Apple of my eye? US fancies a huge metaphor repository

The US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity building a system to understand human metaphorical speech

Researchers with the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity want to build a repository of metaphors. You read that right.  Not just American/English metaphors mind you but those of Iranian Farsi, Mexican Spanish and Russian speakers.

Why metaphors? "Metaphors have been known since Aristotle as poetic or rhetorical devices that are unique, creative instances of language artistry (for example: The world is a stage; Time is money). Over the last 30 years, metaphors have been shown to be pervasive in everyday language and to reveal how people in a culture define and understand the world around them," IARPA says.

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The group, which develops high-risk, reward research projects for the government says Metaphor Program:

  • Shape how people think about complex topics and can influence beliefs;
  • Reduce the complexity of meaning associated with a topic by capturing or expressing patterns;
  • Show uncovered inferred meanings and worldviews of particular groups or individuals: Characterization of disparities in social issues and contrasting political goals; exposure of inclusion and exclusion of social and political groups and understanding of psychological problems and conflicts.

In the end the program should produce a methodology, tools and techniques together with a prototype system that will identify metaphors that provide insight into cultural beliefs. It should also help build structured framework that organizes the metaphors associated with the various dimensions of an analytic problem and build a metaphor repository where all metaphors and related information are captured for future reference and access, IARPA stated.

"For decision makers to be effective in a world of mass communication and global interaction, they must understand the shared concepts and worldviews of members of other cultures of interest. Recognizing cultural norms is a significant challenge, however, because they tend to be hidden.  We tend to notice them only when they are in conflict with the norms of other cultures. Such differences may cause discomfort or frustration and may lead to flawed interpretations about the intent or motivation of others. The Metaphor Program will exploit the use of metaphors by different cultures to gain insight into their cultural norms," IARPA says.  

The Metaphor Program is divided into two phases, totaling 60 months, and is intended to begin in November 2011.

Understanding language is a hot topic amongst the government research folks. Last year you may recall, the military's research folks at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said they wanted to know about how stories or narratives influence human behavior.  To this end, DARPA hosted a workshop called "Stories, Neuroscience and Experimental Technologies (STORyNET): Analysis and Decomposition of Narratives in Security Contexts."  

"Stories exert a powerful influence on human thoughts and behavior. They consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, influence in-group/out-group distinctions, and may affect the fundamental contents of personal identity. It comes as no surprise that these influences make stories highly relevant to vexing security challenges such as radicalization, violent social mobilization, insurgency and terrorism, and conflict prevention and resolution. Therefore, understanding the role stories play in a security context is a matter of great import and some urgency," DARPA stated.

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