Musical pitch metaphors in speech and gesture: evidence from Swedish and Turkish


How are language-specific metaphors for musical pitch manifested in speech and gesture by speakers of different languages? Metaphorical expressions are common in language and proponents of Conceptual Metaphor Theory (e.g. Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) have famously argued that metaphors are not merely surface phenomena, but also vital for how we ‘think’ about abstract concepts in terms of more concrete ones. The languages of the world offer their speakers various solutions for expressing relative pitch in terms of metaphor. In some languages (e.g. English and Swedish), pitch may often be described as ‘high’ or ‘low’, whereas other languages (e.g. Turkish and Farsi) have expressions like ‘thick’ or ‘thin’ (e.g. Dolscheid, Shayan, Majid & Casasanto, 2013; Shayan, Ozturk & Sicoli, 2011). Although other metaphors are also employed across and within speech communities, such as describing pitch in terms of “brightness” or “strength”, the ‘height’ and ‘thickness’ metaphors appear to be prevalent in a number of languages. What is shared is a cross-domain mapping of distinct spatial attributes to sound perception.Previous studies in gesture research have demonstrated how various types of metaphorical expressions are reflected in speakers’ gestures (see e.g. Cienki & Müller, 2008).

In order to better understand the production of the ‘height’ and “thickness” metaphors from an embodied perspective, we investigated how different metaphors for pitch are manifested in speech and gesture by speakers of Swedish and Turkish. We hypothesised that a) Swedish and Turkish participants would predominantly describe pitch differences in terms of height and thickness, respectively; b) representational gestures accompanying verbal descriptions would indicate pitch variation along the axes congruent with the language-specific metaphors used in speech (i.e. vertical vs. horizontal/sagittal). We investigated these issues using a language production task, in which participants were asked to listen to a set of stimuli, each item consisting of two sung notes differing only in pitch. Participants then described each item to a confederate pretending to perform a stimulus-matching task. Preliminary results suggest that in speech the two language groups indeed favoured their language-specific metaphors, with Swedes predominantly using the ‘height’ metaphor, and Turkish speakers using the ‘thickness’ metaphor. However, in gesture, the two groups diverged although both groups produced a comparable number of gestures. Swedish participants frequently produced representational gestures to indicate vertical height congruent with verbal descriptions. In contrast, Turkish participants did not show the same coupling between speech content and gesture. Turkish speakers rarely produced representational gestures indicating something like thickness of pitch. Instead, they produced a variety of pragmatic gestures less clearly associated with the spatial dimension invoked by their spoken metaphors. Although the results must be interpreted with caution at this point, the observed cross-linguistic and cross-modal divergence in metaphor usage may point to the need for a more complex view of how spatial metaphors are used by speakers to communicate information by means of mappings across perceptual domains.

Cienki, A. & Müller, C (eds.) (2008). Metaphor and Gesture. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Dolscheid, S., Shayan, S., Majid, A., and Casasanto, D. (2013). The thickness of musical pitch: psychophysical evidence for linguistic relativity. Psychological Science, 24, 613–621.
Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by, Vol. 111. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Shayan, S., Ozturk, O., and Sicoli, M. A. (2011). The thickness of pitch: crossmodal metaphors in farsi, turkish, and zapotec. Senses & Society, 6,96–105.

Poster presented at Perception Metaphor Workshop, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen