«2008. Shen Y. & Eisenamn, R., “’Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter’: Synaesthesia and cognition”. Language and ...»
2008. Shen Y. & Eisenamn, R., “’Heard melodies are sweet, but those
unheard are sweeter’: Synaesthesia and cognition”. Language and
Literature (17:2), 101-121.
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are
sweeter": Synaesthetic metaphors and cognition.*
Tel Aviv University
Direct all correspondence to:
Prof. Yeshayahu Shen
Department of Literature
Tel Aviv University
E-mail: YSHEN@POST.TAU.AC.IL TL.: 972-55-723267 Fax: 972-3-6408980.
* This research was supported by THE ISRAEL SCIENCE FOUNDATION administered by THE ISRAEL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES, no. 939/02, and 878/05 ABSTRACT Synaesthetic metaphors exhibit a robust tendency to use the "lower-to-higher" structure more frequently than the inverse one. This robust pattern was found across discourse types (poetic and non-poetic discourse), language boundaries (e.g., English, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese), and historical periods.
A cognitive account of this pattern was introduced, according to which this lower-to-higher mapping reflects a cognitively simpler and more basic directionality than the inverse one. Several predictions that follow from this account were tested, using various psychological measures (interpretation generation, recall, difficulty in context generation, and naturalness judgments), and various linguistic forms (nounadjective constructions, and verb phrases with two conjoined modifying adjectives).
In accordance with the present account, it was found that the lower-to-higher structure is easier to assign a meaning to, is judged as more natural than its inverse, is better recalled and is judged as easier to construct a context for. Furthermore, sentence ordering is judged as more natural when lower sensory adjectives precede higher ones than in the opposite ordering.
Synaesthesia (Greek, syn = together + aisthesis = perception) is a fascinating psychological condition as well as a linguistic phenomenon that has attracted scholars from various disciplines for a long time (for a thorough, updated review see Dann 1999). As a psychological phenomenon ‘synaesthesia’ refers to the involuntary experience of a cross-modal association. That is, the stimulation of one sensory modality reliably creates a perception in one or more other senses, such as seeing a particular color every time you hear a particular sound. However, this psychological phenomenon is quite rare (see Cytowic 1989; 1993). In contrast, the linguistic use of synaesthetic metaphors is fairly common. These are metaphorical expressions in which we talk about a concept from one sensory domain in terms of another sensory domain. For example, in “heard melodies are sweet” Keats is talking about an auditory concept (heard melodies) in terms of sweetness, which belongs to the domain of taste. When we say "a cold light" we are talking about light, which belongs to the visual domain, in terms of coldness, which belongs to the tactile domain. In more technical terms, we may describe the synaesthesia "sweet melodies" as consisting of a mapping from the source domain of taste onto the target domain of sound. For the sake of simplicity, in all the following examples the source of the mapping is represented by the adjective and the target by the noun.
Previously, researchers on synaesthesia focused mainly on the first phenomenon, namely, synaesthesia as a psychological condition (see Dann 1999 for a review). Those interested in synaesthetic metaphor have focused on questions such as: What is the difference between synaesthetic metaphor and other metaphor types? What are the communicative and esthetic functions of synaesthesia? To what extent is it a universal phenomenon? What role does synaesthetic metaphors play in the writings of individual writers or schools of writing? (see Dann 1999, Abraham 1987).
Dombi (1974, 23) distinguishes among three types of studies of synaesthesia in poetry:
The first type treats the sensorial combinations of a single poet devoting sometimes a distinct chapter to this phenomenon within the framework of characterization of the individual style. On St. Ullman’s suggestion a new type of study appeared, which studies the problem of synaesthesia parallels in the style of several poets. The third type of study tends to give a comprehensive view about the synaesthesiae characteristic of a literary
Tsur (1987) introduces another type of study, namely, the exploration of “the nature of individual synaesthetic transfers, their perceived qualities…as well as their contribution to their more immediate context in the poem as a whole” (p. 214).
One major issue that most of these studies have ignored is that of the directionality of mapping in synaesthetic metaphors as they are used in poetic and non-poetic language (for exceptions, see Ullman 1957; Day 1996; Shen 1997) - that is, the question of whether certain modalities are more likely to be mapped onto others, or whether any modality can be mapped onto any other. In the first section of the paper we review evidence from different sources for the claim that synaesthetic metaphors do exhibit a general pattern across contexts. In the second sectionWe introduce a series of experiments that provide empirical support for a cognitive account of this pattern.
Section 1: The structural options: the “low to high” and “high to low” mapping It is commonly assumed (see e.g., Ullman 1957; Tsur 1992; Day 1996; Cytowic 1989; 1993) that the perceptual modalities are organized along a scale ranging from the ‘highest’ modality - sight - followed (in this order) by sound, smell, taste - to the ‘lowest’ sense, namely, touch.
Given this scale or hierarchy, any synaesthetic metaphor may exhibit either a mapping from a lower to a higher modality or vice versa.
Compare, for example, the following two instances of synaesthesia:
[1b] melodious sweetness.
In [1a] the direction of mapping from source to target is a lower to higher mapping: the source term (i.e., the adjective sweet) belongs to a lower modality on the scale than the target melody. By contrast, [1b] represents the opposite directionality: from a higher to a lower modality. Given these two basic structural options, the question of directionality in poetic synaesthesia can be formulated more precisely: Do synaesthetic metaphors occurring in natural discourse make use of one of these two options more frequently than the other, across contexts? In other words, is there a universal preference for one of the options over the other?
Elsewhere (see Shen 1997; Shen & Cohen 1998) the first author have described this pattern as characterizing mainly the use of synaesthetic metaphors in poetry. Those studies, however, were indeed restricted to poetry. The question remains whether this pattern characterizes only the language of poetry, or can be extended to other discourse types, such as literary prose and ordinary discourse. In what follows, we introduce and review additional studies that lend support to the claim that the lower-to-higher mapping pattern cuts across genre boundaries and can be extended to literary prose and ordinary language use (the latter corpus will be analyzed for diachronic meaning change).
We argue that the evidence suggests that the lower-to-higher mapping is a robust general pattern characterizing the use of synaesthetic metaphors in natural language in general, across types of discourse (e.g., literary vs. non-literary genres), novelty (i.e., novel vs. conventional uses of synaesthetic metaphors), languages and cultures.
WE begin by reviewing past research on the use of synaesthetic metaphors in poetry, and then move on to literary prose and ordinary discourse.
The evidence for lower-to higher-mappings in poetic discourse Poetry European poetry Ullman (1957), in a seminal study on the topic of synaesthesia, sampled over 2000 synaesthetic metaphors
extracted from the poetry of 12 nineteenth-century poets in three different European literary sources:
English, French and Hungarian poetry. An analysis of this large corpus revealed a clear-cut tendency (with a small number of exceptions) to use synaesthetic metaphors conforming to the above generalization rather than ones that do not. It is obvious (although Ullman himself is not explicit on this point) that this tendency would be even more marked if a chance distribution were taken as the standard of comparison.
It is noteworthy that there is a single exception to this generalization, involving the two highest modalities (i.e., sight and sound). Ullman points out that when a synaesthesia involves these two senses, each of them is equally likely to become either the target or source concept. The reason for this is not clear, though Ullman himself, as well as other researchers (e.g., Tsur 1992), have provided some initial suggestions.
In another study (Arsenic, n.d) a corpus of nineteenth and twentieth-century Serbo-Croatian poetry was studied, using 129 synaesthetic metaphors excerpted from over 1200 poems written by various poets belonging to different historical periods and poetic schools ( e.g., Jovan Ducic of late symbolism, the futurists Todor Manjlovic and Miroslav Krleza, the surrealist Dusan Matic, and so forth). The analysis of the results revealed a similar pattern to the one found in the other poetic corpora: the lower-to-higher structure included 60 cases (79%), while only 16 (21%) of the cases represented the higher-to-lower structure (about 53 cases were the non-directional sight/sound cases, as explained above).
Chudnowsky (n.d.), who analyzed nineteenth and twentieth-century century Russian poetry, found a similar pattern. Five periods in the evolution of Russian modern poetry were studied, each represented by four major poets. Out of 231 synaesthetic metaphors, 77% represented a lower-to-higher structure while only 23% represented the opposite mapping. There was not a single (sub) period or even a single poet for which the higher-to-lowr structure occurred more frequently than the lower-to-higher one. A similar finding was pointed out by Dombi (1974), who studied modern Romanian poetry.
Hebrew and Arabic Poetry Elsewhere (see Shen 1997) a similar pattern was found in modern Hebrew poetry. Hebrew poetry introduces a different set of poets belonging to a different cultural environment. The corpus analyzed consisted of 130 instances of poetic synaesthesia taken from the writings of 20 modern Hebrew poets who wrote during the period from 1900 to 1980. The poets chosen represent four distinct historical periods in the evolution of Hebrew poetry, with substantially different poetic characteristics.
It is thus unlikely that the structural pattern emerging from this analysis could be attributed to contextual factors, such as the particular poems from which the synaesthesias were excerpted, or the individual poets who composed them, or the particular generation or poetic school with which a given poet is affiliated.
The fact that the four poetic corpora (the three analyzed by Ullman and the one reported here) are four national literary corpora provides even stronger support for the generalization proposed. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that any of the specific contextual factors mentioned above could have affected the pattern of selection of the lower-to- higher mapping in the Hebrew and European samples.
Another poetic corpus that has been analyzed is a sample consisting of about 70 synaesthetic metaphors excerpted from modern Arabic poetry (Nil, abu-Amana: unpublished manuscript). The researcher found out that the majority of the cases (about 80%) conformed to the lower-to-higher mapping format rather than the alternative.
Literary and non-literary prose Further support for this tendency was found by Manor (unpublished manuscript), who analyzed the use of synaesthetic metaphors in the novelette “Etzel”, written by a well known Hebrew novelist, Uri Genesin. Similar findings were found by Williams (1976) for English and Japanese, and for literary and ordinary language (Yu 2003).
The picture that emerges from all these studies suggests that the lower-to-higher mapping in synaesthetic metaphors is a robust pattern that cuts across various specific context. It appears in poetry as well as in prose, in literary as well as non-literary texts, in novel as well as conventional synaesthetic expressions, and in diverse and historically unrelated languages. Such a robust pattern calls for an account that is basic and general enough to explain it.
Diachronic meaning extension for sensory terms Evidence from diachronic meaning extensions in various languages is also compatible with the above generalization. Thus, Williams (1976) who studied synaesthetic adjectives mainly in English (but also in
Japanese and several Indo-European languages), came up with the following generalization:
If a lexeme metaphorically transfers from its earliest sensory meaning to another sensory modality, it will transfer from a lower to a higher modality (except for the
For example, ‘sharp’ may transfer to the domain of taste (sharp tastes), color (dull colors), or sound (soft sound). Taste words do not transfer back to tactile experience, but rather to higher modalities, such as smell (sour smell) (Williams, 1976; p. 463).
Considering languages other than those studied by Williams, Yu (1992) and Shen & Gadir (forthcoming) found a similar pattern for Chinese and Hebrew, respectively.
For example, the adjective xad means sharp in Biblical Hebrew, but it extends its meaning in post-Biblical Hebrew to other sensory domains, such as taste (as in "the mustard mexaded=sharpens their mouth") or smell (as in "the xidud=sharpness of the smell) and sound (as in "the voices of women and eunuchs are xadim yoter = sharper than the voices of the people").