Iarpa and the Metaphor Machine

Paul Raven @ 27-05-2011

File in duplicate under both “awesome idea” and “kinda scary”; the US intelligence blue-sky department Iarpa is toying with the idea of building a giant database of cross-referenced metaphors from all sorts of languages… which I guess would lead to the identification of metametaphors, if that’s not some sort of semantic impossibility.

The first step is to identify and collect all those metaphors — from English, Farsi, Spanish and Russian — into a huge database. That means analyzing loads of textual data, identifying all the metaphors (“his life took a left turn”; “you must find your own way”), mapping them onto a conceptual metaphor (“life is a journey”) and then … well, after that, it’s not completely clear.

Social science may offer a clue into what we could possibly do with this gigantic metaphor repository, however. Besides improving communication and interactions in a globalized world, metaphors might help us bridge cross-cultural gaps.

For example, the topic of morality. Americans are likely to think of morality in terms of rights, or things we “possess” or can be “deprived of” — “rights as IOUs.” In China, on the other hand, morality is usually conceived of as bounded space or concentric circles, so you can “overstep boundaries” or “hit the mark.” These two metaphors aren’t really compatible, but if we started talking about a moral right as a “right-of-way” (a path to move along without interference), we might have found a metaphor that carries weight in both cultures.

I wonder how far you could go with this? Maybe we could boil down all human concepts into pure universal metaphors… I’m not sure what use that would be to anyone, but the writer in me thinks it’s a great idea nonetheless.