It may sound a bit weird to you when you see this title; it did to me when I was invited to answer that question on a Chinese question website – ‘in Chinese, why do we use the same word sour to represent the taste of vinegar and the sad feeling when you hear a touching story?’ Several similar questions can be found on that website, such as ‘why do we use up/high for something good while down/low for something bad’, or ‘why does English use in to talk about time relation’. Fortunately (or not), my current work is about semantics, specifically about metaphor, which meant I could give an answer when they turned to me. And today, my blog starts from that story and will go slightly beyond to discover the question: when we mean ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ by saying ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’, do we really taste that in mind?
The whole story comes from the development of the so-called ‘contemporary theory of metaphor’ (henceforth CTM), which comes out of the field of cognitive semantics and is represented by Lakoff and Johnson and their book Metaphors We Live by (1980). Lakoff and Johnson’s idea is about the cognitive realisation and conceptual formation of metaphor. They classify metaphor as a mapping between two concepts in different conceptual domains, which turns ‘metaphor’ into a phenomenon at the level of concept formation. Lakoff and Johnson believe that metaphor, as a mirror, faithfully reflects our perception and cognition of the whole world, and such reflection is embedded in our daily language. The reason we use ‘up’ for happiness (e.g. ‘cheer up’) and ‘down’ for sadness (e.g. ‘his mood is low’) is not simply because we want to make our speech fancier; instead, we do feel ‘high’ and jump ‘up’ when we are full of joy, while we lower our heads when we are disappointed. They also claim that these metaphor mappings should be universal, since human beings should perceive these events in a similar way – which is also a fundamental proposal of cognitive linguistics.
The presence of CTM leads to an earthquake-like shift in the field of metaphor research. Our definition of ‘metaphor’ changes drastically due to their proposal ‘metaphor is a mapping at the conceptual level’. In the traditional view, such as a Gricean account (Grice 1989), a metaphorical sentence is always non-literal, and we can always sense the deviance when we hear someone saying to his lover ‘you are the cream in my coffee’. Under the framework of CTM, however, even some typical literal sentences can contain a conceptual metaphor. For instance, ‘her voice is sweet’, which sounds quite literal to most of native speakers of English and a lot of English learners, contains a conceptual metaphor PLEASURABLE EXPERIENCES ARE SWEET FOOD. (When we refer to conceptual metaphors, we use small capital letters to show that it is the mapping at the level of concept: ‘Pleasurable experiences’ is the target domain of the metaphor, and ‘sweet food’ is the source domain – see Barcelona 2000 for more examples). Pleasurable experiences could bring people a good mood, just like what sweet food does. The linguistic realisation of a conceptual metaphor is called a ‘linguistic metaphor’, although it may be classified as ‘literal’ in the traditional semantic view. Iconic conceptual metaphors identified by Lakoff and Johnson include argument is war, time is space, life is a journey and so on, – you won’t miss them if you read any article on CTM.
Let’s go back to our sweet and sour examples, with some analyses and counterexamples. Based on CTM, a series of interpretation of ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’ sentences are produced, which makes use of conceptual metaphors like PLEASURABLE EXPERIENCES ARE SWEET FOOD (Dirven 1985; Barcelona 2000), UNPLEASANT EXPERIENCE ARE SOUR OR BITTER FOOD (Barcelona 2000) and JEALOUSY IS SOUR/BITTER (Yu 1998; Buss 2000). These observations show that cross-linguistically sweetness is associated with pleasant experiences and joyful objects, while sourness is associated with the opposite. The reason for such association, as is inferred from the spirit of CTM, is that both the source domain and the target domain could evoke some similar cognitive effects. However, soon we will see that these basic conceptual metaphors cannot cater for all the possibilities that ‘sweet’ and ‘sour’ can present in different languages.
Although Lakoff and Johnson claim that conceptual metaphors exist across languages and cultures, the realisation of these conceptual metaphors varies in different languages, which means the mapping may not be really ‘universal’. Take our favourite example ‘sweet’. In a number of languages, the word ‘sweet’ is associated with nice feelings and delicate objects, for instance, ‘sweet music’ and ‘sweet voice’ in English, or ‘xinli ganjue hentian’ (feeling sweet in one’s heart) and ‘tianyan miyu’ (sweet sentences and honey words) in Chinese. But an extraordinary example is discovered in Japanese: the Japanese correspondence ‘amai’ (sweet) can be used to describe a naive person without any knowledge, which has an obviously negative implication. Such use is also transferred to Chinese, and I was totally surprised when one of my close friends said ‘ta taitian-le’ (he is too sweet) while her intention was ‘he is so naive’. There is even a semi-formulaic popular expression in Chinese ‘sha bai tian’ (lit. stupid, white and sweet) to describe ‘a super naive, super foolish person’. The use of ‘sweet’ for naivety is clearly not a part of the conceptual metaphor PLEASURABLE EXPERIENCES ARE SWEET FOOD.
Another interesting example is that both English and Japanese demonstrate the use (although limited) of ‘sweet’ when describe ‘a large amount’, which is reflected in ‘a sweet amount of time’ and ‘mizu ga amai’ (lit. the water is a large amount); in Chinese, however, this expression is absent. It is also difficult to cover the meaning ‘a large amount’ if we apply the conceptual metaphor PLEASURABLE EXPERIENCES ARE SWEET FOOD.
Such cross-linguistic differences lead me to question whether these associations are systematic or merely coincidental, or a combination of the two. It is clearly shown in the case above that the use of ‘sweet’ for ‘naive’ in Chinese is a borrowing from Japanese, while in English, the connection ‘naivety is sweet’ is totally absent. At that stage, we have three choices to explain this phenomenon. First, maybe we do have a conceptual metaphor NAIVETY IS SWEET FOOD; this argument is difficult to prove, because cognitively we cannot directly associate naivety with sweetness, and we also need to find the reason to explain why it only appears in a limited number of languages. Second, maybe ‘naivety is sweet’ is derived from some existing conceptual metaphors which have not been discovered yet, since ‘naivety’ is definitely not a pleasant experience; it is no less difficult to find the conceptual metaphor, however. Third, it is a mere coincidence that Japanese uses ‘sweet’ for naivety, which makes the seeming-conceptual-metaphor nothing. The use of ‘sweet’ for ‘a large amount’ in English and Japanese faces the same problem. Either we need to find a valid conceptual metaphor to cater for these expressions and explain why it is only present in some languages, or we should admit that it is not a metaphor at all, even though it involves some domain mappings.
These are the problems that challenge CTM today. Maybe humans systematically use ‘sweet’ to represent happiness because they feel good when they encounter the sweet flavour, but before we research all the possibilities in different languages and cultures, we cannot claim that this usage is universal, and we cannot attribute all the different usages to human cognition. We should always keep in mind that those cross-linguistic similarities might only be a coincidence or a result of semantic borrowing. When we use ‘sweet and sour’ to describe the mixture of happiness, unease and anxiety, it is possible that we use it only because it is a linguistic convention. Maybe we do not have a plate of sweet and sour chicken in our mind after all.
For more sweet and sour feelings, have a look at these references:
Barcelona, Antonio. 2000. ‘On the plausibility of claiming a metonymic motivation for conceptual metaphor’, in Antonio Barcelona (ed.), Metaphor and Metonymy at the Crossroads: A Cognitive Perspective (Walter de Gruyter), pp. 31–58
Buss, David M. 2000. The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex (Simon and Schuster)
Dirven, René. 1985. ‘Metaphor as a basic means for extending the lexicon’, in Wolf Paprotté and René Dirven (eds.), The Ubiquity of Metaphor: Metaphor in language and thought (John Benjamins Publishing), pp. 85–119
Grice, H. Paul. 1989. Studies in the Way of Words (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press)
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press)
Yu, Ning. 1998. The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor: A Perspective from Chinese (John Benjamins Publishing)
Do happiness and sadness taste like sweet and sour chicken? was originally published on CamLangSci