• simondevylder


Updated: 6 days ago

If, for some reason, you ended up on a remote South Pacific island and chat with its inhabitants about their family, someone may tell you this:

(1) Namusil sise onen Mama onak ‘I followed my mother’s path’ (Paamese)

If you grew up in a WEIRD country (Western European Industrialized Rich & Democratic) like I did, you would probably understand it as “she is making the same mistake her mother did” or “she is planning to pursue the same career as her mother’s”. Right?


What that person wanted to tell you, in fact, was that the man she married is a distant relative from her mother’s side of her extended family. Even if you could not guess right, you are nonetheless probably thinking that this could be a metaphor. Why?

It is well documented that our experience with artifacts such as paths, roads, or bridges (e.g. Falck 2010, 2012) inspires us to think and speak about other experiences. But how can we be sure that these expressions have not sedimented deeply enough to have lost their metaphoricity (Müller 2009, Devylder & Zlatev 2020, Blomberg, 2020)?

Walking dead metaphors

Expressions such as “you broke my heart”, for example, are so frequent and conventional in English that we can reasonably ask ourselves if we really harness our experience of breaking stuff when we are perhaps ‘just’ saying that we are sad. One would surely not think through their experience of breaking stuff when they describe a politician as corrupt, even though corrupt comes from latin com- ‘together’, and rumpere ‘to break’. It is in the late 14C. that the meaning of ‘altering someone’s moral integrity’ started to be used in addition to the initial meaning of ‘changing tangible artifacts from a sound to a putrid state’. We can imagine that calling someone a corrupt person was then more vividly understood through its other interpretation. 14C metaphor analysts would then probably (and rightfully) call this a metaphor. The loose moral meaning of corrupt gradually eclipsed its original meaning. The former became conventionalized through frequency of use and eventually sedimented deeply enough to lose all traces of metaphoricity (i.e. the tension between the two meanings). In other words when nowadays we are speaking of a corrupt person, we are not thinking of a breaking event, even though we can argue that this was the initial motivation. (See a case of sedimentation in Finnish here ).

Language reflects thoughts?

If some linguistic metaphorical expressions appear to be part of a system that aligns with a system of thoughts (e.g., Casasanto & Dijkstra, 2010) and that can influence reasoning (e.g., Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011) others do not align (e.g., Casasanto & Bottini, 2014, Devylder et al. 2020) and even contradict each other (e.g., de La Fuente, Casasanto, Román, & Santiago, 2015). We cannot simply assume that there is a one-to-one mapping between language and thoughts. Applied to our specific example we cannot assume that my interlocutor was actively thinking of moving along a path when she said that she followed her mother’s path, for the same reason that we cannot assume that one is thinking of a breaking event when one describes a politician as corrupt.

One way to break free from the circular loop of “language reflects thoughts because thoughts reflects language” is to look at other semiotic systems such as gesture (Cienki & Müller 2008) and/or depiction (Stampoulidis, Bolognesi & Zlatev 2019) in order to triangulate our data and methods.

A second window into the speaker’s thoughts

Looking at the gestures the speaker produced when she said that she followed her mother’s path (Figure 1) helps us determine that interpretation1 (i.e. actual motion along a path) has not sedimented deeply enough for that interpretation to be ‘lost’, as in the case of the breaking event interpretation of corrupt.

Figure 1. Paamese woman makes a gesture that molds the shape of a path with both hands and the motion on that path following a diagonal vector (blue arrow) on the sagittal axis.This gesture was produced at the same time that (1) ‘I followed my mother’s path’ was produced in speech.

Indeed, we see in the three frames that the Paamese speaker uses both hands to 1) mold the shape of a path-like object, and 2) enact motion on or along that object 3) in a specific direction from the left side away of her body towards the right side of her body. This co-speech gesture exactly aligns in time with (1) namusil sise onen mama onak ‘I followed my mother’s path’. (See Andersen 2020 on hand gestures and motion).

We also notice how the semantics of gestures and spoken language can be both supplementary and complementary. They are supplementary when some semantic components of the motion event are marked both in speech and gestures: MOTION (-musil ‘follow’ in speech; hand gesture towards body), and LANDMARK (sise ‘path’ in speech; both-hand molding gesture). They are complementary when other semantic components are marked only in speech: FIGURE (na- ‘I’), or only in gesture: DIRECTION (diagonal gesture on the sagittal axis, i.e. the blue arrow).

This segment of polysemiotic communication (i.e. communication across several semiotic systems, here speech + gesture, see Zlatev 2019) helps us establish that interpertation1 (actual motion) is used in Paamese discourse and also aligns with a system of thoughts, following the consensus that gesture “provides a second window onto the speaker’s thoughts, offering insight into those thoughts that cannot be found in speech” as Goldin-Meadow & Alibali (2013) put it.

Culture & context matter

Words and gestures are situated in specific communicative and cultural contexts, which we cannot do without to move forward with our analysis of the polysemiotic unit [‘I followed my mother’s path’ + its accompanying gestures].

The communicative context, in which this polysemiotic communication segment was produced, was an interview about the Paamese woman’s family and more specifically an answer to the question “how did you meet your husband?”. This information is what allows us establishing that interpretation1 is incongruous with the communicative context, and that the X follow Y’s path construction must have a second interpretation. To unveil interpretation2, we have to turn to the cultural background of the speaker.

The cultural context of Paamese social structure is a tightly woven fabric of kinship relations interlaced by rules of intertribal exchanges. Traditionally, a woman’s promised husband is one of her Father’s Mother’s Brother’s Sons (Devylder 2018). In other words, a Paamese traditional couple are connected via their fathers’ line. The system of Paamese intertribal exchanges also entails that the woman moves from her birthplace to her husband’s village, and physically cross the island on a specific path such as the one below (Figure 2).

Figure 2. A path going through the Paamese lush tropical forest

The tangible paths link villages in a similar way than intangible family lines do: both interconnect Paamese people to each other. When Paamese speakers say that they follow one of their parents’ path and make a gesture that is iconic of motion on that artifact, we can make a case that they are thinking of the experience of getting married through the experience of walking on a path.

Polysemiotic metaphors

When you are a Paamese woman, marrying your Father’s Mother’s Brother’s Son is the rule. But the heart has its reasons, which Paamese social rules know nothing of. This Paamese lady followed her heart, which happened to be at the end of her mother’s path. She married a man from her mother’s side of the family and not from her father's “because we liked each other” she later says in the interview, before bursting out laughing. This is the deviation from the rule that she is explaining at this specific moment in time and brings that polysemiotic metaphor to life with speech and gesture.

Paths of exchange, intertribal unions, and love relations are deeply intertwined in Paamese culture. The polysemiotic metaphor that was briefly analyzed in this post is one of the numerous manifestations of this fascinating and complex system of thoughts. It also manifests itself in art performances and rituals, through the UNESCO listed practice of sand drawing that is performed on only five islands of Central and Northern Vanuatu.

The Heart sand drawing - performed by Matthew Joe (Luli, Paama, Vanuatu)

This ritual drawing is traditionally performed by a young man who wishes to marry a young woman from another tribe. The young man goes to the young woman’s tribe when everyone is gone in their bush gardens and draws this intricate geometrical pattern in front of the young woman’s family hut. It represents a human silhouette with a heart in the middle. The young man then leaves and comes back the next day. If the drawing has been erased, the young woman or her family rejects the union. If the drawing remains untouched, this means that the marital union has been accepted and that the young couple have found each other’s way into each other’s heart.

Yet another fascinating polysemiotic metaphor to analyze, but it is now time to fly back to Northern Europe and keep discussing that strange feeling that is a true human universal. MetNet Scandinavia’s love doctor Per Boström will soon be back on the path of Love, but this time according to SwedesPart 2!


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This research is supported by the Swedish Research Council, the Crafoord Foundation, and the Endangered Language Documentation program, which I gratefully acknowledge.


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