Analysis sheds light on how metaphors like ‘sheds light’ evolved

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…

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