For Research. For Berlin.

Adele Goldberg

Anyone who wants to deal with the influential linguistic theory of constructive grammar can not ignore Adele Goldberg: the Princeton professor has decisively developed the approach, which understands language usage as an interplay of experience, situation and conceptual linkages. From 2010 to 2014, Adele Goldberg also explored how words and feelings are connected as an Einstein Visiting Fellow at the Berlin Cluster of Excellence Languages of Emotion.

»How do metaphors evoke emotions?«

Are our emotions related to our language?

Metaphors about taste perception are widespread in both literature and everyday speech. In a recent project with neuroscientist Francesca Citron, we had people in a scanner read simple metaphorical sentences like “she is a sweet person”, or “he was bitter about the break-up”. Then we asked them to read literal sentences like “she is a kind person”, and “he was upset about the break-up”. We found that when people read sentences with taste metaphors, it activated the same areas of the brain that respond to tasting actual food. We also registered more activity in the amygdala and surrounding areas associated with emotion than for literal sentences. If it’s true that metaphorical language in general is more emotionally evocative, this may have important implications, not only for neuroscience but also for semiotics and rhetoric. We are currently applying various techniques to extend this line of research and examine metaphors beyond taste.
Which general questions are you trying to answer in your research about language?

What exactly is language and what do we know about it? Those are central questions. My research and that of others has pointed to the idea that language is a network of pairings of form with function. I call these pairings “constructions”. Words clearly fit this concept: a word’s function is its meaning. But phrasal patterns also fit it, such as relative clauses or passive constructions. Another big question: how do we know so much about language, given that we learn it relatively effortlessly and quickly? In our lab, we often look at how people learn what not to say. For example, in English you can say “high winds”, but not “tall winds”. We know what it means, but we just do not say it that way. Even if children are not corrected, they still learn which formulations to use and which not to use. Our choice and use of words can also be very innovative on certain occasions. I am interested in how we learn when novel formulations sound natural and when they do not.

What does language mean to you?

The reason that I am interested in language is that it offers a window into the ways in which humans are especially intelligent. We retain a huge amount of very specific information, we remember countless idioms and collocations, song lyrics, and particular phrases, and we also generalise about that knowledge creatively and say sentences we have never heard before. It is an area where we are amazingly skilled in a way that no other animal is. I find that fascinating.

This page will not be updated after the end of the fellowship.