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Language: The Government Wants Your Metaphors

Posted on: May 27, 2011

Make a Metaphor

Are metaphors cultural memes? Do they say something about your culture, or just you? (Click image for credit and source.)

Did you know your tax dollars will soon be hard at work mining massive amounts of text?

It seems that Uncle Sam’s spy researchers are building “software sieves” that will be able to parse automatically what English, Farsi, Russian and Spanish speakers say and write, and pluck out the metaphors lurking in their streams of words.

The Intelligence Advanced Projects Research Activity (IARPA) wants to analyze and evaluate how people use metaphors, and then map that usage to their worldview, beliefs and mindset.

IARPA describes the Metaphor Program this way in a synopsis on its website:

“The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture … performers will develop automated tools and techniques for recognizing, defining and categorizing linguistic metaphors associated with target concepts and found in large amounts of native-language text … the program will characterize differing cultural perspectives associated with case studies of the types of interest to the Intelligence Community.”

One fascinating aspect of the project is that IARPA sees metaphors as representing a general cultural mindset or worldview, rather than merely an individual’s expression of personal beliefs or attitudes.

This is interesting, because although it might be true that metaphors can influence your beliefs or how you perceive other people, events and issues, it is no doubt equally true that the arrows of influence can fly in the opposite direction. Maybe, just maybe, you can change your culture, even if only a little, by how you use language. Creativity and originality, anyone?

At any given moment, does your use of metaphors represent you, the individual, engaged in expressing your own ideas, which might run counter to those dominant in your culture or group? Or you, the “member of a culture” who merely echoes the received thematic mindset and attitudes associated with your kind?

And how could an outsider, a third-party someone (or software application) truly make that distinction with any accuracy?

As Alexis Madrigal points out in his superb article in The Atlantic: “[T]his project wants to parse, say, all the pages in Farsi on the Internet looking for hidden levers into the consciousness of a people … The assumption is that common turns of phrase, dissected and reassembled through cognitive linguistics, could say something about the views of those citizens that they might not be able to say themselves. The language of a culture as reflected in a bunch of text on the Internet might hide secrets about the way people think.”

Alright, then. What do the following metaphors say about Americans – not you as “an American,” mind you, but “Americans”? Because one implication (or perhaps, better: assumption) of the project appears to be that we are each more or less cultural cogs than we are individuals and, therefore, our use of metaphors shows “the consciousness of a people,” which tidily presumes we all agree on what a given metaphor means and only apply it to agreed-upon contexts and situations. Some American metaphors for your consideration:

That’s as American as motherhood and apple pie.

Saddle up.

Let’s roll.

It’s not over ‘til the fat lady sings.

The best defense is a good offense.

He’s wearing cement booties and sleeping with the fishes.

A stitch in time saves nine.

He made it by the skin of his teeth.

May the force be with you.

Beam me up, Scotty.

Sow the seeds of progress.

They’re in default mode.

And those examples represent just “we the people” inventing and using common, every-day metaphors. What of those created by great writers, poets, scientists and thinkers?

Read any of Shakespeare’s works, say, or Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. What do the metaphors in those works say about their authors and their respective cultures?

For example, should the meaning(s) of Neruda’s metaphors be understood as saying something about the consciousness of the culture to which he belongs? And what, exactly, would that be? Do Neruda’s readers interpret his metaphors in the same way he does? If they repeat one of his metaphors, do they merely pass along the original (Neruda’s) meaning, or modify it, re-shape it, alter it and re-cast it to fit their own thinking, experiences and intent?

Let me tangentially note that many writers and editors (and readers, too) would call cultural metaphors, such as the examples in the list above, boring and unimaginative platitudes, or tired figures of speech, or hackneyed phrases, and frown on using them. Cultural metaphors are not, by definition, very original.

But do they capture the consciousness of an entire people? The truth of an entire culture?

Do they show how we understand ourselves, each other, and the world?

I think even attempting to build such a cultural-linguistic knowledge database that possesses the slimmest margin of accuracy will prove to be an extraordinarily challenging, complex, very long-term undertaking. The research will have to focus, in part, on word relationships, frames, logics, structures, processing rules, cognitive linguistics, syntactics, pragmatics, semantics, morphologies of various sorts, linguistic biases, permutations and combinations, probabilities, literal versus figurative speech, and … on and on it goes.

Language is a living substance. It is one of the outward expressions of the functioning brain. In essence, this project seeks to build a sort of linguistic Fast Fourier Transform to ingest the metaphorical statements of hundreds of millions of functioning brains and convert them into patterns that show the worldview, the consciousness, and the beliefs of their respective cultures.

What are the odds of such a project producing anything coherent, much less generating accurate, usable, actionable intelligence or insight?

If you view metaphors as cultural memes, you would do well to remember that a culture is a living organism, a society of minds in which ideas and thoughts constantly arise, emerge, evolve, transform, grow, replicate, mutate, decline, and die. Although the metaphors of any given time might mirror something about an individual as well as societal life, and vice versa, what is it?

The Metaphor Program promises to be great fun. This is one of the yummiest projects I’ve heard of in a long time.

What do you think of it? Do you feel like circling the wagons and hunkering down, or are you raring to saddle up and head out to join the effort and offer your metaphors to your country?

To help you decide, you might find it useful to read: What Do Metaphors Say?

Now it’s your turn: What do you think about the government poking around in your metaphors? Do you think such a project can capture the ceaseless realtime exchange of information between individuals and their culture, decode the meanings encrypted in metaphors, and interpret them in accurate and useful ways? Do you even like metaphors? Do you use them?  Elizabeth Lexleigh  LexPower  The Write Ideas

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