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Big Adjective

Author: Mizusu Shimotori, University of Bergen, Norway

Language is obviously one of the essential vehicles that convey people’s emotion. Linguistic expressions for basic emotions such as happy, sad and anger are mainly used to express how people feel or think. However, people’s emotion is extremely complicated. Sometimes it is difficult to express emotion by using just one word since emotion contains diverse aspects such as the degree of intension (e.g., happy vs. very happy) and the cause of an emotion (e.g., anger based on self-disgust vs. anger based on societal disapproval). One good way to express those sophisticated aspects of emotion is to conflate the concept of emotion with other concept, in other words, through metaphors.

We know that there are various ways to illustrate emotion, for example by linking with color terms in English (Steinvall 2007), spontaneous physical reactions (Hillbom and Shimotori, 2015) and so on. In addition, the conflation of two concepts, emotion and perception adjective, is also familiar to us to describe the type/kind of emotion, for example, No words can relieve her deep sorrow.

The semantic domain of dimensionality is generally lexicalized through adjectives. Dimensional adjectives, such as big, small, high and low, belong to the category of perception adjectives. In my comparative semantic study of dimensional adjectives in Japanese and Swedish (Shimotori 2013), concepts underlying dimensional adjectives are examined by conducting word-association tests. The result shows that the association pattern established between dimensional adjectives and emotion words, e.g., biglove, is thought to be due to their frequent collocations. It is likely common to describe one’s emotion in terms of dimensional adjectives illustrating size, form and content of object.

A complex concept consisting of an adjective-noun combination has the following conceptual structure: the head noun refers to an object that is modified by the adjective. For the dimension-emotion combination, this is the case. However, the difference between the ordinary adjective-noun combination (e.g., red apple) and the dimension-emotion combination (e.g., deep sorrow) is that the head noun apple refers to a solid object, whereas sorrow is abstract. Moreover, the concept of red in red apple refers to an observational attribute of apple, i.e., color, whereas deep in deep sorrow represents one’s subjective estimation about the degree of sorrow in terms of the vertical extension of a container-like object. Dimensional attributes, for example depth, are conceptually interpreted as the degree of intension by was of a metaphorical formula, in this case, MORE IS DEEP. The concept of deep sorrow has thus a metaphorical connection between deep and sorrow in the sense that the feeling one perceives by a certain physical experience is conceptually mapped with his/her emotion.

So the adjectives that represent human sensation and perception i.e., touch, taste, sight, hearing, and scent, have a high affinity for describing emotion. Perception adjectives are flexibly able to meet the diversified need of describing our complex emotions. And I am fascinated by the versatility in those adjectives.

Let me give you some examples. In Japanese, recent usages of the perception adjectives itai ʻpainfulʼ and samui ʻcoldʼ are very interesting. The adjective itai ʻpainfulʼ describes both the mental and physical pain that we might go through in everyday life. These meanings are transferred into the description of a person whose words and actions are embarrassing and pathetic, e.g., kare tte itai yo ne ʻhe’s so cringyʼ. Another adjective samui ʻcoldʼ is normally used to describe cold temperatures or the feeling of cold from cold (air) temperatures, but this is also used when hearing someone’s joke that is boring, or cringey.

Sometimes it might be challenging to familiarize a new usage of an adjective because it could be misunderstood in communication, as in this example below:

- Whoa, this is heavy.

- There’s that word again, heavy. Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitation pull?

(Back to the Future, 1985)

Other adjectives are used beautifully and poetically, just by describing one object. The example below talks about the size of the sky, but at the same time they express love toward nature:

- I love the sky. It’s so limitless.

- It is big, it’s very big.

- Big doesn’t even sum it up right? That word big is too small. You have to get those really giant words to describe the sky.

(What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, 1993)



Hillbom, Annika. and Shimotori, Misuzu. 2015. Physical reactions illustrating people’s emotions in Swedish and Japanese crime novels. Proceedings of Metaphor Festival, Department of English, Stockholm University

Shimotori, Misuzu. 2013. Conceptual contrasts: A comparative semantic study of dimensional adjectives in Japanese and Swedish. Diss. Umeå Studies in Language and Literature 17, Umeå University, Sweden. ISBN: 9789174595345

Steinvall, Anders. 2007. In MacLaury, Robert E., Paramei, Galina V. and Dedrick, Don (Eds.) Anthropology of Color: Interdisciplinary Multilevel Modeling. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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