Gesturing literal and metaphorical motion events in children and adults

Hülagü, Ayşenur
Özge, Duygu
The question as to how metaphors arise in thought and how they are interpreted in communication is a long-standing question from Aristotle to contemporary psycholinguists. For some, metaphors should be analyzed as analogies in order to receive meaning; that is, literal meaning is initially imposed (decomposition), and the choice of the metaphor is triggered only when the literal analysis fails (Searle, 1979; Gentner & Bowdle, 2008). For others, metaphors are stored as separate lexical items and interpreted via direct access (Giora, 2008; McElree & Nordlie, 1999). We address this question by focusing on how literal and metaphorical motion events are interpreted in Turkish children (N = 24; MeanAge = 4;5) and adults (N = 46). Literal motion event, “run into house”, depicts a physical motion of an object whereas a metaphorical motion event, “run into frustration”, does not (Özçalışkan, 2004). Özçalışkan (2007) observed children impose literal meaning to metaphorical concepts in their verbal descriptions until age 5. The test was in the speech modality so children’s limited language skills might have led to such an effect. We conducted an actout study where the participants were asked to describe the motion events whispered in their ears by an experimenter in gestures (without speech). Children were more likely to have null-responses for metaphorical (36.11%) compared to literal (4.86%) motion events. Both adults and children applied decomposition in the literal motion events (children = 100%; adults = 97.8%) significantly more than they did in the metaphorical events (children = 28.9%; adults = 4.3%) (children = χ²(1)=62,5; p = .00; adults=χ²(1)=241,2; p = .00). In metaphorical events, children were more likely to have decomposition compared to adults (χ²(1)=9.09; p = .002). Children were more likely to decompose when they did not know the meaning of the term (11.11%) compared to the cases when they knew the meaning (6.94%). Similarly, they were more likely to give direct description of the event when they knew the meaning (41.6) compared to the cases where they did not (4.16%). We also looked at to what extent participants used ground elements (source and goal) in their gestures. Both groups used these elements in literal motion events (children = 84.1%; adults = 97.6%) more than they did in the metaphorical expressions (children = 25.6%; adults = 2.2%) (children = χ²(1) = 31,8; p = .00; adults = χ²(1) = 200,7; p = .00). Although not fully adult-like, children already begin interpreting metaphors without decomposition at age 4. Just like adults, children have a direct access to the metaphors especially if these metaphors are part of their lexicon.
Citation Formats
A. Hülagü and D. Özge, “Gesturing literal and metaphorical motion events in children and adults,” presented at the 14th International Congress Child Language, July 17th-21st 2017, Lyon, France, 2017, Accessed: 00, 2021. [Online]. Available: