Language statistics and individual differences in processing primary metaphors

Sterling Hutchinson 1  and Max Louwerse 1
  • 1 Tilburg Center for Cognition and Communication (TiCC), Tilburg University, 5000 LE Tilburg, The Netherlands


Research in cognitive linguistics has emphasized the role of embodiment in metaphor comprehension, with experimental research showing activation of perceptual simulations when processing metaphors. Recent research in conceptual processing has demonstrated that findings attributed to embodied cognition can be explained through language statistics. The current study investigates whether language statistics explain processing of primary metaphors and whether this effect is modified by the gender of the participant. Participants saw word pairs with valence (Experiment 1: good–bad), authority (Experiment 2: doctor–patient), temperature (Experiment 3: hot–cold), or gender (Experiment 4: male–female) connotations. The pairs were presented in either a vertical configuration (X above Y or Y above X) matching the primary metaphors (e.g., HAPPY IS UP, CONTROL IS UP) or a horizontal configuration (X left of Y or Y left of X) not matching the primary metaphors. Even though previous research has argued that primary metaphor processing can best be explained by an embodied cognition account, results demonstrate that statistical linguistic frequencies also explain the response times of the stimulus pairs both in vertical and horizontal configurations, because language has encoded embodied relations. In addition, the effect of the statistical linguistic frequencies was modified by participant gender, with female participants being more sensitive to statistical linguistic context than male participants.

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Cognitive Linguistics presents a forum for linguistic research of all kinds on the interaction between language and cognition. The journal focuses on language as an instrument for organizing, processing and conveying information. It is devoted to high-quality research on topics such as the structural characteristics of natural language categorization and the functional principles of linguistic organization.