group characterizes speaking as eating (or part of the process of eating), such as "chew the fat," or "chew the rag" (i.e., "to chat or complain"). Given that both fat and a rag can be chewed a longtime, with little nutritional value coming from these activities, these idiom phrases express the idea of talking about something a long time with little new information to be gained from the experience.

The phrase "eat one's words" (i.e., to admit that one has said something in error) illustrates a different metaphor through linguistic action. By referring to the directionality of eating (i.e., ingesting), compared with the directionality of speaking (i.e., exteriorizing), this idiom expresses the idea that the speaker's words were somehow destroyed by making them go back to the place from where they arose. This hypothetical action renders the speaker's utterance mute as it no longer has the originally intended effect upon the audience.

On the other hand, the term regurgitate (i.e., to report what one has already heard or learned) depicts the same direction of action as does speech and expresses the idea that the speaker once ingested some idea, but not quite digested it completely (like people with food or liquid) so that it can indeed be thrown up and out of the body.

The experience of breathing underlies many metaphorical phrases for linguistic action, in part because breathing is very much a part of speaking (e.g., "He breathed words of love into her ear"). The phrase "waste one's breath" characterizes the air one breathes as a valuable resource, one that is essential to proper bodily functioning, which should not be expended needlessly. To "cough up" something is to remove a substance (blood, phlegm) that causes bodily, and often breathing, discomfort. When a speaker "chokes back" something, he or she attempts to prevent something from escaping the body, thus expressing the idea of someone exerting great control over what he or she has started to say.

The metaphor "spit out" reflects the idea that the speaker has something of value in the body which through effort he or she is able to gather up (as if spit or phlegm) and say (or expectorate).

Various expressions for linguistic action center around the movement of the visible speech organs. "Keeping one's mouth shut," "open one's lips," and "closed lipped" describe positions of the mouth and lips to stand for either the presence or absence of speech. To say something "tongue in cheek" and "to lie through one's teeth" also express different types of linguistic actions in which contours of the face and mouth metaphorically structure our understanding of what a speaker is communicating.

The bodily posture and experience of listeners captures something about how linguistic actions are understood. When someone "turns a deaf ear" or when something "goes in one ear and out the other," it' s clear that the listener is not dedicating the right body part toward successful communication.

Beyond the embodied character of linguistic actions, many aspects of nonverbal communication rest on bodily actions. "Patting someone on her back," "bringing/bending the knee to," or "tipping someone the wink" are each physical actions that reflect an individual's appreciation, respect, or friendship for another. These nonverbal actions sometime co-occur with speech but can also stand alone. "To pat oneself on the back" is a difficult, even ridiculous, action to perform, one reason why it expresses the unacceptability of praising oneself.

Our sensory apparatus plays an important role in various aspects of our metaphorical conceptualization of speaking. For instance, the metaphor "sniff' (i.e., to say something in a complaining manner) rests on the embodied experience that the act of perceiving something with our noses is often accompanied by a special noise (i.e., sniffing). The sniffing noise indicates that a person has perceived something of value; that conception is transferred to the idea that a listener has understood something of substance.

Sniffing noises are often made when something objectionable is smelled, and this gets mapped onto the domain of linguistic communication to express the idea that the listener has just comprehended an unpleasant idea.

Both people and animals "poke their noses into things," which characterizes the positioning of the body in preparation to smelling something (i.e., dogs into holes in the ground, people into pots on the stove). The metaphorical saying that "he poked his nose into other people's business" suggests that a person has positioned himself to obtain, usually hidden, information. In a related way, "one puts out feelers" as preparation to perceiving something, which metaphorically is understood in the speech domain as putting oneself in a position to obtain information.

Violent physical action provides a rich source domain for characterizing many kinds of linguistic actions. The sport of boxing, in particular, provides the embodied actions underlying many linguistic concepts like "pulling one's punches," "sparring," or "beating someone to the punch." For "pulling one's punch," speakers soften the impact of what they say for listeners. When speakers spar" with listeners, the interaction is less serious, more playful, than is a full-fledged fight. And when speakers "beat someone to the punch," they make a point or argument before their listeners do.

A different set of violent actions used to conceptualize linguistic actions include "rap someone over the knuckles" and "box someone's ear." In both cases, the focus is on the painful sensation the listener experiences as a result of what speakers say. Other violent metaphors include "butt out, kick someone around" (e.g., Nixon's famous statement in 1962 to the press "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore"), "tear apart," and "choke off." These idiomatic phrases reflect different aspects of situations where one person, the speaker, exerts authority over another, with some expressions, such as "tear apart" and "choke off," highlighting the extreme nature of the speaker's actions.

Metaphors such as "make the fur fly," "back-bite," "snap at," "bite someone's head off," and "jump down someone's throat" take as their source domain different violent actions seen in the animal world, especially noting the arbitrary, unnecessarily hostile, nature of some action given the situation. Describing speakers' linguistic actions using any of these phrases strongly implies that the person is over-reacting to something another individual has said or done.

A completely different type of violent action motivates "eat your heart out" and "cut off your nose to spite your face." Both metaphors express the tremendous self-inflicted pain a person experiences by his or her own action.

Several metaphors for linguistic action focus on restricted movement. "Being tongue tied," "holding your tongue," and "biting your tongue" all refer to the silent consequences of being unable to speak, mostly through self-control. Somewhat related are phrases where some object is clumsily handled, as in "fumbled," or when one's actions are awkward, as in "heavy-handed" or "a left-handed compliment." When a speaker successfully exchanges information with another, often in cases when a speaker offers a reward to someone else in exchange for something, he or she "hands it to someone."

A particularly interesting metaphor is "shoot one's mouth off." This phrase views speaking in terms of clumsily handling a gun which accidentally causes it to fire. When a speaker "shoots off his mouth," he wastes a bullet and draws unwanted attention, implying that the person does not really know what he is doing or talking about. On the other hand, speakers who pay excessive attention to what they are saying "split hairs," thereby communicating ideas that are trivial or off the point of the conversation or argument.

The embodied experience of walking motivates various speech actions with different parts of walking movements being tied to specific ways of speaking. When speakers "backtrack" while speaking, they reverse directions on the path they initially started out on to correct what has already been stated. A different error arises when someone "puts his foot in his mouth," indicating that a grave mistake has been made in saying what was just previously said via the metaphor of a serious mishandling of the body when walking.

There are different degrees of intensity in making speech acts. For instance, a warning or rebuke may be mild or strong. The degree of emphasis is particularly salient in some metaphors. For instance, in the metaphor "raise one's eyebrows" (meaning "express surprise or displeasure"), the speech act must be mild as the embodied action is quite slight. Duration is important in "chew the fat" (a high value in duration) and "go in one ear and out the other," which implies a very brief duration.

Our discussion of the fundamental importance of embodied action in talk of linguistic action argues that the wide-variety of metaphorical phrases used to describe what speakers do are not simply rhetorical devices, but cognitively underlie, and help structure our understandings of the different things speakers do. The metaphorical structuring of linguistic action via significant patterns of embodied experience is, of course, tied to image schemas. Image schemas are experiential gestalts that emerge during sensorimotor activity as we manipulate objects, seek orientation spatially and temporally, and direct our perceptual focus for various purposes (Johnson). These emergent patterns are imaginative and nonpropositional in nature and operate as organizing structures of experience at the level of bodily perception and movement. Empirical evidence from cognitive and developmental psychology is consistent with the idea that sensorimotor representations of imagery are essential to many forms of higher-order percepti on and thought (Gibbs and Colston). For each of the metaphorical mappings between the body and linguistic action described above, there are often complex patterns of image-schematic structure. Let's explore this point further by considering the most prominent image schemas underlying metaphorical phrases for linguistic action.

The image schema BALANCE (i.e., a symmetrical arrangement of forces around a point or axis) motivates various phrases referring to a person's attempt to restore equilibrium of the body (and mind). When people say "get something off my chest," they describe a forceful action to remove an impediment that causes imbalance. Speakers who get something off their chests remove oppressive forces by merely talking to an appropriate person, often the person most responsible for placing the burden or impediment on the speaker. "Getting something off one's chest," just like "blowing off steam" and "coughing something up," restores a sense of balance or well-being to an individual.

The image schema CONTAINMENT underlies many metaphorical concepts related to our understanding of linguistic action. For instance, our mouths, like our bodies, are experienced as containers, such that when the container is open, then linguistic action is possible, and when closed, there is only silence. To be "closed-lipped" reflects the silent, closed container, and when one "bites one's lip," the closing of the mouth and lips is done quickly with great force. When one "lies through one's teeth," the container is perceived as a hiding place where true information resides, but the container is somewhat defective and we can see through the speaker's shameless attempt to lie about something when the truth can partly be seen. Some metaphors talk of entering the mouth container, as when "one puts words in someone's mouth" or "forces/rams/thrusts something down someone's throat," with more forceful entering into the container reflecting greater intensity of the speaker's linguistic action.

Embodied CONTAINMENT also refers to cases where objects, or information, are removed from the mouth or head of a speaker, as in "take the words right out of someone's mouth" and "pick someone's brains," both of which imply that the person possesses some valuable object(s) worth stealing.

The importance of the PATH image schema is seen in metaphors based on walking, such as in "backtrack," where the directionality of movement along some path must be reversed. PATH also is relevant to cases of reversed motion as in the eating metaphor of "eat one's words" and "eat crow," which are specific instances of the general idea of "taking back one's words" (i.e., moving words back along the conduit path that a speaker first sent them).

The image schema of FORCE is central to many of the metaphors based on violent bodily actions noted above. In most of these instances, the force is noticeable because of its extreme nature (e.g., "bite someone's head off' and "snap at someone").

These selected examples of image schemas clearly illustrate the similarity between different domains of embodied action and the domain of linguistic action. Most generally, this examination of metaphor and linguistic action reveals how people use their intuitive phenomenological sense of their bodies to make sense of, and structure, more abstract conceptual domains.

Movement and Metaphor Processing

The linguistic evidence showing how bodily action motivates metaphors for linguistic action suggests an important question: Does body movement facilitate immediate processing of conventional metaphors? Psychologists are sometimes skeptical of purely linguistic analyses, because emergent patterns in language do not necessarily reflect how people ordinarily produce and process language. For example, the fact that body action is referred to in metaphors for linguistic action does not mean that people access knowledge of their bodies when comprehending these metaphors. After all, people may simply learn to associate nonliteral meanings with familiar phrases without ever recognizing, even tacitly, a connection between their own bodily movements and more abstract conceptual domains.

But various research in cognitive and neuropsychology suggests that there are intimate connections between motoric experience and linguistic understanding. To give just one example, brain imagining research shows that when people name familiar tools there is activation in motor areas of the brain (Grafton, Fadiga, Arbib, and Rizzolatti). More generally, many high-level cognitive tasks, including problem-solving and mental imagery, appear to activate motor and pre-motor cortex. Cognition and action seem to be far more intertwined than once believed.

Experimental work demonstrates that bodily action influences symbolic or semantic judgments. In these studies, participants were first asked to make hand shapes corresponding to verbal descriptions such as "pinch" and "clench" (Klatsky, Pelligrino, McCloskey, and Doherty).

Following this, the participants made speeded judgments on the sensibility of phrases such as "aim a dart" (sensible) or "close a nail" (not sensible). In general, embodied action relevant to the phrases facilitated people's speeded verifications of these phrases. For instance, the hand shape for "pinch" speeded the sensibility judgments for "aim a dart." Interestingly, when participants were asked to make verbal responses (but not hand shapes) to the nonverbal prime (e.g., say, the word "pinch" when shown the nonverbal signal for "pinch"), the priming effect was eliminated. It appears that the sensibility judgments require a type of mental simulation using an embodied, motoric medium.

We are presently engaged in a research project looking at the possible influence of bodily action on people's speeded processing of simple metaphoric phrases. Phrases such as "stamp out a feeling," "push an issue," "sniff out the truth," and "cough up a secret" all denote physical actions upon abstract items. We hypothesized that if abstract concepts are indeed understood as items that can be acted upon by the body, then performing a related action should facilitate making a sensibility judgment for a figurative phrase that mentions this action. For example, if participants first move their leg as if to kick something, and then read "kick around the idea," they should verify that this phrase is meaningful faster than when they first performed an unrelated body action.

To test this idea, we first taught participants (college students) to perform various specific bodily actions given different nonlinguistic cues. The sixteen bodily actions were throw, stamp, tear, push, swallow, sniff out, cough, spit out, poke nose, grasp, shake off, put finger, chew, stand, stretch, and shake.

The participants learned these actions by watching a videotape of an actor performing these actions after showing a distinct icon before each event. Participants then had to demonstrate perfect memory for the different actions given their respective cues. Following this, participants were individually seated in front of a computer screen. The experiment consisted of a series of trials where an icon flashed on the screen, prompting the participant to perform the appropriate bodily action. After doing this, a string of words appeared on the screen and participants had to judge as quickly as possible whether that word string was "sensible." Participants gave their "sensibility" responses by pushing one of two buttons on a keyboard. Once the response was made, the word string disappeared and the next trial soon began.

Half of the word strings were sensible, and half were not. The sensible phrases were all conventional metaphoric phrases referring to an embodied action on some abstract concept. In the experiment, some of the bodily actions that participants first performed were relevant to the following verbal phrase (e.g., "kick around the idea" followed the motor action kick), and some were not (e.g., "kick around the idea" followed the motor action chew). A third type of trial involved no prime at all (i.e., participants did not perform any bodily action before seeing the word string). Across the entire experiment, participants saw an equal number of the three trial types. The computer recorded the time (in milliseconds) it took participants to make their "yes" or "no" sensibility judgments (a clock started when the word string appeared on the screen and stopped as soon as participants pushed one of the two response buttons).

Analysis of the speeded sensibility judgments showed that participants responded more quickly to the metaphorical phrases that matched the preceding action than to the phrases that did not match the earlier movement. People were also faster in responding to the metaphor phrases having performed a relevant body moment than when they did not move at all. In short, performing an action facilitates understand of a figurative phrase containing that action word, just as it does for literal phrases. People do not understand the nonliteral meanings of these figurative phrases as a matter of convention.

Instead, people actually understand "toss out a plan," for instance, in terms of physically tossing something (i.e., plan is viewed as a physical object). In this way, processing metaphoric meaning is not just a cognitive act, but involves some imaginative understanding of the body's role in structuring abstract concepts.

Desire as Hunger: A Case Study in Embodied Metaphor

A different research project on embodied action in metaphorical meaning looked at people's interpretations of metaphorical expressions about human desires (Gibbs, Lima, and Francuzo). Consider the following last lines from the book titled Holy Hunger: A Memoir of Desire (Bullitt-Jones) in which the author summarizes her spiritual journey after the death her father:

In my case, I hungered, I yearned for something--or Someone--that would really fill me up, fill up my life, give me something to live for, something larger than the ordinary of everyday but found there, nevertheless, in the turning of the days and the seasons the rising and the setting of the sun, in the sheer gift of being alive.

By the time my father died. I knew I was on my way. I had set my course. I knew that whatever my life was about, it was about desire, the desire beyond all desire, the desire for God. It was about learning to listen to my deepest hunger and to let this hunger guide me. as a ship steers at night by the stars.

These few lines poetically describe how even the most abstract desires, such as the need for spiritual fulfillment, are often conceptualized in terms of felt embodied experiences, such as those associated with hunger. The metaphorical mapping of hunger onto desire is frequently found in talk of various kinds of desires, including lust and the desires for both concrete objects and abstract ideas/events.

Thus, American English speakers often talk of abstract desires in terms of hunger and thirst.
He hungers for recognition -- He thirsts for recognition
He hungers for adventure -- He thirsts for adventure
He had a hunger for power -- He was thirsty for power
He hungers for revenge -- He thirsts for revenge

Asserting this metaphorical relationship is not just a conventional or arbitrary way of speaking about desire, because there appears to be rich, systematic correspondences between feeling hunger and feeling different aspects of desire. Gibbs, Lima, and Francuzo investigated whether university students in two cultures, the USA and Brazil, metaphorically understand different desires in terms of their embodied experiences of hunger. They first examined people's embodied experiences of hunger, apart from their understanding of hunger in talk of desire. Some bodily experiences of hunger should be far more prominent than others across both American English and Brazilian Portuguese speakers. If hunger and desire are highly correlated, and if people metaphorically make sense of their desires partly in terms of hunger, then these more prominent parts of their hunger experiences should be invariantly mapped onto their different concepts for desire. Thus, people should subsequently view certain ways of talking about des ires in terms of specific hunger experiences as more acceptable than less prominent aspects of feeling hunger.

A first study presented American and Brazilian college students with three types of symptoms that may possibly result from a person being hungry (these were translated into Brazilian Portuguese for the Brazilian participants). "Local symptoms" referred to specific parts of the body, "general symptoms" referred to whole body experiences, and "behavioral symptoms" referred to various behaviors that may result as a consequence of a person being hungry. Each of these three symptoms included items that we presumed may be closely related to the experience of being hungry, items possibly being related, and items not at all related to hunger. An analysis of these ratings showed that both English and Portuguese speakers gave similar ratings to the different items. For example, the two groups of participants agreed that strong effects of hunger on the human body include that the stomach grumbles, thought of food makes one's mouth water, one has a stomachache, and one has a headache (local symptoms); one feels discomfor t, becomes weak, becomes dizzy, gets annoyed, and has an appetite (general symptoms); and the person feels out of balance, becomes emotionally fragile, and becomes very anxious (behavior symptoms). The two groups of participants also agreed on those items that were not related to their hunger experiences. Examples of these items include: the knees swell, the feet hurt, the hands itch, and the fingers snap (local symptoms); one wants to run, doesn't wish to see anyone, becomes talkative, and gets a fever (general symptoms); and the person behaves normally and can work well (behavior symptoms). Overall, these findings indicate significant regularities in people's embodied experiences of hunger, at least as suggested by speakers from these two different cultures.

A second study examined whether people's folk knowledge about hunger is correlated with their understandings of different experiences of desire. English and Portuguese speakers from the same populations sampled in the first study were asked to give their intuitions about two types of questions. The first set of questions focused on how people's bodies felt when experiencing three types of desire: love, lust, and the desire for things other than human beings, such as fame, adventure, money, etc. (the "other" category). Participants were asked to read each question and then rate the relevance of various bodily experiences (e.g., becomes dizzy, weak, annoyed, talkative) when a person was in love, lust, or experiencing some other desire.

The second set of questions focused on people's intuitions about the acceptability of different ways of linguistically expressing desire. Similar to the body questions, half of the items were constructed from strongly (or highly) rated bodily experiences for hunger as shown in the first study, with the other half coming from weakly (or lowly) rated hunger items. These linguistic questions were posed for three types of desire (love, lust, and other) as was the case for the body questions. The participants' task was simply to read each statement (e.g., "My whole body aches for you," "I have a strong headache for knowledge," "My hands are itching for you," "My knees ache for information about my ancestry") and rate whether it was an acceptable way of talking in their respective language.

An analysis of the mean ratings showed that the findings for both the Body and Linguistic questions were generally consistent across English and Portuguese for the three types of symptoms for the three types of desire (love, lust, other). For instance, in regard to students' ratings of the acceptability of different linguistic expressions, both the American and Brazilian students viewed "I have a great appetite for money" and "I have a stomach pain for my old way of life" as being reasonable, acceptable ways of talking about different desires. But they also rated expressions such as "I became talkative for adventure" and "My knees swell for information about my ancestry" as being unacceptable ways of talking about desire.

Overall, then, the findings showed how knowing something about people's embodied experiences of hunger allows scholars to predict empirically which aspects of desire will, and will not, bethought of, and talked about, in terms of our complex embodied understandings of hunger. This evidence is generally consistent across two different languages and cultural communities. People use their knowledge of their bodily experiences/actions as the primary source of metaphorical meaning and understanding.

Embodied Metaphors In American Sign Language

A final example of contemporary research on bodily action and metaphorical meaning comes from the study of American Sign Language (ASL). A common conceptual metaphor with embodied roots in American English, and other languages, is COMMUNICATION IS SENDING AND RECEIVING OBJECTS. This conceptual metaphor underlies speakers' use and understanding of linguistic expressions such as "We tossed some ideas back and forth" and "His meaning went right over my head." In each case, ideas correspond to objects and the act of communicating corresponds to the sending and receiving of these objects.

Recent work on American Sign Language (ASL) demonstrates that a similar conceptual metaphor underlies ideas about communication in ASL (Taub; Wilcox). ASL signers generally exploit signing space to schematically represent spatial relations, time, order, and aspects of conceptual structure (Emmorey). When signers describe spatial relations, there is a structural analogy between the form of a classifier construction and aspects of the described scene. Specifically, physical elements in ASL (the hands) map to physical elements within the scene (objects), movements of the hands map to the motion of referent objects, and locations in signing space map to physical locations within the scene. Through metaphorical mappings, signers can extend the use of classifier constructions and signing space to describe abstract concepts and relations.

However, the conceptual metaphors in ASL are different from those in spoken language, because they involve a double mapping (Taub). First, there is a metaphorical mapping from a concrete, embodied source domain to an abstract target domain (e.g., objects that can be grasped and passed to others are mapped onto ideas/thoughts/concepts). Second, there is an iconic mapping from the concrete domain to the linguistic domain (e.g., cylindrical objects map to cylindrical handshapes). For example, similar to English speakers, ASL signers use the communicating-as-sending metaphor.

For both speakers and signers, the discourses of communicating ideas and throwing objects are linked whereby an idea corresponds to an object, and telling or explaining the idea corresponds to throwing the object to someone. But unlike spoken English, ASL has an additional iconic mapping between the concrete domain (objects) and the articulators (the hands). Consider the English statement "I didn't get through to him" in reference to a speaker trying to get a listener to understand some idea or belief.

In ASL, the equivalent sign (paraphrased as THINK-BOUNCE) indicates a failure to communicate and consists of an iconic depiction of a projectile bouncing off a wall (the dominant handshape moves from the head and bounces off the non-dominant hand). Thus, ASL has two levels of human movement in the sign referring to failure to communicate.

ASL exhibits double mappings in many conceptual domains. For example, the metaphorical mapping between power and height (e.g., power is up) has an additional iconic mapping between height and signing space. Thus, authority figures are associated with higher locations in signing space, and less powerful people are associated with lower locations. This nicely illustrate how bodily action helps articulate abstract ideas such as our conceptualization of people in authority. Similarly, signers use the "intimacy is proximity" metaphor to associate known or preferred objects/people with locations near the body and less preferred objects/people with locations away from the body.

Taub also argues that some signs (e.g., THINK-PENETRATE) are fully motivated by a single metaphor, while other signs are only partially motivated, motivated by several metaphors simultaneously, or are motivated by both metaphorical and pure iconicity. For example, the sign for SAD consists of a downward motion of both spread lingered hands, palms in, in front of the face. The signer builds on the mapping of the up-down scale onto emotion, where negative emotions have downward movements (e.g.,"I'm feeling down today").

The sign for THINK employs both the metaphors in sad and happy and adds a third. Thus, the upward movement for HAPPY EMOTIONS ARE UP begins at the center of the chest where THE LOCUS OF EMOTION IS THE CHEST and includes the open-8 handshape which is motivated by the metaphor FEELING IS TOUCHING.

Finally, the sign for EXCITE incorporates both metaphor and iconicity. EXCITE uses the same three metaphors as THRILL but differs in meaning from THRILL in that rather than having both hands move upward in a single, long rapid stroke, the two hands alternate making short upward movements at the chest. Thus, when the sign for THRILL represents a brief, rapid experience, the sign for EXCITED represents the experience of an ongoing state.

Another metaphor that is structured in terms of movement around the body is time (Wilcox). Time in ASL is expressed in relation to the "time line" with each time sign running along an imaginary line through the body. The signer's body represents present time, and areas in the front and back of the body represent future and past, respectively. Time signs such as NOW, WILL, and ONE-DAY-PAST have relative locations on the line that agree with the temporal message, even though their specific locations are not to scale. Most generally, ASL represents time as a perceptual experience in terms of spatial path and temporal unidirectionality. Thus, time is perceived as running from past (back) to future (front). The front and back of a human body correspond to the body's daily movements of running ahead into the future and stepping back into the past.

As in spoken language, the container schema is also prevalent in ASL. For example, the idea of a person being knowledgeable is expressed by signers by the use of the C handshape at the front of the forehead. The sign demonstrates that the mind could be visualized as a full container. A signer can convey the idea of incomplete understanding, or a momentary lapse in thought, by collapsing the handshape. But the container metaphor in ASL is more than a simple ontological metaphor describing an abstract entity.

Understanding metaphorical mappings convey abstract connections within the interior of the container. These mappings are organized by different image schema, such as SOURCE-PATH-GOAL, LINK, PART-WHOLE, CENTER-PERIPHERY, and FRONT-BACK. These image schemas underlie the source domains in many complex metaphors. For instance, the FRONT-BACK schemas refer to ideas such as "It's in the back of my mind somewhere." Deaf people know that the brain's activities are specialized in different regions, but they typically use the forehead area in making signs such as remember, understand, memorize, think, imagine, idea, puzzle, hypothesize, among many others.

One example of taking ideas out of one mind concerns a signer who was attempting to write a book detailing all the jokes and folklore he has remembered from talking with deaf persons all over the world (Wilcox). The sign for "pool-ideas-into-book" began with the signer having both fists close to his forehead and then throwing them outward and downward toward his lap area, with fingers splayed out, into the place where a book might be written or read. Thus, the ideas are taken from the mind as a container and put into a different container or book.

ASL has the metaphor IDEAS IN EXISTENCE ARE STRAIGHT. Entities in the world that are erect and straight tend to be objects that persist. Living objects that are alive have integrity and stand tall, while dead trees, flowers, and even people topple over. These experiential events serve as the source domain for understanding abstract mental processes. Thus, ideas, thoughts, or understanding can be metaphorically viewed as living things. When referring to the process of abstract thoughts, and coherent ideas, ASL has the G classifier handshape in which the index finger is extended upright and pointed near the forehead. This icon of the straight finger serves as a metaphor for physical life or existence.

Not surprisingly, there is an equally pervasive counter-metaphorical mapping that IDEAS NOT FULLY IN EXISTENCE ARE BENT. This metaphor is based on the experience of entities not in existence being difficult to see. Thus, when an idea metaphorically disappears from view, by signers bending or flexing their index finger, it is permanently gone. ASL signs that evoke IDEAS NOT FULLY IN EXISTENCE ARE BENT include weak-minded, dreams, huh!, mull-over, with each sign articulated with bent fingers. Most generally, thought corresponds to our experiences of watching living things come into being or crumbling away--with the bending or straightening of a finger mirroring life.

Finally, the conceptual metaphor IDEAS ARE OBJECTS TO BE GRASPED is represented by a handshape with simultaneous iconic and metaphoric representations. Thus, a fully closed fist handshape is used in the sign to represent someone reaching out to grab objects as in "Ryan scooped up the jewels with one hand." This same classifier is employed in cases like "I will take grandmother with me," even if we don't literally grab people in taking them somewhere. Not surprisingly, the same sign can be used metaphorically as when signing "Hang onto that idea." This particular handshape maps the grasping of an object in a way that it cannot escape onto the intellectual process of permanently holding onto an idea in memory.

Linguistic analyses like these show how spoken and signed language share many of the same schematic mappings between embodied experiences/actions and more abstract conceptual domains.


We have reviewed four different examples of contemporary research in cognitive science on the interaction of bodily action and metaphorical meaning. These linguistic and psychological studies suggest several conclusions about metaphorical thought and language.

First, people's pervasive bodily actions provide the foundation for significant aspects of how people think and talk about their experiences. Embodied action helps people make sense of even the most abstract ideas and events (e.g., communication). Thus, people metaphorically map their intuitive understanding of bodily actions and felt sensations onto concepts from diverse domains of experience. These mappings create enduring metaphorical concepts that are fundamentally embodied. In this way, many of the seemingly abstract symbols in human thought are indeed experientially grounded-- contrary to the widely-held belief that higher-order aspects of cognition are abstracted away from ordinary experience.

Second, embodied action shapes metaphor in several ways. Bodily action serves as the source domain for the original creation of metaphorical concepts in linguistic communities. But these embodied foundations are not historically opaque, because people's continued sense of felt movement with their bodies enables embodied metaphors to be a vital, active part of everyday thought and language use. People at the very least tacitly recognize enduring metaphorical connections between bodily actions and abstract concepts that shape the way they think, reason, imagine, and talk. Furthermore, embodied metaphors are activated during ordinary language understanding. This is true both in motivating why various conventional phrases have the figurative meanings they do and the immediate processing of metaphoric meaning for familiar phrases. Overall, then, embodied metaphor is seen in the historical evolution of language, in how people intuitively make sense of metaphoric meanings, and in the fast, unconscious processing of metaphoric language.

We do not claim that bodily action underlies all aspects of metaphoric thought and language. Some metaphoric language is based on source domains that are not strictly speaking embodied. But we argue that a major part of everyday conceptual structures are constructed by, and continued to be shaped by, pervasive patterns of bodily action. This thesis raises many interesting possibilities on some of the more precise relations between embodied action and different uses and psychological understandings of metaphor. For instance, do individual differences in embodied abilities in any way influence people's metaphoric understandings? Are there interesting gender differences in experience that shape nuanced readings of metaphors? Might some of the cross-cultural differences in metaphoric language use correspond to cultural variation in bodily actions and the values placed on them? Of course, the similarity in human bodies across cultures and environments provides one reason why embodied metaphors are so ubiquitous in the world's languages.

Finally, seeing how many enduring metaphors in thought and language are grounded in recurring patterns of bodily action highlights why so many creative writers employ embodied metaphors in their work (Gibbs, "Languages"; Lakoff and Turner; Turner). Great writers do not simply cite the most conventional expressions but mostly elaborate upon familiar embodied metaphorical mappings in novel, creative ways. Readers and critics appreciate the works of great artists not only because of what they write about or how they do so. Just as importantly, we love reading great literary works because authors are talking in vivid, apt ways about the very embodied experiences and related metaphorical mappings that structure how each of us make sense of our everyday lives.

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. Selected Poems. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967.

Bullitt-Jones, Margaret. Holy Hunger: A Memoir of Desire. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Emmorey, Karen. Language, Cognition, and The Brain: Insights From Sign Language Research. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Forthcoming.

Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr. The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. New York: Cambridge UP. 1994.

___. "How Languages Reflect the Embodied Nature of Creative Cognition." In Thomas Ward, Steven Smith & Jotsyna Vaid, Eds., Creative Cognition Washington, DC: APA Books, 1997. 357-73.

Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr, and Eric Berg. "Mental Imagery And Embodied Activity." Journal of Mental Imagery. Forthcoming.

Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr., and Herbert Colston. "The Cognitive Psychological Reality of Image Schemas and their Transformations." Cognitive Linguistics 6 (1995): 347-78.

Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr., Paula Lima, and Edson Francuzo. "Metaphor is Grounded in Embodied Experience." Journal of Pragmatics. Forthcoming.

Goossens, Louis, Paul Pauwels, Brygida Rudzka-Ostyn, Anne-Marie Simon-Venderberger, and Johan Varpays. By Word of Mouth: Metaphor, Metonymy, and Linguistic Action in a Cognitive Perspective. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 1995.

Grafton, Scott., L. Fadiga, Michael Arbib, and Giovanni Rizzolatti. "Premotor Cortex Activation during Observation and Naming of Familiar Tools." Neuroimage 6 (1997): 231-36.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Collected Poems of Ernest Hemingway. San Francisco: Pirated Edition, 1960.

Johnson, Mark. The Body in Mind. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1987.

Klatzky, Roberta, James Pelligrino, Brian McCloskey, and Sally Doherty. "Can You Squeeze A Tomato?: The Role of Motor Representation in Semantic Sensibility Judgments." Journal of Memory and Language 28 (1989): 56-77.

Kovecses, Zoltan. Metaphor and Emotion. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Turner. More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1980.

_____. Philosophy in the Flesh. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Taub, Sarah. Language from the Body. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Wilcox, Phyllis. Metaphor in American Sign Language. Washington, DC: Gallaudet UP, 2001.

Raymond W. Gibbs Jr. ( is professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of The Poetics of Mind, Intentions in the Experience of Meaning, and editor of the journal Metaphor and Symbol.

Nicole Wilson is a Ph.D. student is the department of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research interests focus on metaphor, embodiment, and the evolution of language.
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Author:Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr.; Wilson, Nicole L.
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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