Describing Literary Universals

Alliteration Requires Adjacency

Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

This is a proposed as an absolute universal in Fabb (“Verse”): When regular alliteration holds between poetic sections, the poetic sections must be adjacent.

Regular alliteration is alliteration which conforms to a particular pattern for a large part of a text or for all of the text. Regular alliteration is quite a rare poetic form. A poetic section is defined as follows (from Fabb, “Verse”): in effect poems are differentiated formally from non-poems (prose) by having some kind of additional sectioning.  (Note that if this were not true, then all language would be poetry.)

A poem is a text made of language, divided into sections which are not determined by syntactic or prosodic structure (see Fabb, What is Poetry?).   Such sections are called “poetic sections.”

For the purposes of regular alliteration, the relevant poetic section which contins the the alliterating word can usually be called a half-line or a line.  In Old English (e.g., Beowulf), alliteration holds between words in adjacent half-lines (verses) in the long-line.  In Somali gabay songs, every half-line in the poem has a word which repeats the same alliteration throughout.  In Mongolian poetry, adjacent lines begin with the same alliteration, in pairs or longer sequences; alliteration is more regular in stanzaic verse, where every line in a stanza may alliterate, and less regular in strophic verse, where alliteration can continue for variable numbers of lines.

What is ruled out by this universal is a tradition in which alliteration holds between poetic sections in an ABAB pattern or any other intersecting pattern.  Such patterns are common with rhyme.

It is worth noting that in some Irish meters alliterating words cannot be separated by a stressed word (a rule which can sometimes hold across lines), which is another kind of adjacency requirement (Knott 13-22).

An apparent but not real counterexample comes from Welsh poetic patterns of repeated sounds (types of cynghanedd) where a sequence of sounds in the first half of the line is repeated in the second half (Rowlands).   This is a parallelism of sound-sequences and not alliteration.

Another apparent counterexample is “A Kodiak Poem,” by William Meredith (suggested by a reviewer of this article), in which the final stanza has alternating alliteration on l and r.  On the one hand we might see this as an isolated innovation characteristic of modern poetry (perhaps deliberately breaking a rule), but on the other hand it is worth noting that l and r are closely related sounds (both are in the class of liquid consonants).

Alliteration is sometimes wholly within a single undivided poetic section, as for example the line-internal alliteration which is found in the Kalevala meter or within the lines of some of the classical Irish metres.  These alliterative patterns are irrelevant to the universal (though they do not violate it).

Why might the universal arise?  One possibility is that intersecting patterns are more demanding to create, and require the relevant sounds to be at the end of a section such as the end of a half-line or line, in positions which enable them to be more easily remembered.  Section-final positioning is possible only for rhyme which can be word-final, and not for alliteration which cannot be section-final because it is word-initial.

Future Research

Look for more traditions with regular alliteration, to see whether universal holds.


Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel. “Verse Constituency and the Locality of Alliteration.”  Lingua 108 (1999): 223–245.

Fabb, Nigel.  What is Poetry?  Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015.

Knott, Eleanor. An Introduction to Irish Syllabic Poetry of the Period 1200-1600. 2nd ed. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1994.

Rowlands, Eurys I., ed. Poems of the Cywyddwyr. A Selection of Cywyddau c. 1375–1525.  Oxford: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976.


By: Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.

Chinese and Western Drama: Tragi-Comedy and Tragedy

Zheng Ying, Zhejiang University

The structural difference between traditional Chinese and western drama has long been studied by generations of comparative literary scholars. However, with the universal structure of human narratives — tragi-comedy, as promoted by Patrick Colm Hogan in The Mind and Its Stories–the issue of similarities and dissimilarities could find some answers. Professor Hogan defines “tragi-comedy” as a structure with a sorrow-eliciting middle part and a happiness-eliciting ending simultaneously, and hence the traditional genre of tragedy is merely a variation of it, a shortened form in which the plot comes to end in the middle part (see Hogan, The Mind and Its Stories), the model of which can be outlined by the following graph.


Structure of Tragedy and Tragi-Comedy (Hogan)

A: Beginning                           B: Sorrowful Middle                           C: Happy Ending






In this paper, with comparison under the model of “tragi-comedy” and tragedy respectively, and with evidence drawn from Chinese and western literary theories and classical works, I would try to argue that both Chinese and western drama have “tragi-comedy” and the shortened tragedy as one of their important narrative universals, but only that Chinese and western tragedy are shortened differently. For the convenience of narration, I would use “A-B-C” structure to refer to “tragi-comedy” and a shortened “A-B” structure to refer to tragedy.

Tragi-Comedy in Chinese and Western Drama

After examination, it can be found that both Chinese and western drama have the structure of “tragi-comedy” as one of their narrative prototypes, which is not only suggested in their literary theories but also manifested in many of their representative classical works.

Comparison from Literary Theories

Though it is widely believed by western literary theorists that tragedy and comedy are two distinguished dramatic genres, the genre of “tragicomedy” has been separated from genres of tragedy and comedy since very early times, and become one of the independent literary genres. Though traditional critics such as Hegel did not give high reputation to this mixed literary genre, many modern critics advocate tragicomedy to be a quite important genre since the mix of tragedy and comedy is exactly “the basic pattern of human life”, informing “human being’s perception of their environment and their most central religious beliefs” (Foster 9).

In Chinese dramatic theory, however, though there is no similar independent concept as “tragi-comedy,” this A-B-C structure was indeed widely approved and considered legal and valuable. In On Lyrics(曲品), Lu Tiancheng of the Ming Dynasty, spoke highly of the plays which mixed the tragic emotions and happy ones, and remarked on The Story of Lute(琵琶记, a tragi-comedy, as the best example of “work of great excellence”, for it “alternates so properly, setting sadness and pleasure in turn”[1] (Lu 224). In Principles of Lyrics (曲律), Wang Jide compared the plot of a drama to “a snake in the mountain, whose head is in good link with its tail”[2] (Wang132). The description, “whose head is in good link with its tail,” is in fact another way of saying that the seed of happiness-pursuing sown at the beginning of a play must have its harvest in its denouement, though the middle could be somewhat different.

Comparison from Literary Works

Along the history of western drama, a lot of great examples of tragi-comedy, or “tragicomedy” as it is traditionally defined, could be found. In works of ancient Greek, Euripides’ Alcestis is a good example. The goal there is somewhat the romantic reunion of lovers from the heroine’s position. In the “middle” part, the goal is tragically unobtained, for even though the heroine Alcestis has prepared to donate her own life to save her husband’s and only asks her husband never to marry again in return, her husband eats his words soon after her death. But in the end, her life is saved by her husband’s friend, who sends her to her husband’s hand and unites her with him again. In the Renaissance period, many Shakespearean plays fit this model in the same way. His famous work, The Winter’s Tale, even encompasses two stories of romantic tragi-comedies. One is around the royal family: In the middle, queen Hermione’s faintness (which is due to her husband king Leontes’ accusation) becomes the rumor of death and is believed by the king deeply. Hermione comes back to life from the unconsciousness statue and gets united with her family in the final part. The other is around the heirs of the two countries: Their engagement is strongly rejected by the prince’s parent Polixenes. They must escape to Sicilia, and their marriage gets his approval only later in the play. Besides, as Hogan has put forward, some classical series of tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus plays, or the two parts of Faust of modern works, can also be integrated into tragic-comedy of a larger cycle.

In traditional Chinese drama, we find Zheng Guangzu’s The Soul of Qiannu Leaves Her Body(倩女离魂)as mentioned by Hogan. In Act II of this play, Qiannu’s soul departs from her body and joins her fiancé who is forced to spend three years away from hometown. This is the sorrowful middle, as Qiannu’s body seems destined to die at home. In Act IV, however, she gets married with her fiancé after her soul joins into her body again. This is the happiness-eliciting ending. Many other classical plays are of the same general type–The Story of Lute(琵琶记),The Tale of Rabbit (白兔记), The Romance of the West Chamber(西厢记), Night Rain in the Xiaoxiang Court (潇湘夜雨), The Peony Pavilion(牡丹亭)etc.

Tragedy in Chinese and Western Drama

In both western and Chinese drama, we can, similarly, find the shortened version of “tragi-comedy”—tragedy. However, we would also find that they are shortened to a different extent and in slightly different ways, the relation of which may be seen more clearly in the graph below. As it is shown, suppose Point C in tragi-comedy includes several happiness-eliciting elements. Though both Chinese and western tragedy give Point C as a cut off, Chinese tragedy tends to cut off only part of C, while western tragedy cuts off C more thoroughly. In other words, more elements of Point C get preserved in a Chinese tragedy, very often in a partial “joyous reunion” following the sorrowful middle part). (The term “joyous reunion” is conventially used in Chinese dramatic studies to refer to the phenomenon that Chinese dramas often end with some kind of pleasure: those who begin with sadness end with happiness, those who begin with separation end with reunion, and those with poverty and with richness, and so forth [see Wang Guowei, A History of The Dramas of the Song and Yuan Dynasties (宋元戏曲史]). It is modified as “partial” here because, compared with the “joyous reunion” in other dramas, in tragedy, it is neither a complete restoration of the statement appearing in Point A nor a goal finally realized, but a partial restitution of the original order, a half-achieved statement of the goal, or a satisfying compensation to the sorrowful middle when the goal is impossible to gain as expected. In contrast, the story will cease strictly in Point B in a western tragedy.


Structure of Tragedy (Revised)

A: Beginning                           B: Sorrowful Middle                           C: Happy Ending


Western Tragedy


Chinese Tragedy                                                   Partial Joyous Reunion


Comparison from Literary Theories

For Chinese tragedy, we can not only understand this “joyous reunion” from the ancient literary theories mentioned above, but also from several modern scholar’s observations. The goal in the beginning must have some echo in the end, and if it is not obtained, it must have some compensation. For instance, Qian Zhongshu has once asserted that in Chinese drama, “the curtain does not fall on the main tragic event, but on the aftermath of that event. The tragic moment with passion at its highest and pain at its deepest seems to ebb out in a long falling close” (Qian 53-65), in which the involvement of both Point B and C is highlighted. Wang Guowei (Wang 12) and Cai Yuanpei (Cai 66-67) have maintained that for Chinese drama, “those who begin with separation end with reunion.” Wang Jisi’s research, in which western drama is described as “happiness—sorrow—deeper sorrow”, and Chinese drama as “happiness—sorrow—happiness—deeper sorrow—lighter happiness” (Wang 75-79) also outlines this relation.

Similarly, we can find the requirement for the precise A-B structure of western tragedy from western dramatic theories, from ancient Aristotle’s to the previous dramatic critics. Aristotle described the magnitude of tragedy (30-31, 36-37), writing that

as great as a magnitude as it takes for a change to happen into good from bad fortune, or from good to bad fortune, when it comes about by a likely or necessary sequence, there is a sufficient limit of magnitude…it is therefore necessary for the story that is in beautiful shape to be single–not double as some people claim–changing not into good fortune from bad but the opposite way, from good fortune to bad.

This is to say that, as long as there is a complete change “from good to bad fortune”, the change from Point A to Point B, the “sufficient limit of magnitude” is so well finished that no more excessive joyous sequence, thus Point C, is needed. In Hegel’s opinion, in tragedy, each of the two parties of the conflict stands for their own reason. Now that either of them could defeat the other and get the final success, the ruin of both is the necessary ending of the whole play. In “The Psychology of Tragic Pleasure”, Roy Morrell pointed out that tragedy should firmly exclude Point C, which is the period of “the gratification of a wish” in his word, “In short, tragic pleasure does not arise through the gratification of a wish, but in a wish’s frustration…Tragedy does not ‘please’ in this sense; it does not please our palate, nor awaken pleasurable anticipation. On the contrary, we resist Tragedy, and try to avert it” (22-37). And in V.G. Belinsky’s idea, the hero “could not be ‘hero’ without this sacrifice or death” (Belinsky, 370).

Comparison from Literary Works

Many canonical works from each tradition provide evidence for this distinction as well. Tragic plays since the Yuan Dynasty, such as The Gross Injustice to Maid Dou(窦娥冤)by Guan Hanqing and The Orphan of Zhao (赵氏孤儿)by Ji Junxiang, have been recognized as models of Chinese tragedy, and they are composed in this structure. In The Gross Injustice to Maid Dou, for example, a young woman named Dou Duan-yun is going after the goal of social justice, for she is unjustly charged with murder by villain Zhang Lu’er who poisons his own father but accuses her of the murder. In Act III, when Dou Duan-yun is sentenced to death by the governor and appeals to heaven to have pity, the sorrow-eliciting Point B comes to its climax for the justice she pursues has not yet been obtained before her death. But in the end Dou Duan-yun’s spirit asks her father, a government official, to retry the case and he manages to give the criminals the punishments they deserve. Thus a compensation of justice qualifies Dou’s tragedy.

As comparison, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear’s distribution of the land can be viewed as Point A in which his goal is to give his daughters their deserved share of his land. But after his distribution plan proves to be totally wrong, the disastrous failure becomes inescapable even though he has once regretted and tried to rectify it. In the end of the play, he and his three daughters all die, and this is exactly the sorrow-eliciting Point B. In another play of Shakespeare, Othello, the story ends with Point B likewise. The goal herein is the loving union of Othello and Desdemona, but this happiness goal is not finally achieved. Though he has managed to marry her, he smothers her to death under the deceit of Iago, and commits suicide after the truth is revealed.

It is true that in some western dramas, when the goal could not be attained, the decent man and the evil one will meet their doom at the same time. To some extent, the death of the evil group is another way of the triumph of the good, and hence analogous to the “joyous reunion.” Nonetheless, it is far less “happy” than the latter, since a usual Chinese literary practice would not only give the sinner his deserved punishment but also give the hero or his group some restitution after their sorrowful experience. So, if the most ideal form of happy ending in tragi-comedy is to give a happy life to the good and bitter penalization for the evil, the ending in Chinese tragedy preserves more of it.

Let us take Hogan’s heroic tragi-comedy as example, and divide the full version of it into three stages, (A) the possession of power, (B) the lost of power during which the hero makes great effort to regain that power, and (C) the ultimate regaining of the power. In relation to this, we may consider two tragedies of this same theme, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ji Junxiang’s The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao (赵氏孤儿大报仇). They are extraordinarily alike in the first two stages, but differ in the ending stage.

1) Similar Beginning, the Order Destroyed

In the beginning of The Orphan of Zhao, in the name of the king, Tu’an Gu slaughters over three hundred people who constitute the family of his political rival, Zhao. When Zhao’s wife, the princess, Lady Zhuang is briefly spared, and prisoned in their house, she gives birth to her son. That heir, the orphan of Zhao, is not only threatened to death, but also deprived of his aristocratic life and political power.

The order is similarly seriously destroyed in Hamlet. The old king is murdered by his own brother, the usurper Claudius, and Hamlet’s mother is married by the latter. As Hamlet has said that he “hath killed my king and whored my mother” and “Thrown out his angle for my proper life” (V.ii.65, 67). Hamlet himself is at the risk of being deprived of his proper position, and the royal family is destroyed.

2) Similar Middle Part, the Order Lost in Pursuit

In The Orphan of Zhao, the newborn orphan is entrusted to the doctor Cheng Ying and carried out of his home in the medicine chest, after which he is endowed with the great task of revenge. As Cheng Ying explains in Act II, “all of the Zhao family rest their hope on this little boy, wishing him to take revenge.”[3] In Hamlet, after Prince Hamlet gets to know the truth of his father’s death from his father’s ghost. Thus he too is endowed with the task of revenge, as his father has asked him “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”(I,v.25) and he himself announces that “The time is out of joint:O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right !”(I,v.189-190) .

And in both plays, situations in this part are sorrowful as many people lose their lives. In the former, they are the kind general Han Jue, Cheng Ying’s own son, minister Gongsun, and so on; in the latter, they are Hamlet’s fiancée Ophelia and her brother, as well as his own mother.

3) Varied endings

According to Hogan, the final stage of tragi-comedy will very often include at least two elements , one is the punishment of the destroyer of the order, that “He/she then battles the usurper” in Hogan’s words, and the other is the order’s going back to normal, the hero “is restored to his/her proper place as leader of his/her society” (110). While both plays have the first element, the second element is completely cut off in Hamlet but embodied in a compensatory form in the Ji’s play.

As for the first element, both plays have it. In The Orphan of Zhao, it is manifested as the grown-up orphan arrests the killer Tu’an, who has been his adoptive father for twenty years, and gives him a torturous death, to “stick him to the wooden donkey (a instruments of torture), cut off the flesh from his bones, and when all of his flesh is taken off, chop off his head and give him disembowelment, in case he dies too quickly.”[4] In Hamlet, it is embodied as Hamlet kills the usurper Claudius by the poisoned foil.

As for the second element, it gets half-embodied in The Orphan of Zhao, and in a form of compensation. While the orphan wins his deserved position back and his major saver, Cheng Ying gets a considerable reward, many other decent people who have passed away during the previous stage, such as Han Jue and Gongsun, who have no chance to come back to life, but only get some compensation from the emperor’s citation which declares, “To let Han Jue’s descendant be the general still, and to give Cheng Ying farms ten hectares. To build memorial for old Gongsun, to give all decent people praise”[5](VI). In contrast, not only does Hamlet die soon after the death of Claudius due to his wound (a standard way in which a heroic tragi-comedy is shortened into a tragedy), his rightful dominion is seized by the outside invader, prince Fortinbras of Norway.

With the examination of Chinese drama and its western counterpart under the framework of Hogan’s universal narrative structure of tragi-comedy, it might be concluded that (1) both of the two literary conventions have the prototype of “tragi-comedy” similarly; (2) though both of them have the shortened form of “tragi-comedy,” tragedy as well, they have it shortened differently, with an additional “joyous reunion” in the typical Chinese dramatic ending.

Furthermore, with this finding, a possible cognitive answer might be suggested to the classical question “whether China has tragedy” in comparative literary study of 20th century. If we define the “tragedy” here as “tragedy of the western version”: the answer may be “no”, for a Chinese tragic play may differ from a western tragedy in how it gets the ending of tragi-comedy cut off; but if we define the “tragedy” as a shortened form of tragi-comedy, the answer could be “yes,” for Chinese tragic play resembles its western counterpart in its “tragi-comedy minus” shape.

[See also Patrick Colm Hogan, “Comments on Zheng“]


Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Newburyport: Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company, 2006.

Foster, Verna A. The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy. Ashgate Publishing, 2004.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Morrell, Roy. “The Psychology of Tragic Pleasure.” Essays in Criticism VI (1956).

Qian Zhongshu. “Tragedy in Old Chinese Drama”. A Collection of Qian Zhonshu’s English Essays. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Researching Press, 2005.


蔡元培,在北京通俗教育研究会演说词,载《蔡元培文选(注释本)》,百花文艺出版社, 2006.

陈季同(著),李华川, 凌敏(译),《中国人的戏剧》. 桂林:广西师范大学出版社,2006.

纪君祥,《赵氏孤儿》. 上海:上海古籍出版社, 2010.


莎士比亚,《哈姆雷特》(中英对照). 北京:中国广播电视出版社, 台北: 远东图书公司, 2002.

王国维,宋元戏曲史,载《王国维文学论著三种》.北京: 商务印书馆, 2001.

王季思,悲喜相乘.《戏曲艺术》, 1990 (1).

王骥德,曲律,载《中国古典戏曲论著集成(第四册)》, 北京: 中国戏剧出版社,1982.

朱光潜,《悲剧心理学(中英文)》.北京:中华书局, 2012.



[1] “串插甚合局段,苦乐相错。”

[2] “务如常山之蛇,首尾相应。”

[3] “赵氏一家全靠着这小舍人,要他报仇哩。”

[4] “与我将这贼钉上木驴,细细的剐上三千刀,皮肉都尽,方才断首开膛,休着他死的早了。”

[5] “韩厥后仍为上将,给程婴十顷田庄。老公孙立碑造墓,弥明辈概与扬。”

Comments on Hogan, “Impossible Love”

Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

Some pretty clear examples of the mortal-immortal romance sub-genre (discussed in Patrick Hogan’s “Impossible Love: A Sub-Genre of Romantic Stories”) originate in Old Irish tradition and enter English tradition through Marie de France, the mother of the English romance and the grandmother of the novel.

The immortals involved are the Celtic fairies, in early tales called Tuatha Dé Danann ‘people of the Goddess Danu.’ Like other Celtic goddesses, Danu was a manifestation of a great river, the Danube. Fairies are said to live in island paradises like Tír ‘na n-Óg, “the land of the young,” and in fortresses connected to the underworld. Many of them bear the names of Celtic gods mentioned by Caesar.

“The Debility of the Ulstermen,” an important Old Irish instance of the sub-genre, explains why the Ulstermen were helpless when attacked by Queen Medb of Connaught in Táin Bó Cúalnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the great Irish epic in Prosimetrum form.

Plot: Crunnchu mac Agnoman isolates himself after the death of his wife. One day a distinguished-looking woman appears in his house and takes charge of the household. His handsome appearance is delightful to her and she sleeps with him. They live together in prosperity for a long while. One day Crunnchu says he will attend a great festival at the court of the Ulster king. She says he should not go because they cannot not be together if he speaks of her in the assembly, as she strongly suspects he will. He goes anyway. The royal chariot wins all the races at the festival and everyone praises the king’s horses. Crunnchu foolishly remarks that his wife can run faster than those horses. He is seized and his wife is summoned to race against the horses despite her protest that she is about to give birth. She declares that her name is Macha (the name of one aspect of the triple goddess Morrígan, a.k.a. Morgan the Fairy). She wins the race and gives birth to a son and a daughter before the king’s chariots finish. She then declares that everyone who has heard her cry out while giving birth will become as helpless as a woman in childbirth when attacked by an enemy, unto the ninth generation. It is worth adding that the Celtic pantheon includes widely-known horse goddesses like Epona.

A later example of the sub-genre is Marie’s Lanval.

Plot: Lanval is one of King Arthur’s knights. His virtues are many but are not appreciated. Wandering in the forest, he encounters a fairy princess in a beautiful pavilion. They become lovers. The princess warns Lanval that they can no longer be together if he tells anyone about her. With the fairy’s supernatural assistance, Lanval becomes wealthy and earns fame for his generosity. One day Arthur’s queen meets Lanval and attempts to seduce him. He refuses. She says he must be more interested in pageboys. Lanval scornfully tells her about his lover and declares that the princess’s servant girls are more beautiful than the queen. The furious queen lies to Arthur that Lanval has tried to seduce her. Lanval is seized. The barons decide that Lanval can be forgiven if he produces his lover and her servant girls to prove that what he has said is true. The fairy princess decides to rescue Lanval despite her earlier statement that they can no longer be together. Her servant girls arrive at the court, strikingly beautiful and splendidly attired. Last comes the fairy princess, who testifies for Lanval. He is forgiven and freed. He stands on a mounting block, and when the princess passes by on her horse, he jumps up behind her. They leave for the island paradise of Avalon.

Works Cited

“The Debility of the Ulstermen.” In Ancient Irish Tales. Ed., Tom Peete Cross and Clark Harris Slover. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1969, 208–10. (Old Irish text, ed. and trans. Ernst Windisch, Königliche Sächsische Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Berichte (Philologisch-Historische Klasse), XXXVI (1884): 336–47.)

Marie de France. Lanval. Trans., Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante. In The Lais of Marie de France. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1978, 105–23. (Old French text in Lais de Marie de France. Ed. Karl Warnke. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer, 1900, 86-112; available at Lais de Marie de France.)

Comments on Hogan: Impossible Love and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones

Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.

When we read Tom Jones for the first time, we may worry that Tom might engage in an impossible love—incest—because we do not know who Tom’s father is, but we seem to know who his mother is (see Hogan, “Impossible Love“). The two young women he sleeps with, Molly and Sophia, might either be the daughter of whoever his father is, and the theme of incest becomes overt when he inadvertently sleeps with the woman who is thought to be his mother, Jenny.  We are misdirected into suspecting a narrative of impossible love which is stopped in its tracks when we learn not only that his real mother is Bridget but also that his father is the previously unmentioned man Summer.  This revelation changes our understanding of the narrative so that it becomes a narrative of seasonal regeneration.  Tom takes on his father’s role as Summer; Squire Western is interpreted as his primary antagonist and takes on the role of the season he alliterates with, Winter, and young summer must win a girl (Sophia) from old winter.  Instead of the impossible romance of incest, we have a completely different impossible immortal-human romance where the personified seasons interact with humans.

How plausible a reading is this?  Tom and Western are paired in opposition by their different ways of travelling in the natural world—Tom on foot, Western on horse. Tom is associated with birds, not only narratively via Sophia’s bird, but also in the characters of Nightingale and Partridge, perhaps also Jenny (Jenny Wren). Moreover, his own name is a bird name (Tom Tit). Though most of the birds can be associated with any season, we might associate life with summer, and indeed a nightingale is a summer visitor to Britain. Tom Jones thus manifests a pattern found in folklore and mediaeval romances: “Summer is often personified by a young hero who defeats an older, feebler opponent: Culhwch taking Olwen from her father Ysbaddaden…” (Gantz).

Murray has given us an alternative reading of seasonality in the novel: Tom’s father is Summer who has engaged in an “unnatural mating'” (another impossible love) with winter, now personified as Bridget, “no improper emblem” of “a winter’s morning.” Tom is Spring, the result of the mating, and Sophia is also Spring (“the goddess Flora”), which allows them to be matched without further impossibility, while the anti-Sophia Lady Bellaston is in “the autumn of life.”

Though we are offered two incompatible readings, the multiplicity of impossible loves which thus emerge—along with the incest theme—reinforce our sense that Tom Jones exemplifies this type of Impossible Love romance.

Works Cited

Gantz, Jeffrey, trans. The Mabinogion. London: Penguin, 1976.

Murray, Peter B.  “Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn in Tom Jones.” Modern Language Notes 76.4 (1 April 1961): 324-326.


Conceptual Integration and Fictive Interaction

By: Todd Oakley, Case Western Reserve University


Conceptual integration (also known as Conceptual Blending) is a general cognitive operation underlying virtually all acts of human creativity. First explored by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner and subsequently by a range of scholars (see for a list of works), we can posit conceptual integration as a “cognitive” universal underlying linguistic and literary phenomena. More specifically, Fauconnier and Turner identify Double-Scope Conceptual Integration (see below) as a panhuman singularity, which is not shared by even our closest living primates; at least there is little to no evidence double-scope blending among non-human primates or cetaceans, either in captivity or in the wild.

That double-scope conceptual integration is a cognitive universal is fairly uncontroversial and ultimately not very interesting as a claim in itself. What is of more interest are the kinds of generalizations to be made about the literary typologies that conceptual integration theory (CIT) can develop based on the general principles developed therein. The fact that human beings “blend” is a universal, and that some outcomes of this blending process, such as primary metaphors (e.g., AFFECTION IS WARMTH, IMPORTANCE IS SIZE, and SIMILARITY IS SPATIAL PROXIMITY; see “Metaphor Universals in Literature”) and other forms of “simplex” blending may be universal or near-universal, it is most likely the case that specific products of conceptual integration are culture-specific, for blending is first and foremost a process for solving local conceptual problems. Floating in the sea of variation, however, is one candidate for a universal blend: fictive interaction. Put succinctly, fictive interaction is the idea that speech can be a construed as a property of non-actual human actors as well as non-human actors, be they animate or inanimate, natural or artificial.

In this article, I will describe the model of conceptual integration and link details thereof to the question of literary universals. I propose the blending phenomenon of fictive interaction (Pascual; Pascual & Sanders) as an implicational universal and propose future research on the various manifestations of narrator types.

General Principles

Conceptual Integration Theory begins with the basic assumption that human beings think in scenes and scenarios. Gilles Fauconnier calls these scenes as scenarios mental spaces, making CIT an outgrowth of mental spaces theory, the term for a model of natural language that solves several puzzling referential and related phenomena that are difficult for model-theoretic and truth-conditional semantics, such as referential opacity, presupposition, and analogical counterfactuals. CIT adds the observation that human beings not only integrate information within mental spaces but that many if not all conceptualizations involve the networking of multiple mental spaces. In a canonical form of the model, a CI network involves at least two “input” spaces that, in addition to creating cross-space mappings between input elements, selectively project information from each input into a third, “blended” space. This space, in turn, develops its own emergent structure as well as develops according to its own unique logic. Examples abound (see Fauconnier and Turner, Oakley and Pascual, for extensive overviews and examples), but perhaps we can illustrate it with this little quip from the narrator when describing the thoughts of Little Chandler in “A Little Cloud”: “He tried to weigh his soul to see if it was a poet’s soul” (83-4).

Here we have a network of two input spaces, one for SOUL (broadly construed) and one for WEIGHTS & MEASURES. The dominant element of the SOUL space is “disposition” or “personality” (which is quickly identified as “melancholy”). The WEIGHTS & MEASURES space remains unspecified, as no attempt is made to specify “ounces,” “pounds,” “tons” or whether such units are imperial or metric. The blended conceit that emerges is the expectation that one’s soul has a measurable “weight” that can be “converted” into some vocational ratio of creativity, none of which is forthcoming. In this instance, the emergent structure of the WEIGHING of SOULS blended space, not available in either input space, is the conceit that creative dispositions are measurable and can be “objectively” assessed, just as one can objectively assess the goods according to standardized units.

However vainglorious and whimsical Little Chandler’s conceit may be, it illustrates a universal feature of human conceptualization: the propensity to create scenes that variously “compress” or “decompress” relationships of time, space, cause-effect, change, identity, analogy/disanalogy, part-whole, representation, category, intentionality, and uniqueness to a human scale (Fauconnier and Turner; Oakley and Pascual, 427-8). Human beings live at a scale where it takes considerable ingenuity to conceptualize that which is diffuse and that which is condensed over time and space: we prefer to think about these topics in ways that comport with our human scale experiences. It is therefore tempting to emotionally manage the vague ambition of becoming a great poet by integrating it with a familiar scenario of anyone experienced with industrial, metropolitan life. Little Chandler hopes that a sufficient “quantity” of melancholy provides sufficient weightiness to constitute a poetic sensibility, just as a sufficient quantity of gold constitutes wealth.

Little Chandler’s soul comprises what CIT calls a double-scope blending network, for the two organizing frames governing each input space issue from incommensurate and potentially clashing conceptual domains. The fact that the blended conceit lasts only for a single sentence means that it is abandoned immediately after its composition so as not to be completed or elaborated, such that the narrator would then have to manage the inevitable clashes between the two input spaces. In other words, this is a conceptual blend that colors the narrative without playing a significant role in advancing the story. In the parlance of CIT, it exemplifies the process of composition without the subsequent processes of completion and elaboration (Fauconnier and Turner, 89-113; Oakley and Pascual, 428-9).

Perhaps most important for the empirical testing of CIT is the fact that the model posits six optimality constraints[1] to underscore the context-dependent nature of conceptual integration. That is to say that conceptual blends like the WEIGHING OF SOULS develop and succeed or fail through processes of “satisfying” or “relaxing” principles or constraints. Conceptualization is, therefore, best seen as a process whereby concepts develop by an uneven, ad hoc adherence to specific constraints.

The Integration constraint stipulates that a blend should form a coherent scene. Little Chandler’s mental machination of weighing properties of his soul, however fantastic, forms a coherent scene, as the experience of mental assessment is habitually construed in these terms.

The Topology constraint stipulates that it is optimal to preserve elements in the input spaces in the blend. That is, the blend should share as much information with the input spaces as possible. If we are Cartesians, the substance of souls has no discernable terrestrial properties. It is fairly easy to see the task of weighing souls as fanciful, since the two domains are often construed as quite distinct, despite it being a deeply entrenched cultural gestalt. In this instance, the topology constraint is relaxed, except that we are invited to construe “melancholy” as a measurable substance, and, in the next sentence, are entrained to regard “resignation” as a countervailing substance.

The Web constraint hypothesizes that the cross-space mappings between inputs should be maintained in the blend. The only cross-space mapping in this blend is the relationship between “melancholy” and “measured substance,” as there is no development of any other properties of the soul and their corresponding units of measure elaborated in the narrative.

The Unpacking constraint states that it should be relatively easy to infer the structure of the input spaces from the blend itself. (This constraint works at cross purposes with topology and integration.) Because the two input spaces share little to no conceptual structure, it is relatively easy for readers to unpack the two spaces without difficulty. Perhaps Joyce wishes readers to see this conceit as fanciful and unrealistic.

The Metonymy constraint stipulates that elements in the network that are related through contiguity or relations of similarity collapse to identity in the blend. There is no evidence of what we call “metonymic tightening” in this version of WEIGHING OF SOULS other than the possibility that “melancholy” comes to stand for the poetic sensibility. That said, metonymic tightening is a pervasive process of compression to human scale, and it is especially important in cases of pictorial blending (see Oakley and Pascual, 436-7).

The Good Reason constraint holds that any element that happens to emerge in the blend will be given significance, no matter how incidental or tangential. The fact that melancholy is the only significant personality trait mentioned after the weighing of soul quip creates pressure to regard it as a measurable substance.

Fictive Interaction as a Universal Form of Conceptual Integration

The staggering variety of blends human beings construct, both ephemeral and perduring, makes it difficult to identify a typology that is not culture-specific. One such candidate of blend type that seems has achieved maximal generality is the phenomenon known as Fictive Interaction (hereafter, FI). Developed most extensively by Esther Pascual, FI names the process of using the entrenched frame of a conversation to structure all manner of states of affairs that are not, in themselves, conversations. For example, in Catalan the phrase, El cos diu prou, is commonly used to express “exhaustion,” by literally saying, “The/my/your body says stop” (Pascual and Oakley, 349). Notice that exhaustion is not ipso facto a conversational state of affairs; rather the speaker structures the description of a physical state in terms of a performative speech act, where the body becomes a speaker issuing a command. What is more, native speakers of Catalan often substitute cos [body] with other body parts, such as cor [heart], ulls [eyes], and peus [feet] to express slightly different or emotional states. [2]

The construal is fictive in the sense of being non-actual. The tired muscles in the body are not literally addressing the person controlling muscle movement, but it is not fictional in a strong sense; the states of affairs being referenced are real. One is simply using a frame of conversation to represent a real state of affairs that is not objectively a conversation. Pascual has provided significant evidence that FI patterns are found in all languages she has investigated, and at all levels of analysis, from discourse all the way down to morphology (29-58; 83-112; Van der Voort). Interestingly, FI seems to play a greater role in the structuring of oral languages than chirographic ones, and since there are far more examples of purely oral languages in existence than written ones, it is reasonable to conclude that FI is a form of linguistic universal based on the cognitive universality of the conversation frame.

With respect to CIT, FI as a general phenomenon forms a simplex network (Fauconnier & Turner, 39-59) in which a single mental space is organized by facets of the conversation frame. In the example above, it is organized around a fictive addresser, but there are versions involving fictive addressees, as well, as in My legs are not listening to me right now. Of course, many actual instances of FI can be readily completed and elaborated into fuller mirror, single-scope, and double-double scope integrations, as when the Cross speaks to a Thane in Dream of the Rood.

FI as a Narrative Universal

Two studies are worth presenting in some detail, as they show how the conversational frame is used as a discourse structuring device in distal cultural and historical formations. The first is Mingjian Xiang’s study, “Real, Imaginary, or Fictive?: Philosophical Dialogues in an Early Daoist text and its Pictorial Version,” offers extended treatment of Zhuangzi, the foundational Daoist text originating in the fourth-century B.C.E.; the second is Christopher Flint’s  article “Speaking Objects: The Circulation of Stories in Eighteenth-Century Prose,” which investigates the trend of using objects as narrators in fiction.

As with Platonic dialogues, Zhuangzi exhibits a series of dialogues that are meant to be read allegorically in order to illustrate Daoist principles. Unlike Platonic dialogues, however, the discussants extend not only to animals and deities but to inanimate entities, such as the wind, and abstract concepts (Xiang, 73). According to Xiang (who provides a detailed CIT analysis of these FI constructs of greater depth and precision than presented here), these FI structures are instances of yu yan (“imputed words”). One instance of yu yan appears when the author of the text has Confucius and his devotee, Yan Hui, engage in a dialogue wherein Confucius proceeds to espouse several Daoist propositions, which are, as Xiang reminds us, more often than not in opposition to Confucianism. Thus, we are confronted with a historically real personage, Confucius, having a non-genuine conversation. These forms of “adulterated speech” are commonplace across literary traditions.

More conspicuous are instances of FI between fantastical entities, my favorite being the exchange between shadow and penumbra:

Penumbra said to Shadow, “A little while ago you were walking, and now you’re standing still; a little while ago you were sitting, and now you’re standing up. Why this lack of independent action?” Shadow said, “Do I have to wait for something before I can be like this? Does what I wait for also have to wait for something before I can be like this? Am I waiting for the scales of a snake or the wings of a cicada? How do I know why it is so? How do I know why it isn’t so?” (quoted in Xiang: 73)

The fictional dialogue between these two personified entities is fictional in structure but serves a fictive purpose of illustrating a Daoist response to such philosophical questions as the nature of volition. It is an indirect means of expressing the writer’s position by means of “showing” rather than “telling.”

The Zhuangzi text is a tour de force of FI conceits involving both realistic but non-actual (disingenuous) speakers as well as fantastical, non-actual but genuine natural objects and entities. It is worth noting, however, that none of the speakers comes from the world of artifice.

Christopher Flint’s article offers up a concise and penetrating account of the underlying motives for a literary trend that began with the publication of Charles Gildon’s, The Golden Spy in 1709. A picaresque narrative told by a few “quarrelsome coins” who boast about their national origins and then relate their “transmigrations” across borders, these coins transform into first-hand witnesses of the exchanges of men, all the while highlighting the thoroughly itinerate and extemporaneous nature of their existences.

Flint, who does not couch his analysis in terms of CIT, claims that “A remarkably persistent feature in eighteenth-century fiction, the narrating object appears in a surprising number of satires published between 1709 and 1824, manifesting a particular cultural obsession with stories as things” (214). One could go so far as to suggest that this trend makes good on the saying “If these walls could talk,” as all the manufactured objects in question float easily and inconspicuously between machinations public and private. Examples of object narrators in his study include a goose-quill, a post-chaise (carriage), a pin, and a kite. Once again, such narrative integration networks optimize the metonymy constraint, insofar as they are information bearing artifacts. A goose-quill tells intimate tales; a post-chaise not only witnesses the happenings of its passengers but presumably has access to the contents of its mail; a pin finds itself fastened to all manner of intimate apparel, and a kite functions as an eighteenth-century equivalent of a surveillance drone. As proverbial “flies on walls,” these speaking objects satisfy the good reason constraint. In the situations of human exchange, each is typically regarded as incidental or a mere means by which something is done. Coins are a means of exchange; quills make writing and correspondence possible; pins hold fast that which is the object of attraction to eligible suitors, and kites amuse their terrestrial handlers. By shifting the perspective or vantage point to the objects themselves, their significance as bearers of sensitive information becomes apparent. We are forced then to see the mental spaces from their perspective.

Flint’s meta-literary argument is worth emphasizing here. The trend of using manufactured artifacts as narrators coincides the rise of print culture and the legal-institutional conditions of the author as producer of goods and services and its attendant alienating effects. Just as the coins have no control over their transmigrations and exchanges; just as the goose quill becomes complicit in correspondences not of its choosing; just as a post-chaise cannot choose its passengers or parcel; just as a pin does not choose that to which it fastens; and just as a kite is at the mercy of wind direction and speed, so are authors at the mercy of other agents, agencies and readerships in this age of mechanical reproduction. The author becomes a commodity. As Flint takes care to emphasize, the speaking object’s status as a commodity is likewise emphasized throughout these narratives. In The Adventures of a Cork-screw, the narrator often interrupts the story with descriptions of its users and the uses to which it is employed, and at other times, key moments in the narrative are interrupted by the fact that their owners, in order to satisfy some debt, reach in their pockets and hand over said cork-screw; as the conditions of ownership change, so does the story. One can see the attraction of using manufactured objects as such picaresque genres.

 Implicational Universals

We are now in a position to make some speculations about nature of FI blends across oral and literary traditions. FI appears to be an organizing scheme at work at various levels of linguistic analysis, which includes that of discourse and narrative structure. The impulse to endow non-human entities, such as deities, animals, and the natural world–especially boundary and orientation landmarks like mountains, rivers, streams, lakes, and seas–appears to be part of a cultural universal of myth-making. Animism as the dominant metaphysical stance of ancient and traditional societies, wherein practices of daily survival involve the interaction and worship of these objects and beings, leads us to conclude that FI with these types of entities is a mythic universal, one still available as a special trope for denizens of modern, industrial civilizations. The River Liffey, for instance, speaks in Finnegan’s Wake.[3] It is reasonable to speculate that “wind” is a preeminently common candidate to be a fictive speaker or narrator.

Flint’s investigation into the role of manufactured objects as narrators suggests that in industrial societies where strangers regularly interact through information bearing artifacts, there will be a noticeable shift in range of inanimate narrators to the world of the artificial, all the while maintaining a link to its traditional, animist past. Thus, we have an implicational universal, such that all known human societies and cultural formations engage in fictive interaction with nature, so that if a society has FI scenarios involving artifacts, then it can draw on FI scenarios involving nature; however, there should not be any societies in which their oral and literary traditions exhibit robust FI scenarios involving artifacts without at least having vestiges of FI scenarios with nature. Why might this be so?

While all human cultures produce artifacts, not all societies produce a critical mass of symbolic, information-bearing artifacts of the type that can “speak louder” or more authoritatively than those natural entities on which life, love, and worship depend.

Within societies exhibiting artifact-based FI scenarios, there should be a hierarchy of more or less likely narrator functions. Information-bearing artifacts, such as texts, coins, forms of identification, cards, and other means of exchange are particularly powerful, as it is natural to regard them as “speaking” through the process of metonymic compression. Articles of clothing and intimate apparel, as well as toys and other ludic gadgets, appear to be strong candidates. Expressive artifacts, such as musical instruments, are another likely candidate for widespread adoption. Add weaponry to the list of candidates.

In contrast to many natural FI entities that get their prominence from their status as stationary, immovable landmarks that can enable or frustrate human agents, artifact-based ones tend to gain prominence from their transmigratory dispositions. This is especially important in advanced, industrial and postindustrial societies that have elaborate configurations of public and private spaces. The fact that these entities can migrate seamlessly and inconspicuously between the domains of public performance and intimate interaction makes them fodder for all manner of narrative mischief.

At the same time, it is possible to regard some artifacts as less likely (but not impossible) candidates. Such artifacts would include meat and other perishable foodstuffs, and items that are not countable or easily individuated, such as sawdust, straw, and other raw material, in part because they are not easily integrated into coherent scenes and scenarios.

Future Research

For the most part, the future research suggested by the preceding hypotheses is straightforward. There are many cases of FI in other traditions. The first task for research in this area is to identify further instances, exploring the nature, varieties, and functions of FI through multiple instances. The second is to examine the necessity of natural FI entities as a step leading to the adoption of artificial FI entities. The third is to determine the frequency of classes of natural or artificial FI entities. There are also further research questions that arise in this context. For example, one set of questions concerns the diachronic study of cultural and language contact. Do we see a shift in oral and literary storytelling among erstwhile traditional societies that come into subsequent and sustained contact with industrialized and postindustrial societies? I have in mind aboriginal cultures of the Australian outback or Native American tribes, most of which live hybrid lives. What does that change over look like? Are money and other tokens of exchange a likely candidate for early adoption of artifact-based FI scenarios?

Works Cited

Fauconnier, Gilles. Mental Spaces: Meaning Construction in Natural Language. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Flint, Christopher. “Speaking Objects: The Circulation of Stories in Eighteen-Century Fiction.” PMLA 113.2 (1998): 212-226.

Joyce, James. “A Little Cloud.” In The Portable James Joyce. Ed. H. Levin. New York: Penguin Books, 1977: 80-96.

Oakley, Todd and Esther Pascual. “Conceptual Integration.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Ed. B. Dancygier. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017, 423-448.

Pascual, Esther. Imaginary Trialoques. Utrecht: LOT Publications, 2002.

Pascual, Esther. Fictive Interaction: The Conversation Frame in Thought, Language, and Discourse. Amsterdam & Philadelphia. John Benjamins Publishing, 2014.

Pascual, Esther and Todd Oakley. ‘Fictive Interaction.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics. Ed. B. Dancygier. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017, 347-360.

Pascual, Esther and Sergeiy Sandler, Ed. The Conversation Frame: Forms and Functions of Fictive Interaction. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2016.

Voort, Hein van der. Recursive inflection and grammaticalized fictive interaction in the southwestern Amazon. In The Conversation Frame. Ed. E. Pascual and S. Sandler. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2016, 277-299.

Xiang, Mingjian. “Real, Imaginary, or Fictive?: Philosophical Dialogues in an Early Daoist Text and its Pictorial Version.” In The Conversation Frame: Forms and Functions of Fictive Interaction. Ed. E. Pascual and S. Sandler. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2016, 63-86.


[1] They are variously referred to as “principles” or “constraints” throughout the CIT literature. I prefer “constraint” and will use it throughout.

[2] I thank Esther Pascual for bringing this example and its variations to my attention.

[3] I thank Patrick Hogan for calling this example to my attention.

Counterintuitive Imagery as a Narrative Universal

Tom Dolack, Wheaton College

It has been postulated that religious beliefs “minimally violate ordinary intuitions about how the world is” (Atran, In Gods We Trust 83). This is not to say that religion need be defined by counterintuitive imagery. There is a constellation of behaviors that has been proposed as underlying religion including a “hyperactive agency detection device” (Guthrie), overpromiscuous Theory of Mind, and ritual practices. Nonetheless, counterintuitive imagery appears to be a religious universal. Some research on this topic has noted that counterintuitive imagery is not a priori religious. Specifically, Kelly and Keil have looked at Ovid and the Brothers Grimm; Burdett, Barrett, and Porter have looked at folktales; and Swan and Halberstadt have more recently examined what differentiates religious from fictional counterintuitive agents. Even so, work in the field has mostly focused on the religious domain. What I propose is a research program that explicitly applies insights into religious counterintuitive imagery to narrative more broadly, including modern literature. This is in keeping with the idea that cognitive “templates” for religious concepts, discussed by Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained 78), have application in a wide variety of cultural artifacts.


Art was once thought to be the sole province of Homo sapiens, a cultural Rubicon that only we crossed. But, as has often been the case in recent years, the archaeological record shows that we are not so special. Intentional markings have been found on mussel shells dating back a half million years, which would make the suspected artiste Homo erectus (Joordens et al.). Whether we wish to term these engravings “art” is open to debate, but they seem to be intentional, serve no apparent utilitarian function, and are not random. If not art, then what? Doodle, perhaps, but that would probably be distinction without difference in this context. Our cousins the Neanderthals clearly also “doodled,” as evidenced by cave art in Spain predating the arrival of Homo sapiens (Hoffmann et al.; Hawks). Examples from our own direct ancestors are widespread and found all over the world (Henshilwood et al.; Aubert et al.). But much of the art we find in the record can be described as decorative or mimetic. The type of symbolism or figurativeness we associate with the term “art” in modern times, not to mention with human behavior more generally, is clearly a more recent addition.

Along these lines, the Löwenmensch or Lion-Man, found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany, stands out. Not only is it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, statuette on record; it is also conspicuously not abstract, mimetic, or purely decorative. About a foot in height and carved from a mammoth tusk, the largest piece of the figurine was unearthed in 1939 (smaller pieces were dug up later and the pieces painstakingly reassembled). The Löwenmensch has a human body, with the head of what appears to be a lion. It is unclear if the figurine was meant to be symbolic or religious (theories abound), but it is clearly figurative. Nobody ever saw such a creature. It is all too easy to lose sight of how revolutionary this would have been. It would be unexceptional today in our world of CGI; it would have been unexceptional even thousands of years ago when mythology and tales around the campfire were commonplace. But there was a time when such a hybrid creation was entirely new, and it changed human culture forever.

We don’t know when or where this capacity for imagining hybrids originated, and can only hypothesize about how it came to be (changes to our mental architecture along the lines of Mithen’s “cognitive fluidity”? A tipping point in cumulative cultural evolution?), but however this change occurred, it signals a new ability to envision what did not and could not exist; previously we could either reproduce what we had seen or heard about or make abstract shapes that we found pleasing.

I suspect it is no coincidence that this oldest of all figurative art is a hybrid. Such hybrids are a stock element of religions, mythologies, and folklores the world over. The technical term for them is counterintuitive imagery. What makes these images special is that they violate our natural intuitions. We have innate ontological categories (Atran,“Basic Conceptual Domains”) in our minds such as animal, person, inanimate thing, tool and plant. Each of these categories involves specific expectations regarding our innate knowledge domains of physics, biology, and psychology. A natural object such as a rock does not move on its own, does not grow or reproduce, and does not think. An animal does move on its own, grow, eat, and reproduce, has some mental workings, but does not speak. Humans are like animals biologically, plus have additional psychology faculties, but are restrained by certain physical laws (we can’t fly or walk through walls). Counterintuitive images violate these ontological expectations in one way or another—an animal that talks, a person who doesn’t die, a stick that heals. A table from Justin Barrett covers all of the bases (see Figure 1).

 This table covers the panoply of figures in religions, mythologies, folklores, but also science fiction movies and fantasy novels. A zombie is a person lacking human consciousness (a violation of expectations regarding psychology); a ghost is a person without a body (a violation regarding biology); a talisman is an artifact with magic properties (physics violation); Ents are plants that behave like people (biology and psychology violations); monotheistic gods are often people lacking bodies and with reality-defying powers (psychology, biology, and physics violations). And so on.

A primary postulate for why counterintuitive imagery is so common in the religious imagination is because it is better remembered. But we need not restrict ourselves just to the religious imagination in this regard (Barrett, “Utility” 250). Atran and Norenzayan did experiments where stories with counterintuitive imagery were better remembered after one week (see also Barrett and Nyhof). Perhaps most interesting, they found an ideal ratio of counterintuitive to intuitive imagery (mostly intuitive with some counterintuitive), which accounts for why all or even most religious imagery is not counterintuitive. This is an explanation for its universality – in a tradition lacking writing, imagery that was better remembered would have a Darwinian advantage. And, indeed, such imagery does seem to be universal. Donald Brown lists belief in the supernatural, anthropomorphism, magic (which involves category violations of some sort), and myths all as human universals (139).

This may explain the abundance of spirits, and giants, and witches, and gods and the like – all the mythic figures that populate the religions, folklores and stories the world over, all of which have their roots, if you go back far enough, in the letterless past. But can we say the same about wizards and aliens and all the creations of modern fantasy and science fiction that are solidly within modern times? Clearly memory is no hurdle to the retention of something located conveniently in paperback or blue-ray. Indeed, if we extend our view to incorporate our metaphors (your eyes are like diamonds, a mountain of a man, fast as a cheetah), counterintuitivity pervades all of our narrative, even the most realistic.

This points to a possible need to expand what we mean by the term “supernatural.” Rather than being the domain of magic, mysticism, or the occult, an understanding of our innate folk physics and folk biology lets us understand why exactly we draw a line between natural and supernatural, and that there is nothing inherently religious or magical about things on the other side of that line. As Konika Banerjee notes (Banerjee et al.), in actuality, we likely get the directionality wrong: counterintuitive imagery isn’t religious, there’s just something about it that leads to its overrepresentation in allforms of narrative. The “supernatural” (read: counterintuitive) surrounds us, we just tend to notice only the more extreme examples found in mythology and religion. This meshes quite well with the work of Kelly and Keil that found similar rates of cross-domain transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

But if counterintuitive imagery is so ubiquitous, even (especially?) into the modern day where memory is no longer a restricting factor, what can account for its prevalence? Why would Hinduism, Ovid, and comic books all contain similar imagery? Banerjee uses the phrase “inferentially rich,” which may be on to something. If a novel counterintuitive idea breeds new ideas and images, this may make them more attractive. There is perhaps something more creative about them. This fits with one approach to creativity at the cognitive level that assumes creativity to involve the combination of two previously separate ideas in working memory (Vandervert et al.; Fink et al.). Thus, counterintuitive imagery may force us to be creative in reverse by separating the components of a hybrid that we had not encountered. But much more research is required on this specific question.


An Attempt to Test Some Hypotheses

Based on the standard formulations of the role of counterintuitive imagery in religions, I formulated two hypotheses that could be empirically tested. First of all, if memory is truly the main reason for increased counterintuitive imagery, we should find more of it in oral traditions than written traditions. Second, if there is something religious about counterintuitive imagery, we should find more of it in religious texts than non-religious texts. Obviously, counterintuitive imagery exists in both written and secular texts, but there should be some difference in the rates. With these hypotheses in mind, I and a group of undergraduate students began to tabulate rates of counterintuitive imagery. The project is highly labor intensive and so progress is both slow going and narrowly focused. Consequently, conclusions are so far highly tentative and really only serve as means of directing future research. But the data has been interesting, nonetheless (Dolack). To date we have gotten through the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter series, which is only a starting point. Obviously, this choice alone is a delimiting factor in the results, but we believe that at the very least we have established that a fuller empirical study along these lines promises to contribute to worthwhile research programs on counterintuitive imagery and narrative.

What we have done is tabulate all of the characters in both works (over 3,500 total) and, using the rubric established by Boyer and Barrett (“Natural Foundations”), marked which ones had counterintuitive elements. Specifically, we tracked whether each character had some additional, unanticipated domain capacity in psychology, biology, or physics, or whether it lacked such a capacity (marked as +psychology, or –physics, for instance). Some simplification was necessary, especially at this stage. Future work could involve the subtlety built into Justin Barrett’s coding system, particularly his distinction between “counterintuitive” and “counterschematic” (Barrett, “Coding”).

Some of our basic results showed that only 8% of characters in the Old Testament had some form of domain violation. However, if we counted not just characters, but how many times the characters were mentioned, it turns out that 33% of character mentions involve a character with a domain violation. This means that counterintuitive figures were much more likely to be mentioned multiple times than “normal” figures. This fits with the predictions of the theory – there is obviously selection pressure for counterintuitiveness in the Bible.

To test another prediction, we tabulated the percentage of character mentions involving a counterintuitive character per book of the Bible. We did percentage and not raw numbers because otherwise larger books such as Genesis would have an unfair advantage. The results look like Figure 2.

Some books have very high numbers because they only have a handful of people, all of whom are prophets, or fall into some other counterintuitive category. The test here was to see if the earlier books of the Bible (the ones more likely to date back to a purely oral tradition) had higher or lower rates of counterintuitive figures. Dating books of the Hebrew Bible is tricky as there are no exact dates to begin with, but things are further complicated by when texts were written down or edited. But using a rough ordering, my team came up with Figure 3, which shows a general decrease from older to newer texts.

The overall decrease in the percentage of domain violations fits with the model’s predictions as well. But what happens when we look at a work of contemporary fantasy? Our prediction based on theory was that rates of counterintuitive imagery would be lower, but our instincts said it would be about the same. It turns out that 45% of the characters in the Harry Potter novels are counterintuitive. That’s far higher than the 8% in the Hebrew Bible. If we look at character mentions, the disparity is much less: 49% compared with The Bible’s 33%. The percentage of mentions jumps much less than with The Bible; a counterintuitive character in Harry Potter is only slightly more likely to be seen more often than a non-counterintuitive character. We suggest this difference is because the initial rate in Harry Potter is so high and because The Bible was winnowed down and changed over centuries.

What conclusions can we draw from this admittedly narrow selection of texts? Based solely on this one example we can say that individual, modern, written works can have as much or even more counterintuitive imagery than religious or oral texts. Indeed, this is another sign of the universality of counterintuitive imagery. It also supplies support for the hypothesis that memorability may not be the only reason for the prevalence of such imagery. Harry Potter is not dependent on long-term memory for its propagation, only its appeal to readers. So perhaps counterintuitive imagery is more engaging (or exciting, or rich), and not merely more unforgettable. These results point more to what work needs to be done than to answers to our original questions.


Future Research

This line of research clearly needs more data from as many different sources as possible. There is no way for two works to give an accurate view of the problem; what we have been able to do is more akin to a pilot study that prepares the way for more systematic work. For starters, we should compare rates of counterintuitive imagery in cross-cultural folklore and mythology to see if there are geographical variations in rates or preferences. (Work already appears to show that counterintuitive imagery is cross-cultural. See Boyer and Ramble, and Barrett et al.) Second, we need more work on counterintuitive imagery in literary texts. What are the factors that affect counterintuitivity – genre? tradition? audience? Do counterintuitive elements appear in our metaphors at the same rate as counterintuitive images appear in folklore? Finding counterintuitive imagery in a broad range of works and types of work would suggest that it is fundamental to our imagination. Lastly, these data can be used to investigate why this type of imagery is so pervasive since it seems that memorability alone cannot be the answer. This could be a consequential undertaking, because any line of investigation that gets to a possible common root of religion and the narrative arts could also shed light on the evolutionary origins of both behaviors. Common ancestors are not just valuable in anthropology and paleontology.


Works Cited

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Atran, Scott. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Atran, Scott, and Ara Norenzayan. “Religion’s Evolutionary Landscape: Counterintuition, Commitment, Compassion, Communion.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27.06 (2004): 713–730.

Aubert, M., et al. “Palaeolithic Cave Art in Borneo.” Nature 564.773 (Dec. 2018): 254-257.

Banerjee, Konika, O. S. Haque, and E. S. Spelke. “Melting Lizards and Crying Mailboxes: Children’s Preferential Recall of Minimally Counterintuitive Concepts.” Cognitive Science 37.7 (Sept. 2013): 1251-89.

Barrett, Justin L. “Coding and Quantifying Counterintuitiveness in Religious Concepts: Theoretical and Methodological Reflections.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 20.4 (2008): 308–338.

Barrett, Justin L.“Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4.1 (Jan. 2000): 29–34.

Barrett, Justin L.“The (Modest) Utility of MCI Theory.” Religion, Brain & Behavior6.3 (July 2016): 249–251.

Barrett, Justin, and Melanie Nyhof. “Spreading Non-Natural Concepts: The Role of Intuitive Conceptual Structures in Memory and Transmission of Cultural Materials.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 1 (Feb. 2001): 69-100.

Boyer, Pascal. “Evolution of the Modern Mind and the Origins of Culture: Religious Concepts as a Limiting Case.” Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language and Meta-Cognition. Ed. Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 93–112.

Boyer, Pascal.Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Boyer, Pascal, and Charles Ramble. “Cognitive Templates for Religious Concepts: Cross-Cultural Evidence for Recall of Counter-Intuitive Representations.” Cognitive Science 25.4 (July 2001): 535–64.

Brown, Donald E. Human Universals. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.

Burdett, Emily, Justin L. Barrett, and Tenelle Porter. “Counterintuitiveness in Folktales: Finding the Cognitive Optimum.” Journal of Cognition and Culture 9.3 (Oct. 2009): 271–87.

Dolack, Tom. “A Quantitative Approach to Counterintuitive Imagery in the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter Novels.” Evolution and Popular Narrative. Ed., Dirk Vanderbeke and Brett Cooke. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Brill Rodopi, 2019, 264-291.

Fink, Andreas, et al. “Stimulating Creativity via the Exposure to Other People’s Ideas.” Human Brain Mapping 33.11 (2012): 2603–2610.

Guthrie, Stewart. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Hawks, John. “Neanderthal Humanities.” Darwin’s Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and Sciences. Ed. Joseph Carroll, Dan McAdams, and Edward O. Wilson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, 89–100.

Henshilwood, Christopher S., Francisco d’Errico, and Ian Watts. “Engraved Ochres from the Middle Stone Age Levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa.” Journal of Human Evolution 57.1 (July 2009): 27–47.

Hoffmann, D. L., et al. “U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art.” Science 359.6378, 23 (2018): 912–915.

Joordens, Josephine C. A., et al. “Homo Erectus at Trinil on Java Used Shells for Tool Production and Engraving.” Nature 518.7538 (2015): 228–31.

Kelly, Michael H., and Frank C. Keil. “The More Things Change…: Metamorphoses and Conceptual Structure.” Cognitive Science 9.4 (1985): 403–416.

Mithen, Steven J. The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Swan, Thomas, and Jamin Halberstadt. “The Mickey Mouse Problem: Distinguishing Religious and Fictional Counterintuitive Agents.”PLOS ONE 14.8 (Aug. 2019).

Vandervert, Larry R., Paul Schimpf, and Hesheng Liu. “How Working Memory and the Cerebellum Collaborate to Produce Creativity and Innovation.” Creativity Research Journal 19.1 (2007): 1–18.


Distant Time: A Possible Typological Literary Universal

(revised July 17, 2017)

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon, Eugene 

Argument and Evidence

Literature began tens of thousands of years ago as tales told aloud by hunter-gatherers. Consequently, the search for literary universals properly begins with oral narrative, the form that storytelling has taken for most of its existence (Scalise Sugiyama, 2017). The distinction between oral and written literature is a non-trivial one: there are fundamental stylistic differences between these narrative media (Tedlock 1971; Ong 1982; Collins 2016). Similarly, there are pronounced generic (Scalise Sugiyama, forthcoming) and thematic (Scalise Sugiyama 2011) differences between forager and modern storytelling. Thus, due to the emphasis on written literature in the Western canon and academe, many typological universals specific to oral narrative and/or forager storytelling may have been overlooked.

One such candidate is the widespread belief across forager, forager-horticulturalist, and forager-herder (heretofore referred to as “forager”) societies in an epoch referred to variously as “Distant Time” (Nelson 1983), “Myth Time” (de Laguna 1995), the “myth” (Jacobs 1959:ix) or “mythic” age (Liebenberg 2016:167), or the time “When the Animals Were People” (Laird & Laird 1976:147). As Vansina (1985) observes, oral cultures are characterized by two kinds of remembered past, the recent past and the distant past, the latter being the age of creation when the world was populated by supernatural beings, and humans as we know them today did not exist (see Appendix I, below). The distant past is “so remote that its realities are not those of today, and are not to be believed or judged in the ordinary terms of the present” (de Laguna 1995:76). For example, a Yãnomamö narrator observes that “in primeval times all the honeys were easily accessible and would call out their names,” making them easy to find (Wilbert & Simoneau 1990:204). The essence of the Distant Time concept is that, deep in the past, the world was different than it is today and events occurred that are no longer possible. The San, for example, tell stories about the Early Race, a people who lived long ago when the physical laws of the present world did not apply (Lewis-Williams 2000:207). Similarly, the aboriginal people of Australia tell stories of the Dreamtime, “a time, long ago, well before the memories of the older living people, when Australia was transformed from a featureless plain by the activities of a great number of ancestral beings” who were “larger than life and gifted with superhuman magical powers” (Tonkinson 1978:15). The concept of Distant Time is present among foraging peoples across all of Murdock’s (1967) world geographical regions except the Circum-Mediterranean (Table 1)—the only region that lacks extant hunter-gatherer populations. A probable analogue in this region, however, is the “once upon a time” world of European fairy tales, Celtic legends, Norse mythology, and similar traditions: like forager literature, these stories were originally transmitted orally, and transpire in a vague era long ago when magical things happened.


Culture Cluster Culture Group Geo Region Distant Time Animals Like People Human/Animal Transformation Story Categories
2 San, Ju/’hoansi, !Kung Africa x x x x
155 Chukchi, Koryak E Eurasia x x x
157 Ainu E Eurasia x x
229 Arnhem Land Pacific x x x
230 Mardudjara Pacific x x
233 Barrow Point Aborigines Pacific x x x
237 Mimika Pacific x x x
277 Siberian Yupik N Am x x x x
278 Interior Eskimo N Am x x x x
279 Copper Eskimo N Am x x
280 Cree N Am x x
284 Kaska, Tahltan N Am x x x
286 Koyukon (Dena/Ten’a) N Am x x x
287 Tanaina (Dena’ina) N Am x x x x
290 Bella Coola N Am x x
292 Twana N Am x x x
293 Tillamook N Am x x
295 Wiyot, Yurok-Karok, Hupa N Am x x
297 Maidu N Am x x
298 Coast Yuki N Am x x x
299 Yokuts, W. Mono, Miwok N Am x x x x
301 Chumash N Am x x
304 Paiute, Shoshoni N Am x x
305 Chemehuevi N Am x x x
306 Walapai N Am x
308 Klamath-Modoc N Am x x x
309 Nez Percé, Klikitat N Am x x x x
310 Coeur d’Alene, Salish N Am x x x
311 Thompson N Am x x x
312 Kutenai N Am x x
314 Teton-Dakota N Am x x
315 Crow N Am x x x
316 Kiowa N Am x x x
319 Winnebago N Am x x
320 Menomini N Am x
327 Lipan, Chiricahua N Am x x x
364 Yãnomamö S Am x x x
390 Yamana (Yaghan) S Am x x
394 Makka S Am x x x
396 Chamacoco, Ayoreo S Am x x x
n = 40 All Clusters Combined 37 (93%) 33 (83%) 16 (40%) 22 (55%)

Table 1: Evidence of the Distant Time Belief Complex in Forager, Forager-Horticulturalist, and Forager-Herder Societies, by Culture Cluster. Table represents data collected incidentally in the course of conducting other research, and is presented as evidence that more systematic study is warranted. The geographic regions, culture clusters and culture groups are derived from Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas. The North American bias is a by-product of historical circumstance and the language constraints of the investigator. Early Western anthropological study of foragers focused extensively on North American groups, which are consequently over-represented in the Atlas. This bias was likely reinforced by the author’s reliance on English translations.


Many foraging peoples categorize their stories according to whether they are set during Distant Time or the recent past (Table 1). For example, the Teton-Dakota Sioux divide their stories into those that are true and those that are “not to be believed,” the latter of which “are a sort of hang-over . . . from a very, very remote past, from a different age, even from a different order of beings from ourselves” (Deloria 1932: ix). Similarly, the San distinguish between n≠ wasi (“stories”) and n≠ wasi o n!osimasi (“stories of the old people”). The former include hunting stories and historical accounts, while the latter are “without exception set in that long ago time when God walked upon the earth, when animals were still people, and when many strange things occurred which do not occur in the world today” (Biesele 1976:306). Other names for these stories are n≠ wasi o n//ahamasi or “stories of long ago,” and n≠ wasi o k x’aishemasi or “stories of the beginning” (Biesele 1976:306). The Cree make a similar distinction between tipâcimôwin (historical accounts and personal experiences) and âtalôhkân (sacred legends and myths). Ậtalôhkân are set long ago “when things were still in a state of flux in the world” and “before the world jellied down to the way it is today” (Ellis 1995:xix-xx).

One way in which Distant Time typically differs from present time is that the boundary between humans and other life forms is fluid (Table 1). This is expressed in slightly different ways across cultures, but the basic idea is that “animals were like people” (Erdoes & Ortiz 1998:12) or “animals were people and people were animals” (Reichard 1947:14). For example, the ancestral beings of the Dreamtime “are generally conceived of as simultaneously part animal, part human, and endowed with characteristics of both” (Tonkinson 1978:15). The Yamana origin myth corpus is set during a “protohuman” era, during which “primeval ancestors . . . migrated to what became known as Yamana country from a distant place in the East. They came on foot, as anthropomorph or zoomorph beings, and, after their various earthly adventures, ascended into the sky or stayed on earth in animal form” (Wilbert & Gusinde 1977:10-11). Similarly, the !Kung believed that “the animals were all people in the beginning. All stories dealing with animals, therefore, have them acting much like human beings, though they already possess traits that will characterise them when they become animals” (Biesele 1993:21). Along these same lines, the Mono Lake Paiute believed that “long ago, all the animals were people and lived in tribes as men do” (Steward 1936:429).

A common corollary of this belief is that, in the Distant Time, animals and humans could understand one another. For example, the Koyukon believed that, “In the beginning. . . . all the birds and animals were like men. All were talking” (de Laguna 1995:121), and the Bella Coola believed that long ago “man was able to understand the speech and actions of the birds, the mammals, and the fish” (McIlwraith 1948:385). Likewise, the Klamath and Modoc believed that the primeval denizens of their world were anthropomorphic beings who “walked and spoke like men” (Stern 1956:141). Another common belief is that animals could turn into people at will, and vice versa (Table 1). This belief is reflected in Salish tales, where “in any story, a mythological character may change his appearance and his personality, so that at any point he seems human and at another point an animal” (Clark 1966:25). Similarly, in the tales of the Nunamiut and other peoples of the far north, when animals “‘push back their hoods,’ they either assume human form or become able to talk with humans” (Ingstad & Bergsland 1987:51). The converse is also true: humans can transform themselves into animals. For example, a Tanaina story tells of two women who “wrapped brown-bear skins around themselves” to turn into grizzlies, later “pushed back their hoods” to resume human form, and finally “pulled their hoods back down. . . [and] turned back into brown bears” (Tenenbaum & McGary 1987:29-31).

Another component of the Distant Time complex is the belief that, at some point in the past, the world was transformed into its current state. This is often referred to as the transformation period, or simply the Transformation. During this era of world change, an ancestral being or beings traveled throughout the land and, in the course of their daily activities, created land formations, deposited resources, and made other modifications that characterize the physical environment of the present time (e.g., Napaljarri & Cataldi 1994:xvii). For example, the Klikitat “recognized a ‘former world’ when all living things were persons, which was followed by a ‘Great Change,’ resulting in the present world. Myths from the former world, including the events of the Transformation, are wat’i’t’ac; stories from the latter days are txa’nat, ‘happenings’ or ‘customs’” (Ramsey 1977: xxiv). Known as transformers, these characters and story cycles based on their adventures are common across forager oral tradition, and are another possible typological universal (Scalise Sugiyama, forthcoming).

Future Research

The claim being made here is that across foraging cultures we see: (1) a belief that in primordial times the world was different from the world of today; (2) predictable patterns in the components of this belief complex; and (3) a story category rooted in this belief complex. The fact that the data in Table 1 and Appendix I were collected incidentally in the course of conducting other, unrelated research suggests that this phenomenon is sufficiently widespread to warrant more extensive, systematic investigation.

The early anthropologists and linguists who collected forager myths and tales did not as a rule identify the belief complexes that informed them; thus, information about the Distant Time belief is typically mentioned only in passing. Due to gaps in the ethnographic record, then, it is impossible to determine whether the Distant Time belief is an absolute universal. However, in many cases the belief in Distant Time can be inferred from the stories themselves, as in a Chamacoco story that begins, “Long ago the toucan was human” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:156). Thus, it should be possible to determine whether the Distant Time belief complex is a statistical universal by conducting a cross-cultural survey using a representative sample of forager story corpora (see, e.g., Scalise Sugiyama 2014).


Appendix 1: Cross-Cultural Evidence of the Distant Time Belief Complex

in Forager, Forager-Horticulturalist, and Forager-Herder Societies

The passages aggregated in this appendix evince one or more of the following: (1) a belief in a Distant Time when the world was different than it is today and events occurred that are no longer possible; (2) a belief that, during the Distant Time, animals were like people; (3) a belief that, during the Distant Time, people could turn into animals and/or vice versa; and (4) a cultural distinction made between stories of the Distant Time and stories of the recent past. Evidence is presented by culture cluster (Murdock 1967), and in some cases is drawn from multiple cultures within that cluster. Not all clusters contain evidence of all four facets of the Distant Time belief complex (see Table 1). This is likely due to the preliminary nature of this study; the absence of a trait in the appendix should therefore not be interpreted as definitive evidence of its absence in the culture or culture cluster in question.

2 Bushmen

The San distinguish between n≠ wasi (“stories”) and n≠ wasi o n!osimasi (“stories of the old people”). The former include hunting stories and historical accounts, while the latter are “without exception set in that long ago time when God walked upon the earth, when animals were still people, and when many strange things occurred which do not occur in the world today” (Biesele 1976:306). Other names for these stories are n≠ wasi o n//ahamasi or “stories of long ago,” and n≠ wasi o k x’aishemasi or “stories of the beginning” (Biesele 1976:306).

The !Kung believed that “the animals were all people in the beginning. All stories dealing with animals, therefore, have them acting much like human beings, though they already possess traits that will characterise them when they become animals” (Biesele 1993:21).

“Though Bushman oral literature contains a number of other forms, folktales are the most frequently performed. The Ju/’hoansi call these . . . ‘stories of the old people’. They are all set in a long-ago time when the trickster walked upon the earth, when animals ‘were people’, and when many bizarre things occurred which do not occur in the world today” (Biesele 1993:17).

“Their old people tell the Ju/’hoansi of today that when the world first began, the animals were people, with people’s names. Then Kaoxa, through the agency of his servant the kori bustard, changed all the people into the different animals by branding markings on them with fire” (Biesele 1993:122).

“The Naron say, in olden times the trees were people, and the animals were people, and one day Hife bade them be animals and trees” (Bleek 2011:26).

155 Paleo-Siberians

“Chukchee story-tellers usually class their stories in three distinct groups” (Bogoras 1920:581). Stories from the first group are referred to as “tidings from the time of first creation” and include creation myths and stories of deities. The second group, “genuine tales,” includes “stories about the adventures of shamans” and stories “containing very realistic descriptions of every-day life, without any trace of the imaginative element. Animal tales and fables are usually classed with this group” (Bogoras 1902:581). The third group, “hostile tidings,” comprises “stories of wars with various neighboring tribes” (Bogoras 1902:581). “The reason for the distinctions between these groups of tales is founded on the belief that they happened in different periods. The first group is considered to be anterior to all others, and to have some ‘from the limit (of the time) of the first creation’ (tot-tómwa-tágnêpu). The second group comes ‘from the limits of story-time’ (lŭ’ mñıl-tágnêpu). The third group comes ‘from the limit of the quarrelling-time (a qalılát-tágnêpu), which is considered to be quite recent” (Bogoras 1902:582).

Koryak: “the Raven myth . . . on the Asiatic side, is not less prominent than on the American side. . . . The character of the Raven is essentially the same as on the American side. He is the transformer, but not the creator, of the world. He brings light and fresh water, and teaches the human race the ways of earthly life, from copulation to the making of nets. At the same time he is the common, laughing-stock, foolish and dirty, perpetrator of many misdeeds, and the object of various tricks. In several episodes of the myth his supernatural qualities are more or less skillfully blended with his ordinary features and faculties as a real bird, eating carrion and always hungry. . . . Some of the American episodes of the Raven tale appear on Asiatic soil; others are peculiar to Asia, though similar to the rest in character and composition. Many of them are common to most of the Asiatic Bering sea tribes. Among the Chukchee, notwithstanding the large number of Raven stories, they do not appear to be very prominent among the whole mass of traditions, since a large part of their folklore bears resemblance to that of the Eskimo. . . . Among the Koryak, on the contrary, the Raven myth has a much greater importance. . . . He is the transformer of the world, the ancestor of mankind, the teacher of various pursuits, who, after making mankind fit to support themselves, goes away to another country or else turns into stone” (Bogoras 1902:636-638).

157 Ainu

“the concept of time is ideologically differentiated in Ainu world view into two categories: the category of the mythical time (the divine time) and that of the historical time (the human time). The former signifies the time when Ainu-moshir [the Human World] was integrated with heavenly Kamui-moshir [the Divine World], and the latter is the time after the two worlds were separated. (Yamada 2001:38).

“The motif of oina, which symbolizes the return of the culture hero Oina Kamui to heaven, represents the termination of the participation of heavenly deities in the Human World (Ainu-moshir) on earth after its creation. The return of the culture hero to heaven signifies the separation of the Human World from the heavenly Divine World, which had been united, and the end of the mythical era” (Yamada 2001:188-189).

“An ear of millet was pounded. In six tubs it was moved to the sacred place. After two or three days, the Gods desired to partake of it. The odour filled the whole house. So when it was strained and was ready to drink and all was ready, a host of gods were invited to drink—the male Owl; the male Jay and the male Crow; the male Eagle and the male Ousel; and the male Black kite were brought in. . . . [They] were drinking at the height of the feast, when the male Jay danced and . . . gllided out of sight from the house; and carrying an acorn in its beak he entered the house and put it into the tub; the wine being bettered the Gods rejoiced. And then, the male Crow danced and went outside from sight. And holding a lump of filth entered and put it into a tub. And so the wine being spoiled there was a great uproar—and now the male Crow being in danger of getting killed the guests were afraid and asked the male Woodpecker to intervene, but the male Woodpecker said: “You made wine but you did not invite me to partake. Even though there be a quarrlel I will not help you. So listen to me.” So he said. So . . . they appealed to the male Snipe who replied saying: “You made wine but did not invite me to partake, even though there be a quarrel I will not help you”; so he said. The male Snipe having so spoken made haste and entered his own house. And so from very olden times crows have been killed” (Batchelor 1924:25-28).

229 Northwest Australia

Arnhem Land: Most “Australian aboriginal creation beliefs. . . . have in common accounts of a period dim beyond memory called the Dreamtime or wongar time, during which spirit beings appeared and created the earth. These creator spirits had the form of animals, birds, and fish, but people did not yet exist. The Dreamtime period ended when some of these spirit beings turned themselves into human form and their descendants began to populate the earth. The creator spirits are eternal, they live now as in the beginning and will continue to exist forever” (Allen 1975:42).

230 Central Australia

Mardudjara: “a time, long ago, well before the memories of the older living people, when Australia was transformed from a featureless plain by the activities of a great number of ancestral beings” who were “larger than life and gifted with superhuman magical powers.” These beings “are generally conceived of as simultaneously part animal, part human, and endowed with characteristics of both” (Tonkinson 1978:15).

233 Northeast Australia

The indigenous people of Barrow Point distinguish between stories “about times past when things happened to distant but traceable kinsmen” and stories “from a much earlier era when animals walked, hunted, talked, and ate like human beings, and when the present conditions of life were established” (Haviland & Hart 1998:26).

237 West Papuans

Mimika/Asmat: “the Asmat people divide the past into two periods of which one embraces the other. The ultimate past includes the most recent past as well as the distant past. The mediate past is the interval of time between and begins with yesterday and goes as far back as the generations still alive can recall from their own experience” (Offenberg & Pouwer 2002:22). They make a distinction “between stories about the primal time of the culture heroes and stories about the historical time of the ancestors. The historical period covers in their idea only three generations: parents, grandparents, and sometimes great-grandparents. Anything preceding the ancestors is seen as amoko, primal time or mythological time” (Offenberg & Pouwer 2002:24).

Mimika/Asmat: “It is remarkable that creation stories about the origin of earth are lacking in the Asmat and Mimika. The world exists and that is experienced as a simple fact. Parts of the world are described and ascribed: how the moon appeared in the heavens, where the sago palm grew first, how rivers came into being. . . . There is no mention of a creator or a Supreme Being and gods are not mentioned, only culture heroes. These seem to be a kind of superior beings, amokowe, who act as human beings but possess extraordinary gifts and strengths. With a gesture of the hand they make a tree or river appear and often they have a human being or an animal as mother. Metamorphosis is a regular occurrence: the dividing line between humans, animals and plants is flexible. There is no ranking order of creatures although some people are ‘better’ than others because of their behavior or talents. . . . But a human being who becomes a tree is not downgraded and a tree that becomes a human is not given a higher ranking order. Culture heroes, departed ancestors and living humans interact frequently” (Offenberg & Pouwer 22-23).

Mimika/Asmat: “the storyteller Warsekomen distinguished tarei atakam, a story about olden times about one’s own ancestors from je atakam, stories which are not about one’s own ancestors. . . . The category tarei atakam can be seen as history . . . while the category je atakam stands for mysterious stories. . . . When the story is about culture heroes the Asmat call these myths je atakam. . . . Pouwer adds that the same holds for the Mimika. For them the amoko-kwere are stories about the culture heroes and the stories about the ancestors are called tata-kwere” (Offenberg & Pouwer 2002:23).

Mimika: “In the evening the old woman. . . . dived into the water and began to turn into a turtle. She grabbed a piece of wood and pierced her nose. Now she looked more like a turtle. She waved what was left of her arms and legs. . . . Her daughter appeared. The old woman cried. . . . ’Your husband has chopped off my arms, legs and ears. . . . I have become a sea turtle so that my grandchildren will be able to eat me.’ A little later she cried, ‘Daughter . . . give me a shove eastwards. Then I will go to Potaway and stay there’” (Offenberg & Pouwer 2002:235-236).

277 Western Eskimo (Yupik)

Note: Although not inherently derogatory, the name “Eskimo” is now widely regarded as pejorative by indigenous peoples. It has been retained here and below to prevent confusion: it is the name used in the texts cited and, in the absence of other identifying information, there is often no obvious alternative.

The Yupik recognize three different types of tales: “unipagan (the story of true happenings), unipamsyuk (news), and unipak (new things). All three terms are derived from the basic verb unipa (to tell, to narrate)” (Dolitsky 2000:vii).

“Many tales about animals go back to ancient totemic myths and myths about cultural heroes. The heroes of the tale are animals, birds, and insects always occupied with the search for food. Similar to people, they conduct their housekeeping, have hunting gear, reindeer, boats, human-like dwellings, and clothing” (Dolitsky 2000:viii).

“The totemic concepts of the aborigines of the Chukchi and Kamchatka Peninsulas about animal ancestors of man . . . find reflection in their narrative traditions. Later the animal ‘personages’ of the tales . . . change into human beings” (Dolitsky 2000:89).

“The woman cautiously took the kukhlyanka, began to put it on and did so without effort. She looked at herself and saw that she had turned into a fox. She tried to walk, she could not; her muzzle was resting on the floor. . . . She tried once, she tried twice—to no avail; she fell on her side and overturned upside-down. The small woman taught her: you have to walk slightly sideways, hold your tail level with the body, don’t lower it, don’t turn it up. . . . She sat among the boulders until night came. When it got completely dark she took off the fox hide and hid it among the boulders. She became a woman again and walked down to the village” (Dolitsky 2000:33).

278 Interior Eskimo

Alaskan Eskimo, Colville River: “The world was not always the same as it is now. Nor were the game animals. Our first ancestors hunted big game which exist no longer. The birds too have changed, for there are memories of their once being heavy and snow fliers. It was in the time when people walked on their hands. Everything is different now, the world, the game, and the people” (Rasmussen 1952:151).

Alaskan Eskimo: “again and again they [myths] describe the times when animals could turn into men and often lived as animals” (Rasmussen 1952:37).

Alaskan Eskimo: “The first human beings on the earth were partly animals, partly humans. They could turn themselves into which they liked, animal or man. From these original ‘dwellers of the earth’ descend the land game” (Rasmussen 1952:118).

Alaskan Eskimo, Colville River: “Once upon a time two ravens, man and wife, had a little house high up on an ivnaq (cliff). In those days the ravens would sometimes be human beings, at other times ravens. Thus all animals might change their form, habits and customs” (Rasmussen 1952:167).

Alaskan Eskimo, Utorqaq River: a story tells of the “girl Alarana and her brother who were eaten by wolves and afterward became caribou.” After Alarana and her brother are transformed into caribou by a she-wolf, they and their herd are pursued by a group of hunters. Alarana visits the hunters’ camp in the evening because “she longed for human speech, and . . . human company. She felt a desire to visit them, so she and her brother ran into the forest and threw off their outer fur. On the ground lay two wet caribou skins, but brother and sister were again human beings, and thuswise they visited the settlement” (Rasmussen 1952:178).

Alaskan Eskimo (Noatak and Kotzebue regions): “the mother drew the large skin over her and sang a magic song. The skin immediately laid itself about her body and she herself became a brown bear. The children were afraid and began to cry: ‘Mother, mother, you look like a brown bear. Mother, mother, we are so afraid of you!’ Then the mother took the fur off and became a woman again, saying, ‘That is how it must be. We shall all look like brown bears’, and she tried the cub skins on the children and made magic over them, so that they became brown bears too” (Rasmussen 1952:186).

The “Iñupiat differentiated between legends (unipkaat) and historical chronicles (uqaluktuat). The former were ancient tales that were thought to be true, while the latter were authentic incidents only a few generations old or less” (Burch 2005:50).

In Nunamiut stories, when animals “‘push back their hoods,’ they either assume human form or become able to talk with humans” (Ingstad & Bergsland 1987:51).

Tikerarmiut: “Two kinds of tales, one called Oqaluktoq, the other Unipqok, communicated all the native theories about the world and its people from one generation of Tikerarmiut to the next. Oqaluktoq comprised authentic incidents, perhaps two or three generations old, which related native experiences with the pack ice, the currents, the winds, the animals hunted, and the methods by which unusual situations were resolved. Related as they were by the old men in the qalegis, these narratives were tantamount to instruction of the young men and boys in the mores of the tribe, in social behavior, in the meeting of practical day-to-day situations, and in the methods of contending with the natural world about them. These instructions from members of the family and, particularly, from the namesakes who acted as mentors constituted the practical education of Tikerarmiut youths. . . . The Unipqok, on the other hand, were the very ancient tales which the Tikerarmiut thought were true, tales which had been passed on from one generation to the next for perhaps centuries. Related as the experiences of very remote ancestors and mythical beings, they explained the nature of animals and men, and the world they lived in. They served as the intellectual bridge between the mundane and the supernatural worlds. They justified, explained, and set a precedent for beliefs and customary patterns of behavior. An unusual circumstance, a conflict of opinions, or a special difficulty demanded the recitation of either of the two types of tales to determine the course of action to be followed. Together they constituted a kind of moral and legal code for the tribe” (Rainey 1947:269).

Tikerarmiut: “So far as I know, no Unipqok tale explains the original creation of the world and men. In the beginning there were people, a strange kind of people who walked on their hands and lived in a world with no daylight. . . . To these people, snow was blubber. . . . They had no name. One time an old woman modeled a little image of a man with a bird’s bill on his forehead from the gummy drippings of a seal oil lamp. After she had placed the image near the wall of her house and slept for a time she found a man seated there. . . . This man . . . walked on his feet; when he spoke, his voice was like that of a raven” (Rainey 1947:269).

Tikerarmiut: “Returning to the village of the people who walked on their hands, Raven-man transformed them so that they walked on their feet; he changed the snow from blubber to drinking water. . . . Tulugak [Raven-man] finally went off towards the south, intending to travel all over the earth and the sky ‘fixing people up’” (Rainey 1947:269-270).

279 Central & Eastern Eskimo

The Copper Eskimo believed that, “In former times animals in human form were very common. Then they lived just like men as long as they were in human form. . . . In olden times, too, everybody could easily turn into animals, and until quite recently shamans have had the same powers” (Rasmussen 1932:35).

280 Cree-Montagnais

The Cree make a distinction between tipâcimôwin (historical accounts and personal experiences) and âtalôhkân (sacred legends and myths). Ậtalôhkân are set long ago “when things were still in a state of flux in the world” and “before the world jellied down to the way it is today” (Ellis 1995:xix-xx).

284 Carrier-Nahani

Kaska: “A long time ago, when all the animals were people, Beaver was a great transformer” (Teit 1917:429).

Kaska: “Rabbit-Man was very clever. He was a shaman and next in power to Beaver. He had two brothers and a sister. The latter was married to Bear-Man, and the two brothers lived with them. Rabbit lived alone in another place. Bear became angry because his young brothers-in-law were lazy, and he made up his mind to starve them. He made them always camp behind himself and his wife, in a different place, and gave them raw liver. Rabbit-Man knew that his brothers had no fire and no good food to eat” (Teit 1917:467).

Tahltan (Tagish): “Long time ago, animals were all people. That was before they had light. One time they were all out fishing. Fox and Bear were fishing there—they talk like a person. Crow comes up. . . . He can’t die, that Crow, can’t get killed. . . . He turns himself into a little [piece of] dirt—puts himself right there [in the water]. . . . That lady comes to get water. Just like a dish, that pot [she carries]. He goes into that pot, goes in like a little dirt. . . . That girl started to drink the water and she swallowed him down!” (Cruikshank 1990:179-180).

Tahltan (Tagish): “A middle-aged man and his wife and daughter camped one place. . . . because they were too old to travel around. She’s quite a young girl, that daughter. Whenever she went out, a dog sits in the doorway. . . . Finally, they moved someplace. . . . But that dog doesn’t go with them. ‘Go back and get my dog,’ that father says to the girl. The girl goes almost close to the camp. Just near the camp, a pretty young fellow meets her. ‘Marry me. Stay with me,’ he says to her. . . . The next morning, they go hunting. They kill moose. . . . Another time, he went to hunt caribou. She heard a dog bark. . . . She looked and saw her father’s dog. . . . One night she wakes up. Here her husband is gone! She hears a dog chewing something. She waits a while, looks around. She sees her father’s dog across the fire, chewing bones. . . . She hears the dog shake. Soon her husband comes in again, all clean. . . . That night, she throws bones out again—pretends she falls asleep. He tries to move around, to check if she’s asleep. She pretends to be asleep. He went outside. Then he came back in inside—a dog! He started chewing. She sneaked up quiet. . . . She clubbed him to death. . . . Finally, she traveled out, back to her father and mother. She found she’s going to have a baby. She had eight puppies that time. What’s she going to do?” (Cruikshank 1990:103-104).

286 Lower Yukon

The Koyukon concept of Myth Time refers to a period “so remote that its realities are not those of today, and are not to be believed or judged in the ordinary terms of the present. That was when all Animals were Men, with the power of human speech” (de Laguna 1995:76).

The Koyukon believed that, “In the beginning. . . . All the birds and animals were like men. All were talking” (de Laguna 1995:121).

287 South Central Alaska

Tanaina (Dena’ina):”a large group of traditional stories called sukdu. . . . The Dena’ina regard these stories as descriptions of the way the world was and of events that occurred before the world became the way it is today; in this ancient time, all animals were people. . . . sometimes characters like Raven and Lynx and Wolverine act the way they would in animal form, and sometimes they do things in human form; in those days, // they had the ability to be either animal or human” (Tenenbaum & McGary 1987:6-7). They recognize another story type; these stories “are not, strictly speaking, sukdu. They are, rather, historical accounts of events that occurred in the wars with the neighboring Yupik Eskimos” (Tenenbaum & McGary 1987:7).

290 Kwakiutl-Bella Coola

Bella Coola: The Bella Coola believed that long ago “man was able to understand the speech and actions of the birds, the mammals, and the fish” (McIlwraith 1948:385).

292 Coast Salish

The Twana distinguished between tales set before the “turning over” or world change, and those set after it. Stories that take place before the world change “have their setting in a prehuman period, the sa ‘bu. . . . The people of the sa ‘bu are animals, or at least they bear animal names and have some of the attributes of animals. Yet they are more or less human in personality and motivations. Informants consistently refer to the sa’ bu period as ‘when the animals were people,’ but also as ‘when the people were animals’” (Elmendorf 1993:lii).

293 Chinook

“The stories in the Tillamook literature were classified by the natives as belonging to one or the other of three successive time levels. The earliest is the myth age. The next is the era of transformation, when South Wind made the world over as it is known today. The third is the period of true happenings—or rather the era of relatively recent history from the point of view of the Tillamooks, because all the stories describe what these people believe truly occurred” (Jacobs & Jacobs 1990:ix).

Tillamook: “The Myth Era per se, represented by myth-narratives disclosing a time when the world (meaning the specific homeland of the people) is ‘raw,’ unfinished, in some respects chaotic, populated by freaks and monsters as well as the prototypes of the people-to-come, who as yet lack the rituals, customs, and know-how of civilized life” (Ramsey 1990:xxi).

295 Northwest California

“One of the most fundamental characteristics of the mythological beliefs of these three tribes [Wiyot, Yurok-Karok, Hupa] is the idea of a former distinct race, conceived of as very human in nature although endowed with supernatural powers, who inhabited the world before the coming of men, and then either left the inhabited world to become spirits or turned into animals. This race is the Kixûnai of the Hupa. In a general way this previous race is held responsible by the Indians for everything now existing in the world, and it is often stated that all the characters in myths were members of it. . . . The most prominent characters in the several mythologies are one or more culture-heroes, of whom the Hupa Yimantuwiñyai, ‘Lost-across-the-ocean,’ by another name ‘Old-man-over-across,’ is a typical illustration. . . . The Yurok and Karok characters that correspond to him are called ‘Widower-across-the-water’” (Kroeber 1905:87).

297 Maidu-Wintun

Maidu: “Some of the stories . . . take place in a time that clearly predates the advent of Indian people; in these stories the actors are predominantly animals, plants, or objects with human or humanlike characteristics and occasional human beings who are not identified as flora, fauna, or objects. Other stories involve humans–that is, Indian people–but may also involve nonhuman people, such as Pitch Woman” (Seaburg 2007:40).

298 Pomo-Yuki

Coast Yuki: “Myths (alwisa) were called ‘night stories.’ To relate them in the daytime, or to even think about them, would give the narrator a humpback. Moreover, winter was the season for telling them. . . . Coast Yuki women, as well as men, told ‘night stories.’ At the conclusion of a story the raconteur touched his belly and his forehead with his right palm and said, ‘Winen nen, winen tok.’ I could not learn the exact meaning of this expression. It referred to the story being finished. . . . One informant said that if he missed telling any detail of the story, he or I would become ill. On one occasion when there was a call for me in the middle of a story, he insisted on finishing instead of postponing it. The events told in night stories occurred before the appearance of the present race. The characters of the stories constituted the prehuman race, which the Coast Yuki believed preceded them” (Gifford 1937:116).

Coast Yuki: “All the birds were the first people [not the mammals, but all the birds we see now, even gull, cormorant, and turkey vulture]. There was to be a big shinny game. They started playing the game. People from all over the country came to play the game” (Gifford 1937:119).

299 Miwok-Yokuts

Yokuts and Western Mono: “With few exceptions the stories collected are myths in the sense which Boas has defined. They are concerned with persons and events of an era before the appearance of man, when birds, animals, insects, and even plants, were active denizens of this world. . . . Of tales which are believed to record recent historical events, Newman obtained two, one the narrative of an actual war between several tribal groups (which is not included here)” (Gayton & Newman 1940:8-9).

Miwok: “The mythology of the Indians of California goes back much farther than our mythology: it goes back to the time of the First People—curious beings who inhabited the country for a long period before man was created.” Their myths tell of “the doings of the First People. . . . [and] of the transformation of the First People into animals and other objects of nature” (Merriam 1910:17). The Miwok believed in the “existence of a First People, beings who differed materially from the present Indians, and who, immediately before the present Indians were created, were transformed into animals, trees, rocks, and in some cases into stars and other celestial bodies or forces—for even Sah’-win-ne the Hail, and Nuk’-kah the Rain were First People” (Merriam 1910:18). They also believed in the “preexistence of Coyote-man . . . a divinity of unknown origin” as well as “other divinities, notably Wek’-wek the Falcon, grandson and companion of Coyote-man, Mol’-luk the Condor, father of Wek’-wek, and Pe-ta’-le the Lizard, who, according to several tribes, assisted Coyote-man in the creation of Indian people.” They also believed in the “possession of supernatural powers or magic by Coyote-man, Wek’-wek, and others of the early divinities, enabling them to perform miracles” (Merriam 1910:18).

Miwok: “The names of individual personages among the First People were carried on to the animals, objects, or forces which these people became at the time of their final transformation, and are still borne by them. Hence in the accompanying stories the names of the various animals and objects should not be understood as referring to them as they exist today but to their remote ancestors among the First People. Whatever their original form—and the Indian conception seems to picture them as half human—the distinctive attributes of the First People were in the main handed down to the animals and objects they finally became” (Merriam 1910:23).

Miwok: “In addition to the Ancient Myths or First People stories, which relate to the early history of the world, the Mewan tribes have numerous beliefs concerning the present and the very recent past” (Merriam 1910:207).

301 Southwest California

Chumash: “When animals were still people, there was a fiesta at Zaca and all the quail were invited” (Blackburn 1975:228). “Long ago, when the animals were people, Coyote got to worrying about his poverty, and one day he said to himself, ‘I’m going to travel around and see what I can find’” (Blackburn 1975:229). “This is not a story, it’s an incident that happened long ago, when animals were people” (Blackburn 1975:245).

304 Central Great Basin

Mono Lake Paiute (“Tu’kini”): “Long ago, all the animals were people and lived in tribes as men do” (Steward 1936:429).

Shoshoni: “Once all the animals were people” (Steward 1936:434).

305 Southern Paiute

Chemehuevi: “A myth is tɨwiinyapɨ, deriving from tɨwiinyagah, tells a myth, narrates an ancient tale. . . . This root and its derivatives may be used only of events or beings belonging to pre-human times, When the Animals Were People. Tɨwiinyagah is not applied to the narration of exploits or adventures taking place in the world as it is at present, no matter how remote in time or drenched with magic these events may be. . . . The characters in the myths are Narɨwiinyapɨwɨ, Immortal Ones, Everlasting Ones, literally, Self-Mythologizing Ones” (Laird & Laird 1976:147).

306 Plateau Yumans

Walapai: “Coyote . . . and Wolf . . . were sitting in their house talking over the naming of the different animals. At this time these animals were men” (Kniffen et al. 1935:250).

308 Lutuami

Klamath/Modoc: “myths depict a time long past, before humans like those of today existed, when the world was populated by anthropomorphized animals who ‘walked and spoke like men’” (Sobel & Bettles 2000:290, citing Stern 1956:141).

“The Klamath distinguish myths from other narratives by referring to a myth as ‘s’ as’ apg’ lis’ meaning ‘a telling’ or ‘a tale’” (Sobel & Bettles 2000:290, citing Stern 1956:141).

309 Sahaptin

Nez Percé: “‘When the world was young’—so old Indians often began their tales—human beings and animals and birds all spoke the same language. . . . Because of this close relationship between the Indian and nature, it is not surprising that most of this tales were about animals and birds. Rather, they are about the ‘animal people’ or ‘animal persons,’ as English-speaking Indians refer to them today. These mythological beings lived on the earth when it was young, ‘when people had not come out yet.’ They had many of the characteristics of their smaller descendants in today’s world. Yet they could reason and talk, and they lived as the people telling the tales lived. In any story, a mythological character may change his appearance and his personality, so that at any point he seems human and at another point an animal” (Clark 1966:25).

The Klikitat “recognized a ‘former world’ when all living things were persons, which was followed by a ‘Great Change,’ resulting in the present world. Myths from the former world, including the events of the Transformation, are wat’i’t’ac; stories from the latter days are txa’nat, ‘happenings’ or ‘customs’” (Ramsey 1977: xxiv, footnote 8).

310 Interior Salish

Coeur d’Alene: “Teit in his short presentation of free translations gives a good cross-section of the types of [Coeur d’Alene] narrative. In this collection there are thirty-eight myths, that is, accounts of things as they happened before the world was as it is now; two tales or accounts of happenings in the historical period; and ten narratives of actual historical encounters which were remembered by living people or which happened not less than a hundred years ago” (Reichard 1947:5-6).

In Coeur d’Alene myth, “animals were people and people were animals. There was little differentiation, and animals had the good or bad characteristics which we now ascribe to people in addition to the characteristics now possessed by the animals themselves” (Reichard 1947:14).

Salish: “Long, long ago when the world was young, Old Man in the Sky drained off the earth which he had made. When he had it crowded down into the big salt holes, the land became dry. About the same time, Old Man Coyote became lonely and so went up into the Sky Land to talk to Old Man. Old Man questioned him. ‘Why are you unhappy and crying? Have I not made the much land for you to run about on? Are not Beaver, Otter, Bear, and Buffalo on the land to keep you company? [. . . ] Why do you come up here so often, just to talk?’ Old Coyote sat down and cried many more tears. Old Man became very cross and began to scold. ‘Foolish old Coyote, you must not drop so much water upon the land. Have I not worked many days to dry it? Soon you will have it all covered with water again. What is the trouble with you? What more do you want to make you happy?’ ‘I am very lonely because I have no one to talk to,’ Coyote answered. “Beaver, Otter, Bear, and Buffalo are busy with their families. They do not have time to visit with me. I want a people of my own, so that I may watch over them’” (Clark 1966:73).

311 Northern Plateau

Thompson: “At one time, very long ago, the earth was very different from what it is at present. There were no trees, and many kinds of bushes and plants were wanting; neither was there any salmon or other fish, nor any berries. The people who lived during this age were called spêtā’kl. They were mostly animals, who, nevertheless, had human form. They were gifted in magic; and their children used to reach maturity in a few months. There were among them many cannibals, and many mysterious persons. After a time certain men successively appeared on the earth, travelling here and there, working wonders, changing and modifying the existing order of things. Gradually many of the spêtā’kl who were bad were shorn of their powers, driven out of the country, or were transformed into birds, fishes, animals, and trees” (Teit 1898:19).

312 Kutenai

“Long ago, when the animals were the people of the world, a chief asked, ‘Who will be the Sun?’ All the animal people talked among themselves and decided that Raven should be the Sun. The chief agreed and told him what he should do. When Raven started on his journey, it became dark. Next morning the people watched for him to come up. But he was not bright enough, and the whole day was like evening. When Raven returned, the people said to him, ‘We do not want you for the Sun. You made everything black.’ [. . . ] The animal people held another council and talked the matter over again. Coyote said to them, ‘Let me be the Sun’” (Clark 1966:142).

314 Northeast Plains

The Teton-Dakota divide their stories into those that are true and those that are “not to be believed,” the latter of which “are a sort of hang-over . . . from a very, very remote past, from a different age, even from a different order of beings from ourselves” (Deloria 1932:ix).

315 Upper Missouri

“The Crow divided their tales into two principal groups corresponding roughly to what we should call myths and traditions. The latter are called . . . ‘something-tell-true’ and are supposed to be based on the direct experience of the Crow Indian. . . . The mythic tales are designated by a term slightly varying in form but always lacking the evidential suffix and presenting the stem for ‘to tell’ in reduplicated form” (Lowie 1918:13).

Crow: “In the old days wolves and coyotes had bows and arrows” (Lowie 1918:25).

316 Southern Plains

Kiowa: “Among older people, men and women, there are still many delightful story tellers, and there are old men who . . . will remark conversationally that ‘long time ago Dog he talk Kiowa’” (Parsons 1929:x).

“The widespread concept of animal-human transformation is common to Kiowa and Pueblos” (Parsons 1929:xv).

“Split Boys is undoubtedly a myth or ritual tale, ‘a true story,’ as the Kiowa put it, in distinction to the pulhæitekya, lie or joke story” (Parsons 1929:xvii).

“This young woman and her sister and a band of girls went down to the creek. After they got there, her sister proposed that they play a game of bear, one to act as the bear and the others to go near the den and pick some berries, and the bear would chase them until he caught one of them. . . . The woman with the bear hide played the part of the bear. She told her little sister to run back to the camp and hide. . . . The young woman placed the bearskin on her back in order to become a real bear. On the second and third trial of the skin on her back, she turned part bear. On the fourth trial she was all bear. She ran after the girls and caught them and killed them” (Parsons 1929:10).

319 Prairie Siouans

“Like most American Indian tribes, the Winnebago divided their prose narratives into two types: those that dealt with a past that was irretrievably gone and which belonged to the realm of things no longer possible or attainable by man or spirits; and those which dealt with the present workaday world. The first is called waikan, what-is-sacred, and the second worak, what-is-recounted” (Radin 1956:118).

320 Central Algonkians

“The folklore of the Menomini may be divided into five classes, four of which are recognized by the Indians themselves. First, are the sacred myths of Ma’nabus as the culture hero, which have to do principally with the cosmogony, and the origin of the medicine lodge; second, the minor myths of Man’nabus as trickster; third, fairy tales, so considered by the Indians, which relate the doings of imaginary heroes, somewhat after the manner of our own fairy tales; and fourth, ‘true stories,’ which are not always true by any means, being tales of the warpath, the chase, in love, supernatural adventures, dreams, conjuring, and exploits of animals and persons. The fifth class of narratives, which the Menomini seem to regard in the same light as fairy tales, is a small series of stories which are of undoubted European origin” (Skinner & Satterlee 1915:223).

Menomini: “True stories” are “for the most part, not sacred” and “range from simple narratives of daily life to supernatural experiences. The former are droll, exciting, or explanations of natural phenomena, as the case may be. They are told in public at any time when a propos, but generally around the fire in the evening” (Skinner & Satterlee 1915:235).

327 Apache

Lipan Apache: In the course of relating the Lipan story of the emergence of humans, one of Opler’s informants explained in an aside: “Here is the beginning. First there is nothing. Then there are tree people, then little animals, then humans. I don’t know when the great change came, when the animals lost their power of speech and became animals. It happened many years ago. I was not there nor was anyone who is living today” (Opler 1940:14).

Lipan Apache: “My father said that before a man can be a chief, he has to know all about the chief’s ways in the time when the birds and animals spoke. He has to know how they acted, he has to know all these stories of the chiefs among the animals and birds. Before he talks a great deal or gives orders he should know all about these stories and study them well” (Opler 1940:8).

Lipan Apache: Before narrating a Coyote story, a Lipan informant noted that, “In the beginning the trees and animals and grass used to talk. At that time Codi [Coyote] was going around” (Opler 1940:106).

Chiricahua Apache: “A close correspondence between the activities of the [animal] protagonists of the stories and the [Chiricahua] cultural round is almost predicated by the nature of Chiricahua ideology, for the birds, insects, and Coyote are thought to have been ‘people’ at one time, and mankind is but following in the footsteps of those who have gone before” (Opler 1942:ix).

364 Yąnomamö

“The Yanomami envision a universe consisting of four superimposed and disk-like tiers: two sky levels, the earth, and the underworld” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1990:10). In the distant past, “a cataclysmic event took place, when the cosmic plains each slipped one level: the upper sky fell on the lower sky, the lower sky fell on the earth, and the earth fell on the plain of the underworld. A new sky formed at the level where the uppermost sky had been before the slipping of the cosmic plains occurred. All the mountains and the forests of the earth were pushed into the world below, and only a few survivors of the ancient generation remained on earth, that is, on top of the fallen sky that now occupies the level at which the old earth had been. Under the impact of the falling sky the ancient people who were pushed from the earth into the underworld turned into cannibalistic spirits. The few that escaped from falling off the earth tunneled their way upward through the sky layer that had fallen on top of them. They dispersed throughout the new mountains and forests, propagated, and began to prepare gardens. However, these ancient people used to kill and eat each other; they were ignorant of proper human conduct and ignored the correct endocannibalistic funeral rites and practices. Eventually, they turned into animals of // this earth. . . . The Yanomami who presently live on this earth are a new race of people who were brought into this world by a demiurge called Omamë (Õmaw̓, Omao, Omaue, Omawỳ, Tohorá). . . . After propping up the sky to keep it from falling again, he created the present world and the modern Yanomami” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1990:10-11).

“That is how the people were long ago. They used to turn into animals, and simply did not know at all the way to behave. Those ancestors were Yanomam, as we are. They were not animals; they did not have wings! They were transforming because in those days the whole forest was transforming. All the ancestors kept turning into animals, and those ancestors are here now! Today we eat those ancestors from the early times, when we Yanomam did not exist! They are animals: toucans, spider monkeys, armadillos, tapirs, giant anteaters, and jaguars. . . . I know, and that is why I am saying it. They were Yanomam, and turned into animals. That is how it was” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1990:285).

“Tapir was sitting in a tree where he was trying to hide, along with Three-Toed Sloth. They were hiding for no reason, just not to be seen and eaten. . . . Three-Toed Sloth kept incessantly placing kahuusihi leaves all around him and never seemed to think he was sufficiently invisible….In fact, Three-Toed Sloth wanted to make Tapir climb down so that he himself would be alone hiding in that tree. . . . Exasperated, Tapir descended. . . . As he left he had said to his son-in-law [Antshrike]: ‘When you think that I’m well hidden, start following my trail!’ As agreed, Antshrike set out to search for his father-in-law. . . . Suddenly his father-in-law frightened him by noisily scampering off in the thicket just in front of him. . . . Antshrike set off after him . . . and shot him with an arrow. . . . Since then Antshrike mourns his father-in-law, lamenting: “Shoabe! Be be be!” That is why the call of this bird is constantly heard in the forest” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1990:306-308).

390 Yamana (Yaghan)

The Yamana origin myth “tells of a protohuman gyneocratic era when women had supremacy over men. The primeval ancestors, among them Sun (senior and junior), Moon, and Rainbow, migrated to what became // known as Yamana country from a distant place in the East. They came on foot, as anthropomorph or zoomorph beings, and, after their various earthly adventures, ascended into the sky or stayed on earth in animal form” (Wilbert & Gusinde 1977:10-11).

394 Mataco

Makka: “The etiological narratives of Makka cosmogony go back to primordial times when birds still had human form. . . . crested birds came into existence at a time when people, like Flycatcher, had birds’ names but human bodies” (Wilbert et al. 1991:6-7).

Makka: “Birds living today, all of them, were once (in times long since past) turned into men like us, just as we are today. We, all the Makka, were created in those ancient times” (Wilbert et al. 1991:19).

396 Zamuco

“Chamacoco lore distinguishes between two major mythological ages. A primeval epoch extends from the very dawn of world history // to the appearance of the axnábsero gods. A second age, that of the ancestors, reaches from the annihilation of the axnábsero to just two or three generations before present times. The initial sections of the narrative corpus pertain in large part to the oldest mythical epoch at the beginning of which the sky and the earth still occupied places in the reverse order of their present positions. Once the now existing state had been established, the two worlds remained connected by means of a tree. . . .  It served the ancient ones as a ladder by which to reach the paradisiacal upper world where honey collected at the outside of tree trunks rather than within their interior hollows and where game was inexhaustibly plentiful. To punish her fellow beings for the cruelty of denying her food and torturing her children, a helpless widow transformed herself into a rodent-like insect, destroyed the world tree, and brought the time of carefree abundance to an end. In different contexts, it is a slighted shaman or a bat personage who causes the tree to fall. . . . After the collapse of the world tree, the people, mostly men, who had been hunting and gathering in the sky, were unable to return to earth. They were marooned there forever, and can be seen at night as stars. On earth, hunting and food collecting have become arduous tasks. Game is less abundant and honey difficult to collect from inside the trunks of trees” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:11-12).

Chamacoco: “Death suffered in primordial mythic times was only temporary. Those who died were dressed in funeral clothing, and left behind in the settlement for the vultures. But the next day they revived and rejoined their fellows” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:13).

Chamacoco: “At such early times . . . Carancho changed his form from hawk to man quite frequently” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:13).

“The hawk, who was also a Chamacoco, saw smoke on the horizon and wanted to bring fire” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:177). “Long ago the toucan was human” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:156). “Long ago the cavy [south American rodent sp.] was a girl” (Wilbert & Simoneau 1987:184).

Ayoreo: “Heaven and earth, say the Ayoreo, were created by a personified sun-god, the creator-transformer who later was to populate the earth with animals created from the transformed Ayoreo ancestors. . . . At first Sky and Earth lived amicably together on earth. Then Sky began to object to the way he was dirtied and abused by the people living on top of him, and so he traveled upward, taking with him some of the heavenly bodies now seen above the earth. All of these, in addition to the sun, are consistently referred to in the mythology as transformed human beings. . . . After angering Sun through their disobedience, the ancestors one by one approach him and ask to be transformed into specific animals or trees, each with its own characteristics and colors. The present-day Ayoreo are the descendants of those people who chose to remain human” (Wilbert et al. 1989:17-18).

Ayoreo: “Sky and Earth were once human. Sky was very beautiful. He said to Earth: ‘I don’t want my body to have any defect. I shall look for a place to live.’ When Sky came back after having been gone for four days he told Earth: ‘Beautiful child, I am back. I have found a place where I can go and live.’ Then Sky left with the stars. They were very happy to leave with Sky. Those who remained with Earth were also happy to have remained with Earth. Since then there has been a transformation of people and trees. It was at that time that everything changed” (Wilbert et al. 1989:29-30).

Ayoreo: “In the beginning all the animals were Ayoreo and could talk. Then they lost the power of speech. There are two reasons for this. Some swallowed embers, drank boiling water, and burned their throats when they went into the fire of the nightjar. Others, when they were transformed into animals, ate food that was so bad, raw, and decomposed that they lost the power of speech” (Wilbert et al. 1989:108).


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Etiological Animal Tales as a Typological Universal (Lecture Video)

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon

Abstract. Hunting demands extensive knowledge of animal behavior, characteristics, and habitat, raising the question of how foragers acquire this knowledge. One potential source is etiological animal tales (EAT), which are pervasive in forager oral tradition and explain the origin of a species’ distinctive physical and/or behavioral traits. If these stories serve as a repository for traditional zoological knowledge, we would expect them to contain information about traits that are useful for identifying, predicting availability of, locating, killing, processing, and/or avoiding dangerous encounters with the animal. These predictions were tested in an earlier study that used story collections from 64 diverse hunter-gatherer societies (Scalise Sugiyama 2017). For each collection, one EAT was chosen at random for content analysis; all 64 stories evinced the predicted information, showing a strong cross-cultural trend. Here I present the results of a follow-up study that examines whether this pattern holds across all EAT within a given culture. For this analysis, ten cultures were selected from the original sample (two from each of five world geographic regions). All EAT from each culture were analyzed for the presence of information about the animal’s availability, behavior, diet, habitat, interspecies relationships, physical traits, sign, techniques used to hunt/process the animal, and hazards associated with the animal. Results suggest that EAT are an important vector of zoological knowledge transmission across forager groups.

This video lecture was prepared for the Literary Universals Workshop at the University of Connecticut, which took place on 24 May 2019. It is housed off-site and is available through the following link: Etiological Animal Tales as a Typological Universal.


Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

We may look for storyworld universals in the sequence of events that comprise the story proper, in the characters that enact those events, or in the settings in which the characters or events are embedded. (For the first and second, see “Story.”) One aspect of setting where we find cross-cultural patterns is imagery. We may define imagery as features of setting that are not simply a function of the causal trajectory of the events, but serve other purposes as well. For example, insofar as seasons operate in a story to guide the characters’ planting and harvesting, they are not operating as imagery. In contrast, they are operating as imagery insofar as they have a function outside that causal sequence (e.g., to suggest thematic concerns, such as the association of sin with death, by way of winter). Note that this broad definition of imagery does not exclude metaphor; imagery may be metaphorical. In addition, by this definition, imagery is not particularly visual; indeed, it is sensory-mediated only to the extent that setting is sensory-mediated. Note also that lyric poems have events, characters, and/or settings, and thus are encompassed in this definition. (On the relation of lyric poems and story sequences, see chapter five of Hogan, The Mind.) Indeed, the relatively limited presence of causal (story) sequences in lyric poems suggests that imagery is likely to play a particularly important role in lyric poetry. Finally, setting includes persons and events; it is merely differentiated from persons and events considered as part of the causal sequence of a given story.

General Principles

Perhaps the most striking universal in this area is the most basic or general one–the existence of imagery. Some storytellers and poets in perhaps all traditions, and certainly in large written traditions, develop apparently incidental features of the setting in such a way as to make those features relevant to the reader’s experience of the work. The relevance may be a matter of non-causal story functions, as when an image suggests future events in the story through foreshadowing. Otherwise, the relevance of imagery commonly bears on the emotional impact of the work (e.g., by enhancing mood) or the thematic implications of the work. By “thematic implications,” I refer to the work’s consequences for the recipient’s relation to the real world in which he or she lives. These implications are most often ethical or political.

Here, as in most cases, there is no need to posit a specific, innate propensity in order to explain this cross-cultural tendency. General cognitive and social structures along with convergent development appear sufficient to explain the recurrence of imagery in general, and even the recurrence of particular image forms and categories. Storytellers only had to notice that imagery could be recruited to make a sad story sadder, a suspenseful story more suspenseful (e.g., through foreshadowing), a theme more effective or evident. Once one storyteller noticed this—which would presumably happen fairly quickly—his or her use of the technique could spread within that tradition, through its self-conscious or implicit imitation by other storytellers.

Another broad, cross-cultural pattern is the tendency of traditions to develop standardized sets of shared images. In the West, an obvious example of this sort is to be found in the Petrarchan lineage of love poetry. But the use of standardized images is a feature of many written and oral traditions (see Hogan “Literary Universals and Their Cultural Traditions”; note that the present essay outlines some of the main conclusions of research in the area, but cannot enter into all the details covered in the various works cited). This occurs in part due to the simple formation of associative connections and processes of “priming,” which make some associations more likely to be activated than others. (Since some readers have been confused by this, I should explain that the formation of associative connections enables activation to spread through networks via priming; association is of course not priming itself, just as highways are not traffic.) Once one poet associates lovers with birds, other poets familiar with this initial work will be more likely to associate lovers with birds also. In addition, the set of associations of lovers with birds will tend to make the image more emotionally effective, and in some cases more thematically consequential too.

There are other broad, recurring tendencies as well. For example, traditions of verbal art tend to select species for animal imagery, rather than relying on higher level categories. For example, in individual cases and in standardized imagery, writers appear likely to refer to nightingales in a particular context, rather the mere birds—though the latter is more likely than some still more general classification, such as vertebrates (an apparently rare choice, despite its comic possibilities; both points obviously bear further empirical investigation, as do all hypotheses about literary universals, here and elsewhere). Authors and traditions select particular species for reasons bearing on the species themselves, often due to their mating or other behaviors, the musicality of their calls, their appearance, and related matters, as well as their cultural resonances (e.g., their place in ritual). A less frequent, but perhaps more striking recurrent practice is the literalization of imagistic associations and related metaphors and similes. We find cases of this ranging from allegory to the motif of metamorphosis (in for example Ovid, Kafka, or the Chinese tale of the “butterfly lovers,” Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo [see “Newly Compiled”]).

Of course, universals of imagery are not confined to these points. Imagery may be universal in manifesting the same formal relations or in sharing some concrete, perceptual features. Formal relations are types of connection that give imagery significance in a work. Concrete, perceptual features may be directly experiential, as in performing arts, or a matter of guided simulation, as in purely verbal art. (Guided simulation is the imagination of particulars in line with instructions, such as those given implicitly by literary descriptions [on verbal art as a set of instructions for imagination, see Scarry].) Universals of imagery, then, may be formal (in that they follow the same principles, though their particular features may differ) or substantive (in that their particular features are the same or similar). The division is not absolute and rigid, since shared features may be very general, and even apparently idiosyncratic (formally defined) images often share some category with more commonly recurring concrete images. Moreover, recurring concrete features must enter into the usual formal relations if they are to count as imagery at all. But it is a practically useful division for examining universals of imagery. We may consider such universals in connection with each category. (For more elaborate discussion of imagery universals, as well as cross-cultural evidence, see Hogan “Literary Universals and Their Cultural Traditions,” “Beauty,” and “Shakespeare.”)

Formal Relations

Imagery may enter into at least two formal relations (there may be others as well). First, there is parallelism. Since readers have greatly misunderstood my point here, I should explain that imagery and parallelism are not the same; there are many forms of parallelism (e.g., in syntax) that have no bearing on the concerns of this essay. Moreover, imagery does not serve to establish parallelism. Rather, the point is that a range of genetically and areally unrelated traditions appear to make use of parallelism to give images thematic, emotional, anticipatory, or other import outside causal (story) sequences. That universality holds even when the precise images differ.

Parallelism itself takes two forms, internal and external. Internal parallelism involves congruity between two or more storyworld structures within a work. (This point has confused readers, so I should perhaps re-emphasize that imagery can be part of a story sequence. It is distinguished by having a non-story operation–emotional, thematic, and so on.) Internal parallelism is prominent among the cross-culturally recurring strata of what we might call “existential embedment,” the different levels of social and biological constituency: the individual body and mind or person, the family, society, and nature. In other words, two complexes of events and/or conditions may be causally unrelated, but still bear on one another—again, emotionally, thematically, or whatever. Thus chaos in society may be parallel to a storm in nature; the separation of a family may be parallel to the division of the land (e.g., by a river). The social chaos does not cause the storm, and the river does not cause the separation of the family (or vice-versa); however, the two networks of events and conditions are not simply irrelevant to one another.

Internal parallelism may also operate within a single stratum. Circularity, beginning and ending a work in the same place or type of place, the same situation or type of situation, and so on, is a cross-cultural feature of this sort. So too is foreshadowing (as already noted), a temporally directed form of parallelism in which images operate to suggest subsequent events (e.g., in a Sanskrit work, the appearance of separating cakravāka birds may parallel and foreshadow the separation of lovers).

External parallelism involves mapping a structure in the work at hand onto a structure in a precursor work or real situation. Examples would include a modern story about a political figure whose life and death may be linked with the Biblical story of Jesus or the narrative of a contemporary couple that recalls the story of Rāma and Sītā. A minimal case of external parallelism is found in allusion. Again, parallelism need not be a matter of imagery; in other words, not all parallelism is imagery-based. However, in many cases, parallelism is imagery-based. In those cases, parallelism defines the non-causal function of the image (i.e., makes an element of setting into an image). A simple example is the conflagration at the end of Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire. This alludes to the fire ordeal of Sītā and contributes to the work’s thematic development in that way. Here, as in other cases, parallels may be direct, or they may involve inversion or some other systematic alteration.

A second formal relation commonly bearing on imagery is that between foreground and background (or, alternatively, source and target). Literary works tend to involve the development of at least two of the standard levels of human existence (mind, family, society, and nature). Nonetheless, one of these levels is typically the object of primary attentional focus (the target), thus the foreground, while the other is the background, which is to say, it is perceived and understood, but it is not the object of attentional focus, except perhaps intermittently. The background (or source) may provide imagery for internal parallelism, as when the storm provides a background for the social chaos in Lear’s kingdom and the emotional chaos in Lear’s mind. The point holds, in a slightly altered form, for external parallelism as well. In that case, the precursor work is most often the background (source) work in that it is not the object of attentional focus (target). At least it is not the initial object of such focus. In some cases, the thematic point of a later work may be to comment on the earlier work, as when an Indian film or drama revises the Rāmāyana in order to provoke the viewer to reconsider some ethical norms presupposed by that revered poem. (This is in part the case with Mehta’s film.) But this too involves a background/foreground or source/target distinction.

With internal parallelism, the foreground figures tend to be those most deeply embedded in the list of standard strata—thus those that are constituent elements–and the background figures tend to be those that are more encompassing. For example, nature (e.g., the weather) is more likely to serve as background for society than the reverse. It is not clear whether this is true in the case of external parallelism, since the two works tend to focus attention on the same stratum (e.g., family relations). However, in external parallelism there is a further pattern as the background text tends to be one with equal or greater social or spiritual authority. In this case, the most relevant categorization seems to bear on types of text, rather than types of existence. Specifically, a distinction among, say, individual, communal, and divine texts—or perhaps a simpler division between individual and socially authoritative texts–appears to recur cross-culturally. In external parallelism, foreground or target texts tend to come earlier in this list. Put simply, understanding individual or personal texts (such as a particular novel or drama) may rely on external parallelism with divine texts (e.g., the Gospels), but understanding divine texts is less likely to rely on parallelism with individual or personal texts texts (with the qualifications already noted).

Concrete Particulars

Again, image patterns may recur in particular forms (for cases, see Hogan “Literary”). Many recurrent concrete particulars derive directly from the parallelism of mind, etc., as in the examples cited above. Some further, instances may be divided into those bearing on character and those bearing on events. Regarding character, heroes tend to be paralleled with creatures from the natural world. For example, military heroes may be paralleled with predatory land animals. Lovers tend to be paralleled with birds or similar creatures, though they too may be paralleled with predators if their sexual appetites are emphasized. Regarding events, sunset tends to be associated with death, separation, etc. (again, sunset does not cause death, etc., in these cases). Sunrise is more likely to be linked with renewal, birth or rebirth, reunion, and so forth. The season of natural rebirth (e.g., spring) tends to be associated with renewal, birth, and the reunion of lovers. The season of barrenness (e.g., winter) appears to be more commonly associated with despair, death, the separation of lovers, military loss, and so on. Water is often connected with new life. In keeping with these points, Pandit has argued that urban societies often establish a contrast between a partially degraded or corrupt place of civilization and a semi-idyllic green world (103).

Future Research

The most obvious tasks for future work in this area are the isolation of additional universals of imagery and their systematic organization. The former task includes the isolation of further types of formal relation as well as further sorts of concrete particulars. As to systematic organization, it would be valuable to see what patterns there may be across concrete particulars, beyond the division into character-related and event-related. It would also be valuable to know more about which images recur with the greatest frequency, which are limited in their appearance, and what cultural or other variables may govern such differences. Another potentially consequential task is elaborating on the consequences of internal and external parallelism (e.g., the ways in which they produce emotional effects in a reader or just what consequences they have for the communication of themes). Finally, it is important to integrate research on imagery with research on narrative and metaphor, and to consider the relation of foreground-background relations to non-directional integration (e.g., in conceptual blending theory).

(An earlier version of this article was published on the website of the original Literary Universals Project in 2002. That earlier version appeared in a Turkish translation, “Imgenin Evrenselleri,” trans. Özgen Felek, Bizim Külliye: Üç Aylik Kültür Sanat Dergisi 21 [September 2004]: 11-12. I have limited revisions of the article in order to preserve continuity with that earlier version.)

Works Cited

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Beauty, Politics and Cultural Otherness: India in the Study of Comparative Literature.” In Hogan and Pandit 3-43.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Literary Universals and their Cultural Traditions: The Case of Poetic Imagery.” Consciousness, Literature, and the Arts 6.2 (August 2005).

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Shakespeare, Eastern Theatre, and Literary Universals: Drama in the Context of Cognitive Science.”  In Shakespeare East and West. Ed. Minoru Fujita and Leonard Pronko. Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library, 1996, 164-80, 189-90.

Hogan, Patrick Colm and Lalita Pandit, eds. Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Mehta, Deepa, dir. Fire. Screenplay by Deepa Mehta. New Delhi, India: Kaleidoscope Entertainment, 1996.

“The Newly Compiled Tale of the Golden Butterflies,” trans. Wilt Idema, in The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature, ed. Victor Mair and Mark Bender (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 505-551.

Pandit, Lalita. “Patriarchy and Paranoia: Imaginary Indfidelity in Uttararāmacarita and The Winter’s Tale.” In Hogan and Pandit, 103-133

Scarry, Elaine. Dreaming by the Book (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999).


By: Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Impossible Love: A Sub-Genre of Romantic Stories

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Recently, I read a number of Seventeenth-Century Chinese stories as well as some classical Roman works that reminded me of one another and that led me to recall some South Asian and Native American stories that I had read earlier. They were all versions of the cross-culturally recurring romantic story, but they were not prototypical. The interesting thing was that their deviations from the prototype were closely related to one another, clustering into a sub-genre. As I reflected more on this sub-genre, I realized that the pattern extended quite widely. The present essay is an attempt to define that sub-genre, to sketch some of its constituent varieties, and to suggest some possible explanations for both. More precisely, I refer to the sub-genre as “intensified romance.” It is intensified in the sense that it makes the lovers’ union appear to be not only socially problematic, but in principle impossible. That impossibility may be either ontological or moral, yielding two types of the sub-genre.

As some readers of this essay were concerned about how I might explain the cross-cultural recurrence of love stories more broadly, I should note that the present essay is not aiming to explain the genre in general. I have discussed that topic in The Mind and Its Stories, Affective Narratology, and elsewhere (for a summary of the account, see “Story”). The present essay explores one specific variant of the romantic story and seeks to give a preliminary account of that variant alone.

A Note on Simulation

Simulation is a cognitive process by which we imagine trajectories of actions or events (for an introduction to simulation and its relation to literature, see Hogan How; see also Oatley, “Meetings”). That process may be a matter of interpolating causal links between real events that we experience, projecting future outcomes of current conditions, envisioning counterfactual alternatives to what has occurred, or creating purely hypothetical scenarios. A key evolutionary function of simulation is to allow us to consider alternative courses of action “offline,” thus without the consequences of real activity. For example, if I simulate a dangerous course of action—say, swimming at a beach closed due to shark sightings—I incur no risk and may decide to avoid real swimming on the basis of the simulation (including its frightful image of the malevolent leviathan crushing my thighbones like toothpicks between its teeth). If I could learn only from actual experience, I might end up eaten by a shark the first time I am faced with such a situation.

For simulation to fulfill its evolutionary function, we must be able to make adjustments to our simulations at various levels. For example, suppose an office worker wants a raise in her salary. She has to be able to consider the various, broad strategies for pursuing this—applying for other jobs, arguing for particular salary evaluation procedures, engaging in a class action suit, approaching her supervisor to discuss an individual increment, and so on. In each case, she must be able to imagine more specific strategies as well—what would be the best evaluation procedures or just what points she should make to the supervisor in support of an individual increment. In connection with this, we may draw a relative distinction between two sorts of variables—first, parameters, which define classes of alternatives; second, local variables, which specify instances of those alternatives.

Stories are the product of simulation. Authors create stories by imagining trajectories of actions and events, commonly through synthesizing genre prototypes with memories of actual experiences, hearsay, trajectories from other stories, and other sources. Part of this simulation involves making both larger and smaller changes, thus altering parameters to produce types of story and altering local variables to produce particular stories.

In The Mind and Its Stories and Affective Narratology, I have argued that perhaps the most common cross-cultural genre or story universal is romantic tragi-comedy. In its most prototypical form, this genre involves two people who fall in love, but are prevented from uniting, often by their parents and commonly due to some social conflict (such as the opposition between the Montagues and Capulets in Romeo and Juliet). They are separated, frequently with suggestions or imagery of death. A rival may enter, producing a love triangle, before the lovers are finally united (or, in the tragic version, prevented forever from uniting).

The preceding comments on the nature of simulation would lead us to expect that there will be versions of any given genre that are produced by parametric variation. These are presumably most likely—as most consequential—at story “junctures,” the points at which significant causal changes occur in the trajectory of actions and events (on junctures, see my The Mind 91-93). One such juncture is governed by the nature of the restriction that separates the lovers. In most of the cases I considered in earlier publications, that restriction is contingent and social. Again, the Montague-Capulet feud comes to mind. There is no necessary reason why these two families must be enemies or why their children could not be united. However, there are other possible types of restriction. Specifically, some restrictions may be felt to be necessary, either necessary in the ethical sense or necessary in the ontological sense. In other words, the lovers’ union may be experienced as in some way unthinkable or impossible, either morally or practically.

The clearest case of moral intensification concerns incest. Ontological intensification bears most often on the union of humans and spirits of some sort—either superhuman spirits (such as gods, angels, or ghosts) or (usually subhuman) animal spirits. I will refer to the superhuman/human/subhuman order as ontological or, drawing on usage in linguistics, as manifesting an animacy hierarchy. Of course, it is not strictly correct to say that these are literally unthinkable or impossible. The moral violations occur in the real world, though they are paradigmatic of sexual taboo. The ontological violations are possible in the storyworlds of some fictions, though (presumably) not in the real world, unless the ontological difference is interpreted metaphorically. The point is that, in each case, there is something about the nature of the lovers that, in certain circumstances, makes it appear impossible for them to be united (in the sense that, on hearing of such a union in real life, one might exclaim, “That can’t be!,” as in “A mother marrying her own son? That can’t be!”). We may refer to the broad varieties of romance—where the restrictions on the lovers are contingent and social, on the one hand, versus necessary, on the other hand—as basic and intensified respectively. We may further subdivide the intensified varieties into moral and ontological.

We will consider some cases of each sort of intensified romance in the following sections. Before going on to that, however, it is useful to note that another variable or set of variables enters here. This concerns just who knows about the problematic identity of the lovers and just when they know. Readers of Romeo and Juliet may recall that the titular lovers become enamored of one another before learning that they are from the opposed families. Sometimes, the ethical and ontological versions of the romantic plot involve the lovers knowing about their difference early on; sometimes, both lovers learn only later; sometimes, one knows while the other does not.

Finally, I should note that two motifs recur with some frequency in intensified romances. As I am using the term, motifs are sequences that can be adapted to different genres and integrated into a range of stories. (The key point is that they cross genres.) Here, the motifs in question are the concealment of identity, where a character hides some important aspect of who he or she is, and mistaken identity, where a character misattributes a category to another person. In the ethical and ontological romantic plots, the concealment and mistake most often concern one or both of the lovers.

Romantic Stories and Animacy Hierarchies (I): Humans and Animal Spirits

A story told by the Arawak (see Lévi-Strauss 256-257 and Roth 203-204) concerns a hunter and a jaguar (or tiger). The jaguar has taken the form of a human woman and joins the hunter as his wife. However, they conceal her identity. The two live together happily; she is a good wife and hunting partner. At a certain point, they visit the man’s mother. Though the jaguar woman stresses that he should never reveal her identity, the man ends up informing his mother, who conveys the information to the society at large. The jaguar woman suffers from shame and leaves her husband. Despite great effort, he is never able to find her.

This is, to my mind, an intriguing and affecting story. It also manifests a structure that recurs with variations in different traditions. A forbidden—putatively impossible—union occurs. Since it is forbidden, the lovers conceal their identities. Despite being warned not to do so, one spouse engages in some action—constituting a tragic error or failure—that leads to the exposure of the identities. This in turn forces the separation of the lovers in a tragic ending. (It may be that tragic outcomes are more common in these intensified variations on the romantic genre than in the basic form.) Note that “tragedy” and “comedy” here are what we might refer to as “modes of resolution” for the genres defined by happiness goals. For example, romantic stories may be resolved by the lovers’ achievement of enduring union (comedy) or by a sequence of events (e.g., one lover’s death) that renders such achievement impossible (tragedy). Like genres, tragedy and comedy may themselves have recurring properties (such as the commission of a tragic error).

One striking feature of the Arawak story is that the inter-species union is, in fact, not impossible. Its putative impossibility is a function of knowledge. It is only when some people know the identities of the lovers—when society learns that they are not man and woman, but man and jaguar (or tiger)—that the impossibility appears. In other words, it is not an impossibility of the lovers or categories themselves, but of social opinion about those categories. This suggests that the restriction is ultimately a social restriction, though it is represented as ontological. In keeping with this, Alexandra Aikhenvald’s research indicates that “jaguar” might suggest a low status group (12), a point consistent with the woman’s feeling of shame. Alternatively, Roth’s work may point to a link between tigers and antagonistic out-groups (367). Thus, we have the usual sorts of social taboo—due either to social hierarchy within the society or conflict with an enemy group. The ontological romance intensifies this ordinary social problem through the animacy hierarchy (hence my name for this variant, “intensified” romance).

Pu Songling’s Strange Tales, an important, late Seventeenth-Century, Chinese work, includes several stories of this sort. In “The Girl in Green,” a woman arrives at the male protagonist’s lodgings unexpectedly. Though she conceals her background from him, they have sexual relations. The man asks her to sing. She refuses, warning that it may be dangerous. Eventually, she gives in to his pleas. When she departs, she is attacked, and he has to rescue her. At this time, he learns that she is not a woman, but a hornet. She thanks him for rescuing her, but leaves forever.

Here we have the same general structure. There is an inter-species union, though one in which the man is ignorant that the woman is not really a woman, but an insect. She warns him that they should behave in a particular way; he insists otherwise. The result is the disclosure of their species difference and their consequent separation. (As is undoubtedly clear, here and below I engage in the sort of structural mapping of story sequences that Lévi-Strauss developed so powerfully in his four-volume Introduction to the Science of Mythology. As is probably no less clear, however, the conclusions of my analysis and the psychological principles it involves are quite different from those of Lévi-Strauss.)

Another story along these lines is Pu’s “Princess Lotus.” In a dream, the protagonist meets a king, who introduces him to a young, beautiful woman. The protagonist falls in love and marries the woman. Everything seems to be proceeding with remarkable calmness. But suddenly the protagonist’s in-laws are threatened with destruction. He eventually learns that they are, in fact, not people but bees. This varies the structure, since the revelation is not the result of a violated taboo. It rather involves a danger to the family of one of the lovers. But there is still inter-species union connected with identity concealment, followed by disclosure.

Staying within the Chinese tradition, we find a further instance of this story structure in the often-retold “Legend of the White Snake” (for a summary of one version, see “Legend”). A magically powerful white snake transforms herself into a woman and marries a human. When the human discovers her identity, he dies. Through supernatural means, she manages to revive him; however, further tribulations follow. In some versions, she overcomes subsequent obstacles and the lovers are reunited enduringly; in other versions, she is unsuccessful.

Romantic Stories and Animacy Hierarchies (II): Humans and Immortal Spirits

The human-immortal romances are, on the whole, more insightful and engaging than the human-animal romances. They are also more abundant, though admittedly a number of stories could be put into either category. Another story from Pu follows the pattern of “The Girl in Green” and the Arawak tale. In “Sunset,” an unknown woman arrives at the protagonist’s home. Despite the intimate relationship that develops between them, she conceals her background and prohibits questions about it. He nevertheless tries to ascertain her identity, then continues this investigation despite further warnings. The man’s family has a crisis when his niece is possessed by a spirit. The mysterious woman helps through magical intervention. In consequence, her father learns about her affair with the human and forces their separation. Thus, we have the usual separation of lovers by the parent, but in this case due to an ontological discrepancy in the identities of the lovers. The woman, it turns out, is daughter to the Golden Dragon King. They are never reunited.

This story is particularly well developed. It takes up the motif of the threat to the family of one lover, which we saw in “Princess Lotus.” It also includes concealed identity, one lover’s attempt to prevent the disclosure of that identity, and the other lover’s violation of a warning.

A comic version of human-immortal romance may be found in Li Hao-ku’s early Thirteenth-Century, Chinese drama, Chang Boils the Sea. In that play, a scholar falls in love with the daughter of a dragon king. Through the use of magic, the scholar is able to join his beloved—although she is “thirty thousand fathoms beneath the blue sea” (170; the physical inaccessibility concretizes the ontological discrepancy between human and spirit). He is also able to secure the consent of the dragon king. Of course, this is not a concealment-revelation-loss sequence. Rather, this story indicates that the human-immortal romance may follow the more routine or basic form, with parental disapproval and the lovers’ work to overcome that disapproval.

The intensified romance is not confined to Chinese and Arawak traditions. In the Indian (South Asian) tradition, there are several versions of the romance between the mortal Purūravas and the celestial nymph Urvaśī. Consider, for example, the important early collection of stories from Hindu tradition, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa (see Wilson iv-viii). In that work, Urvaśī is condemned to a period of earthly existence, where she falls in love with Purūravas. They marry on the condition that Purūravas never violate a particular taboo. He is tricked into doing so and the lovers are separated, though they are ultimately reunited when Purūravas is elevated to the status of an immortal. In Vikramōrvaśīyam, the version by the most renowned Sanskrit playwright, Kālidāsa (fifth century C.E.), the human king Purūravas and Urvaśī fall in love. They are separated, as Urvaśī lives in heaven. However, due to her preoccupation with Purūravas, she commits a serious breach of etiquette and is condemned to become mortal for a certain time. The change of Urvaśī from spirit to human allows her union with Purūravas. But the temporary nature of her incarnation limits the duration of that union. In the end, she is allowed to remain human as long as Purūravas is alive.

In these cases too we see a variation on the intensified romance. In neither version is it a matter of concealment and exposure. However, the ontological contradiction of love between a mortal and a spirit is clear. Moreover, in theViṣṇu Purāṇaversion, there is a taboo on one of the lovers and the violation of that taboo leads to their separation. Interestingly, the human-spirit union is enabled by the change of status—the fall ofUrvaśī in bothversions and the elevation of Purūravas in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. It is also worth noting that, the play seems particularly to recall death and grief. It thereby suggests a connection between separation in the ontological romance and the more mundane issue of bereavement, where the (still living) human lover is separated from (his or her deceased) beloved, who is now a spirit.

A particularly extended and complex version of the structure may be found in the Roman story of Amor and Psyche, as developed by Apuleius in the late second century. Due to a curse and subsequent abandonment by her family, the beautiful (human) Psyche ends up married to (immortal) Amor. However, Amor conceals his identity, and even prevents Psyche from seeing him. In keeping with the pattern we have considered, he warns Psyche that she should not seek to discover who he is. Convinced by her (jealous) sisters, Psyche tries to uncover her spouse’s identity, planning in fact to kill him. Instead of the dangerous monster she anticipates, Psyche sees Amor and falls in love with him. They are separated, and the separation is maintained by Amor’s mother, Venus, thus presenting the standard “familialization” of the pivotal conflict (in which the blocking characters are family members, thus giving their antagonism greater emotional force). Psyche now seeks reunion with Amor. Unlike the Arawak tale, this story develops the quest by the abandoned, human lover. Specifically, Psyche tries to win the approval of Venus by performing various tasks dictated by Venus—a scenario that we might expect for the male lover, rather than the female. (In Chang Boils the Sea, we see a sort of parallel for this, with the male lover undertaking the work of convincing the beloved’s father—in this case antagonistically, rather than deferentially.) In the interim, Amor recovers from an injury caused by Psyche’s misguided attempt to identify and kill him. He manages to procure immortalizing ambrosia. Drinking the ambrosia, Psyche becomes immortal, thus making possible her enduring union with Amor.

Thus, in Apuleius’s story, we have the concealment of identity, the taboo on seeking or revealing that identity, the violation of the taboo, and the separation. This is then followed by the usual familial conflict and a version of the lover’s attempt to convert the recalcitrant parent. However, the resolution does not come from a conversion of the parent. It comes, rather, from a transformation in the status of the lover, a change from mortal to immortal. This change erases the ontological difference that made the union impossible to begin with. There are two points to make in connection with this. First, there are two obvious ways in which the ontological difference may be overcome. One is the elevation of the human lover, as we see here. The other is the degradation of the spirit lover, as in the case of Urvaśī when she is initially joined with Purūravas in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa. The second point is that this is parallel with the more ordinary or basic romantic structure, in which the conflict is social, as when the lovers derive from different classes or castes. The elevation of one lover is, in this respect, parallel with the discovery that, for example, the slave girl is actually a patrician who was kidnapped as a child. The degradation of one lover is parallel to the discovery that the apparently higher class or caste beloved is in fact not inaccessible to the lover—as when Duṣyanta (in Kālidāsa’s Abhijñānaśākuntalam) discovers that Śakuntalā is not from the higher, Brahmin caste, but has only been raised by a Brahmin.

Thus, we find Native American, Chinese, Indian (South Asian), and European instances of the intensified romantic plot in which the lovers violate an ontological constraint defined by an animacy hierarchy. These stories also occur across a range of time periods. Further examples may be found in more recent works, both western and eastern. For example, Wings of Desire (directed by Wim Wenders), presents us with the story of an angel who falls in love with a mortal woman. He loses his angelic status, becoming mortal, and is united with the woman. Here, the sort of concealment we found in the Amor and Psyche story occurs before the union of the lovers, as the angel can observe his human beloved, while the latter has only vague intimations of the angel’s presence. In this case, there is no restriction, restriction-violating revelation of identity, and consequent separation of the lovers; it is, then, a reduced or simplified version of the structure.

Another film with this sort of plot is Postman to Heaven, a 2009 work from South Korea (directed by Hyung-min Lee). In this film, a young woman and a ghost fall in love. The ghost has been assigned the task of helping bereaved men and women work through their grief. The young woman had recently lost a lover, which leads to her connection with the ghost. The twist in this story is that the ghost is visible only to people who are in mourning. Thus, the young woman will no longer be able to see or interact with the ghost from the moment she overcomes her grief. But she overcomes her grief in proportion to the degree to which she falls in love with the ghost. Thus, she loses her new beloved precisely to the degree that she loves him; thus, she suffers a new grief precisely to the degree that she overcomes her old grief. The problem is resolved by divine intervention. Due to the ghost’s success in consoling the bereaved, particularly this young woman, Heaven returns him to his mortal life. As a human, he is now able to be united with his beloved, who is thereby freed from both the old and the new grief.

Neither film has the concealment-taboo-violation structure. But both still alter the more usual, basic genre trajectory, by having the lovers violate an ontological restriction and allowing their union by a change in status, from spirit to human. Further cases present other variations. For example, complex instances may be found in other stories by Pu Songling, such as “Grace and Pine,” “Butterfly,” and “The Laughing Girl.”

Romantic Stories and Same-Sex Love: An Intermediate Case

We will turn to the ethical form of the intensified romantic structure in the next section. Before going on to that, however, we might briefly remark on Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe and the Śikhaṇḍinī story in the Mahābhārata. In both stories—one European, the other Indian—two women are married to each other due to concealed identity, though the concealed identity in this case is one of anatomical sex, not of ontological level (human, animal, or spirit). As with the cases considered thus far, the revelation of the concealed identity causes problems for the union, and in each case the misrepresented lover (Iphis and Śikhaṇḍinī) goes through a magical sex change, comparable to the transformation of a human lover into a spirit or vice-versa.

These cases are interesting in part because they show how the romantic structure may, through parametric variation, be applied to significant social issues, in this case same-sex love. This is not to say that either provides any solution to the social conflicts surrounding such love, any more than the animacy-based versions provide a solution to the love between people of extreme out-groups (as in the Arawak case). The transformation of one lover functions most obviously as a fantasy, perhaps giving some people imaginary satisfaction. In any case, its social function is complex and equivocal. For example, in the case of Iphis and Ianthe, it may be taken to validate lesbian love, indicating that the lovers should be joined. But it might also be taken to stress the necessity of heterosexuality, since they can be joined only when they are differently sexed. On the other hand, romantic stories tend to cultivate a very strong preference for the lovers’ union. Thus, my inclination is to see stories such as Iphis and Ianthe as functioning primarily to cultivate sympathy with the same-sex lovers, even as the ending gives the author and reader an out, enabling the plausible denial of such homoerotic sympathies.

I refer to this as intermediate because it is not clear how authors and readers conceive of the restriction in this case. I suspect that it varies with authors, readers, and cultures. Some would think of the restriction as ethical. I suspect that such readers would not, in general, be sympathetic with the same-sex lovers. Other readers would think of the restriction as simply social, comparable to the forbidding of intermarriage between Montagues and Capulets (this is presumably the view of most academic readers today). Finally, some would think of the restriction as part of the order of being, so to speak—in this case, related not to animacy as such, but to the issue of mating. Different species cannot interbreed; neither can spirits and humans. For some writers and readers, the relation of same-sex lovers is probably of this sort. Clearly, this is a topic that requires further research, with many more examples from a much wider range of traditions.

Romantic Stories and Ethical Restrictions: Incest and Adultery

In considering the ontological version of intensified romance, I could not help but be aware of the similarity to one of the most famous and influential stories in European literature, the story of Oedipus. Though not a romantic plot per se, the story does involve two people being united despite the fact that their union is rigorously forbidden. This is possible because the (familial) identity of one person, Oedipus, has been concealed. Thus no one recognizes that the union is incestuous. When that identity is revealed, the couple is separated. In this case, the results are tragic, with the woman hanging herself and the man blinding himself. Interestingly, as developed by Sophocles (in the fifth century before the common era), the story is not only principally romantic (despite the union of Oedipus and Jocasta), but sacrificial. Specifically, there is a plague in Thebes; it has resulted from Oedipus’s crime of (unknowingly) killing his father, which led to his further crime of (unknowingly) marrying his mother. In other words, in this story, a sin perpetrated by the primary representative of the society (the king) has led to social devastation. The result is the sacrifice of the guilty parties (Jocasta’s death and Oedipus’s blinding). In Oedipus the King, then, a sacrificial structure is integrated with a much more limited romantic structure.

As just noted, the form of identity at issue for Oedipus is familial. Some readers have been confused by this, because the identity issue is not one of humans and animals or spirits. That is right. Indeed, that is the difference between two sorts of intensified romance—the ontological and the ethical. Ontological problems keep people and insects from marrying; ethical restrictions bear rather on incest. Of course, the ontological stories may metaphorically represent moral conflicts—or mere social conflicts. The point here concerns the literal representations.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses (early first century of the common era) presents us with other incestuous romantic narratives. One is the simple story of Byblis, who tries to unite with her brother, but is rejected; weeping, she is transformed into a spring. Another, more interesting story concerns Myrrha and her father. Myrrha falls in love with her father and contrives a way of sleeping with him while concealing her identity. When he learns of her identity, he not only rejects her, but tries to kill her. She flees and is transformed into a tree.  The Byblis story is a simple tale of rejected love. The story of Myrrha, however, includes union with concealed identity, followed by revelation and tragic separation.

One might expect other moral restrictions to enter here as well. An obvious case is adultery. In European literature, works such as Anna Karenina come to mind. In Tolstoy’s novel, for example, we have love between Anna and Vronsky, leading to a partial union, which is concealed from society. Once revealed, inadvertently, by Anna, problems arise. On the other hand, this is not a concealment of identity; Anna does not misrepresent herself as unmarried—either to Vronsky or to the larger world. Rather, it is simply the (illicit) sexual relations that are concealed. Moreover, the revealing of the secret does not lead to the separation of the lovers. There are problems with the cross-cultural manifestation of this structure as well, since possibilities for polygamy or divorce limit the degree to which prior marriage serves as a restriction on the lovers. On the other hand, there are some similarities between the structure we have been examining and such adultery stories as Anna Karenina.

Implications of this Analysis

Clearly, the preceding examples of an ethical romance plot are taken from a single tradition. That may suggest that this specific form of the structure is parochial. However, the Oedipus and Myrrha stories remain cases of a larger sequence that does recur cross-culturally.

Again, the intensified romance is defined by a restriction on the lovers that is not simply a matter of social convention or other social contingency, but of identity bearing on animacy or ethics. In its most prototypical form, the intensified romance proceeds as follows:

  • The lovers are united.
  • However,  there is some (intentional or unintentional) concealment of the ontologically or ethically relevant identities.
  • In connection with this concealment, there is often a warning about the behavior of one or both lovers.
  • A violation of the warning results in the problematic identity being revealed.
  • As a result of this revelation, the lovers are separated.
  • In comic instances of the ontological version, that separation may be overcome when the identity of one lovers is changed.
  • However, the ethical version of this structure does not in general allow for such a comic transformation (e.g., Psyche can be made immortal, but Oedipus cannot be made into the son of someone other than Jocasta).

Faced with the preceding examples, we might wonder why there is such a recurring pattern. “Why” here might refer to the generation of the sequence, just what gives rise to it; this could equally be referred to as “how” the structure is produced. “Why” might also refer to the function of the resulting sequence; this is “why” in the sense of “what for.” Note again that the pattern here is a pattern in stories. It is not a pattern in real life (where people do not marry insects either with or without concealed identity). It is, rather, a pattern in simulation.

The “how” question is relatively easy to answer. Again, we may think of simulation as involving principles with parameters and local variables. The simulation of romantic stories involves some restriction that separates the lovers. Obvious possibilities for such separation would include conventional versus necessary, with the latter category including ontological and ethical cases. Within each category, any given character might or might not know about the restrictions or the identities that trigger such restrictions at any given time. (For example, Oedipus and Jocasta do not know their restriction-triggering identities—son and mother—when they get married.) The stories we have been considering begin with an extreme restriction and vary the timing and extent of relevant knowledge. Typically, the knowledge comes to have social consequences only when it is socially available (as when the man’s society learns about the Jaguar woman’s identity). Usually, the lovers are able to maintain their union when they have the relevant knowledge but society does not, though the story of Myrrha suggests that this may be less true in the ethical cases.

The functional significance of this structure is perhaps less clear. However, there are some obvious possibilities. Specifically, we would expect the function to be either emotional or thematic. Emotionally, this sub-genre of romance provides some degree of novelty relative to the basic (and more realistic) form. In connection with this, it often organizes the trajectory of feeling somewhat differently. Specifically, the basic structure commonly begins with the main characters falling in love and recognizing their reciprocal feelings, but then being separated very quickly. The intensified version often involves the lovers joining together in a regularized union, such as marriage, and maintaining that state for some time before being separated due to the discovery of the concealed identity. Both versions treat love, loss, and (in the full, comic version) reunion. But in the basic version, the love is the feverish love of early romance and the loss is a loss of imagined possibilities. In the intensified version, the love is more likely to include a strong “companionate” element, a sense of bonding that may be less intense but may be more clearly enduring, and the loss is a loss not only of imagined possibilities, but of the ordinariness of regular life and ongoing expectation experienced for, in some cases, years of family life.

For the reasons just mentioned, the loss of the beloved in the intensified version may be more similar to the loss of a spouse in death. This too has emotional consequences. Specifically, in its ontological variant, the structure may suggest bereavement, while allegorizing that bereavement in the (perhaps less distressing) form of the human-spirit romance. I have already noted that there are suggestions of this in Vikramōrvaśīyam. The connection seems clear in other works as well. For example, in Postman to Heaven, the young woman falls in love with a ghost. Her former lover has died and her new beloved is actually a boy in a coma in a hospital. The lovers are separated as human and ghost, until his spirit returns to his body and he is revived from the coma, at which point they meet as mortals. The film repeatedly points toward the loss of a long-term partner by death. But it presents the main lovers’ separation as a matter of an ontological incompatibility which is resolved by the spirit leaving heaven to become a mortal.

These points are related to the thematic purposes of the ontological romance. In the comic version, the thematic operation of the structure involves a suggestion that the losses of death may be overcome—a point with obvious emotional consequences as well. In other words, it suggests that apparently irrecuperable losses might in fact be recuperable, and it does this without drawing our attention to death and separation too directly. Indeed, in some cases, it even serves to reconnect our companionate love with earlier, more romantic feelings. I say “our” here because the reader’s relation to the emotions of the protagonists is often intertwined with his or her own emotional memories (see, for example, Oatley, Passionate, 36, 179, 180). In that way, our empathic response to the lovers is in some degree connected with our own romantic histories.

On the other hand, the intensified romantic story is not always related to long-term attachment and bereavement. For example, the Arawak story has suggestions of death and grief. But it also suggests social divisions that have been rendered more extreme by being assimilated to species differences. There are two obvious thematic purposes of this sort of intensification of difference between the lovers. The first is to present an a fortiori case of romantic love in opposition to social divisions. If the Arawak hunter can live an ideal marriage with an actual jaguar or tiger woman, how much more readily could an Arawak live in marital union with another person who is from a class or other society associated with jaguars or tigers? As I have argued elsewhere (see chapter seven of Understanding Nationalism), romantic stories tend to challenge in-group/out-group divisions, preferring the union of the lovers to the maintenance of social oppositions. The ontological romance may simply extend this inclination.

This critical function of the ontological romance is clearest when the lovers’ initial union is untroubled. In the Arawak story, there is no real problem with the lovers’ life together. In other stories, however, there are difficulties, sometimes intrinsic to the lovers’ identities, as in the difference between mortals and immortals. For example, in Wings of Desire, the lovers can be joined only when the difference between them is overcome, when the angel becomes human. This too suggests that ordinary, social divisions are not absolute. If the difference between humans and spirits may be effaced, if immortal spirits can become humans and humans can become immortal spirits, then surely members of one society can become members of another society. This may simply be a matter of one lover being accepted into the other’s society, or it may involve some more elaborate assimilation into the culture of the latter.

Again, the obvious exception here is ethical, as in the case of incest. Incestuous unions are typically not open to this sort of resolution. Oedipus and Jocasta seem perfectly happy together. Everything appears to be going along well, with the family flourishing, including the children. But the union remains wrong for most readers. Thus, the ethical version does not fit with the most obvious thematic purposes of the ontological version of the intensified romantic structure. That may account for its apparent infrequency, relative to the ontological version, both within European tradition and across cultures. On the other hand, the success of the Oedipus story indicates that this version may be emotionally successful.

Before concluding, it is worth noting that concealed identity operates as a motif that may be used in various narrative contexts. Moreover, it may be taken up in complex and surprising ways in relation to romantic narrative. Particularly striking cases of this sort may be found in Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Specifically, in both cases, one main character sets out to engage in adultery, deceptively seducing a young woman, thus initiating a train of events that is commonly developed in the seduction plot (on the seduction plot, see chapter four of my Affective). However, the lovers meet in circumstances where the identity of the woman is concealed (reminiscent of the meeting between Myrrha and her father). However, in these cases, the concealed identity of one of the lovers does not mean that an apparently legitimate union is illegitimate. It means, rather, that an apparently illegitimate union is legitimate, for in both cases the man’s wife takes the place of the woman he was aiming to seduce. The resulting stories are highly interesting, due to this reversal. But they are problematic because the final union is not based on mutual love and it is therefore difficult for the reader (or audience member) to be entirely pleased by the putatively comic conclusion.

In connection with these final examples, one referee of this essay worried that concealed identity may be a motif produced by the romantic genre, not occurring elsewhere. I should therefore mention that in heroic plots we encounter spies who conceal their identities and heirs to the throne who are unknown to be heirs to the throne; in revenge narratives, we find revengers disguising themselves and killing people whose identity they misconstrue; in criminal investigation narratives, detectives take on disguises and innocent people are sometime mistaken for criminals—and so on, for all genres. Perhaps the most relevant case here is the (already mentioned) seduction story, which is often more appropriately termed a rape story. In this structure, the seducer or rapist often conceals his identity. This is significant to the present study because there are some famous cases in which the rapist is a god and the false identity is that of an animal—as in Zeus’s rape of Leda. This is related to the cases we are considering as the union is “impossible,” in the sense we have been considering. It therefore suggests a similar concern with the violation of putatively necessary social divisions, though in another genre.

Future Research

An obvious topic for research in this area concerns ethical restrictions on lovers and the degree to which the topics of incest and adultery, or other possibly morally objectionable unions, do or do not develop a version of this structure. A parallel point applies to same sex unions and the degree to which the relevant restrictions are presented as ethical, ontological, or merely social and conventional. Instances of these relationships and restrictions are clearly under-represented in the preceding discussions.

On the other hand, research on the incidence and varieties of more unequivocal cases of ontological romance is important as well. Again, we find a range of stories in different traditions in which lovers face a restriction that is not merely conventional or contingent, but in some sense viewed as necessary, either ontologically (in relation to animacy) or morally. Prototypically, the lovers in such stories are united, due to some intentional or inadvertent concealment of identity. But that concealment often renders the union unstable. In connection with this, one of the lovers may be warned not to engage in behavior that will reveal the concealed identity. In a tragic error, however, he or she may do just the wrong thing, precipitating the lovers’ separation. In a comic version, one of the lovers’ status may change, allowing the union, but this is generally restricted to the ontological version. We have evidence that the ontological version of this intensified structure occurs in a range of genetically and areally unrelated traditions. But it is not clear how frequent (or infrequent) the appearance of this structure may be. Further research is also important for assessing the preceding conjectures on the generation of the sub-genre and, even more, its function. The generation of the structure—deriving from the operation of variables in principles governing simulation—seems fairly clear in general. However, the specifics of the variables and the resulting variations on the sub-genre could be further developed and clarified. Moreover, the functions of the intensified romance appear more debatable.

Especially in connection with the last point, the relation of this variant to changes in cultural ideology and historical conditions may be worth investigating. For example, one might wonder if the ontological romance occurs more frequently in periods of extensive inter-cultural contact, where the contact has not become routinized; in other words, one might wonder if a particular degree of interaction with alien societies may not promote stories treating the romantic relations of extremely distant partners. For example, we might ask if the Pu Songling stories owe something to the early Qing dynasty experience of Manchu-Chinese cultural conflict (see Roberts 142), the divisive contact with the West and associated anti-Christian reaction of the time (see Rowe 138-139), and related matters. Similarly, we might consider if Apuleius was affected by the cultural interactions of 2ndCentury Rome, with its extensive empire. Along the same lines, we might inquire into the possible relation between the Arawak tale and European contact. A correlation in this respect might constitute a statistical, implicational universal.

I should note here that I am referring specifically to the ontological version of the intensified romantic structure. Such issues as same-sex desire recur in a range of time periods and cultures presumably because same-sex desire recurs in all time periods and cultures. As one reader of this essay commented, stories of same-sex union (as well as adultery and other sexual behaviors) occur because social rules often relate to categorial identities and these are often in conflict with what I have called “practical identity” (see, for example, Understanding Nationalism 25-37), one’s actual capabilities and propensities. That practical identity may include, for example, same-sex desire. However, the case of ontological romance—and even, for the most part, that of the most extreme cases of ethical romance, such as those involving incest—are different. There is no social issue of people marrying insect spirits or even sons marrying their mothers. These stories are, then, fundamentally a product of simulation. Of course, in the end, our narrative simulations, here and elsewhere, are inseparable from real-world issues of categorial and practical identity, as suggested by the Arawak story’s possible allegorization of social identity conflict—just as our experiences of categorial and practical identity are inseparable from simulation. In this way, the two forms of analysis should ultimately be joined with one another.

Finally, one might wonder about the implications of these observations for other genres. The sacrificial operation of the ethical romance in Oedipus the King might lead us to inquire after the relation of this romantic structure to other genres with which it might be integrated. We might also ask if there are junctural points in those other genres—sacrificial, heroic, family separation and reunion, revenge, seduction, and criminal investigation—that define significant sub-genres, such as we have been considering in the case of romantic stories. More exactly, simulation is not confined to romance, but produces the other genres equally. As such, we would expect to find such complex, sub-generic patterns in those other genres as well. In some cases, such sub-genres will be related to the intensified romance, with its ontological and moral impossibilities. Stories such as the rape of Leda suggest that this may be found in seduction/rape structures. Alternatively, such a violation may serve as a recurring motif. For example, there is an element of this in the story of Mary’s conception of Jesus—part of a sacrificial narrative—with its divine/human union and its image of the paraclete as a dove.

[See also Nigel Fabb, “Comments on Hogan, ‘Impossible Love and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones’” and Geoffrey Russom, “Comments on Hogan, ‘Impossible Love’.”]

Works Cited

Aikhenvald, Alexandra. A Grammar of Tariana. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Understanding Nationalism: On Narrative, Identity, and Cognitive Science. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2009.

Kālidāsa. Theater of Memory: The Plays of Kdlidasa. Ed. Barbara Stoler Miller. Trans. Edwin Gerow, David Gitomer, and Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Lee, Hyung-min, dir. Postman to Heaven. Written by Eriko Kitagawa. Seoul, South Korea: CJ Entertainment, 2009.

“Legend of the White Snake.” Shanghai Daily(26 March 2017). Available at (accessed 21 June 2018).

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. From Honey to Ashes (Introduction to a Science of Mythology: 2). Trans. John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

Li Hao-ku. Chang Boils the Sea. In Six Yüan Plays. Trans. Liu Jung-en. New York: Penguin, 1972, 159-187.

Oatley, Keith. “Meetings of Minds: Dialogue, Sympathy, and Identification, in Reading Fiction.” Poetics26.5 (1999): 439-454.

Oatley, Keith. The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Pu Songling. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Trans. John Minford. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Roberts, J. A. G. A Concise History of China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Roth, Walter. An Inquiry into the Animism and Folk-Lore of the Guiana Indians. Thirtieth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution: 1908-1909. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1915, 103-453.

Rowe, William. China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009.

Wenders, Wim, dir. Wings of Desire. Written by Wim Wenders, Peter Handke, and Richard Reitinger. Berlin, West Germany: Road Movies Filmproduktion, 1987.

Wilson, H. H. “Introduction.” In Vikrama and Urvashi, or The Hero and the Nymph. Trans. H. H. Wilson. Calcutta, India: Society for the Resuscitation of Indian Literature, 1901, i-xii.

Literary Meaning: An Evolutionary Perspective

Joseph Carroll, University of Missouri, Saint Louis

Four Meta-Universals of Literary Meaning

In a persuasive formulation, Meyer Abrams reduces all literary activity to four components: the author, the reader, the world to which a literary work refers, and the work itself (Abrams “Types”). Since the poststructuralist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, much literary theory has consisted in eliminating or de-emphasizing one or another of these components—announcing the death of the author, declaring the impossibility of reference to a world outside the text, dissolving individual texts into circulating streams of cultural energies, or reducing the reader to an uncritical participant within a “community” that passively echoes this or that dominant episteme. Humanist and Darwinist critics have frequently criticized these efforts to develop a theory of literature by discarding some of its parts (Abrams, “Transformation”; Carroll, Evolution; Crews, Postmodern Pooh; Crews, Skeptical Engagements; Storey; Carroll et al., Graphing 1-8; Cain; Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall; Patai). There is no need to go over all that ground again. Instead, in this current essay, I use Abrams’s categories as a starting point for developing evolutionary ideas on universals of literary meaning.

Abrams’s four categories are literary meta-universals: conditions without which no other literary universals could exist. Authors speak to readers; literary works refer to a world shared by authors and readers; and a literary work is the medium through which authors communicate with readers. Those four propositions imply four further aspects of the universal literary situation: (1) intentional meaning (what authors intend to communicate); (2) interpretation (the activity of readers seeking to understand what authors mean); (3) meaning itself (what authors say and how readers respond to what authors say); and (4) the organization of meaning in language (linguistic and literary structure).

Abrams’s meta-universals are couched in the ordinary language of humanist common sense. Correlating these concepts with concepts from evolutionary biology situates them within an established scientific paradigm and confirms their robust validity. Authors and readers are human organisms. The world to which literary works refer is the environment in which those organisms live. Literary works are communicative signals, a form of social interaction that is displayed also by many species that do not have the capacity for articulate language. Abrams’s humanist concepts are not, then, superficial descriptors. They cut nature at its joints.

Abrams’s four categories identify appropriate units of analysis for literary research, but they do not offer causal explanation. The theory of adaptation by means of natural selection is a causal explanation that encompasses a vast network of subsidiary causal explanations. Ethology, the zoological discipline that deals most broadly with behavior, distinguishes four main categories of explanation: phylogeny, ontogeny, mechanism, and adaptive function (Tinbergen). Phylogeny concerns the evolutionary origins of any given behavior. Ontogeny concerns development within a single lifespan. Mechanism refers to the anatomical, physiological, and neurochemical structures that are the proximate causes of behavior. Adaptive function concerns the way any given mechanism has contributed to survival or reproduction, hence to the propagation of genes.

Evolutionary literary study assimilates information and explanatory hypotheses from a wide range of disciplines: primatology and comparative psychology (Chapais, “Social Universals”), cognitive and affective neuroscience (Panksepp and Biven; Decety and Cacioppo), developmental psychology (Konner), evolutionary social psychology (Carroll, “Social Theory”; Graham, Haidt and Nosek), evolutionary anthropology (Low), evolutionary psychology (Buss), and biocultural theory (Henrich; Carroll et al., “Biocultural Theory”). Evolutionary hypotheses about universals of literary meaning should integrate ideas from all these disciplines with ideas from empirically grounded disciplines more closely associated with literary study, for instance, from narrative psychology, affective narratology, the psychology of fiction, and evolutionary literary study (McAdams, “Actor”; Johnson-Laird and Oatley; Oatley, Psychology of Fiction; Tamir et al.; Oatley, Passionate Muse; Hogan, “Story“; Hogan, Authors’ Minds; Hogan, Affective Narratology; Carroll, “Minds”; Boyd; Gottschall Storytelling; Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall; Saunders; Clasen; Jacobs and Willems).

Four Levels of Organization for the Analysis of Literary Meaning

Meaning consists in mental experiences in the minds of authors and readers: perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. From an evolutionary perspective, meaning in literary texts can be analyzed at four distinct levels of organization: (1) universal, pan-human forms of experience; (2) specific cultural configurations that are prompted and constrained by pan-human forms of experience; (3) individual identities of authors, readers, and characters; and (4) structures and qualities that distinguish individual literary works from one another. Each of these levels is itself a universal feature of literary works. All works reflect pan-human forms of behavior and experience; all works are lodged within one or more particular cultural traditions; all works are produced by individual minds and interpreted by other individual minds; and all works display unique, distinctive characteristics. Each level of analysis can yield valuable information. A comprehensive evolutionary critique of meaning in any given literary text would integrate all four levels of analysis.

The Pan-Human Level of Organization

An ongoing effort in evolutionary social science aims at identifying the species-typical characteristics of human nature. Donald Brown’s classic portrait of “The Universal People” in Human Universals (1991) suggests the rich complexity of concepts required to describe a fictional “tribe” that exhibits features of behavior, qualities of experience, and forms of thought that appear in every known culture. Later research has pursued many different aspects of that universal picture, for instance, language, cognition, emotions, mating psychology, parenting, kinship, social dynamics, morality, religion, and the arts. (See Brown, “HUMAN UNIVERSALS.”)

Every species has a distinct, species-typical organization of birth, growth, ways of reproduction, and (if the species is social) social life. In every species, the overarching structure of life consists in a reproductive cycle. The field of biology that analyzes species-typical reproductive cycles is known as “life history theory” (Flatt and Heyland). Research on human life history theory has produced detailed accounts of how human reproductive and social behavior has evolved in adaptive interactions with ecological factors to produce the specifically human organization of the life cycle: altricial birth, extended infant dependency, extended childhood, pair-bonded dual parenting combined with cooperative male coalitions, cooperative child care, bilateral multi-generational kin networks, post-reproductive longevity, and death (Muehlenbein and Flinn; Kaplan, Gurven and Winking; Chapais, “Monogamy”). Life history theory reveals the underlying structure and the adaptive logic behind the rich complexity of behavior exhibited by “The Universal People” (Carroll, “Imaginary  Lives”).

The Cultural Level of Organization

In the past three decades or so, evolutionary cultural theory has gradually gained a firmer purchase on the peculiarly “biocultural” character of the human species (Carroll et al., “Biocultural Theory”). The theory of “gene-culture coevolution” describes the causal interaction of biological characteristics and cultural inventions over the course of human evolutionary history. Major landmarks in gene-culture coevolution include upright walking (freeing the hands), the use of tools, the control of fire (enabling cooked food, a reduced gut, and an expanded brain), the development of cooperative foraging centered on a campsite, the organization of families, the expansion of groups into clans and tribes, the evolution of language, the advent of agriculture and pastoralism, the invention of writing, and the massing of populations in cities. Each of these events has involved reciprocal alterations in the human genome and in the transmission of heritable cultural practices (Lumsden and Wilson; Richerson and Boyd; Henrich; Cochran and Harpending).

Because humans have evolved to be highly cultural, every culture develops distinct beliefs and practices, but all beliefs and practices, no matter how diverse, are informed by universal human motives, passions, and imaginative proclivities. Hence the fact that love poems, family dramas, heroic quests, or stories of revenge are easily intelligible across diverse cultures. Hence also the existence of a recognizable body of “world literature”—a common world heritage produced by translations of works from diverse cultures.

Organization at the Level of Individual Persons

Differences in individual identity include the three categories most often invoked in the cultural theory pervasive in the academic literary establishment: gender, race, and class. Major differences less often registered include distinctions of age and family role, degrees of social connectedness, differences of vocation, differences of religious and political belief, differences in temperament such as exuberance or moodiness, aggressive anger or affectional warmth, and differences in intellectual or imaginative characteristics such as learning, humor, imaginative vigor, aesthetic sensitivity, eloquence, creativity, or talent in some particular art or science (McAdams, Personality Development).

All individual differences are platformed on common, shared features of human experience. Races and classes interbreed. Genders are interdependent. Family members form parts of interdependent social organizations. Specialized vocations are functional units in complex economic systems. Personality differences are grounded in neurophysiological characteristics essential to all normal human functioning. All normally developing people have minds and recognize mental life—beliefs, values, feelings, thoughts—in other individuals.

Meaning can only take place in individual minds, but individual minds are always in interactive relationship with other individual minds. The production of meaning in literature is itself an inherently social activity—an activity of transmission, reception, and response.

Organization at the Level of Individual Literary Works

Human nature—the species-typical organization of human life—offers a wide range of subjects for literary depiction. Authors can choose, for instance, to write about any of the phases of life, from childhood and adolescence to maturity and old age; about any motives or concerns—survival, ambition, self-realization, gender or relations between the sexes, family life, kin relations, or social interactions; or about intellectual, artistic, or spiritual aspirations. Every culture has complex traditions that organize all these features of life, and they also have forms of imaginative culture that contain mythic figures, folk tales, and religious and artistic traditions that present such themes in multifaceted ways. Each culture contains an array of poetic, narrative, dramatic, and rhetorical techniques that can be used to construct literary works. Every individual human being has a unique identity that involves some particular configuration of personality traits, mental aptitudes, networks of family and social relationships, personal experiences, and ideas, beliefs, tastes, and attitudes. When some individual author sits down to compose a literary work, he or she has a virtually unlimited range of variables from which to select, and an unlimited range of possible ways in which to organize those variables.

A Formal Definition of Literature

To give more substance to the concept of literary meaning, we have to have a usable working definition of literature. To produce a definition, we need not suppose that literature is a Platonic absolute and that the purpose of definition is to identify the secret essence of literature. We need only locate literature in a class of human behaviors and distinguish it from other members of that class. (That procedure is the definition of a “formal definition.”) The definition proposed here is that literature is an aesthetically modeled verbal construct that evokes or depicts the subjective quality of human experience. In evoking subjective quality, literature is like the other arts but different from science and from much humanist scholarship. In using words as its specific medium, literature differs from the plastic arts and overlaps with science, philosophy, and history. Like the other arts, and unlike these other disciplines, literature typically concerns itself with the aesthetic aspects of its medium: the formal organization of sensory properties.

This definition implies no necessary boundary between high and low art. The definition is broad enough to take in doggerel verse, stand-up comedy, impromptu dramatic enactments, lyric poems, theatrical works, and narrative fictions of every sort. The definition allows for overlaps with other media—film or opera, for instance, or graphic narratives with verbal captions. It does not stipulate fiction as a necessary or exclusive feature of literature, and it draws no sharp boundary between literary works and the more highly colored forms of rhetoric, philosophical disquisition, biography, or historical narrative. The two limiting features in the definition are the aesthetic modeling of the verbal medium and the evocation or depiction of subjective experience. Presuming that readers provisionally accept the definition here offered, we can say that these limiting features—aesthetic modeling and qualitative subjectivity—are themselves universals of literary meaning. They are integral to the kinds of meaning conveyed in literature, and to the way literature conveys those meanings.

Imaginative Virtual Worlds

Literary authors often give direct expression to their own subjective sensations. Most lyric poets are overtly expressive, and many novelists and short story writers comment explicitly on their feelings about the fictional events they depict. Characters in drama and fiction often express emotions and describe their inner states, and authors of fiction routinely describe and analyze the inmost qualities of sensation and thought in their characters.

All these forms of subjectivity are encompassed within a broader, universal category of subjective sensation in literature: the imaginative virtual world. Every literary work creates an imaginative space shared by the author and reader. The subjective sensation within that shared imaginative space is modulated by universal features of human experience, by beliefs and forms of feeling peculiar to the cultures in which it is created and in which it is read, by the personalities of the author who creates it and the reader who reads it, and by the semantic, affective, and aesthetic properties of the words that are the medium of its existence.

Every individual literary work is imbued with the whole array of attitudes, beliefs, and tastes that make up an author’s world view. Attitudes, beliefs, and tastes within a single mind can of course conflict with one another. When they do, those internal conflicts—tensions, ambiguities, confusions, the feeling of disunion—are themselves distinctive features of the author’s world view. Each individual work is a manifestation of that world view, a fragment of the whole. Each fragment is indelibly stamped by the mind of the person who creates it. In entering imaginatively into a literary work, a reader is entering also into the author’s world view.

The very act of using artistic verbal constructs to create a shared space of imaginative experience is a universal aspect of literary meaning. In entering a shared imaginative space created by intentional verbal constructs, readers implicitly enter into the common human fellowship of imaginative virtual experience. So far as we know, that kind of experience is uniquely human. Independently of any specific quality in any given literary work, that uniquely human fellowship has inherent qualities all its own. It is verbal, imaginative, creative. It points to the world outside itself but organizes itself internally through concepts, images, rhetorical constructions, and tonal patterns. It contains denotative statements but deploys forms of meaning that are fully realized only through the interactions among its conceptual, emotional, and sensory elements. It is a simulacrum but also runs parallel with the real inner world of memories, dreams, and reveries that make up much of our active mental life (Raichle; Kaufman and Gregoire; Buckner, Andrews-Hanna and Schacter; Carroll, “Minds”; Andrews‐Hanna, Smallwood and Spreng).

Authors have a primary determinative force in using words to create an imaginative virtual world. They choose and arrange the words, and they imbue their artifice with their own mental character. Even so, readers are not merely passive recipients of authorial intentions. Every reader has his or her own world view. Each is animated by basic human motives and emotions—for instance, by hunger, thirst, love, and fear. Each reader’s culture endows him or her with beliefs, values, attitudes, and forms of imagination that have descended through generations and are shared by multitudes. Despite these shared aspects of mental life, each reader has a personal identity shaped by a unique combination of genetic endowments and environmental influences.

Readers willingly enter into the imaginative virtual worlds created by authors, but each reader also makes something of his or her own out of what the author gives. However explicit, definite, and unequivocal an author might be, intended meanings necessarily interact with the whole structure of values, beliefs, tastes, and attitudes that make up the reader’s own world view. As Auden says in his elegy for Yeats, “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” Readers do not only assimilate. They respond and judge.

We have empirical evidence that readers respond in broadly similar ways to literary texts. They identify similar meanings in an author’s work, and even their emotional responses display broad similarities (Carroll et al., Graphing). Those similarities are grounded in common, shared aspects of human nature. Humans are broadly similar—anatomically, physiologically, neurologically—but no one person (not even an identical twin) is precisely the same as any other person. The uniqueness of individual identity is itself a human universal. In parallel, the uniqueness of individual response is a universal of literary meaning. It seems safe to say that no reader ever experiences the same work in precisely the same way as any other reader. And indeed, it seems likely that no reader ever reads the same work, or the same line, in quite the same way twice.

Universals of literary meaning include both these contrasting tendencies: broad similarity of recognition and response, and the unique subjective particularity of transient moments of literary experience.

A Framework for Analyzing Meaning in Literature: Theme, Tone, and Form

The broad similarity of humans—the kind of similarity described in Brown’s “Universal People”—makes it possible to construct a set of categories for the impersonal, objective analysis of literary meaning. A common framework of comparison is necessary both for describing the similarities of literary experience and for distinguishing experiences among cultures and individual persons. Some set of common terms is indispensable to any research program that aspires to joining a collective effort in producing cumulative, empirical knowledge (Gottschall, New Humanities; Carroll et al. Graphing).


If a work of literature is an aesthetically modeled verbal construct that evokes or depicts subjective qualities of human experience, a neutral analytic framework for analyzing literary experience would need to take in the constituents of subjective experience and the specifically aesthetic, literary characteristics that evoke or depict that experience. Subjective experience does not take place in a vacuum. In literature, it is invariably set in relation to events and circumstances. Events and circumstances might seem infinitely diverse, but the analysis of human actions can be reasonably delimited by analyzing the species-typical patterns of human life. Specifically human forms of mating, parenting, family organization, social interaction, and imaginative culture can be precisely described (Brown, Human Universals; Muehlenbein and Flinn; Chapais, “Social Universals”; Henrich). Every phase and kind of relationship identified in human life history theory displays its own characteristic motives and concerns. Those motives and concerns can be used as taxonomy of basic themes for literary analysis (Carroll, “Imaginary  Lives”; Carroll, “Minds”).

Adopting one common meaning of the term “themes,” I here designate subject areas as “themes.” (Other theorists use the term “themes” with a different signification.) Major themes include childhood and the struggles of growing up, life in a social group, intergroup conflict, mating, parenting, relations among siblings and other relatives, and the life of the mind (religion, ideology, and the arts).

Emotional Tone

Every subject bears within itself a range of affective potentialities, from joy and fulfillment to rage and despair. Characters depicted in literature experience emotions; authors have emotional responses to depicted events; and readers respond both to depicted events and to authors. This whole range of subjective sensation is traditionally characterized as “tone.”

The subjective quality of experience is best captured in the study of emotions. From an evolutionary perspective, two particular kinds of emotional study seem most useful for the purposes of generating a neutral analytic framework closely allied with evolved motives, phases of life, and species-typical kinds of social relationships: the cross-cultural study of emotional facial expressions, and affective neuroscience. On the basis of cross-cultural research on facial expressions, Paul Ekman identifies seven basic emotions: anger, fear, contempt, disgust, joy, sadness, and surprise. On the basis of neurological research, Jaak Panksepp identifies seven emotional systems that partially overlap with Ekman’s seven basic emotions: seeking, fear, rage, lust, maternal care, grief, and play. Basic emotions and emotion systems like those identified by Ekman and Panksepp are complicated and extended in self-conscious and social emotions such as embarrassment, pride, shame, guilt, remorse, and jealousy (Hogan, Affective Narratology; Oatley, Passionate Muse; Carroll et al., Graphing).


Form in fictional narrative begins with the choice of words and the combinations of words in sentences and larger structures such as stanzas, paragraphs, and scenes. Purely physical properties include sound patterns and rhetorical rhythms, but the purely physical elements of language are always intertwined with semantic content and emotional tone. Images and figures of speech are indirect forms of sensory perception and thus also part of the aesthetic quality of literature. The aesthetic medium that begins in sensory experience in literature extends in imagination up through levels of formal organization that can be “perceived” only indirectly, through decoding time schemes and analyzing perspectival interactions among characters, narrators, implied authors, and implied readers (Carroll, “Minds”).

Since its inception, literary theory has aimed at identifying universal structural features in literary texts. Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end offers a classic example of a purely structural hypothesis. Efforts at creating a universal and universally accepted system of genres have so far met with limited success (Fowler), but there is wide general agreement on the characteristics of a few basic genres such as tragedy, comedy, satire, and heroic quest (Frye; Hogan, “Story”; Carroll, “Literary Meaning”). The forms of narration can be delineated with reference to relations among an implied author, a narrator, characters, and an implied reader (Booth; Carroll, “Minds”). Classifications based on the form of representation—verse, drama, and narrative—are well understood. Most literary critics, regardless of theoretical affiliations, recognize the central role of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism in literary structure (Hogan, “Imagery“).

Attributes of “The Universal People” described by Donald Brown include forms of oral, proto-literary expression: narrative, metaphor, metonomy, onomatopoeia, and poetic meter. The existence of these proto-literary forms in all known cultures points toward underlying pan-human forms of neurological development. Empirical research on the psychology of reading now has techniques and tools, including neuroimaging, that are likely to produce rapid advances, in the near future, on understanding the neurological mechanisms that regulate these processes (Jacobs). Pan-human neurological mechanisms are “natural kinds.” Classifications based on natural kinds offer good prospects for empirical development and for integration with thematic and tonal analysis focused on basic motives and emotions.

Established terms in prosody and narratology can be tested against techniques that allow empirical investigation into the psychology of reading (Jacobs). The ideal, ultimately, would be to ground all purely formal categories in cognitive science and to integrate them with an understanding of themes and emotional tone.

Living in the Imagination

Literature or its oral antecedents are human universals. People in all known cultures tell stories, act out scenes, play imaginatively with language, and use it for evocative, expressive, and aesthetic purposes. The idea of imaginative virtual worlds suggests why humans might have evolved this peculiar, uniquely human form of behavior. The imagination seems to be part of the universal repertory of human adaptive capacities (Abraham; Carroll, “Adaptive Function”; Kaufman and Gregoire; Mithen). Compared to humans, animals of other species are more tightly locked into the sensory present, reacting to stimuli from the environment and deploying a relatively narrow range of species-typical behaviors. All normally developing human beings connect the present with the past and with anticipations of the future, entertain cosmological ideas, evaluate behavior through reference to abstract moral codes, construct autobiographical narratives, and interpret events by comparing them, consciously or not, with stories, myths, and images drawn from their culture. In this sense, all human beings live in the imagination. They occupy a virtual imaginative world. Words are crucially important in constructing those worlds. When the words are organized in aesthetically modeled ways to evoke or depict subjective human experience, we call that literature.

Future Research

The evolutionary social sciences have been gradually moving toward the formation of a true paradigm: a model of the human mind that is comprehensive in scope, grounded in empirically validated causal explanations, and capable of cumulative empirical and theoretical development. Biocultural theory has become widely accepted in principle (Carroll et al., “Survey”), but in much evolutionary thinking, theories of “culture” still focus chiefly on technology, social customs, and markers of tribal identity. From the perspective adopted in this essay, understanding that humans live in the imagination is the last major component needed to construct an adequate basic model of the adapted mind. Several streams of research are now converging on that last major component: neuroimaging research on the brain’s default mode network (also known as “the imagination network”; Kaufman and Gregoire), narrative psychology (McAdams, Personality Development), the psychology of fiction (Oatley, Psychology of Fiction), cognitive and affective literary theory (Boyd; Hogan, Affective Narratology), and evolutionary literary theory (Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall).

The sciences characteristically seek explanations that reduce complex phenomena to basic causal principles, preferably principles that can be quantified. Literary critics characteristically seek to evoke complex imaginative structures in literary works. From the perspective adopted in this essay, a comprehensive research program in literary meaning would extend across a methodological spectrum that is occupied, at one pole, by empirical, quantitative research, and at the other pole, by imaginatively responsive interpretive work. Empirical research on the psychology and neurology of literary experience would be constrained by the need to approximate to the complex imaginative structures evoked in interpretive criticism. Interpretive criticism would be constrained by established scientific knowledge, an ethos of respect for empirical validity, and the logic of causal explanatory reduction. Research at both poles would be lodged within a comprehensive, unified conception of the human mind. That conception would synthesize convergent findings from the whole range of disciplines that take Homo sapiens as their subject matter.


Works Cited

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Auden, W. H., and Edward Mendelson. Collected Poems. New York: Modern Library, 2007.

Booth, Wayne C. “Distance and Point of View: An Essay in Classification.” Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. Eds. Hoffman, Michael J. and Patrick D. Murphy. 2nd ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996. 116-33.

Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Boyd, Brian, Joseph Carroll, and Jonathan Gottschall, eds. Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Brown, Donald E. Human Universals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

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Carroll, Joseph. “The Adaptive Function of the Arts: Alternative Evolutionary Hypotheses.” Telling Stories / Geschichten Erzählen: Literature and Evolution / Literatur Und Evolution. Eds. Gansel, Carsten and Dirk Vanderbeke. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012. 50-63.

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Carroll, Joseph, et al. “Biocultural Theory: The Current State of Knowledge.” Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences 11.1 (2017): 1-15.

Carroll, Joseph, et al. Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

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Chapais, Bernard. “Monogamy, Strongly Bonded Groups, and the Evolution of Human Social Structure.” Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 22.2 (2013): 52-65.

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Clasen, Mathias. Why Horror Seduces. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

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Literary Spatial Patterning

BY: Liz Finnigan, Southern Regional College, Northern Ireland

In this entry I propose a statistical universal (see Hogan “What are Literary Universals?”) about visual spatial patterning within verbal narrative. The universal states that unique sequential patterns of representation can be found in in the literary descriptions for three categories of space: Setting, Place and Person. For example, in the following quotation from Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), the spatial description in the passage is formatted in a particular way; the narrator describes the space closest to her first and progresses to the space further away from her position: “I went to my window, opened it, and looked out. There were the two wings of the BUILDING; there was the GARDEN; there were the SKIRTS OF LOWOOD; there was the hilly HORIZON” (Brontë 72; capitalisation, where necessary, will distinguish patterning throughout).

This pattern emerges when we identify the first noun (building) and track its spatial relationship to all subsequent nouns (garden, skirts of Lowood, horizon). Descriptions of Place deliver a trend that describes the centre of the place then its edge, such as a dining table then a wall. Descriptions of characters, Persons, describe the outline of the person first and then the head/facial area and finally features of the body. They can also stop at the head/facial area.

These patterns are found in particular spatial frames, which I term “topological frames” because they describe the location of objects within a space and their inter-related arrangements relevant to the viewpoint of the narrator/character. Typically atemporal and absent of action, topological frames generally pause the story in order to render the detail of what is being viewed by a character or narrator. In literary texts, we might, all things being equal, expect individual writers to produce spatial representations that are based on stylistic choices which create difference and this also includes the possibility of randomness. Yet, in topological frames the same patterns of spatial relations occur consistently, demonstrating a statistical probability in their favour.

The universal can be stated as follows:

Verbal narrative contains topological frames of description which produce a systematic pattern of spatial representation which is, in turn, determined by their category: Setting, Place or Person.

I further propose that the patterning does not differ between writers, cultural influence and historical trends. In this study, one hundred narrative English language prose texts were examined ranging between the literary periods of Victorianism, Modernism, and Postmodernism. A transparent account of data selection would best describe it as purposive sampling. The corpus of texts was manually scanned to isolate any topological frames and then each of these frames was grouped into one of the three categories which were then further investigated for evidence of patterning. The sample includes non-western prose such as Nigerian, Aboriginal Australian, Chinese, and Japanese texts which, with the exception of one text which was a translation, were all written in English. The identification of these patterns in non-western texts suggests that cultural or stylistic factors may not influence the formation of the patterns. The translated text may also suggest that the patterns are conforming to English language conventions.

Before the patterns were identified, Jane Eyre was purposively sampled due to prior knowledge of the text’s frequent references to landscapes in the hope of understanding the more componential aspects of spatial representation for narrative setting. However, Brontë’s landscapes were soon found to produce a systematic pattern, what I term the progressive pattern because of the proximal to distal trend in its descriptions, and further categories were introduced to test for other patterns – Persons and Place. These two latter categories were determined because of the frequency with which descriptions of characters and rooms appeared within the corpus’s topological frames. Persons and Places are also given the same descriptive treatment as that of Setting. For example, Jane Eyre’s description of St. John Rivers seems to be describing a sculptured space rather than a living, moving organism. He is awarded the same spatial consideration by his narrator as a landscape. But new literary periods were also needed to test against cultural practices, hence the introduction of Modernist texts, all of which were sampled for their canonical standing and focus on one or more spatial categories. For example, the assumption for Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925) was that it would deliver a heavy focus on cities (Setting) and rooms (Place). Canonical postmodernist texts were added for the same purposeful reasons to determine whether they conformed to the patterns despite their frequent dispensing with narrative coherency, for example, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939).

Therefore, the nature of this study’s methodology is more characteristic of narrative itself, in that it begins with a discovery in a single novel from a particular period and the scope of the analysis was broadened to test for cultural influence, or lack thereof. The initial exploration of Jane Eyre can be treated as a pilot study and this informed the subsequent data collection and the process was repeated using other texts. Thus, although there is no rigorous methodology adopted here, and in the strictest sense there cannot be, this study sets out to chart topological frames within a collection of texts in order to test the hypothesis against cultural trends. This is perhaps a first step for a potentially much larger study and my hypothesis could be tested by different methods in the future.


If we examine various examples from the corpus in further detail, we can track the following pattern for the category of Setting:

Consider the following description of a landscape from Jane Eyre:

Leaning over the battlements and looking far down, I surveyed the grounds laid out like a map: the bright and velvet LAWN closely girdling the grey base of the mansion; the FIELD, wide as a park, dotted with its ancient timber; the WOOD, dun and sere, divided by a path, visibly overgrown, greener with moss than the trees were with foliage, the CHURCH at the gates, the ROAD, the tranquil HILLS, all reposing in the autumn day’s SUN. (Brontë 90)

The descriptions of the Setting category are typical of outdoor spaces, frequently landscape views. In the example above from Jane Eyre, the contents of the space are sequenced relative to Jane from proximal to distal, resulting in a progressive pattern. This pattern emerges when we identify the first landmark and track its position to the next: Lawn, Field, Wood, Church, Road, Hills and Sun. The landmarks noted here by Jane’s viewpoint do not, however, represent a fixed typology of spatial objects as any kind of landmark/spatial object can be listed within the frames.

Other texts from the same period also conform to this pattern such as the example below from Austen. Here, there are two separate examples of the same Setting pattern in the same passage which emerge with a change in narrative view:

Sense and Sensibility(1811):

The situation of the HOUSE was good. High HILLS rose immediately behind, and at no great distance on each side; some of which were open downs, the others cultivated and woody. The VILLAGE of Barton was chiefly on these hills, and it formed a pleasant view from the cottage windows. The prospect in front was more extensive; it commanded the whole of the VALLEY, and reached into the COUNTRY beyond. (Austen 23)

Thus, we initially are met with: HOUSE – HILLS BEHIND HOUSE – VILLAGE ON TOP OF HILL. And this is followed by: VALLEY – COUNTRY BEYOND.

Even a text with the complex narrative structure of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) demonstrates the same patterning for Setting:

Who blocksmitt her saft anvil or yelled lep to her PAIL? Was her BANNS never loosened in Adam and Eve’s or were him and her captain-spliced? I heard he dug good tin with his doll, delvan first and        duvlin after, when he raped her home, Sabrine Astore, in a parakeet’s cage…[There are 8 other rivers mentioned in the intervening text here]Who sold you that jackalantern’s tale? Pemmican’s pasty pie! Not a grasshoop to ring her, not an ants grain of ore. In a gabbard he barqued it, the boat of life, from the harbourless IVERNIKAN OKEAN till he spied the loom of his landfall and he loosed two croakers from under his tilt, by the smell of her KELP they made the PIGEON HOUSE. (197)

This sample requires some deciphering in order to see the pattern: this passage describes the moment HCE, the male protagonist, first meets ALP, his female counterpart. Throughout the text, each word is generally a pun on another, although not necessarily from the English language lexicon. The first point of space here “pail” could refer to both a pail of water or The Pale, an Anglo-Norman term for Dublin and its hinterlands. Bann – a river in Northern Ireland is also a marriage band (captain-spliced). However, what is evident is that all the points of space can be said to refer to a body of water – PAIL – RIVER – OCEAN. And, like the other examples, there is this movement from proximal to distal. The pail is swollen to a river and the river washes to the ocean. The pattern is reversed when HCE spots ALP (“till he spied the loom of his landfall”) and the water volume dissipates: IVERNIKAN OCEAN – KELP (only grows in shallow oceans and seas) – PIGEON HOUSE (South Wall entrance to the River Liffey in Dublin).


The patterning also appears for people (here thought of as descriptive spaces) and other types of location such as rooms. Notably, for each of these spaces, the systematicity does not alter but what does change is the type of pattern produced by what I term the spatial set. This term denotes the spatial groupings of objects and locations from the beginning to end of a description, and their relationship to each other. The type of pattern produced in the spatial set is determined by how quickly the description delivers the space from origin to boundary and in which direction it moves.  With the category of Place, such as the indoor space of a room, the description often contains multiple spatial sets because the pattern “alternates” between the centre and the edge of a room, as illustrated below:

It was a large, stately apartment, with PURPLE CHAIRS (CENTRE) and CURTAINS (EDGE), a TURKEY CARPET (CENTRE), WALNUT-PANELLED WALLS, one VAST WINDOW RICH IN STAINED GLASS (EDGE), and a LOFT CEILING (CENTRE) nobly moulded. Mrs. Fairfax was dusting some vases of fine purple spar, which stood on SIDEBOARD (EDGE). (Bronte 88)

In this example we see three spatial sets, each involving a movement from centre to edge:




Place patterning for Victorian texts, as with Jane Eyre above, generally appears in descriptions of rooms. However, in Modernist texts particularly, patterns do occur for outdoor spaces – where the pattern of Setting is expected – but as the characteristically indoor pattern of Place. The city, despite architectural embellishment or functional purpose, is pared down to its skeletal frame – it becomes an indoor space and within it we find the patterning for Place instead of the outdoor patterning for Setting. The city literally oppresses its inhabitants and this physical state of suffocation is often accompanied by a mental counterpart. It seems that despite the social, visual, technological and architectural developments that have occurred from Dickens’ 1860’s to the 1920’s of the Modernist writers, our cognition of these changes remains the same. With Hemingway’s Fiesta, buildings, monuments, narrow streets, etc. occlude, and even obstruct, the natural line of sight, forcing the narrator to move upwards constantly for an organic escape. The enclosure of the city renders the narrators’ perception of this space as proxemically limiting and hence, patterns which we would expect to follow the outdoor progressive trend are forced into the alternating patterns of Place due to the demands on the peri-personal space of each protagonist.

Fiesta (The Sun also Rises):

The taxi went up the hill (CENTRE), passed the lighted square (EDGE), then on into the dark, still climbing (CENTRE), and leveling out onto a dark street behind St Etienne du Mont (EDGE), went smoothly down the asphalt (CENTRE), passed the trees and the standing bus at the Place de la Contrescarpe (EDGE), then turned on to the cobbles (CENTRE) of the Rue Mouffetard. There were lighted bars and late open shops on each side of the street (EDGE). (Hemingway 22)


Descriptions of people form a different pattern; they begin with an outline of the shape, for example, “a large, heavy-set man,” and then move to the facial and head area. However, they do not form the closed alternating pattern that we see with the centre-edge combination in rooms, because what follows once the outline/head is delivered is a third component with two possibilities: the description can either remain with the facial/head area or move to a body part. Thus, it is not random because it never returns to outlining the shape. Instead, the descriptions form an open-ended sub-set of two.  This is evidenced in the two differing sample sets below:

Set 1: Outline-Face/Head-Body

Jane Eyre: “I looked at my pupil, who did not at first appear to notice me: she was quite a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, SLIGHTLY BUILT, with a small featured FACE, and a redundancy of hair falling in curls to her WAIST” (Bronte 85).

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea [1]: “They were true Papuans, men of fine stock, athletic in BUILD, FOREHEAD high and broad, NOSE large but not flat, TEETH white. Their woolly, red–tinted HAIR was in sharp contrast to their BODIES, which were black and glistening like those of Nubians” (Verne 80).

Set 2: Outline-Face/Head only

Crime and Punishment: “Sonya was of small STATURE, about eighteen years old, a THIN but GOOD-LOOKING blonde, with wonderful EYES” (Dostoevsky 221).

And, in Pride and Prejudice: “Lydia was a STOUT, well grown-girl of fifteen, with a fine COMPLEXION and good humoured COUNTENANCE” (Austen 40).


Literary Universals  

To conclude, this study demonstrates that a claim can be made for a statistical universal within certain spatial descriptions in verbal narrative which is determined by the spatial categories of Settings, Places and Persons. Traditionally, descriptive terms in verbal narrative have been associated with cultural and theoretical assumptions and for good reason. For example, the word landscape (a nineteenth century invention [see Hirsch and O’Hanlon]) alludes to all sorts of cultural agency–cultivation, environment, or the picturesque, to name a few. Similarly, the term place can denote either inside or outside, private or public, and each of these also comes with its own set of cultural and historical values. For example, the change in historical attitudes towards domesticity and its relationship to place not only impacts societal and cultural discourse but can also inform new architectural modes of thinking (see Rice). Therefore, conceptions of space, it would appear, are neither a cultural nor a historical constant. Despite this, the epistemological difficulty, and perhaps paradox, posed by this study is that the patterns doprovide evidence of a constant.

Future Research

The most important and immediate area for further research is the testing of a much larger, diverse non-purposive sample randomly selected by a concordancer from a substantial sample of non-English texts. A rigorous retesting of this sample multiple times would be necessary to check for data verification/falsification which may enable the claims made here to go beyond the bounds of theory. This would be a large undertaking but it could be performed in stages, and if corroborated, could potentially inform each literary genre/culture as it proceeds. Alternatively, smaller projects could review non-English language texts, professionally translated, to test for textual interference, research data could be collected from writing experiments, the relationship to sign language could be examined in order to test for differential outcomes. Further work could found within the literary texts, for example, a larger variance of period data could be introduced to test the overall claims made here or different perceptual systems. For example, Austen’s proclivity for matchmaking within her texts and the ubiquitous gossip that follows could test for auditory pattern invariance. It is also hoped that the manual search approach adopted here could influence corpora methodological design towards a more efficient search engine to speed up the process of analysis.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: Norton, 2002.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Plant Three, 2003.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Norton, 2001.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. London: Penguin, 2003.

Finnigan, Liz.  “A Cognitive Approach to Spatial Patterning in Literary Narrative.” Doctoral Thesis, Strathclyde University, Glasgow,  2013.

Hemingway, Ernest. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. London: Arrow, 2004.

Hirsch, Eric and O’ Hanlon, Michael ‘Introduction’ in The Anthropology of Landscape. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake.London: Penguin, 1976.

Rice, Charles. Emergence of the Interior. London: Routledge, 2007

Verne, Jules. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Many Books, 2017. eBook collection

[1]This description continues for a further five lines but remains with the bodies of the islanders. Notably, it switches from the male to female islanders but does not begin a new pattern with the women instead it moves from the bodies of the men to those of the women: “Beneath their pierced, distended earlobes there dangled strings of beads made from bone. Generally these savages were naked. I noted some women among them, dressed from hip to knee in grass skirts held up by belts made of vegetation. Some of the chieftains adorned their necks with crescents and with necklaces made from beads of red and white glass. Armed with bows, arrows, and shields, nearly all of them carried from their shoulders a sort of net, which held those polished stones their slings hurl with such dexterity” (Verne 80).


Literature and Surprise

Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

Theory of Surprise

In this article, I look at ways in which literary texts can cause surprise.  I suggest that there are specific devices which can produce surprise, and also that there are general aspects of literary texts which are continuously mildly surprising.  Surprise can in some cases result in various kinds of arousal, and can have epistemic effects, including the feeling of coming to know something not just new but also profound and perhaps ineffable.  The psychology of surprise is probably a human universal.  The characteristics of literary texts which can produce surprise are also found in many different literatures.

Surprise is a person’s response to a perception which deviates significantly from their expectations, where the perception can be of something external or internal (e.g., a new thought in this sense is counted as a ‘perception’).  There are different psychological theories of surprise, and here I use the approach particularly associated with Reisenzein, Meyer and Schützwohl, who say that ‘surprise is elicited by events that deviate from a schema’.  In this approach, much of what we know is in the form of generalized knowledge, formulated as schemata, which we bring to our perceptions in order to shape them, and to which we match the actual objects, events, and sequences of events which we perceive.  Schemata can also be thought of as types, to which we match these perceived tokens. There has to be some built-in tolerance for variation, such that the tokens do not exactly match the types, and tokenings of the same types are not identical. No cat is the perfect instantiation of a cat and no two cats are identical (in principle, but I return to this).  So, surprise is elicited by events (and sequences of events, and objects) which significantly deviate from a schema. 


The Consequences of Surprise and Their Relevance to Aesthetic Experience

Surprise is a response to something unexpected, and what is unexpected can be dangerous, and so surprise can potentially trigger one of the fight, flight or freeze responses.  David Huron in his study of responses to music in Sweet Anticipationhas explored how these responses, which we share with other animals, are adapted in humans, such that the initial arousal response is managed cortically to moderate its effect, in aesthetic experience. Wassiliwizky and colleagues have also explored similar thrill-generating processes in poetry, as in Housman’s account of how he knows poetry by the arousals in his body, including the hair standing up on his chin, so that poetry can hinder shaving.  Thus, surprise in front of an artwork or work of literature can produce arousals such as chills (goosebumps, frisson etc.), and (based on the work of Efran and Spangler) we can say that tears – another arousal response to aesthetic objects – can be understood in terms of surprise.  (Note that these arousals can arise in other ways, and many surprises do not produce the arousals at all.)  This all suggests that chills and tears in response to literature might be a response to something surprising in the text.  There are other contributing factors, for example empathy can also produce an arousal response which might be combined with a surprise to enhance the response.

Surprise can also produce an epistemic experience.  This is because surprise is a response to something we perceive but that we do not already know.  So, a surprise can always lead to learning, when we change what we know, to fit the new perceptions.  Perhaps in some special cases, the learning-from-surprise can feel as though we have learned something very profound.  This could be what happens in the experience of the sublime, or of the various types of epiphany: they are basically surprises where the epistemic feeling, the feeling of coming to know something new, is enlarged.  In some cases, something profoundly new has in fact been learned; in other cases, it may feel as though this has happened, but it is difficult to verify. Verification may fail if what is known cannot be put into words; that is, it is ineffable.  Here, we may be experiencing an effect of profound knowledge without there being any actual knowledge, in a kind of epistemic illusion.  Ineffability might arise from various sources, as Diana Raffman has shown in her analysis of ineffable experiences of music; but ineffability is also an expected correlate of any surprise.  This is because words for the most part represent schemata (types) rather than particulars (tokens), and surprise arises exactly when we cannot fit a token into an existing type; so, where there is no type there should be no word.  The epistemic effects of surprise can arise from our reading of literary texts, where there may be an experience of knowing something profoundly new, but we may not be able to say what it is.

The epistemic effects of surprise are, I suggest, at the root of various types of ‘strong experience’ including the sublime, the epiphany, and the uncanny.  In my book A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature, I group these various types of experience under the rather noncommital term ‘strong experience’, a term borrowed from Gabrielsson’s account of ‘strong experiences in music’.  These strong experiences have been extensively discussed in the critical and philosophical literature, particularly under the categories of ‘sublime’ and ‘literary epiphany’ (Beja, Nichols, Tigges).  They have also been described in the psychological literature, notably by William James who was interested both in the epistemic (noetic) aspects and in the arousal aspects, and by Freud in his discussion of the uncanny. But, as I discuss in the next section, many more ordinary types of experience can also arise from surprise, triggered by characteristics of literary texts.


Discrepancy in Literary Texts as Triggers of Surprise

If a literary text has some element which deviates significantly from the schema we bring to it, then there may be surprise, and this in turn can bring with it the epistemic and arousal consequences of surprise, producing a powerful experience from the literary text.  The deviation can be in the content: the literary text may represent something, somebody, some place, etc. which is very discrepant relative to the schemata which the reader brings to them. Literary characters can surprise us by behaving in ways which contradict the knowledge which we formulate about them, and our surprise may be enhanced into a more profoundly felt experience if we also empathize with the characters (with empathy enhanced by literary devices).

Surprise can be triggered in narratives, and other texts which have a predictable sequential structure. Here, the predictability allows us to be surprised when the sequence does not follow the expected pattern, for example when an event fails to occur, or unexpectedly occurs, or occurs before or after it is anticipated.  This type of surprise has been extensively studied in the psychology of music, and is a major theme in Huron’s work on how music surprises us and produces the type of strong experience which is a thrill.  Any kind of sequential organization can allow for formal changes, and change is one of the possible sources of surprise.  Smith, in her book on the strong experience of poetic closure suggested that “any terminal modification of form will strengthen closure”.  Formal changes can change processing effort, and sudden changes in processing effort might perhaps be a trigger of strong experience because they are surprising. 

Narratives have a sequential structure but also have a hierarchical structure, which to some extent mimics the hierarchical structure of events as we understand them, where that hierarchical structuring of events is a psychological universal (Radvansky and Zacks, Zwaan et al).  This allows for another kind of discrepancy, when the hierarchical structures of narrative are violated.  Such a violation can involve liminal or transitional parts of a narrative, for example, when the ending of one event overlaps with the beginning of another.  And hierarchies can also be violated by failing to fully contain events, if the large-scale events of the whole narrative interrupt the lower-level events which make it up, rather than fully containing them.  An example of this can be seen in the penultimate chapter of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  Mr Ramsay is “forever suspended in this moment” (Speidel) as he steps from the boat to the land near the end of To the Lighthouse, a moment which Beja identifies as epiphanic. For our purposes the important point is that here the large-scale episode ends when they arrive at the lighthouse, but the component small-scale event of stepping onto the land is interrupted and so never completed in the text. Thus, the hierarchical structure of events are violated and perhaps this violation of event schemata is the trigger of the epiphanic strong experience. Disruptions to hierarchical structure of this kind may be interpreted as discrepant relative to general schemata for events, and so surprising.

Literary texts are often characterized by ‘defamiliarization’ where familiar things are presented in an unfamiliar way: the resemblance is deliberately made odd, such that our perceptions cannot properly be matched to the schemata we bring to the text.  Some specific moment of defamiliarization in a text might be a trigger of sudden surprise which can lead to strong experience. This defamiliarization can come from a gap between the literary representation and what is being represented; of course, all representation involves a gap, but in literary texts our attention is often drawn to this gap, and so to the possibility of perceptions which are schematically discrepant. Metaphor is a good example of this, where what is said has a ‘discrepant’ relation to what is meant, and where what is literally said may be strange or untrue. Kuiken and colleagues, following Ricoeur, say of metaphors that “sublime feeling is embodied in the crossed ontological categories of the text”.

Literary texts can also trigger strong experiences ‘infectiously’ just by describing strong experiences.  There is anecdotal evidence that remembering one’s own strong experience, or reading about someone else’s, can trigger a strong experience, and can be a source of ‘infectious chills’, as Gabrielsson notes.  This is perhaps what happens at the end of Wordsworth’s ‘daffodils’ poem, in which Wordsworth stimulates a strong experience in himself by remembering a strong experience – and perhaps further stimulates one in the reader.  I suggest that this is an example of metacognitive surprise: we are surprised at the very fact of strong experience, and particularly at strong experiences of ordinary things.  Such experiences should not be able to happen; our perception of them may again violate a deeply embedded schema about the nature of experience itself.  (I return to other types of metacognitive surprise in the next section.)  Relative to our schemata for experience, strong experiences are metacognitively perceived as deviant, and hence potentially a trigger for strong experience.


Surprise at the Lack of Variation

I began this article by noting that when we match perceptions to schematic knowledge, we must allow for some variation.  Two tokens of the same type will vary both from each other and from the type itself, and this holds true of objects as well as events and sequences of events.  It is particularly notable that when this is not true, we are surprised.  So, for example, twins are surprising to many (non-twin) people when they see them; they violate an expectation that two tokenings of the same type (e.g., two people) will differ from one another.  And the experience of déjà vu is surprising in part because we do not expect identity between two separate sequences of events.  Dan Sperber, in his discussion of symbolic animals notes that animals can be symbolic when they are very discrepant relative to a classificatory system (as in the animals forbidden as food in Jewish law), but that animals are also symbolic when they are perfect tokenings of their type. Sperber points out that this identity is itself anomalous, and this is the basis of my suggestion here that a lack of variation is itself surprising.  This is a meta-surprise, about experience itself and specifically the relation between perception and schema, and not a surprised triggered just by the object of the perception. 

This (meta-)surprise is possible because, in addition to schemata about objects and events in the world, we also have schemata about our own experience, including schemata about the relation between tokenings in the world and the types (schemata) to which they belong.  I suggest that this is the source of our being surprised by ordinary things when those things are too close to their underlying schemata (or to one another).  I suggest that we have a deeply embedded schema which is a knowledge that things in the world, as tokens, vary both from other tokenings of the same type and from the ideal type of which they are tokens (the underlying schema).  This knowledge of the fact of variation is a basic schema, which has evolved with us as a species.  Other basic schemata include those which underpin our knowledge of the distinction between animate and inanimate things, our knowledge of basic physics such as the knowledge that things fall when we drop them.  Basic schemata are impossible to unlearn, even though they may be wrong in some contexts (or always wrong). For example, a basic schema tells us that objects fall downwards, and even though we know that in gravity-free environments objects can float, this knowledge does not prevent us being surprised by seeing objects floating in gravity-free environments. This is because failure to fall violates a basic schema which cannot be modified even if we consciously know that it is wrong.  These basic schemata are part of what Boyer calls our ‘intuitive ontology’: he argues that religious beliefs involve limited violations of basic schemata, and this gives them their power, presumably by permanently surprising us. 

So, I propose that when we – or characters in Modernist fiction – are surprised by ordinary things, the surprise comes from an inwardly directed perception: that the basic schema which predicts variation is violated by perceived nonvariation. This might arise if an ordinary object is perceived as unique, and thus it is the only instantiation of a schema. In this case, it is identical to its schema, and the basic schema which expresses fundamental principle of variation is violated, producing surprise. A person is a unique entity in this sense: as a token, they are identical to their schema.  The epiphany (or moment of vision) at the end of Mrs Dalloway is triggered by Clarissa Dalloway, and as Zhang notes, the language of the text directly points to the world (with a proper noun, and a pronoun), thus expressing the nonschematic and unique nature of the individual.   Kenneth Clark cites the painter Graham Sutherland who on his walks finds that “objects which he has passed a hundred times – a root, a thorn bush, a dead tree – will suddenly detach themselves and demand a separate existence”: here it is the uniqueness of the object which triggers the experience.  Detachment of the object may involve its perception as lacking (Gibsonian) affordances, such that it is seen as having an existence only in and for itself; this fits with James’s view of mystical experience (a type of strong experience) where “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance”.  Another way in which an object can be seen as unique is if it is perceived with a high degree of granularity; this incidentally should also produce a type of ‘nuance ineffability’, Raffman’s term for when our perceptions are more granular than the schemata and so words which we can match them to.  Another possibility is that the object is perceived as a perfect instantiation of its schema: Sperber argues that perfect animals are odd in precisely this way, which makes them suitable for sacrifice in the temple.

The basic schema which predicts variation is also violated by the perception of doubles or multiples, since these are entities in the world which are perceived as identical to one another.  Doubles and multiples should trigger metacognitive surprise at this violation of a basic schema, and this surprise might turn into the experience of the sublime as a response to multiples (Mendelssohn), or to the uncanny as a response to doubles (Freud). 

If a lack of variation is surprising, then literary texts, in many cultures, should be surprising.  In their content, literary texts tend to regularize and simplify what they represent, relative to the real-world equivalents.  Narratives are simpler than real-world sequences of events, more bounded, more sparse, and with causation more simply expressed. Fictional characters are sparser in their characteristics and interconnections than real people, thus giving them greater regularity relative to types.  It is particularly worth noting that the greater regularity in the language of literary texts, relative to ordinary language, means that the language of literary texts can fall below the degree of variation which we expect from language in general: this points towards a violation of the basic schema of variation.  This consistent violation, at a low level, might also produce a continuous mild surprise.

Parallelism, which Jakobson thought was the basis of the poetic function, is a greater regularity imposed on language, as are the other types of regular form: metre, alliteration and rhyme.  In fact, one way of thinking about what is distinctively ‘literary’ about literary language is that relative to ordinary language it is more regulated, the syntax can be different (particularly in poetry), and its vocabulary can be different.  Literary language can be thought of as resembling ordinary language but with a reduced degree of variation, and I have previously argued (in ‘Why is verse poetry?’) that literary language might sometimes be a copy of language rather than an instance of language.  Literary language might thus be perceived as schematically discrepant when matched to schemata for language itself.  It is worth asking at this point whether we can become habituated to literary language, such that we no longer perceive it as discrepant, but I think not: no amount of habituation to literary language will ever make us forget about ordinary language, or reduce the distance between literary and ordinary language.

Similar points might be made about other aesthetic practices, which include forms which resemble but are not quite the same as practices in the real world.  All representative forms only partially resemble what they represent, and in principle can be perceived as discrepant relative to what they represent. Music is a more regular kind of sound; singing is not quite like speaking; theatrical performance is not quite like real behaviour; dancing resembles but is not the same as running and jumping, and so on.  In these ways all the aesthetic practices, as well as literature, demonstrate a constant but low-level schematic discrepancy.  This might stimulate a constant but low level of surprise, which in turn might be part of our general aesthetic experience, characterised by the effects of surprise, both epistemic and arousal.   


Is ’Surprise’ Too Simple a Way to Approach These Problems?

The approach I take to this range of problems is to treat all of them as starting from the same psychological event, the event of surprise.   Surprise is here treated as the response to perceptions (including thoughts) of objects, events, sequences of events which significantly differ from what we expect, where our expectations are based on our general, schematic knowledge.  Thus, surprise is responsible for: the effects of various literary devices, the aesthetic experience of general aspects of literary form, profound experiences such as the sublime and epiphany, and physical responses such as chills and tears.  In some cases there are other general psychological processes at play, including emotions and empathy, all of which may contribute to and modulate the experience of the event.  All of these are ordinary human psychological events, with experiential and epistemic components, but none of them are treated a distinctive category of psychological event.  The different names and categorizations of these events come primarily from culture, not from psychology.  In other words, there is no special theory here; this is a minimalist approach which starts from common and ordinary psychological events and states, and suggests that in the right arrangement of circumstances, the event has particular manifestations and feels special.  The term which I use for experiences such as the sublime, epiphany and the uncanny, along with thrills is ‘strong experience’, and this is a term of convenience which is both deliberately neutral and not understood as a separate type of experience: it is just ordinary experience, in a ‘strong’ form, where the strength manifests as the powerful epistemic experience, or as a bodily arousal.   This is a strength in the approach, in that it seeks to explain a wide range of experience, including aesthetic experience, using only what is already in the ordinary psychological toolbox.

The weakness in this approach is that it leaves many aspects of any individual experience unexplained: why does it happen now to this person and with this degree of strength of epistemic effect and this arousal?  Why should ordinary surprise be inflated into something rarer and more profound in certain circumstances?  But this is a weakness in explanation which may be unresolvable. Even for well-studied issues such as the triggering of chills in experimental subjects by musical or textual features, we know that there is a great deal of variation in response, which tells us that there will always be contextual or circumstantial factors which shape why certain experiences arise. 


Future Research

One direction of research would be to extend the experimental work on the triggering of thrills by specific aspects of texts, and to test whether these can be understood in terms of surprise.  This has been done extensively for music, and to some extent also on poetry, and it could be productively extended to literature more generally.  Experimental work on how thrill responses are caused is relatively straightforward, and is a proxy for the almost impossible task of doing experimental work on the more epistemically oriented and very rare experiences of the sublime, epiphanies or uncanny. However, even these rare and epistemically significant kinds of experience might be the subject of experimental work along the lines of research on religious and mystical experience as described for example by McNamara.

This project assumes some basic aspects of human psychology, involving the psychology of surprise and why it happens, the schematic organization of knowledge, and the universality of basic schemata—these should be true of all humans.  In the previous section I suggested that the experiences of the sublime and of epiphany might be manifestations of this experience of surprise; these are strongly evidenced in post-18th century Western literature.  But are they universally found?   An indication of what is possible comes from Dalton’s account of the sublime in Rawa culture of Papua New Guinea, or from Morphy’s account of the aesthetic power of brilliance in Yolngu culture in Northern Australia.


Works Cited

Beja, Morris. Epiphany in The Modern Novel. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1971.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Clark, Kenneth. “Moments of Vision.” In Kenneth Clark, Moments of Vision. London: John Murray, 1981, 1-17.

Dalton, Douglas M. “The Aesthetic of the Sublime: An Interpretation of Rawa Shell Valuable Symbolism.”  American Ethnologist 23. 2 (1996): 393–415.  

Efran, Jay S. and Timothy J. Spangler. “Why Grown-Ups Cry: A Two-Factor Theory and Evidence from the Miracle Worker.” Motivation and Emotion 3 (1979): 63–72.

Huron, David. Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2006.

Fabb, Nigel “Why is verse poetry?” PN Review 189 (2009): 36, 52–57.

Fabb, Nigel. A Theory of Thrills, Sublime and Epiphany in Literature. London: Anthem Press, 2022.

Foster, Meadhbh I. and Mark T. Keane. “Why Some Surprises are more Surprising than Others: Surprise as a Metacognitive Sense of Explanatory Difficulty.” Cognitive Psychology 81 (2015): 74-116.

Freud, Sigmund. The “Uncanny.” Translated by Alix Strachey. First Published in Imago, Bd. V. 1919; Reprinted in Sammlung, Fünfte Folge.

Gabrielsson, Alf. Strong Experiences with Music: Music Is Much More Than Just Music. Translated by Rod Bradbury. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

James, William. “What Is an Emotion?” Mind 9.34 (1884): 188-205.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Edited with an Introduction by Martin E. Marty. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Housman, Alfred E. The Name and Nature of Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933.

Huron, David. Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Jakobson, Roman. “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics”. In Style in Language. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1960, 350-377.

Kuiken, Don, Paul Campbell, and Paul Sopčák. “The Experiencing Questionnaire: Locating Exceptional Reading Moments.” Scientific Study of Literature 2.2 (2012): 243-272.

McNamara, Patrick. The Neuroscience of Religious Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2009.

Mendelssohn, Moses. Philosophical Writings. Ed. Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Meyer, Wulf-Uwe, Rainer Reisenzein, and Achim Schützwohl. “Toward a Process Analysis of Emotions: The Case of Surprise.” Motivation and Emotion. 21:3 (1997): 251-274.

Morphy, Howard.  “From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power Among the Yolngu.” Man New Series, 24.1 (1989): 21-40.

Nichols, Ashton. Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Moment. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987.

Radvansky, Gabriel A. and Jeffrey M. Zacks. eds. Event Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press.  2014.

Raffman, Diana. Language, Music and Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: The Creation of Meaning in Language. London: Routledge, 1977.

Sperber, Dan. “Why Are Perfect Animals, Hybrids, and Monsters Food for Symbolic Thought?” Method and Theory in The Study of Religion. 8.2 (1996): 143-169.

Tigges, Wim, ed. Moments of Moment: Aspects of the Literary Epiphany. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.

Wassiliwizky, Eugen, Thomas Jacobsen, Jan Heinrich, Manuel Schneiderbauer, and Winfried Menninghaus. “Tears Falling on Goosebumps: Co-Occurrence of Emotional Lacrimation and Emotional Piloerection Indicates a Psychophysiological Climax in Emotional Arousal.” Frontiers in Psychology 8.41 (2017): 1-15.

Woolf, Virginia. “Moments of Vision.” In The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Andrew McNeillie. 1987. Volume II. 1912-1918. London: The Hogarth Press, 250-252.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway London: Penguin. 1969.

Woolf, Virginia.  To the Lighthouse. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006.

Zhang, Dora. “Naming the Indescribable: Woolf, Russell, James and the Limits of Description.” New Literary History, 45.1 (2014): 51-70.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Zwaan, Rolf A., Mark C. Langston, and Arthur C. Graesser. “The Construction of Situation Models in Narrative Comprehension: An Event-Indexing Model.” Psychological Science 6.5 (1995): 292-297.







Metaphor Universals in Literature

Zoltán Kövecses, Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary

In the paper, I will be concerned with the issue of metaphor universals in poetry only – leaving aside the genre of the novel, for example (but see Hogan, The Mind). This decision is the result of practical considerations, rather than any theoretical reasons. Within the framework of conceptual metaphor theory, a lot more work has been done on poetry than on the novel, probably mostly because a pioneering study on metaphor by Lakoff and Turner (More than Cool Reason) also focused on poetry.

By metaphor I mean conceptual metaphor, which consists of a set of systematic mappings between two domains of experience (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By). One domain, which is typically more abstract, is called the target domain, and the other, which is typically more concrete or physical, is called the source domain. The more concrete domain is used to understand the more abstract one. A conceptual metaphor can have a variety of different manifestations in various modalities, including, most importantly for the present purposes, linguistic manifestations. In other words, a distinction is made between metaphor as a conceptual pattern (given structure by the mappings) and the linguistic manifestations (or examples) of this conceptual pattern (for overviews, see, e.g., Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory”; Kövecses, Metaphor).

Metaphor Universals and Universal Metaphors

We should make a distinction between metaphor universals and universal metaphors. The notion of metaphor universals is more general than that of universal metaphors. Metaphor universals can be conceived of as any metaphor-related phenomenon, including universal metaphors. For example, one metaphor universal is the use of metaphors by poets. Probably, there is no poetry without the use of metaphors in some form. It is an interesting question why this should be the case. The answer favored by cognitive linguists would most probably be that typical topics of poetry, such as love, freedom, beauty, history, time, life, honor, nature, suffering, and so on, all invite metaphoric conceptualization, as they are highly abstract concepts that make excellent target domains in conceptual metaphors.

Universal metaphors, on the other hand, are the conceptual metaphors that are used universally, near-universally or potentially universally. Conceptual metaphors such as love is fire, time is motion, or life is a journey are potential universal conceptual metaphors in everyday linguistic usage, but also in literature, as poetry in many unrelated languages around the world shows.

The Cognitive-Linguistic Study of Conceptual Metaphors in Poetry

The study of conceptual metaphors in cognitive linguistics began with Lakoff and Turner’s book, More than Cool Reason. Lakoff and Turner made two very important claims concerning conceptual metaphors in poetry. First, they showed that poets share with everyday people most of the conceptual metaphors they use in poetry. The reason for this is that the conceptual metaphors such as the ones mentioned above are based on shared bodily experiences – for non-poets and poets alike. (More about this later.) Second, Lakoff and Turner suggested that metaphorical creativity in poetry is the result of four common conceptual devices that poets use in manipulating otherwise shared conceptual metaphors. These include the devices of elaboration, extension, questioning, and combining. In other words, according to Lakoff and Turner, the conceptual metaphors will be (nearly) the same, but the linguistic manifestations reflecting the effects of these devices will (or can) be (somewhat) different in everyday and poetic forms of language.

However, others have shown that these four cognitive devices, or strategies, exist not only in poetic language but also in more ordinary forms of language use, such as journalism (see, e.g., Jackendoff and Aaron, Review Article; Semino, Metaphor in Discourse). Thus, on this basis alone, it is not possible to distinguish poetic from non-poetic metaphor. Moreover, in accounting for poetic metaphors, Turner proposed that in many cases poetry (and literature in general) makes use of what he and Fauconnier call “blends,” in which various elements from two or more domains, or frames, can be conceptually fused, or integrated (see, e.g., Turner, The Literary Mind; Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think).

Although many conceptual metaphors are shared by poets and non-poets, many are clearly not. These are metaphors that are not based on universal bodily experiences but on certain creative analogies between a source and a target domain set up either by lay people or poets. In these cases, we have certain resemblances between a source and a target. While the dominant trend in the cognitive linguistic study of metaphor is to deal with metaphors where the source and target are related by some correlation in experience, analogical relations between a source and a target build on similarities, or resemblances, of various sorts (real, physical similarities, generic-level similarities, imagined similarities, etc.). They range from simple to complex. Below is a simple one that comes from William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills…

A more complex example is from Shakespeare’s King John. The king says the following to a messenger whose face reveals that he has some bad news to tell him:

So foul a sky clears not without a storm.
Pour down thy weather.

We can spell out the similarities in this example as a set of mappings between the scene of an imminent rainstorm and the scene of a messenger just about to deliver a message to the king:

the appearance of the sky ⇒ the appearance of the messenger’s face
the imminent storm ⇒ the bad message likely to be delivered
the rain ⇒ the act of telling the bad news

We can take similarity-based metaphors (i.e., analogies or similes) as a special case of conceptual metaphors (besides correlation-based ones). Needless to say, such potential similarities can be used to create a huge number of cases in metaphorical expression that are anything but universal.

Metaphorical Universality and Non-Universality in Poetry

Given the rough sketch of conceptual metaphors above, it seems that certain poetic metaphors (those that are correlation-based) are (potentially) universal at the conceptual level but non-universal at the linguistic one. According to the “standard” account of conceptual metaphors (see, e.g., Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By; Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory”), conceptual metaphors are based on fundamental bodily experiences (i.e., correlations in experience). It is this basic bodily experience that may potentially lead to universal conceptual metaphors in poetry.

A more refined version of this idea in cognitive linguistics can be found in the theory of “primary metaphors” (see Grady; Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh). On this view, there are correlations between certain sensorimotor and subjective, abstract experiences, such as between destinations and purposes, body heat and emotion, verticality and amount, and so on. The repeated experience of such correlations results in primary metaphors that are, at least potentially, universal, including purposes are destinations, intimacy is closeness, emotion is heat, more is up. The primary metaphors constitute the basis for complex or compound conceptual metaphors such as life is a journey and love is a unity. For example, purposes are destinations is one primary metaphor that, in part, conceptually constitutes life is a journey, intimacy is closeness is one that, in part, constitutes love is a unity, and emotion is heat is one that, in part, constitutes anger is a hot fluid in a container. As a result, these pairs of primary and compound metaphors are potentially universal. Indeed, the anger is a hot fluid and the anger is heat conceptual metaphors are found in dozens of genetically unrelated and spatially and culturally independent languages, such as English, Chinese, and Hungarian (see, e.g., Yu, A Perspective from Chinese; Kövecses, Metaphor and Emotion, Metaphor in Culture, Metaphor). It would not be surprising to find linguistic metaphors based on these and other similar body-based conceptual metaphors in the poetry of these and other languages. As an example, let us take a poem by Anne Bradstreet, a 17th-century American poet, who in her poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband” wrote:

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If man were loved by wife, then thee

The first line is a straightforward linguistic illustration of the conceptual metaphor love is a unity (of two complementary parts) (see Kövecses, The Language of Love). It is very likely that the unity metaphor for love can be found in the poetry of many languages and cultures around the world.

While the view briefly described above provides an elegant and coherent account of universality in everyday and poetic metaphors, it does not pay sufficient attention to the many cases of non-universality. Non-universality in metaphor is complementary to universality; one assumes the other. Since we already provided an answer to the question of what makes some conceptual metaphors universal, we can take this as our point of departure in attempting to answer the next question: What makes some other conceptual metaphors non-universal? Or putting the question differently: Where does non-universality in everyday and poetic metaphorical thought come from?

In recent years, I suggested that it is necessary to make certain adjustments to the standard theory of conceptual metaphors in order to be able to answer this question (see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture, for some initial ideas). The adjustments concern the role of context in the creation of novel metaphors (both conceptual and linguistic), on the one hand (see Kövecses, Where Metaphors Come From), and the various degrees of schematicity of conceptual metaphors (and their linguistic expressions), on the other (see Kövecses, “Levels of Metaphor”). We can term the resulting conception a contextualist and multi-level view of conceptual metaphors.

Both adjustments concern, in part, the issue of why conceptual and linguistic metaphors diverge from the universal patterns suggested above. They point to two major forms of deviation from universality. First, the insistence on the role of context helps us account for the kind of metaphor variation that derives from individual and group differences in human experience. And second, the multi-level view can explain the divergences in the use of metaphor resulting from individual and group differences in how higher-level conceptual metaphors are elaborated by lower-level ones. Actually, the two processes are related: various contextual factors can trigger particular elaborations of higher-level conceptual metaphors. This interaction will be demonstrated below.

Since deviations from universality occur on a large scale, we should not consider the issue of universality to be the main focus of metaphor research, as is often the case by cognitive linguists. As was noted above, universality and variation complement and assume each other. In conceptual metaphor theory, we should pay just as much attention to variation as to universality (see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture), since variation is pervasive in the use of metaphor. This, I suggest, is due, to a large extent, to the role that context plays in metaphorical conceptualization – both in everyday usage and poetry.

How Context Shapes Metaphorical Conceptualization

Based on my findings (Kövecses, Where Metaphors Come From), I suggest that there are a variety of contextual factors (to be discussed below) that prime speakers when they use metaphors in communicative situations. The contextual factors belong to several context types: situational context, discourse context, conceptual-cognitive context, and bodily context. These types of context each come in two forms: local context and global context, as shown in Figure 1 below. The local context involves the specific knowledge conceptualizers have about some aspect of the immediate communicative situation. By contrast, the global context consists of the conceptualizers’ general knowledge concerning their community. It involves knowledge shared by an entire community of speakers / conceptualizers. The distinction is mostly of theoretical nature. In many actual communicative situations, there is no sharp dividing line between the local and the global context. The Figure below presents the four major context types as four sections of a circle and their division into local context (as the inner circle) and global context (as the outer circle). The box in the middle represents a particular act of metaphorical conceptualization in context. The contextual factors subsumed under the context types are not given in the Figure. They are discussed in the text following Figure 1.

Figure 1: Summary of Types of Context (Concentric circles represent global and local context; quadrants represent situational, discourse, bodily, and conceptual-cognitive contexts for a given metaphor.)

The four types of context can be briefly described in the following way.

Situational Context

The situational context comprises a variety of different contextual factors. Most commonly this type of context can be thought of as including the physical environment and the social-cultural situation. The physical environment includes the flora, the fauna, the landscape, the temperature, the weather, perceptual properties of the situation, and so on. For example, it is a common observation that American English metaphors relating to the physical environment are characteristically different from those of other English-speaking countries (see, e.g., Kövecses, American English). The small-scale, local environment, such as the visible events in or the perceptual properties of a situation, can also make its influence felt in shaping metaphors. The social-cultural situation consists of social aspects of life that typically center around notions such as gender, class, politeness, work, education, social organizations, social structure, art and entertainment, and others. All of these can play a role in metaphorical conceptualization. For example, Kolodny (The Lay of the Land, The Land Before Her) shows that American men and women developed very different metaphorical images for what they conceived of as the frontier in America. While the women commonly thought of the American frontier as a “garden to be cultivated,” men conceptualized it as “virgin land to be taken.” (For several other examples, see Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture.)

As an example of how the immediate physical situation as part of the physical context can prompt, or prime, a poet to use a particular conceptual metaphor, consider the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. In the first stanza, we get a glimpse of what the physical context consists of:

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits,- on the French coast, the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

The speaker (poet) is looking out to the sea from inside a house and can see a variety of things. One of them is that “The tide is full.” In the last stanza, however, he can see the tide “retreating” with a “withdrawing roar,” exposing the bottom of the sea:

The sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

At this point Arnold introduces the conceptual metaphor (christian) faith is the sea (“The sea of Faith”) in a special way. As the sea retreats, it leaves the bottom of sea exposed, and, in the same way, human beings become unprotected by Christian faith that once protected them. It is fairly safe to assume that what induced, or primed, the poet to use this conceptual metaphor in this particular way was the sight before him: the physical event of the ebb and flow of the sea, that is, a contextual factor belonging to what was called the situational context.

Discourse Context

The discourse context involves the immediate linguistic context (i.e., cotext), the previous discourses on the same topic, and the dominant forms of discourse related to a particular subject matter. We’ll look at an example for the linguistic context below. The metaphors in one discourse can also derive from previous discourses on the same topic. This can take a variety of forms ranging from elaborating, extending, questioning, negating, reflecting on, ridiculing, to otherwise taking advantage of a metaphor previously introduced. For example, an MP in the British Parliament responded to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair who said he does not have a reverse gear (i.e., he can only go forward – basing the statement on the progress is motion forward metaphor) with the reply: “but when you’re on the edge of a cliff it is good to have a reverse gear” (example taken from Semino). This was a humorous twist induced by the prior discourse on the progress is motion forward conceptual metaphor. The dominant forms of discourse and intertextuality can also influence the production of metaphors. Since certain forms of discourse can acquire dominant status in a community, the metaphors used in or based on this discourse can become widespread both temporally (historically) and spatially (cross-culturally). For example, the discourse of Christianity commonly gives rise to the use of metaphors in the Christian world.

To see how the immediate linguistic context can produce metaphors in poetic discourse, let us turn to Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Medusa.” Here are some relevant lines:

Off that landspit of stony mouth-plugs,
Eyes rolled by white sticks,
Ears cupping the sea’s incoherences,
You house your unnerving head—God-ball,
Lens of mercies,

Your stooges
Plying their wild cells in my keel’s shadow,
Pushing by like hearts,
Red stigmata at the very center,
Riding the rip tide to the nearest point of

Dragging their Jesus hair.
Did I escape, I wonder?

In the world of the poem, Sylvia Plath addresses her mother as Medusa. In Greek mythology, Medusa is a gorgon with snakes for her hair, who turns people who look at her to stone. As the lines quoted above suggest, the poet is trying to escape from the harmful influence of the mother. (This can be seen most clearly in the line “Did I escape, I wonder?”). What is remarkable here is that, to convey this, the poet makes use of the other sense of medusa: the “jellyfish” sense (“Your stooges / Plying their wild cells in my keel’s shadow”). She’s trying to get away from an overbearing mother, and the mother is portrayed analogically as jellyfish. Schools of jellyfish move about in the sea, and jellyfish stings can inflict pain and even death in humans. Thus, it can be suggested that the “jellyfish” meaning of medusa is used by the poet because the mythological Medusa was introduced early on in the poem (in the title) to begin with. This is one kind of linguistic context – the close relationship between two senses of a word, that is, their polysemy. The word form medusa evokes all the knowledge structures associated with it (given as the two senses of the word), and the poet is taking advantage of them, as they analogically fit the nature of the relationship with her mother.

Bodily Context

A particular state or condition of the body can produce particular metaphorical conceptualizations in specific cases, such as a poet’s or writer’s illness. I call this the bodily context. People’s bodily specificities can influence which metaphors they use. Casasanto (“Embodiment of abstract concepts”) found that left-handers prefer to use the moral is left, as opposed to the moral is right conceptual metaphor. Such metaphors contrast with the metaphors that evolve on the basis of the general properties of the human body (i.e., the correlation-based primary metaphors). Given the capacity of body specificities to prime metaphorical conceptualization, we can take the body as a further type of context[1]. Thus, the body is not only responsible for the production of hundreds of conceptual metaphors through the many correlations in subjective and sensorimotor experience (cf. Grady; Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh), but it can also prime the use of particular metaphors in more immediate, local contexts (see, e.g, Gibbs; Gibbs and Colston; Boroditsky; Boroditsky and Ramscar).

The idea that the general physical, biological, mental, emotional, etc. condition, or situation, of a poet can influence the way a poet writes poetry is well known and is often taken into account in the appreciation of poetry. Dickinson is a well-studied case, as discussed by several authors, among them, James Guthrie. Guthrie has this to say on the issue:

… I propose to concentrate on the fact of illness itself as a governing factor in Dickinson’s development as a poet. We are already accustomed to thinking about ways in which illness or deformity modulate the registers of expression we hear while reading Milton, Keats, Emily Bronte, Lord Byron. For Dickinson, illness was a formative experience as well, one which shaped her entire poetic methodology from perception to inscription and which very likely shook the foundations of her faith. Reading Dickinson’s poems in the full knowledge and belief that, while writing them, she was suffering acutely from a seemingly irremediable illness renders many of them recuperable as almost diaristic records of a rather ordinary person’s courageous struggle against profound adversity. (Guthrie, Emily Dickinson: 4-5)

Elsewhere, I showed how Dickinson’s (unconscious) choice of metaphors may have been influenced by her optical illness (see Kövecses, “A New View”, Where Metaphors Come From).

Conceptual-Cognitive Context

The conceptual-cognitive context includes the metaphorical conceptual system at large, knowledge about the elements of discourse, ideology, knowledge about past events, interests and concerns. In the metaphorical conceptual system, many concepts (sources and targets) stand in a metaphorical relationship with one another (e.g., life is a journey, argument is war) in long-term memory. Given such metaphorical relationships between concepts (such as between, say, life and journey), their presence or absence in the metaphorical conceptual system may function as a precondition for the production and comprehension of particular metaphors. A metaphorical conceptual system can function as context in this sense. Furthermore, conceptualizers often rely on their knowledge concerning the main elements of a discourse: the speaker, hearer, and the topic. Ideology can also be a formative factor in how metaphors are used in discourse. One’s ideology concerning major social and political issues may govern the choice of metaphors (as work by, for instance, Goatly, Washing the Brain, shows). A good example of this is George Lakoff’s (Moral Politics) study of American politics, where conservatives tend to use the nation is a strict father family metaphor, while liberals prefer the nation is a nurturant parent family version of the generic metaphor the nation is a family. Knowledge about past events (i.e., items in short-term and long-term memory) shared by the conceptualizers may also lead to the emergence of specific metaphors in discourse. For instance, it has often been observed that the memory of historical events can lead to the production (and comprehension) of some metaphors (see, e.g., Deignan, “Metaphorical expressions”; Kövecses, Metaphor in Culture).

Consider the life is a journey metaphor. It can be found in the poetry of many authors, epochs, and traditions. One of these many outstanding poets is Dante, who uses it in his “Divine Comedy”:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

(In the middle of life’s road
I found myself in a dark wood,)

Another is Robert Frost in his poem “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The two uses of the life is a journey metaphor are of course not the same. Employing Lakoff and Turner’s terminology, we can say that although the two poets share the same conceptual metaphor, the metaphor is extended differently by Dante and Frost. And the extensions result in different manifestations of the conceptual metaphor: loss of goals in life by the former and making choices in life by the latter.

Elaborations of Higher Level Conceptual Metaphors

Lakoff and Turner (More than Cool) had in mind the kind of elaboration in the previous two examples where the concept of journey is realized lexically in two ways: in one, there is journey through a dark wood and one, where the road of the journey includes a fork that requires a choice. But there is another way of thinking about elaboration. In it, conceptual metaphors may be related to one another at a variety of different levels of schematicity (see Kövecses, “Levels of metaphor”). I suggested that we need to distinguish at least four levels of schematicity in conceptual metaphors: the level of image schemas, that of domains, that of frames, and that of mental spaces.

An example is provided by the American poet Karl Sandburg. Consider the first stanza of the poem called “Skyscraper”:

BY day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and
has a soul.
Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into
it and they mingle among its twenty floors and are
poured out again back to the streets, prairies and
It is the men and women, boys and girls so poured in and
out all day that give the building a soul of dreams
and thoughts and memories.
(Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care
for the building or speak its name or ask a policeman
the way to it?)

The metaphoric-metonymic use of the skyscraper is clearly prompted by the situational (more precisely, physical-cultural) context. The poem was written in 1916 in Chicago, and it was at the turn of the 20th century that skyscrapers began to be built on a large scale in major American cities, including Chicago.

But what is more important in the present connection is that the conceptual metaphor on which the image of the skyscraper is based is that of society is a building and that this conceptual metaphor is part of a schematicity hierarchy. At the level of image schemas, we conceptualize complex abstract systems (such as societies) as complex physical objects. At the domain level, societies are conceptualized as buildings and the creation of a society as the physical creation of a building. The latter is the main focus of the metaphor in the poem. At the frame level, the idea of creation is elaborated as construction, which results in the conceptualization of the construction of a society as the construction (i.e., building) of a building (with tools and ingredients). Finally, at the mental spaces level, the building of a new American society is conceptualized as building a skyscraper (with hammers and crowbars and spikes and girders).

Clearly, this is a progression from the most schematic to the least schematic (or most specific) level of conceptualization (or, the other way around, from the most specific to the most schematic level). Thus, we get a set of conceptual metaphors in a schematicity hierarchy of conceptual metaphors:

Level of Image schema:
Complex abstract systems are complex physical objects

Level of Domain:
Society is a building; the creation of a society is the physical creation of a building

Level of Frame:
The construction of a society is the building of a building (with tools and ingredients)

Level of Mental spaces:
Building a new American society is building a skyscraper (with hammers and crowbars and spikes and girders)

This is a schematicity hierarchy that, moving downward, ends in the concept of building a skyscraper. The two highest levels, those of image schemas and domains, may be universal (or at least widespread) in cultures when it comes to the metaphorical conceptualization of societies. But the frame level, and especially the lowest mental spaces level are fairly culture- and even individual-specific. Sandburg captures the idea of building a new American society through the idea of building a skyscraper. At this level of conceptual metaphor, other poets may diverge widely (though using the same conceptual metaphors at the higher levels), depending on a large number of contextual factors (such as the physical environment). In other words, we can conclude on the basis of this example that elaborations of high-level conceptual metaphors may contribute to metaphor variation in poetry as well. Metaphors that may be universal or widespread at higher levels of schematicity may turn into something that is specific to particular poetic traditions or to individual poets.


Are there any metaphor universals in literature? I could not answer this question in the paper because I focused attention on poetry alone. As regards poetry, we can conclude from the foregoing that metaphor is a near-universal feature of poetry (in that most poetry operates with metaphor), or, as Hogan puts it in “What Are Literary Universals?,” a “statistical universal.”

A second metaphor universal in poetry (but possibly also in much of literature in general) is that the metaphors are conceptual metaphors expressed by certain linguistic manifestations. The conceptual metaphors emerge either from universal bodily experiences (correlation metaphors) or from resemblances of various sorts (analogies).

Third, the (unconscious) selection of the metaphors used by poets can be influenced by the various types of context: situational, discourse, bodily, and conceptual-cognitive.

Fourth, the metaphors occur on various levels of schematicity. Four such levels have been distinguished: the level of image schemas, domains, frames, and mental spaces. While this may be a universal feature of poetry, the actual elaboration of higher level metaphors at the most specific level of schematicity (i.e., mental spaces) may produce metaphor variation.

Fifth, the conceptual metaphors that are based on universal correlations in experience are potentially universal; they are present in the poetry of certain unrelated languages/cultures, but not in that of all languages/cultures (i.e., they are not absolute universals). At the same time, the conceptual metaphors based on resemblance tend to be highly variable cross-linguistically.

The issue of metaphor universals goes hand in hand with the issue of metaphor variation. The former often assumes the latter and the latter often assumes the former; they complement each other.

First, metaphor variation is produced essentially by three forces: divergences in the resemblances observed, contextual influence, and different elaborations of higher level metaphors.

Second, even universal metaphors can vary from culture to culture or individual to individual. This is because the universal metaphors may undergo differential contextual influence and because the universal metaphors may be elaborated in different ways. How they are elaborated may also be the result of contextual influence.

Third, metaphor universality is often a matter of the level of schematicity. Higher levels tend to be more universal than lower ones.

Fourth, differences in the kinds of analogies drawn (i.e., divergences in similarities observed) is probably the most obvious and most common source and form of variation.

Finally, it appears that the discussion of metaphor universals and variation in the paper does not allow us to distinguish the use of metaphor in poetry from its use in everyday language. All the metaphor-related processes mentioned above apply to both poetry and everyday language. It seems that the basis for any distinction should be sought elsewhere. It may well be that the proper basis for such a distinction can only be the degree of creativity (novelty), complexity, and density of metaphor (Kövecses, “A New View”). Metaphorical universality and variation are general properties of the human mind, regardless of the domain (everyday vs. poetic) in which metaphors are used.

Future Research

As regards future work in the study of metaphor universals in literature, several things can and should be done. First, researchers should propose accounts of metaphor universality and variation in other genres of literature, including the novel. We should find out whether the view of metaphorical universality and variation as presented in this paper is a viable option for the other genres. Second, a huge amount of work awaits us to collect, analyze, and compare data concerning metaphor universality and variation in diverse languages and cultures around the world. We can propose reasonable hypotheses in this regard on the basis of the CMT approach. Third, and probably most relevantly to literary scholars, we need to figure out whether the findings about metaphor universality and variation as discussed here can contribute useful ideas to literary scholarship in the interpretation of poetry (and other genres). My hope is that the study of metaphor universality and variation along the lines suggested in the paper can enrich accounts of interpretation. At the very least, I hope that the approach I described is not incompatible with certain ways of accounting for poetic meaning, as the comment on the present paper seems to indicate.

[See also Kathleen Hart, “Comment on ‘Zoltán Kövecses, ‘Metaphor Universals in Literature.'”]

Works Cited

Boroditsky, Lera. “Does Language Shape Thought? Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conception of Time.” Cognitive Psychology 43 (2001): 1−22.

Boroditsky, Lera and Michael Ramscar. “The Roles of Body and Mind in Abstract Thought.” Psychological Science 13.2 (2002): 185-189.

Casasanto, Daniel. “Embodiment of Abstract Concepts: Good and Bad in Right and Left Handers.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 138.3 (2009): 351–367.

Deignan, Alice. “Metaphorical expressions and culture: An indirect link.” Metaphor and Symbol 18.4 (2003): 255–271.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. The Way We Think. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Gibbs, Raymond W. Embodiment and Cognitive Science. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Gibbs, Raymond W. and Herbert Colston. Interpreting Figurative Meaning. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Goatly, Andrew. Washing the Brain. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2007.

Grady, Joseph. “Theories are buildings Revisited.” Cognitive Linguistics 8 (1997): 267-290.

Guthrie, James R. Emily Dickinson’s Vision. Illness and Identity in her Poetry. Gainesville, FL: The University Press of Florida, 1998.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and its Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Jackendoff, Ray and David Aaron. Review Article: More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Language 67.2 (1991): 320–328.

Kolodny, Annette. The Land Before Her. Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land. Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Kövecses, Zoltán. American English. An introduction. Petersburg, Canada: Broadview Press, 2000.

Kövecses, Zoltán. The Language of Love. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1988.

Kövecses, Zoltán. “Levels of Metaphor.” Cognitive Linguistics 28.2 (2017): 321-347.

Kövecses, Zoltán. Metaphor. A Practical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford  University Press, 2002/2010.

Kövecses, Zoltán. Metaphor in Culture. Universality and Variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Kövecses, Zoltán. “A New Look at Metaphorical Creativity in Cognitive Linguistics.” Cognitive Linguistics, 2010.

Kövecses, Zoltán. Where Metaphors Come From. Reconsidering Context in Metaphor. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Lakoff, George. “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor.” In Metaphor and Thought. Ed. A. Ortony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 202-251.

Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Lakoff, George and Mark Turner. More Than Cool Reason. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Semino, Elena. Metaphor in Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.



[1] At a meta-level of analysis, it can of course be suggested that assigning different values to left and right is a universal. But the analysis I conduct here is not at the meta-level. At the same time, I recognize the possibility of legitimately identifying universals in this particular case, as well as in other cases mentioned in the paper.

Phonetic Symbolism: Double-Edgedness and Aspect-Switching

Reuven Tsur, Tel Aviv University and Chen Gafni, Bar-Ilan University

This article proposes a structuralist-cognitive approach to phonetic symbolism that conceives of it as of a flexible process of feature abstraction, combination, and comparison.[1] It is opposed to an approach that treats phonetic symbolism as “fixed relationships” between sound and meaning. We conceive of speech sounds as of bundles of acoustic, articulatory and phonological features that may generate a wide range of, sometimes conflicting, perceptual qualities. Different relevant qualities of a given speech sound are selected by the meaning across lexical items and poetic contexts. Importantly, speech sounds can suggest only elementary percepts, not complex meanings or emotions. Associations of speech sounds with specific meanings are achieved by extraction of abstract features from the speech sounds. These features, in turn, can be combined and contrasted with abstract features extracted from other sensory and mental objects (e.g. images, emotions). The potential of speech sounds to generate multiple perceptual qualities is termed double-edgedness, and we assume that the cognitive mechanism allowing us to attend to various aspects of the same speech sound is Wittgenstein’s aspect-switching.

We discuss examples of phonetic symbolism in poetry, lexical items across languages, and laboratory experiments, and show how they can be accounted for in a unified way by our cognitive theory. Moreover, our theory can accommodate conflicting findings reported in the literature, e.g. regarding the emotional qualities associated with plosive and nasal consonants.  Crucially, the theory is scalable and can account for general trends in poetry and lexical semantics, as well as more local poetic effects. Thus, the proposed theory can generate predictions that are testable both in laboratory experiments and in formal literary analysis.



Many current studies in phonetic symbolism begin with a list of recent works on phonetic iconicity, that allegedly challenge de Saussure’s arbitrariness conception of the linguistic sign, followed by a series of experiments that establish a statistical relationship between phonemes (or groups of phonemes) and meanings or emotional qualities. In these works iconicity is assumed to be somehow given; very few of them go systematically into the structural relationship between the phonemes and the meaning or emotional qualities. In this practice, we strongly disagree with them on three issues.

First, we argue that literary phonetic symbolism does not challenge the arbitrariness hypothesis, but rather confirms it: sound-symbolic effects are attributed to verbal constructs after the event. Second, we believe that research based on stimulus–response questionnaires is, in itself, unsatisfactory. A cognitive approach should include a hypothesis, based on cognitive and linguistic research, to account for the structures in our mind that mediate between stimulus and response. Third, many of those stimulus–response studies take it for granted that rigorous quantitative analysis is the only valid way to evaluate empirical data. Furthermore, many such studies are interested only in global, gross effects (e.g. whether the frequencies of certain phoneme groups alone can account for the perception of poems as ‘happy’ or ‘sad’). We have pointed out a welter of incongruent statistical results in phonetic symbolism (Tsur & Gafni, forthcoming). The confusion in this domain originates in the neglect of a systematic theoretical framework. This neglect may manifest, among other things, in failure to treat sound–meaning relationships at a sufficiently fine-grained level, insufficient awareness of the complexity of the subject matter, as well as confusion whether sound-symbolic effects are motivated by acoustic, articulatory or phonological aspects of speech sounds.

The aim of this article is to present a comprehensive theoretical and analytic approach to sound–emotion relationships in poetry. At the basis of our investigation are earlier works by Benjamin Hrushovski (“interaction view”; 1980) and Iván Fónagy (“Communication in Poetry”; 1961), followed by Tsur’s work in the nineteen-eighties. Both Hrushovski and Fónagy revealed, by different methods, important relationships between speech sounds and their perceived effects.

In a structuralist theoretical discussion of sound–meaning relationships in poetry, Hrushovski explored the complexity of the subject, pointing out sources of complexity, of which we shall discuss here only one: what we call the “double-edgedness” of sibilants: that in some contexts they may express noise of varying intensity, in some — a hushing quality. Alternatively, they may be “neutral”, not related to “meaning” or attitudes at all. Consider the following excerpts:


  1. When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

       I summon up remembrance of things past,

       I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought

       And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste

       (Shakespeare, “Sonnet 30”)


  1. And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

       Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

       So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,

       “‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —

       Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —

       This it is and nothing more.”

       (E.A. Poe, “The Raven”)


  1. [ . . ] the deep sea swell

       [ .. .] A current under sea

       Picked his bones in whispers,

       (T. S. Eliot, “The Wasteland,” IV)


  1. And swell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

(T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”)


In Excerpt 1, the sibilants have a hushing quality; in Excerpt 2, they imitate the rustling of the curtains. In Excerpt 3 “there is a transition from the powerful noise of a sea swell to the sound of whispers”. In Excerpt 4, in the “patterning of sibilants hardly a trace of either sound or silence remains” (Hrushovski, 1980: 41). Hrushovski (following Kreuzer, 1955) takes it for granted that in Excerpt 1 the sibilants have a hushing effect. Intuitively this seems right. He also argues that this hushing quality focuses the sound pattern on the meaning of the words “sweet silent”. But he does not explain what it is in the sibilants that invests them with this hushing quality. We shall explore, on a more fine-grained level, how they can express such opposite qualities.

In his “Communication in Poetry”, Fónagy examined the relative frequency of phonemes in six especially tender poems and six especially aggressive poems by four poets in three languages (Hungarian, German and French). Most phonemes occur with the same frequency as in general; but the nasals and liquid [m, n, l] occur more frequently in the tender poems in all three languages, whereas the voiceless plosives [k, t] occur more frequently in the aggressive poems. [r] is aggressive in Hungarian and to some extent in German, but not in French. His method is used today frequently in research, but Fónagy’s use differs from the more recent uses in several respects. Most importantly, he did not assume some rigid iconic relationships between specific speech sounds and emotions where one may predict the emotional quality of the poem from the recurring speech sounds, as some present-day researchers do (e.g. Auracher, Albers, Zhai, Gareeva, & Stavniychuk, 2011). Rather, he probed into the possibility that there may be some significant correlation between pairs of opposite emotional qualities and pairs of opposite phonemes (or groups of phonemes). This was a ground-breaking idea at his time. He did not regard his findings as the “inmost, natural similarity association between sound and meaning” (Jakobson & Waugh, 2002: 182), but as possible examples for a principle.

Tsur, in his earlier works (e.g. Tsur, 1992), went one step further beyond Hrushovski’s and Fónagy’s works. For instance, Hrushovski defines expressive sound patternsas follows: “a certain tone or expressive quality abstracted from the sounds or sound combinations is perceived to represent a certain mood or tone abstracted from the domain of meaning”. Tsur asked the question, how can “a certain tone or expressive quality [be] abstracted from sounds or sound combinations”. In his answers, he relied on distinctive features, and on speech research done mainly at the Haskins Laboratories. The present article provides the answers to such questions as part of a comprehensive theory.


Cognitive Theory

Structural Model of Speech Sounds

In this article, we shall point out the complexity of phonetic symbolism at several levels, and propose a cognitive mechanism that may handle it. The basis for our theoretical account is a structural model of speech sounds: we assume that speech sounds are bundles of features, on the acoustic, articulatory and phonological levels, and that the various features may have different expressive potentials. Thus, we claim that the various phenomena related to phonetic symbolism result from the way speech sounds are coded and organized in our mental database. Here, we focus on the features of consonants.

Consonants can be abrupt: plosives (p, t, k, b, d, g) or affricates (as ts [in tsar), dž [in John or George], or pf [in German pfuj]); or, they may be continuous, as nasals (m, n), liquids (l, r), glides (w [as in wield], or y [as in yield]); or fricatives (f, v, s, š [as in shield]).[2] Continuous sounds may be periodic (nasals, liquids, glides) or aperiodic (fricatives). In periodic sounds, the same wave form is repeated indefinitely, while aperiodic sounds consist of streams of irregular sound stimuli. Consonants can be unvoiced or voiced. All nasals, liquids and glides are voiced by default. Voiced plosives, fricatives and affricates (e.g. b, v, ž, and dž) consist, acoustically, of their unvoiced counterpart plus a stream of periodic voicing. These are objective descriptions of the consonants; all language-users have strong intuitions about them, but frequently they cannot put their finger on precisely what is the object of their intuition.

The structural model described above organises consonants in our mental database in terms of acoustic features. We believe that it is the acoustic level that best accounts for the emotional and imitative aspects of sound-symbolic effects (see also: Aryani, Conrad, Schmidtke, & Jacobs, 2018; Knoeferle, Li, Maggioni, & Spence, 2017; Marks, 1975; Ohtake & Haryu, 2013; Ultan, 1978). Accordingly, we will use this organisation to account for evidence in the study of phonetic symbolism. Note that the proposed model relies on categorical acoustics features (e.g. abrupt/continuous). However, some studies explain phonetic symbolism in terms of continuous acoustic features, such as pitch and intensity (Aryani et al., 2018; Knoeferle et al., 2017). Here we assume a categorical acoustic theory of phonetic symbolism, but keep in mind that a continuous theory of phonetic symbolism can be perfectly consistent with ours.

We should note that there are additional theories of phonetic symbolism (see review in Dingemanse, Blasi, Lupyan, Christiansen, & Monaghan, 2015). Like the above-mentioned acoustic theories, articulatory theories of phonetic symbolism assume that there is an iconic relation between sound and meaning. However, while acoustic theories assume a direct mapping of acoustic features, articulatory theories assume that iconicity stems from articulatory sensations, such as the size of the oral cavity (A. Fischer, 1999). Finally, phonological-distributional theories attribute phonetic symbolism to systematicity. According to such theories, phonological regularities in the lexicon cue non-arbitrary mappings between sound and meaning, e.g. different distributions of consonants in nouns and verbs (Monaghan, Christiansen, & Chater, 2007). Importantly, symbolic relations resulting from statistical regularities in the lexicon are language-specific (and, in a sense, arbitrary), although some of them can be grounded in perception or articulation. According to our conception, phonetic symbolism is triggered by acoustic features, articulatory features, and phonological regularities, in descending order of importance.


The Expressive Potential of Speech Sounds: Double-Edgedness and Aspect-Switching

The structure of speech sounds determines their expressive potentials. Just a few hints: Periodic consonants are more like music, aperiodic consonants more like inarticulate noise; this difference affects their expressive potentials, smooth or rough to some extent or other. This can explain why some studies found that “tender emotions” or their hyponyms are best expressed by periodic consonants. In gestaltist terms, plosives have sharply-defined boundaries, and are perceived as less penetrable and “harder” than continuants. At the same time, they consist of energy transmitted outward as a shockwave, and so forth. Thus, they have various perceptual potentials: in changing contexts, listeners may switch between passive hardness and active shockwaves. Voiced stops are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosive plus voicing, that is periodic. In the perceived quality of voiced plosives, the voicing stream may add resonance to the plosive element, or a more massive presence. Thus, in empirical tests, participants may give at least two systematically different responses to plosives in general, and additional two systematically different responses to voiced plosives.

One of the main questions in the study of phonetic symbolism is how the same speech sounds give rise to fundamentally different effects. We attribute this flexible affective potential of speech sounds to what we call double-edgedness[3]: speech sounds have multiple features, each having its own expressive potential. In any given context, the expressive potential of one feature can be emphasized at the expense of the potentials associated with the other features. The cognitive mechanism to handle changing sound effects and relationships, we claim, is Wittgenstein’s (1976) aspect-switching.[4] According to Wittgenstein, aspect-switching is the capability of understanding the request “pronounce the word ‘till’ and mean it as a verb or a preposition, or the word ‘March’ and mean it as a month name or an imperative verb” (1976: 214e). In the present context, aspect-switching is the capability of attending to different features of the same phones. Here we will demonstrate the notions of double-edgedness and aspect-switching in relation to two classes of speech sounds: voiced plosives and voiceless fricatives ([f] and the sibilants ([s] and [š]).[5]

We have argued that voiced plosives are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosion plus voicing, that is continuous and periodic; consequently, they are double-edged. In the perceived quality of voiced plosives, the voicing stream may add resonance to the plosive element or a more massive presence. In physical terms, we define ‘resonant’ as ‘tending to reinforce or prolong sounds, especially by synchronous vibration; full-bodied, vibrant’; in phonetic terms, as ‘where intense precategorical auditory information lingers in short-term memory’. In the ‘tender’ context, the voiced stops [d] and [g] seem to have a fuller, richer, more resonant, more rounded body. The ‘tender’ context seems to increase the share of the periodic ‘voiced’ feature in them. By contrast, in the ‘angry’ context, they are perceived as more compact and abrupt unitary speech sound.

Hrushovski points out that sibilants may both induce a hushing psychological atmosphere, or may imitate noises of varying intensity. How can sibilants express hushing or noise? We claim that the double-edgedness of sibilants is related to different aspects of the same noises. Sibilants are continuous but not periodic, a stream of irregular noises. We propose to point out three different perceptual potentials in this structure: it is perceived as fluid, as fricative (rough) or as unpredictable (and as such, threatening). The tender or hushing quality of [s, š] may have to do with their fluidity aspect. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines ‘fluid’ as “having particles that easily move and change their relative position without a separation of the mass; capable of flowing; subject to change or movement; characterized by a smooth easy style”. This physical description of liquid substances (e.g. hot pitch) draws attention to two apparently contradicting aspects: their smoothly-moving overall mass and their particles that are easily moving and relatively changing their position. This is a convenient metaphor for the contradictory effects of the voiceless sibilants (and of [f]). Language users switch between these two aspects, according to the context. When a mother hushes her baby by sounding a prolonged [š], they both attend to the smoothly-moving mass of the fluid ššššš.

The “noisy” quality of voiceless sibilants and [f] is likely related to their fricative (or aperiodic) aspect. “Fricative” denotes a type of consonant made by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow. In “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”, listeners attend to the randomly changing particles of the fricatives, imitating noise. Thus, different meanings may foreground a smooth or a turbulent aspect of fricatives.


Encodedness of Speech Sounds and Modes of Speech Perception

So far, we seemed to have taken for granted that speech sounds have expressive potential and that listeners are able to switch between different potentials. Yet, we have not explained how these expressive potentials are perceived and how they are related to the primary use of speech sounds – conveying lexical meaning. In short, we claim that the two functions of speech sounds are related to different modes of auditory perception. Liberman and his colleagues (e.g. Liberman & Mattingly, 1985) distinguish between the speech mode and the non-speech mode. In the auditory, or non-speech mode, we hear, as in the sonar, the sound shape as shown by the machine. In the phonetic, or speech mode, listeners hear speech sounds categorically, i.e. as unitary phonemes. In this mode, speech sounds are typically encoded: the precategorical acoustic information that transmits the speech sounds is restructured into an abstract phonetic category and excluded from consciousness. Tsur (1992) assumes that there is a third, poetic mode of speech perception. In the “poetic” mode, some of the precategorical sound information reaches awareness from behind the unitary linguistic category. We claim that attending to this precategorical auditory information is what enables listeners to attribute emotional effects to speech sounds independently of semantic effects. Moreover, we claim that whether precategorical auditory information can reach awareness depends on the degree of encodedness of speech sounds.

Consonants are encoded to varying degrees, that is to say, in some consonants one may consciously perceive only a hard and fast category, not the precategorical auditory information that transmitted it. Voiceless plosives are “thoroughly encoded”, that is, no precategorical acoustic information reaches awareness (hence compact, tight, and solid in perception). Voiced plosives are also highly encoded. For example, if you ask “which one is acoustically higher, [ba], [da], or [ga]”, most people will answer that they don’t know what you are talking about.

However, in some consonants, some of the precategorical auditory information does reach awareness. If you ask which one is higher [s] or [š] most people will easily answer that [s] is higher. This is because some of the precategorical sound information does reach awareness from behind the unitary speech category. In other words, voiceless sibilants are less encoded than plosives. In sibilant continuants, more of the rich precategorical information is available than in most of the consonants, and is more apt to draw attention than in nasals or glides, for instance. This may explain how very different perceptual qualities can be associated with voiceless sibilants.

The foregoing discussion on encodedness can benefit from an interesting analogy from personality psychology. Psychologists of perception-and-personality put forward a series of personality dichotomies, such as levelers and sharpeners, or rigid and flexible: one pole tends to be more rigid, the other more flexible. Persons at the rigid pole tend to be intolerant of meaningless sense perceptions, as the following paragraph by Richard Ohmann may indicate:

The leveler is more anxious to categorize sensations and less willing to give up a category once he has established it. Red is red, and there’s an end on’t. He levels (suppresses) differences and emphasizes similarities in the interest of perceptual stability. For him the unique, unclassifiable sensation is particularly offensive, while the sharpener at least tolerates such anomalies, and may actually seek out ambiguity and variability of classification. (Ohmann, 1970: 231)

Briefly, categories afford greater perceptual stability; readiness to abandon oneself to unique, unclassifiable sensations suggests greater emotional receptiveness. Tender attitudes are characterized by openness to rich sensory information; rigid attitudes tend to cling to abstract categories. Going back to the double-edgedness of sibilants: as opposed to the rigid linguistic category, the stream of rich precategorical auditory information available in [š] has a flexible, soothing effect, and babies seem to be sensitive to it.[6] Thus, the tender or hushing quality of [s, š] may have to do with their fluidity aspect, treated as unique, unclassifiable sensations in the stream of rich precategorical auditory information. The “noisy” quality of these sibilants springs from the aperiodic nature of the very same sensory information, a stream of irregular noises; we are switching from one aspect to another of the auditory stream.


Phonetic Symbolism in the Lexicon and in Poetry

In this section, we will demonstrate how our cognitive model can account for cases of phonetic symbolism found in the lexicons of various languages and in literary pieces.


Phonetic Symbolism in the Lexicon

The claim Tsur has elaborated in his 1992 book (Tsur, 1992)[7] is that in different contexts, different potentials of the various features of the same sounds may be realized. Thus, for instance, the sibilants [s] and [š] may have at some level of description features with noisy potentials, as well as features with hushing potentials. Evidence for these opposite potentials can be found cross-linguistically in lexical items related to both silence and noise. In such lexical items, the meaning picks out the appropriate meaning potential from a number of meaning potentials of its speech sounds. For example, in English, ‘silence’, ‘hush’, ‘still’, but also ‘rustle’, ‘shout’ and ‘scream’ contain sibilants; the German words for silence are Stille and Schweigen; in Hebrew, two words for silence contain sibilants, šɛkɛt, has; in Japanese, Shizukesa means something like ‘calmness’, ‘tranquillity’ or ‘stillness’; in Chinese, sùjìng means ‘silence, solemnly silent, peaceful’, while shāshā and shēng mean ‘rustle’. In Hungarian, the word for silence is csend, beginning with the affricate [tš], csitt! means ‘whisht!’, kuss! means ‘shut up!’, ‘zaj’, ‘nesz’ mean noise, the verbs suhog, susogzörg mean ‘rustle’, and pisszen in negative sentences suggests ‘slightest noise’ (‘does not make even the slightest noise’).


Literary Phonetic Symbolism

As we said in the introduction, many scholars take phonetic symbolism as counter evidence for the arbitrariness of the relation between sound and meaning. Our approach to the question of arbitrariness can be exemplified by the first line of Excerpt 2, repeated here.


  1. And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

       Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;

       So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,

       “‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —

       Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —

       This it is and nothing more.”

       (E.A. Poe, “The Raven”)


The word “rustling” involves onomatopoeia proper. In the string “silken, sad, uncertain”, the alliterating speech sounds are arbitrary; only after the event they become non-arbitrary icons of the noise. It is only the unforeseeable combinations of symbolic language that afford the generation of this sound effect. It does not challenge de Saussure’s “arbitrariness” conception, but rather, supports it. Yet, even in literary phonetic symbolism, it is not the case that “anything goes”. In the next paragraph, we will apply the proposed cognitive theory to account for what may seem like arbitrary use of phonetic symbolism in poetry.

The double-edgedness of voiced plosives can explain one of Fónagy’s most intriguing findings regarding the relative frequency of /g/ and /d/ in Victor Hugo’s and Paul Verlaine’s poems. /g/ occurs over one and a half times more frequently in Verlaine’s tender poems than in his angry ones (1.63:1.07), whereas we find almost the reverse proportion in Hugo’s poems: 0.96% in his tender poems, and 1.35% in his angry ones. As to /d/, again, the same sound has opposite emotional tendencies for the two poets, but with reverse effects. For Verlaine it has a basically aggressive quality (7.93:10.11), whereas for Hugo it has a basically tender quality (7.09:5.76) – again, in almost the same reverse proportion.

There are two ways to account for this discrepancy between Hugo’s and Verlaine’s handling of the emotional quality of [d] and [g]. One possibility is that it is sheer arbitrary, idiosyncratic attribution of emotional qualities to the phonemes that has nothing to do with systematic phonetic symbolism: that anything goes, provided that it is statistically significant. Another possibility is that Hugo and Verlaine make use of the afore-said universal ambiguous structure of voiced plosives combined with aspect-switching. In Wittgenstein’s terminology, we may rephrase the request “pronounce the phoneme /d/” as “pronounce the phoneme /d/, and attend to the massive presence bestowed on it by voicing, or to the resonance of voicing”. In all instances the pronunciation is the same; there is a mental shift.[8] If you attend to the massive-presence aspect of /g/ or /d/, they may have a strong aggressive potential; if you attend to their resonant aspect, they may contribute to a tender quality. Obviously, Hugo and Verlaine applied the same cognitive mechanism to these voiced stops, but with a reverse focus. This finding supports our claim that sound symbolism relies on sometimes conflicting latent qualities, and the poet has freedom which one to realize. Obviously, the voiced plosives [d] and [g] have two conflicting potentials each, and the two poets realized them in opposing ways. Thus, the poets’ preferences are idiosyncratic, but rely on an objectively describable ambiguity.


Phonetic Symbolism in the Laboratory

In this section, we describe results of laboratory experiments related to the issue of phonetic symbolism. We discuss studies demonstrating the cognitive mechanisms assumed to underlie phonetic symbolism, as well as studies directly related to phonetic symbolism. The results of these experiments will be discussed in relation to the cognitive model proposed in this article


Experimental Evidence for the Cognitive Model Underlying Phonetic Symbolism

There is rich experimental evidence for aspect-switching in speech perception, namely that speakers are capable of switching between hearing a speech sound as a unitary phoneme or a phoneme plus precategorical information.[9] Repp (1981) found that subjects could be trained to perceive some of the precategorical sensory information behind a s–š continuum. In this study, subjects listened to pairs of SV stimuli, where S was a synthesised fricative along the s–š continuum (7 artificial categories with different spectral properties), and V was a vowel ([a] or [u]) isolated from natural speech. The task was to decide whether the fricatives in a pair were identical or different, disregarding the vocalic context. It was found that most participants performed poorly at this task and their responses relied mostly on whether the vocalic contexts were similar or different across the stimuli in the pair. Such performance pattern was referred to as categorical perception, and it was attributed to the lack of ability to segregate the fricative noise from the vocalic context. However, after some training that included listening to the isolated fricatives, most participants improved significantly in the discrimination task in a vocalic context; that is, they were able to focus on the acoustic properties of the fricative noise. This pattern of performance was referred to as noncategorical perception. Thus, there is evidence that listeners are able to switch between modes (or aspects) of speech perception.

There is also compelling experimental evidence that listeners have subliminal access to precategorical auditory information in identifying voiced (but not voiceless) plosives. In a series of meticulously controlled experiments, Louis C. W. Pols (1986) presented subjects with spoken Dutch sentences or with vowel-plosive-vowel segments isolated from the spoken sentences. The recorded stimuli were modified in several ways, including deletion of the plosive burst and deletion of the transition between the plosive and one or both of the surrounding vowels (deletion means replacing the modified section with a silent interval of the same duration). The task was to identify the plosive out of several candidates. It was found that in natural sentences (as opposed to isolated VCV segments) the burst is less important than the vocalic formant transitions for the identification of voiced plosives (but not of voiceless plosives) (p. 149–150).[10] Thus, the perception of the formant structure is not merely possible, but necessary for the identification of plosives.

We further investigated the idea that people have access to pre-categorical features of speech sounds in a pre-aesthetic experiment (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming). We asked participants to read out loud pairs of consonant-vowel sequences (e.g. maba) and compare the consonants on various bipolar perceptual scales (e.g. whether sounds smoother and sounds jerkier, or vice versa). Our experiment was designed specifically to test the hypothesis that voiced plosives are double-edged by contrasting them with voiceless plosives, on the one hand, and with nasals, on the other hand. Our hypothesis was largely supported. On the smoothness scale, we obtained a three-way contrast that was statistically significant: nasals were perceived smoother than voiced plosives that, in turn, were perceived as smoother than voiceless plosives. On other scales, we obtained only partial contrasts (possibly due to lack of statistical power): nasals were perceived as having fuzzier boundaries than voiced plosives that, in turn, were perceived as having fuzzier boundaries than voiceless plosives. However, the latter contrast was only ‘near significant’. In addition, we received two one-sided contrasts: first, voiced plosives were perceived as harder than nasals, but voiceless plosives were not perceived as harder than voiced plosives. Second, voiced plosives were perceived as thicker than voiceless plosives, but nasals were not perceived as thicker than voiced plosives. Whether these imperfect results reflect the true state-of-affairs or not, they clearly demonstrate that voiced plosives are perceptually ambiguous: in certain contexts, they contrast with nasals and, in others, with voiceless plosives.

Our experiment also yielded a puzzling finding. Voiced plosives were perceived as having more resonance than voiceless plosives, though the result was only near significant. This was well expected. However, contrary to expectation, voiced plosives were also perceived as having more resonance than nasals (the result fell short of statistical significance after correction for multiple comparisons).[11] A simple explanation for this unexpected result is that the task was not clear to the participants. As a matter of fact, two participants commented that they had trouble evaluating resonance, and, in general, it became clear to us that many people don’t know what resonance means. However, there is also a possibility that the results are genuine, namely that voicing couples with plosion and endows voiced plosives with a resonating quality, which can be perceived, at least in controlled experiments, out of context. This hypothesis is supported by experimental evidence that voiced plosives are perceived as larger than voiceless plosives cross-linguistically (Shinohara & Kawahara, 2016).

To conclude, there is experimental evidence supporting the cognitive mechanisms we claim to underlie phonetic symbolism, including both double-edgedness and aspect-switching. To be sure, these experiments do not prove that these mechanisms are directly involved in phonetic symbolism. However, they do demonstrate that participants have access to information underlying phonemic categories. We argue that having access to such precategorical information is the basis of phonetic symbolism.


Experimental Evidence for Sound Symbolism

One of the most discussed examples of phonetic symbolism is that of sound-shape symbolism. Back in the nineteen twenties, Köhler (1929) took two nonsense words, takete and baluma, and asked people to match them with two nonsense figures, one with angular edges and one with rounded edges (see Figure 1). An overwhelming majority of respondents matched takete with the angular shape, baluma with the rounded shape.[12] Since Köhler’s study, there were many replications of this effect, including a study by Ramachandran & Hubbard (2001), which used the nonsense words bouba and kiki. So, this effect came to be called the ‘bouba/kiki’ effect.

Recent studies have used more systematic manipulations in attempt to account for the ‘bouba/kiki’ effect. For example, participants in a study by Knoeferle et al. (2017) heard non-word sequences of consonant + vowel (e.g. /ba/, /ni/) and were asked to rate each sequence on a scale. One end of the scale indicated greater association with an angular shape and the other end indicated greater association with a rounded shape. It was found that when the stimulus contained a glide (w, y) or a liquid (l, r), participants tended to associate the stimulus with a rounded shape. This tendency was reduced for stimuli containing a voiceless fricative (f, s) or a nasal (m, n), followed by stimuli containing a voiced fricative (v, z) or a voiced plosive (b, d), followed by stimuli containing a voiceless plosive (p, t). The results are summarised in Figure 2.[13]

We can use the structural theory of speech sounds to account for these results. The left end of this figure is marked by [+abrupt], that is, [–continuous,–periodic]. This acoustic characteristic of voiceless plosives is analogous to the contour of angular shapes, which involves abrupt changes of direction. By contrast, the right end of Figure 2 is marked by [+continuous, +periodic]. This acoustic characteristic of glides and liquids is analogous to the smooth, gradually changing contour of rounded shapes. Thus, we can account for the tendency to associate voiceless plosives with an angular shape and glides and liquids with a rounded shape.

Let us now turn from the edges of the scale in Figure 2 towards the middle, ignoring fricatives for a moment. Nasals, like glides and liquids are continuous, periodic and voiced by default. Accordingly, they are associated more with a rounded shape than with an angular shape. It is not entirely clear why nasals would be rated lower on the scale than glides and liquids. One possibility is that another feature is at play here. For example, in articulatory terms, liquids are [+continuant], while nasals are [-continuant], since air flows continuously through the oral cavity in liquids but not in nasals. Thus, nasals might be considered more abrupt than glides and liquids, presumably since the nasal cavity is narrower and more disruptive for airflow than the oral cavity.

Moving further left on the scale, we see that voiced plosives are associated more with an angular shape than with a rounded shape. Like with voiceless plosives this can be attributed to their abrupt nature. But voiced plosives are ambiguous: they consist of an abrupt plosion and voicing, which is continuous and periodic. Thus, they are relatively abrupt, but not quite as voiceless plosives, and this difference is reflected in their rating on the shape scale.

We have replicated the results reported by Knoeferle et an experiment that was designed specifically to test the contrast between voiceless plosives, voiced plosives, and nasals (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming).[14] In addition to establishing the effects of abruptness and voicing, we also found an effect of place-of-articulation. Labels containing labial consonants (b, p) were judged as more appropriate names for the rounded shape, compared to labels containing alveolar (d, t) or velar consonants (g, k). The results are illustrated in Figure 3. The source of this effect could be either acoustic or articulatory (Knoeferle et al., 2017). An articulatory account builds on analogy between lip rounding and a rounded shape. An acoustic account might be based on spectral differences among different places of articulation. A support for this view can be found in previous studies, e.g. “In /k, g/ spectral energy is concentrated, whereas in /t, d/, and /p, b/ is spread, with an emphasis on lower frequencies in /p, b/ and on higher frequencies in /t, d/… [velar stops] display a stronger concentration of explosion [than labials and dentals]” (Jakobson & Waugh, 2002).

It is interesting to note that the basic demonstration of the bouba/kiki effect (Hung, Styles, & Hsieh, 2017; Ozturk, Krehm, & Vouloumanos, 2013; Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001) contrasts a voiceless velar plosive (k) with a voiced bilabial plosive (b). The on-going discussion over the effect of place-of-articulation can explain why /b/ was preferred over other voiced plosives in these demonstrations (but note that this choice inadvertently introduces a confounding factor to the experiment). In addition, the effect of place-of-articulation might help explaining the difference between liquids and nasals found by Knoeferle et al. (if it was, indeed, significant). Both experiments included bilabial (m) and alveolar (n) nasal consonants that were analysed as one group. In our experiment, was rated higher (i.e. closer to the rounded shape) than (mean ratings: 4.07 and 3.93, respectively, on a scale of 1-5), and was rated slightly higher than (mean rating: 4.09). Although the differences were not significant, it is possible that lip rounding (or its acoustic correlates) should be included in the structural model of phonetic symbolism.

At this point, let us reintroduce fricatives to our discussion. As can be seen in Figure 2, voiceless fricatives tended to be associated with a rounded shape more than with an angular shape. One possible explanation for this finding is that shape judgments are somehow affected by relative encodedness. As mentioned earlier, glides, liquids, nasals, but also voiceless sibilants are unencoded relative to plosives. In other words, rich precategorical auditory information is more accessible in the voiceless fricatives, liquids, nasals and glides than in plosives. Perception of this information seems to blur the sharp outlines of the categories, rendering these phonemes more appropriate to designate rounded than angular shapes (that is also one reason why they are perceived as ‘softer’).

However, if shape judgments depend on encodedness, one might ask, why voiced fricatives do not group with their voiceless counterparts. In the voiced fricatives, there are two parallel continuous streams, one periodic (voicing), and one aperiodic (friction); one might cautiously speculate that the two kinds of parallel streams blur each other and their perceived shape is less pronounced. This would suggest that the perceived roundness of speech sounds might be correlated with the relatively clear perception of the precategorical auditory information lingering in short-term memory.


Resonance, Co-Articulation, and Precategorical Perception

As we have said, resonating phones promote the perception of precategorical auditory information. Yet, there is evidence that the effect of resonance is modulated by context. For example, it was found that vowels in consonantal context are perceived more linguistically than isolated vowels (Rakerd, 1984); that is, precategorical sensory information can be better perceived in isolated vowels than in consonantal context. In other words, co-articulation seems to prevent access to precategorical auditory information. Some symbolist poets exploited this property of isolated speech sounds, to amplify the resonance of their poems. The French symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud, wrote in his sonnet “Voyelles”:


  1. A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles

       (A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue, vowels)


The Hungarian symbolist poet, Dezső Kosztolányi, wrote in a poem on his wife’s name, “Ilona”:


  1. Csupa l,       It’s all l

       csupa i,            all i,    

       csupa o,           all o,

       csupa a.           all a.


Thus, the examples above demonstrate that access to precategorical information, both in vowels and voiceless sibilants (and, probably, in liquids and nasals too), depends on isolating the vowels from the consonants, generating a resonating effect. Such a strategy would not work, however, with voiced plosives, because they cannot be pronounced without any vocalic context; in fact, formant transitions — that give information about plosives — give, by the same token, information about the adjacent vowels (speech researchers call this “dual transmission”). Nevertheless, the results of our experiment (Gafni & Tsur, forthcoming), demonstrated that, in minimal contexts (consonant-vowel sequences), voiced plosives can be perceived at least as resonant as nasals (though these results should be regarded with caution). We then thought to test whether voiced plosives are perceived differently in a reverberating or non-reverberating context, using an implicit task that does not require participants to have an explicit concept of resonance (see descriptions of such tasks in the next section). Consider Tennyson’s line and John Crowe Ransom’s rewriting of it:

  1. And murmuring of innumerable bees
  2. And murdering of innumerable beeves

There is general consensus that in the sound structure of Excerpt 7 the repeated nasals and liquids are perceived differently from Excerpt 8. In 8 “the euphony is destroyed […] we lose the echoic effect” (Abrams & Harpham, 2009). This is not only because in 7 there is one nasal more than in 8, but also because in 7 the meaning foregrounds the resonant quality of voicing, so that the nasals and the liquids have a fuller, richer, more resonant body. There is an intuition that even [b] is perceived as more resonant in Excerpt 7 than in Excerpt 8. To put it bluntly, in Excerpt 8 it sounds hard and compact as plosives are supposed to sound; in Excerpt 7 it drifts slightly toward the more resonant quality of [m]. This intuition is supported by our experiment. However, testing it explicitly is more difficult because the effect of the phonological context (reverberating/non-reverberating) is confounded with the meaning of the line. Thus, if [b] is perceived as less resonant in 8, it could be due to the change of phonological context or the change of meaning.


Phonetic Symbolism, Innateness, and the Brain

The Bouba/kiki effect (see earlier) has been demonstrated cross-culturally, even with Himba participants of Northern Namibia who had little exposure to Western cultural and environmental influences, and who do not use a written language (Bremner et al., 2013). Thus, the tendency to associate certain shapes with certain speech sounds is a cross-cultural phenomenon. Moreover, the effect has been demonstrated not only in forced-choice matching tasks, but also with implicit interference tasks. In a study by Westbury (2005), participants performed a lexical decision task on words and nonwords presented within curvy and spiky frames. Within each lexical category (word and nonword), some stimuli contained only stop consonants (e.g. toad and kide), some stimuli contained only continuous (e.g. moon and lole), and some stimuli that contained both stops and continuous sounds (e.g. flag and nuck). It was found that responses were faster for congruent shape-string pairs (continuous sounds in curvy shapes, plosives in spiky shapes) than for incongruent pairs.[15] Using a masking technique, Hung, Styles, & Hsieh (2017) showed that the mapping for the bouba/kiki effect occurs prior to conscious awareness of the visual stimuli. Under continuous flash suppression, congruent stimuli (e.g. “kiki” inside a spiky shape) broke through to conscious awareness faster than incongruent stimuli. This was true even for participants who were trained to pair unfamiliar letters with auditory word forms. These results show that the effect was driven by the phonology, not the visual features, of the letters.

In another study, Ozturk, Krehm, & Vouloumanos (2013) presented 4-month-old infants with pairs of shapes and auditory stimuli. They found that the infants looked longer at the screen during trials with incongruent pairs (i.e. ‘bubu’ with an angular shape or ‘kiki’ with a curvy shape) than during trials with congruent pairs (i.e. ‘bubu’ with a curvy shape or ‘kiki’ with an angular shape). This finding, together with cross-cultural evidence, suggests that at least some aspect of sound-shape symbolism is pre-linguistic, perhaps even innate. But which aspect exactly? We claim that what is innate is not the symbolic relation per se, but rather the propensity to extract, abstract and compare abstract features from sensory stimuli. In what follows, we discuss other manifestations of this principle.

Roman Jakobson (1968) has shown that children’s acquisition of the phonological system of their mother tongue, the universal structure of phonological systems, as well as aphasic breakdowns are governed by the same principles based on abstracting and contrasting distinctive features. Assuming that we have similar capabilities with semantic and visual features, this would suggest that, whatever the brain processes involved, there is a universally available cognitive mechanism of abstracting, comparing and contrasting features that may be responsible for generating an indefinite number of unforeseeable sound-symbolic combinations.

One of the most striking pieces of evidence for our innate ability to contrast and combine abstract features in different domains can be seen in Synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is intersense perception, in which a person experiences sensations in one modality when a second modality is stimulated (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001). For example, a person may experience a specific colour whenever seeing a specific numeral (Galton, 1880). This trait seems to run in families, suggesting that it has a genetic and, thus, innate basis (Ward & Simner, 2005). In addition, neuroimaging studies have confirmed that synaesthesia is genuine, namely that the sensory experiences reported by synaesthetes are accompanied by activation in the related sensory cortical areas. Moreover, there is evidence that synaesthesia is related to an increase in structural connectivity among cortical areas involved in the synaesthetic experience (Rouw & Scholte, 2007).

Mature consciousness is based on the dissociation of the senses, but certain cognitive tasks, e.g. the bouba/kiki experiment still rely on synaesthetic mechanisms. Thus, although many adults do not experience synaesthesia on a regular basis, the cognitive mechanisms underlying synaesthesia seem to be present universally. Moreover, many languages have metaphors derived from the field of two senses, as in soft colour and warm sound— these are fossilized synaesthetic metaphors. The existence of such metaphors depend on, and attest to, the ability of individuals to extract and combine abstract features from different sensory and conceptual domains.

The use of such synaesthetic metaphors can be further extended in literary works via literary synaesthesia. Literary synaesthesia combines terms derived from different senses in unpredictable phrases, as in Keats’s “And taste the music of this vision pale”, where terms derived from three different senses are combined to suggest some elusive, nameless experience. Phonetic symbolism in poetry is a special case of literary synaesthesia, where the imitative sound patterns are generated by unpredictable combinations of words. In Tennyson’s “And murmuring of innumerable bees” sound imitation is generated by repeating the speech sounds of murmur in innumerable— a word that has nothing to do with sounds.

Thus, it seems that writers have access to cognitive mechanisms, similar or identical to those involved in synaesthesia. Note, however, that despite the common surface similarity between “real-life” synaesthesia and literary synaesthesia, there is an important difference between the two phenomena. “Real-life” synaesthesia is automatic and involuntary, and involves stable and fixed cross-modal associations. By contrast, literary synaesthesia is a conscious, productive process that can give rise to an indefinite number of associations.


Objections to the Foregoing Conception

Auracher et al. (2011) criticized our conception that sound-symbolic effects are generated by an interaction between phonetic and semantic features as follows:

One plausible solution to cope with the contradictions between single studies is to follow Tsur’s (2006) and Miall’s (2001) hypothesis. Both authors conceive “speech sounds as of bundles of acoustic and articulatory features each of which may have certain (sometimes conflicting) combinational potentials, which may be activated, after the event, by certain meaning components” (Tsur, 2006, p. 905). However, this would not explain the high significance of the results within most studies. Why, as an example, would randomly chosen poems from different language families apply the same sound structure, expressing the same emotions, if the sound–meaning relation is content-dependent? (p. 22)

Part of our answer to this objection runs as follows: first, this question has a false presupposition, namely that poems that apply the same sound structure express the same emotions. It is false even with reference to the state of the art in our Western tradition. Auracher et al. found that sadness (and negative emotions in general) are best expressed by nasals, joy (and positive emotions in general) by plosives, whereas Fónagy (1961) found that tender emotions (that can be positive or negative) are typically associated with nasals, aggression (which is a negative emotion) with plosives.

Second, the “content-dependent” argument seems to us particularly invalid. Auracher et al. seem to assume that sounds express emotions irrespective of meaning (indeed, they hope to predict the emotion of a poem from the sound patterns). Furthermore, they seem to take Tsur’s (2006) claim as suggesting that sound-meaning relations in phonetic symbolism are arbitrary. Accordingly, they claim that if one takes the position that “sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”, one should not expect sound effects to be translated from one language to another or from one culture to another. In their view, the fact that different studies on phonetic symbolism obtain significant results supports a notion of pre-defined sound-meaning relations. However, this is a misinterpreation of Tsur’s claim.

We don’t expect that “all aspects of [the word’s] meaning be deduced from its sounds”. We assume, rather, that phonetic symbolism can generate, at best, some vague psychological atmosphere, which the referent can individuate into a specific emotion by feature transfer from the meaning. This is part of our linguistic creativity. The results of such creativity may, indeed, fossilize into convention, e.g. a lexical entry; but in the bouba/kiki experiment, for instance, no convention is involved, both the words and their referents are unfamiliar, but participants do it spontaneously, and agree cross-culturally.

For example, let us consider the Japanese word ‘kirakira’. This word contains two elements that have iconic meaning crosslinguistically, reduplication and the vowel [i]. Crosslinguistic lexical surveys and laboratory experiments have demonstrated that reduplication can be associated with concepts such as ‘repetition’, ‘distribution’, and ‘intensification’ (O. Fischer, 2011; Imai & Kita, 2014)[16], and the vowel [i] can be associated with concepts such as ‘smallness’, ‘brightness’, and ‘sharpness’ (Blasi, Wichmann, Hammarström, Stadler, & Christiansen, 2016; Lowrey & Shrum, 2007; Newman, 1933). Indeed, ‘kirakira’, which means “glittering”, “shows sensory sound-symbolism in that reduplication in the word is associated with a continuous meaning and the vowel [i] is associated with brightness” (Lockwood & Dingemanse, 2015: 3). We propose that the above-mentioned meanings, associated with the reduplication pattern and with the vowel [i], are all present in the sound pattern of ‘kirakira’, and that the semantics picks out two of them (i.e. ‘repetition’ and ‘brigthness’) and eliminates the others (e.g. ‘smallness’, ‘sharpness’). Lockwood and Dingemanse suggest that “the vowel [i] is associated with brightness, but it also has conventionalized aspects in that not all aspects of its meaning can be deduced from its sounds”. We propose to handle the issue slightly differently. “Glittering” does not merely tilt the meaning in favour of brightness and repeated events (e.g. shimmering); it individuates the referent within the semantic field of light.

The stem “kiru”, in contrast to “kirakira”, means “to cut”. Here the meaning of /i/ is tilted toward sharpness and individuated as a specific, non-repeated action. Briefly, in phonetic symbolism, the sound structure of a nonsense word may pick out the appropriate unfamiliar referent in a forced choice; in a familiar lexical word, the meaning may pick out the appropriate meaning potential from a number of meaning potentials of its speech sounds. In a cross-cultural perspective, too, “the sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”. In Japanese, the principle works exactly as in English. Only in Japanese and Vietnamese there are formalized linguistic categories based on reduplication, whereas reduplications like “murmur” in English, or “rišruš” (rustling) in Hebrew, or “froufrou” in French, “ityeg-fityeg” (dangle repeatedly) in Hungarian are sporadic.

“The sound–meaning relation is content-dependent”, then, because the meaning components available in the semantic dimension of the text activate a subset of potentials derived from the universally available phonetic and acoustic features of the sound dimension. Characteristically, Auracher et al. rely on circumstantial evidence in the Stimulus–Response mode, “different cultures”, rather than cognitive evidence: whether semantic and phonetic information processing is similar or different in various cultures. This argument of Auracher et al.’s seems perfectly logical when treated on a wholesale, statistical level. But breaks down when treated at a more fine-grained, structural level.

A referee for this article made the following comment on our argument: “I don’t see how this claim [that the relation between sound and meaning is arbitrary] is consistent with the authors’ finding that ‘The structure of speech sounds determines their expressive potentials.’” However, we don’t agree with this objection. The following observation by the same person is a clear support for our argument.

Neologisms and relatively recent creations like English “splat,” which have no etymologies of the usual kind, are of very minor interest in the study of literature, but they pose severe problems for the claim that meaning has nothing to do with linguistic sound. According to Fidler (2014: 229), this is expected, since OpEs (onomatopoetic expressions) provide “the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort.”

How do we produce and understand neologisms? How does “the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort” work? We argue that speech sounds are part of a phonological system, and are bundles of phonological, acoustic and articulatory features. According to Jakobson (1968), the child’s language has two stages: first a babbling period, in which the child experiments with the articulation and the acoustic qualities of the speech sounds, which are emotionally charged; then the arbitrary referential use of the same speech sounds, governed by the will. Mastering the arbitrary referential use is perceptually governed, by maximum contrast. The first syllable children in all languages master for referential use is Pa, which consists in maximum opening and maximum closure of the lips; from this they derive “papa”. The reduplication indicates here that this time the articulation of speech sounds is no mere pleasurable experimentation with speech sounds, but used for arbitrary reference.

Then they master the contrast between labial and dental consonants, obtaining “tata”. Then they master the contrast between oral and nasal consonants, obtaining “mama” and “nana”, and so forth. The process is not iconic, but perceptual and articulatory; meaning is attached in an arbitrary manner. There is no iconic relationship between “papa” and the male parent, or “mama” and the female parent, the terms and references are derived from the system. But then, perhaps, children have an intuition that mothers are contrasted to fathers in being softer, assigning nasals to mothers and plosives to fathers rather than vice versa.

We argue that in adult language, speech sounds, as part of the phonological system, serve for arbitrary reference. The acoustic and articulatory features have a wide range of incongruent, dormant expressive potentials. When a label consisting of a sequence of speech sounds is arbitrarily attached to a meaning, it may (or may not) activate, after the event, some of the dormant expressive potentials. In the word “splat” and “splash” meaning activates certain expressive potentials of the speech sounds; in “split” or “plush” it does not. All language users have access to those dormant acoustic and articulatory features, so that they may activate them creatively and differentially. Sibilants have both hushing and noisy features; that is why they may abound, universally, both in words meaning noises of varying amplitude, or silence. That is why “Onomatopoetic expressions provide ‘the simplest way to express effectively maximum information with minimal effort and the simplest way for the hearer to process the information intuitively and with minimum effort.’” The alleged protolanguage is said to have been entirely onomatopoetic; symbolic language is typically arbitrary. Computer simulations show that iconicity is favoured in small systems, but arbitrariness has greater advantages as the system expands (Gasser, 2004). There is experimental evidence that iconicity facilitates for children the acquisition of a small, elementary vocabulary, but it obstructs the acquisition of a large and versatile vocabulary (Imai & Kita, 2014). Onomatopoetic words have two characteristics. First, their referents are sounds, so that the speech sounds may directly imitate them; second, in onomatopoetic words the fluid creative process described above has fossilized into a dictionary entry.


Future Research

Some of our experimental results were indecisive, owing to insufficient number of participants, or participants’ difficulty to understand such tasks as resonance judgment. We intend to repeat some of our experiments with a greater number of participants, and using interference tasks, where participants need not understand such elusive notions.

We assume that sound-symbolic and metaphoric productivity are driven by a homogeneous set of principles. Both are based on unpredictable feature interaction — one of phonetic and semantic features, the other of conflicting semantic features. We intend to explore this similarity.

Another future research plan aims to improve experimental methodology for literary studies, by exploiting new technologies. In recent years there has been an increase of literary studies employing experimental methods from social sciences, such as stimulus—response questionnaires. Such studies typically ask participants to evaluate entities on various pre-defined scales (e.g., rate how sad a poem is). Pre-defined evaluation scales are useful for answering specific research questions. However, such scales might be less suitable for evaluating the effects of aesthetic objects, since they can capture only a limited portion of the subjective experience and thus may predetermine the evaluated scales, missing important aspects of the aesthetic effect. Fortunately, recent advances in methods of natural language processing allow for sophisticated automatic analysis of texts. Such methods can be incorporated in experimental studies using, open-ended questions to evaluate aesthetic objects. Thus, instead of asking participants to rate poems according to pre-defined evaluative terms, the researcher can ask participants to provide their impression of the poem. Subsequently, using automatic text analysis methods, one can obtain a detailed, unbiased profile of the subjective experience. We plan to investigate the utility of such methods for analyzing responses to poetic text.


To Conclude

In this article, we reviewed three types of evidence for phonetic symbolism. First, certain types of phones tend to correlate with certain meanings cross-linguistically (e.g. the frequent occurrence of sibilants in word related to silence and to noise). Second, laboratory experiments demonstrate that participants tend to form consistent associations between speech sounds and concepts from various domains (e.g. made-up names assigned to rounded shapes tend to contain nasal and liquid consonants, while names assigned to angular shapes tend to contain voiceless plosives). Third, various literary devices (e.g. sound repetition) use sound patterns, detached from semantics, to induce a general psychological atmosphere in poems.

We claim that the various cases of phonetic symbolism can be accounted for in a unified manner via a structuralist-cognitive theory. Central to this theory is the innate, general-purpose human capacity to extract abstract features from sensory objects (e.g. sounds, shapes). This capacity, together with our ability to combine and compare abstract features, allows us to attribute meaning potentials to speech sounds based on structural similarities to various objects. Importantly, the cognitive model does not determine sound-meaning associations, but rather constrain them. A given phone can have multiple, sometimes conflicting, meaning potentials, such that different aspects of the same phone are highlighted across lexical items and semantic contexts.

We referred to the multiple meaning potentials of speech sounds as double-edgedness, and proposed that people can shift their attention from one potential meaning to another via the cognitive mechanism of aspect-switching. We described some empirical results supporting the ideas of double-edgedness and aspect-switching. Moreover, we claim that these mechanisms can account for conflicting, or seemingly arbitrary, findings in the literature, such as the conflicting associations of nasals and plosives reported by Fónagy (1961) and Auracher et al. (2011).

The double-edgedness of voiced plosives was of special interest to us. Previous studies, as well as our own experiments, demonstrate that voiced plosives can behave like their voiceless counterparts in certain contexts, while in other contexts they behave more like sonorous consonants.[17] Our structural analysis and experiments suggested that voiced plosives are double-edged. Some of these experimental results, however, may be due to participants’ misunderstanding of the task. More reliable is the fact that voiced plosives yielded significant results in experiments in which they were opposed to continuous phonemes, but also in experiments in which they were opposed to voiceless plosives. Likewise, a structural analysis showed, how [d] and [g] in poems by Verlaine and Hugo could be used to opposite effects. All this suggests that double-edgedness and aspect-switching may have psychological reality. However, more research is needed to investigate the cognitive mechanisms of double-edgedness and aspect-switching.


Appendix A: Double-Edgedness of the “Rolled” [r]

Across languages, rolled [r][18] is frequently associated with noise. Many linguists believe that in some time in the past was rolled in English, French, and Hebrew.[19] English, French and some German dialects have lost their rolled [r] but, as the following examples witness, their lexicons still retain them as onomatopoeia (usually in combination with voiceless fricatives) for noise: In English, “rustling” and “whisper” contain /s/ and /r/. In French, bruit, froufroucrissement, and susurrermean “noise”, “rustle”, “screech”, “to rustle, whisper”, respectively. In German, knistern and raschelnd mean “rustle, rustling”. In Hebrew, raʕaš and rišruš (in phonetic transcription) mean “noise” and “rustle”, respectively. sarasara in Japanese means “murmuring, rustling” (in both cases, reduplication indicates sound symbolism). Iván Fónagy writes to this effect:

Selon une tradition qui remonte à l’antiquité, le est associé […] au combat. […] La distribution de fréquence des phonèmes dans les poèmes appartenant à deux populations sémantiques différentes, dans les poèmes belliqueux d’une part, dans les poèmes idylliques d’autre part, reflète en effet une forte tendance à associer les à la violence […]. Le français déjà «affaibli» à l’époque de Victor Hugo, n’est plus associé à la violence […]. Cette dureté de apical semble qualitativement différente de la dureté des occlusives sourdes […]. Les R «sont les vrayes lettres Héroïques», écrit Ronsard dans la préface de la Franciade (1587, Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1914, VII, p. 93). (Fónagy, 1983: 96)

According to a tradition that goes back to antiquity, the is associated […] with combat. […] The distribution of the frequency of phonemes in the poems belong to two semantic populations the bellicose poems on the one hand, and the idyllic poems on the other, reflects, as a matter of fact, a strong tendency to associate the rs with violence […] French r, already “weakened” by Victor Hugo’s time, is no longer associated with violence […]. This hardness of the apical seems to be qualitatively different from the hardness of voiceless stops […] The Rs “are the true Heroic letters” wrote Ronsard in the preface to la Franciade (1587, Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1914, VII, p. 93). (Fónagy, 1983: 96)

Thus, [r] serves as onomatopoeia for noise as in roar, rustle. Yet, in the same languages, [r] may have a soothing effect as in Lili Marleen. Our cognitive theory of phonetic symbolism can account for this affective duality of [r]. The rolled [r] is periodic and multiply interrupted, thus, it is double-edged. Its abrupt nature makes it suitable for denoting noisy and hard qualities, but, in other contexts, its periodicity can induce a tender effect.


Appendix B: Articulatory Aspect-Switching

In this article, we discussed the mechanism of aspect-switching in the perception of voiced plosives. There is another theoretical possibility, namely that the pronunciation itself changes with context, emphasising either the plosion or the voicing. Alternatively, one may speculate that perhaps different acoustic cues for phonological voicing are at work here. There are several acoustic cues for a voiced stop, usually used in conjunction:

“In distinguishing between voiced and voiceless plosives, the exact moment at which periodicity begins is among the cues used by the listener. [… and] the distinction between post-vocalic voiced and voiceless sounds is carried very largely by the relative duration of the vocalic and the consonantal parts of the syllable; in /bi:t/ (beat) the vocalic part is relatively short and the interruption caused by the consonant is long, while in /bi:d/ (bead) the reverse is the case” (Fry, 1970: 36).

Assuming that both kinds of cues work in conjunction, speakers might, involuntarily, emphasize one or the other cue, voice onset time or vowel length. As a rule, there is trade-off between competing acoustic cues for phonemes.[20]

With that said, note that although it is possible that the switch between alternative qualities of voiced stops is done by modifying their pronunciation, there is no evidence that the poets intended their poems to be read with such an overt articulatory aspect-switching, and there is no empirical evidence that readers actually do read the poems this way.


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[1]This article is derived from our book in progress on “Sound–Emotion Interaction in Poetry”, based on a group of chapters on phonetic symbolism.

[2]The term ‘continuous’ refers to airflow in general. This should not be confused with the phonological feature [Continuant], which refers only to airflow in the oral cavity. Nasal consonants are continuous but not continuant.

[3] We have borrowed the term “double-edgedness” from Ernst Kris, who speaks of the “double-edgedness” of the comic: a comedy about a cuckold may be very funny; but a husband in the audience, who suspects his wife is unfaithful, may find it offensive rather than funny. In poetry, double-edgedness is generated by changing contexts.

[4]The following anecdote can illustrate our ability to switch between alternative perceptions of the same speech sound (in this case, liquid). When Tsur was on a sabbatical in Yale, he was robbed at gunpoint on the parking lot of the foreign scholars’ lodgings. When his wife told their Japanese neighbour the story, he was shocked and exclaimed: “Vat, viz a livorvel?!” Later, Tsur told this story to Professor Yehoshua Blau, president of the Academy of Hebrew Language, and added: If he can say consistently the wrong phoneme, it means that he doesdistinguish between them. He answered “It is, rather, your ear that made the distinction. He probably pronounced each time the same speech sound, somewhere between [l] and [r]. When you expected a [r], it sounded too much like a [l]; when you expected a [l] it sounded too much like a [r]”.

[5]In Appendix A, we will also discuss double-edgedness of the trilled (“rolled”) [r].

[6]In the Rorschach test, for instance, responses based on colours and shadings (as opposed to shape responses) indicate emotional responsiveness.

[7]First published in 1987.

[8]There is another theoretical possibility, namely that the pronunciation itself changes with context. We elaborate more on this possibility in Appendix B.

[9]Although experimental studies have yet to demonstrate aspect-switching in plosives, evidence from other phoneme classes suggests that plosives are likely to show aspect-switching, as well.

[10]Formants are concentrations of overtones that uniquely identify vowels. Formant transitions are the rapid change in frequency of a formant for a vowel immediately before or after a consonant, and give information about the vowel and the consonant simultaneously.

[11]A priori, nasals are expected to be judged as more resonant than their oral counterparts since, in the nasals, the nasal cavity vibrates, in addition to the sound articulated by the oral stop.

[12]In the second edition of his book, Köhler (1947) changed baluma, for by now obvious reasons, to maluma.

[13]To be precise, all the effects of phonemic contrasts reported by Knoeferle et al.were calculated with glides as a baseline group. Thus, we only know for certain that liquids were NOT significantly different from glides while all the other classes WERE significantly different from glides. The distribution depicted in Figure 2 reflects our own interpretation of the results.

[14]We did not test glides and fricatives in our experiment. In addition, in our experiment the non-word labels were presented in a written form rather than in a spoken form. Also, the labels we used were disyllabic rather than monosyllabic, and each label contained two identical consonants but two different vowels (e.g. mamu, pupa).

[15]Note that stimuli in this study mixed voiceless and voiced plosives, affectively treating them as one group. As we have mentioned in several places, there is evidence that voiced plosives, and specifically /b/, are ambiguous. They can be grouped with voiceless plosives in certain contexts, and with sonorants, in other contexts. The Westbury study seems to force voiced plosives to be grouped with voiceless plosives.

[16]But also with completely opposite concepts such as diminutive and attenuative meanings.

[17]Note that Westbury (2005) puts voiced plosives in one bin with voiceless plosives, contrasting them to continuants, whereas Hung et al. (2017) and Ozturk et al. (2013) contrast the voiced plosive [b] with the voiceless plosive [k]. Köhler too puts [b] in one bin with [l] and [m] in “baluma”, contrasting them with the voiceless plosives in “takete”

[18]An alveolar trill, in more technical terms.

[19]It is unknown when exactly the quality of [r] had changed in these languages. Therefore, the ongoing discussion is somewhat speculative. For that reason, we decided to bring the analysis in an appendix.

[20]“While a listener typically perceives only a single change—viz., one of phonetic category—the physical changes that led to this unitary percept can only be described in form of a list with multiple entries. […] If one cue in such an ensemble is changed to favor category B, another cue can be modified to favor category A, so that the phonetic percept remains unchanged.” (Repp, 1983: 342)


Poetic Form

Geoffrey Russom, Brown University

In Russom, Evolution, I propose a general theory of poetic meter and explore its implications for metrical evolution. This article provides a brief summary of my findings as they relate to the study of literary universals. My initial hypothesis is that metrical constituents are abstracted from linguistic constituents: metrical positions from syllables, metrical feet from words, and metrical lines from syntactic constituents, preferably sentences. On this hypothesis it is obvious what constitutes the best match between abstract metrical patterns and the words chosen to realize them by the poet.

I think that my hypothesis qualifies as the null hypothesis but it is not uncontroversial. In Fabb and Halle, Meter in Poetry (11), the authors assume that “lines are sequences of syllables, rather than of words or phrases.” They reject “approaches which assume that literary language is a development of ordinary language, using the resources already available to it,” citing Hanson and Kiparsky, “Parametric theory,” as one of the language-based approaches they reject (pp. 46-8). According to an anonymous reviewer of this article, equating lines with sentences ignores the fact that syntax is asymmetric and hierarchical but meter is not. This generalization seems to be rather widely accepted but I regard it as an important error that has impeded metrical research. As will soon become apparent, I accept all regulated features of the poetic line as metrical. Regulated features of the line can include alliteration, rhyme, the word boundary, the major syntactic break (sometimes called the caesura), and syntactic parallelism. In the Celtic and Germanic alliterative meters I have studied, the constraints on syllabic patterns within the line are secondary consequences of constraints on morphological and syntactic structure.

In meters with long lines, there may be a metrical constituent between the foot and the line. In Germanic alliterative meters, the line consists of two verses and each verse contains two feet. The first verse of the line is called the a-verse; the second is called the b-verse. Important metrical constraints apply at verse level. I derive metrical constituents between foot level and line level from phrases between word level and sentence level. In meters that have a short line length relative to average word length, the line pattern might also be derived from a syntactic constituent below the level of the sentence.

All traditional meters employ the line. One early Irish meter specifies the number of words per line but imposes no constraints on syllables. This meter employs feet but no metrical positions. The Serbo-Croatian decasyllable counts syllables but imposes no constraints on word count, patterns of stress, or patterns of syllable length. This meter employs metrical positions but no feet. The meter of the Biblical psalms employs a line with neither feet nor metrical positions. The adjacent lines of a Biblical couplet match one another in syntax and propositional semantics, the characteristic features of the sentence as distinct from the word and the syllable. In this parallelistic meter, each line of the couplet takes the adjacent line as its semantic-syntactic prototype. Lines within a couplet are complex to the extent that they differ syntactically and semantically.

Certain features of the line can be fixed somewhat arbitrarily, for example the number of feet or the number of metrical positions. Many metrical rules are based on native-speaker intuitions, however, and operate below the level of consciousness, for the poet as well as the audience.

Metrical rules can be expressed as constraints on departure from a prototypical line pattern. The prototype for iambic pentameter can be realized by a line like

Refíned / gourméts // demánd / supérb / cuisíne.

As traditionally described, the iambic pentameter line has ten metrical positions organized into five iambic feet (separated by slashes). Each foot has two metrical positions, and the most prominent syllable within a foot is normally placed on its second position. In the prototypical line above, each metrical position is realized as a syllable with normal length, each iambic foot is realized as an iambic word, and the line is realized as a sentence with normal English word order, which is SVO (subject-verb-object). The major syntactic break within the prototype (notated by a double slash) falls after the fourth metrical position, between the subject (refined gourmets) and the predicate (demand superb cuisine). This is the normal position for the caesura in iambic pentameter. The caesura falls most often to the left of center because specifiers like subjects are shorter than predicates, which typically have a tensed verbal head and one or more complements (e.g. an object, a governed infinitive, and/or a prepositional phrase). Like sentence patterns, prototypical line patterns are hierarchically asymmetrical.

Linguistic rules applying at higher levels of structure can modify the output of lower-level rules. The most prominent stress assigned by a word-level rule can be subordinated within the phrase, for example by the higher-level rule for adjective-noun constructions. In a Modern English phrase like grèen grápes, the primary word stress of the adjective is subordinated to the primary word stress of the following noun. The most prominent stress in a small phrase can be subordinated by rules applying at the level of the sentence, for example by the nuclear stress rule, which subordinates every stressed syllable before the nuclear stress and provides the phonological basis for pronunciation. In a metrical line, similarly, line-level norms based on sentence structure exert more influence than foot-level norms based on word structure. Level-dependent effects were recognized within generative metrics as early as 1989, when Youmans observed that “higher-level boundaries are progressively more significant than lower-level ones” (“Milton’s meter” 376).

Realization of the foot as a word is clearly desirable in iambic pentameter, especially at the end of the line, where the principle of closure restricts metrical complexity. In his analysis of a large corpus of Milton’s unrhymed verse, Youmans observed that Milton often departs from ordinary word order to place an iambic word at line end, but rarely to remove an iambic word from that position.

Realizing the line as a clause or sentence is even more desirable than realizing the foot as a word, and occurs more frequently. In Shakespeare’s well-known sonnet 18, ten of the fourteen lines are realized as sentences or as clauses transparently related to sentences. In other sonnets, however, Shakespeare makes significant use of long, complex sentences that occupy two lines instead of one. The power of line-level constraints stands out with particular clarity when other constraints are loosened and compensatory measures are required to keep the metrical complexity of the line within tolerable limits. In the 404 iambic trimeters of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, extrametrical words are added more freely than in iambic pentameter tradition (Russom, Evolution, chapter 10). To compensate, the frequency of trimeter lines realized as sentences or clauses is kept above 50%, a conservative estimate that can be validated by any reasonable counting procedure. Since these lines are significantly shorter than Shakespeare’s, we would expect a high frequency of sentences occupying two lines in Gawain, all other things being equal; but the Gawain poet keeps sentences short and simple to limit the total complexity of a line that is unusually complex in another way. Another compensatory device of the trimeter is a high relative frequency of closing feet filled by iambic words, as in Milton’s unrhymed verse.

The relation between sentence rhythm and the poetic line is highlighted by sound echoes like rhyme and alliteration, which are most effectively situated in prominent linguistic constituents. In SVO languages like Modern English, the last stressed word in a sentence normally has the most prominent phrasal stress, called the nuclear stress. The best site for the rhyming word in such languages is line-final position. Alliteration is universally associated with syllabic prominence (Kiparsky, “Role of linguistics” 231). In SOV languages like Proto-Germanic, the first stressed word of a phrase normally bears the most prominent stress; and the first word with metrically significant stress alliterates obligatorily in ancient Germanic meters, which include Old English, Old Norse, Old Saxon, and Old High German meters (Sievers, Metrik). The word at the end of a typical Proto-Germanic sentence has subordinate stress; and alliteration at the end of the line is systematically ruled out in the four alliterative meters. In a VSO language like Old Irish, the first stressed word of the sentence is typically a verb with subordinate stress. In the most common Irish alliterative meter, which resembles ancient Germanic meters in important respects, the first stressed word of the verse typically does not alliterate and the first alliteration falls on the second stressed word.

In meters with a single foot pattern and a single line pattern, metrical variety is achieved by carefully regulated departure from the linear prototype. In Old English meter, there is a foot pattern for every native word pattern. Most combinations of two feet qualify as verses and many combinations of two verses qualify as lines. In this meter, the many verse patterns and line patterns provide ample variety; and conformity to the prototypical two-word realization of each verse type is much more strictly regulated than conformity to the iambic pentameter prototype. Meters that switch unpredictably from one pattern to another, compensating with stricter conformity to patterns, provide especially valuable evidence for deep analysis of poetic form.

The most highly favored foot pattern in Old English corresponds to the pattern of trochaic words like hwīle ‘time,’ which has a stressed root syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. This is the prototypical Old English word pattern (Dresher and Lahiri, “Metrical coherence”). The most highly favored verse pattern has two trochaic feet. An example from Beowulf is lange / hwīle ‘a long time’ (the a-verse of line 16, notated as 16a). This verse prototype establishes a norm of two primary word stresses and four metrical positions for the verse. The prototype for the line corresponds to an SOV Germanic sentence, with a weakly stressed finite verb at the end preceded by more prominent words such as subject and object nouns. Lines ending in a finite verb are highly favored.

As with norms of iambic pentameter, norms of Old English meter exert more influence at higher levels. Consider for example two variants of verse type Da, one variant with four metrical positions and another with five. Both variants have a stressed word in the first foot and a compound word in the second foot. An example of the shorter variant is Beowulf 164b, fēond / mancynnes ‘enemy of mankind.’ An example of the longer variant is Beowulf 223a, sīde / sǣnæssas ‘large sea-nesses.’ The longer variant realizes the first foot with a trochaic word and is optimal in that respect; but it has five metrical positions, contravening the four-position norm for the verse. If the foot norm exerted more influence, the longer variant would have higher frequency; but in fact this variant has about half the frequency of the shorter variant and is vanishingly rare in the b-verse, where the principle of closure restricts complexity. The four-position verse norm exerts more influence than the foot norm.

In Beowulf, two-word verses like lange / hwīle, with each foot realized as a trochaic word, have highest frequency in the b-verse. When the first foot is realized as a group of constituents rather than a single word, the added metrical complexity inhibits placement in the b-verse, all other things being equal. Verses like 121a, fēond on / helle ‘a fiend in hell,’ occur 112 times in the a-verse but only 24 times in the b-verse. Distribution is very different, however, for verses like 45b, forð on-/ sendon ‘sent forth,’ which occur 11 times in the a-verse and 65 times in the b-verse. Such verses realize the first foot as a constituent group but end with a finite verb. The line-level preference for a finite verb at the end exerts more influence on verse placement than the preference for realization of the foot as a word.

For analysis of rule conflict in Germanic alliterative meters, it is helpful to think in terms of violable rules with varying influence. These rules are like the rules of Optimality Theory in important respects (Russom, Evolution 283). Unlike OT linguistic rules, however, metrical rules do not select one and only one linguistic pattern as the only acceptable output. Instead, optimal linguistic features are incorporated into prototypical line patterns. Departures from optimal form occur somewhat more freely in metrical systems than in linguistic systems, and under different conditions; but each departure from the metrical prototype increases metrical complexity, limiting the relative frequency of complex verse patterns and inhibiting their placement in the closing half of the line.

To be preserved for its cultural value over a long period of time, a meter must evolve to accommodate language change. English alliterative meter can be traced from its reconstructed origin in late Proto-Germanic (about 300 BCE) to its death in the sixteenth century CE. Evolution of this form involved abandonment of constraints that became unsustainable and introduction of new constraints based on traditional tendencies that were still perceptible. When the Old English inflectional system was vitiated by reduction of unstressed word-final syllables, unstressed function words were more urgently necessary, and the meter had to tolerate a larger number of unstressed syllables per line. In Middle English alliterative poetry, the metrical coherence of the line was preserved in part by stricter alignment of verses with clauses and by obligatory double alliteration in the a-verse. Effects of the principle of closure were reinterpreted as a rule requiring asymmetry between a-verses and b-verses. The more complex types were increasingly confined to the a-verse, and the b-verse was increasingly populated by types that ended with a trochaic word. A new rule was then introduced requiring a trochaic constituent at the end of the line. For thorough philological discussion of the new Middle English constraints and related bibliography, see Putter et al., Studies. By the late Middle English period, when SVO syntax was the norm, alliterative poets were using conspicuously archaic language to preserve a form almost two thousand years old that was designed for a different language type. After major language changes in early Modern English, poetic archaisms were no longer comprehensible and the meter died.

Borrowing from another language can complicate metrical history. During the early Middle English period, poetic culture was dominated by rhymed forms imported from France for the Norman French aristocracy. In the late fourteenth century, French was less widely spoken, but the prestige dialect of English had accumulated a vast store of words with the prototypical iambic pattern of French borrowings. Rhymed iambic meter must have seemed a natural choice for Chaucer, who stood close to the center of royal power. As the frequency of iambic words increased, the frequency of trochaic words declined. By Chaucer’s time, final -e in trochaic words was no longer consistently scanned as a metrical syllable. After massive loss of word-final unstressed syllables in early Modern English, the trochaic norm for native words had been replaced by a monosyllabic norm –– the stereotypical ‘four-letter word.’ The function of a lost inflectional syllable was usually taken over by a preceding monosyllabic function word such as a preposition, an article, or a demonstrative pronoun. The new stressed monosyllables had no inherent rhythm of their own and iambic meter was ideally suited to the proliferating iambic phrases that replaced trochaic words. Compare for example Beowulf 1507a, hringa / þengel, with its literal modern English translation, the lord / of rings. The Old English verse has two trochaic words; its translation has two iambic phrases.


  1. Metrical constituents are abstracted from natural linguistic constituents.
  2. Meters are not reducible to syllabic patterns, contra Fabb and Halle, ‘Meter in Poetry.’ Meters also employ morphological patterns, syntactic patterns, and perhaps other linguistic patterns as well, such as patterns of prosodic constituents between the syllable and the word.
  3. Meters exploit the native speaker’s ability to apprehend all aspects of linguistic form in real time with automatic facility.
  4. The only metrical constituent universally required is the line. The metrical position, the foot, and the verse (or half-line) may be employed but are not required.
  5. A meter can be represented as a prototype incorporating optimal features of the relevant language.
  6. Metrical constraints can be formulated as violable rules. A given rule can augment or diminish the effects of other rules.
  7. The influence of a violable rule depends on the metrical level at which it applies. Higher-level rules exert more influence than lower-level rules.
  8. A meter preserved through language changes may abandon unsustainable constraints and introduce new sustainable constraints based on statistical frequencies and stylistic preferences.

Topics for Future Research

Conclusions 1–8 above are based on meters I have been able to analyze. My frequency assessments are obtained from complete manual scansions of Beowulf and Gawain in sortable and filterable Microsoft Excel files. Researchers interested in obtaining copies of these files should send an e-mail to < >. In some cases, my conclusions can be sharpened in more than one way consistent with the data I have gathered. Language-based analyses of other meters by qualified researchers can impose useful constraints on progressively sharper formulations of universalist constraints. The following are just a few examples of relevant topics.

  1. Research on meters with short lines relative to average word length might reveal whether they are abstracted from phrases below the level of the sentence, as with Old English verses, or create allowable mismatches to lines abstracted from sentences.
  2. Short textual lines might be genuine metrical lines or artifacts of formatting conventions for manuscripts and printed documents. A Japanese specialist, for example, might consider whether the haiku is a genuine three-line unit or is best analyzed as a single line with three cola.
  3. I am willing to be persuaded that a meter can have an obligatory pattern of syllable stress or length that is in some sense ‘artificial’ and does not correspond to a natural linguistic pattern. Classical Greek and Latin quantitative meters may have these characteristics but I have not encountered a focused argument to that effect and would like to see one. I would analyze such an artificial pattern as one that has strong and weak metrical positions abstracted from strong and weak syllables but no ‘word feet’ of the kind discussed in this article. Artificial specification of stress or length patterns would be analogous to artificial specification of the number of feet or metrical positions, familiar subjects of conscious reflection by poets and their audiences.
  4. For language-based metrical theories, corpus-based studies can provide useful information about the relative frequencies of syllabic patterns, word patterns, and syntactic patterns. Studies of this kind may already be available for the researcher’s language of interest.
  5. Researchers who work on modernist experimental poetry might consider whether a given experimental form could be apprehended with automatic facility during oral performance; and if not on first exposure, whether subsequent exposure or conscious instruction could make the form intuitively accessible.
  6. The earliest meters provided important technologies of cultural preservation for customary law, religion, history, myth, and heroic legend. The cultural functions of poetic meter provide topics of great potential interest for psychologists and aestheticians.

Works Cited

(For additional bibliography see Russom, Evolution.)

Dresher, Elan, and Aditi Lahiri. “The Germanic foot: metrical coherence in Old English.” Linguistic Inquiry 22 (1991), 253–86

Fabb, Nigel, and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: A New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008

Hanson, Kristin, and Paul Kiparsky. “A parametric theory of poetic meter.” Language 72 (1996), 287–335

Kiparsky, Paul. “The role of linguistics in a theory of poetry.” Daedalus 102 (1973), 231–44

Kiparsky, Paul. “The Rhythmic Structure of English Verse.” Linguistic Inquiry 8 (1977), 189–247

Putter, Ad, Judith Jefferson, and Myra Stokes. Studies in the Metre of Alliterative Verse. Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 2007

Russom, Geoffrey. The Evolution of Verse Structure in Old and Middle English Poetry: From the  Earliest Alliterative Poems to Iambic Pentameter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Sievers, Eduard. Altgermanische Metrik. Halle: Niemeyer, 1893

Youmans, Gilbert. “Milton’s meter.” In Paul Kiparsky and Gilbert Youmans, eds., Phonetics and Phonology: Volume 1, Rhythm and Meter, 341–79. San Diego: Academic Press, 1989.


Poetic Line Length

Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University

Absolute universal:  Some types of regular poetic form – meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism – regulate linguistic form relative to a sequence of words which must be short enough to fit into working memory.  For example, a meter is regulated over a line which can fit as a whole into working memory.

It has been claimed by various authors that a line of metrical poetry is limited in its upper length by working memory capacity.  This claim requires a distinction between two aspects of metricality.  Consider Paradise Lost, which is in iambic pentameter for all of its length.  The meter is a set of constraints on a sequence of words which add up to about ten syllables (with a rhythm holding over that sequence); any constraint on line length must relate to this aspect of metricality, where the meter holds of a textual sequence of a certain length (often within a range of variations, but never limitless, and never very long).   The other aspect of the meter is that the whole poem is in iambic pentameter, and in this aspect of metricality there is no upper limit on length.  It is thus necessary to distinguish the aspect of metricality which holds within a section (e.g., the metrical line) and the aspect of metricality which holds over a whole text, which can be isometric or heterometric, where distinct sections are in different meters (in some cases, radically heterometric as in Greek lyric poetry).  There is usually no relation between these two aspects of a meter: iambic pentameter always controls the line in the same way but can combine with other meters in all kinds of ways to form patterns across a longer text.

Once we focus on the aspect of metricality which holds within a section (usually called a line), we can specify that the sections are always fairly short.  In many metrical traditions, the meter holds over a section which we might call a line.  (In some traditions, there is a longer and a shorter section, each of which might be called the line, depending on what aspect of form we focus on – as in Beowulf for example or the Arabic beyt); even if the meter holds of the larger section it is still always fairly short.  Various authors have argued that the metrical section can be no longer than the sequence of words which can fit into working memory capacity (Tsur, Hogan, Willett etc).  They tend to assume Miller’s characterization of working memory capacity as “seven plus or minus two” units (e.g., words, or sometimes syllables).  This however would not offer enough capacity for lines in many metrical traditions; it is also incorrect as a characterization of working memory capacity.  Working memory capacity is now considered by psychologists to contain about four ‘chunks’ of information (Cowan), and Baddeley suggests that in the episodic buffer of working memory a sequence of about fifteen lexical/grammatical words can fit into working memory.  Some such word-based measure is a larger estimate of capacity which is likely to be enough to fit any metrically-governed sequence of words in any poetic tradition.  (I illustrate this claim from a range of traditions in Fabb What is Poetry.)  This raises the possibility that the metrical line may be subject to an upper limit on length: it must fit into working memory capacity.

Note that this limit on length is based on information (e.g., number of words) and not on duration.  There is no specifically durational limit on the upper length of the line;  Turner and Pöppel claim a three second upper limit, but this is disproved by Fabb’s (“There is No Psychological Limit”) survey of recorded poetry.  Baddeley has a multi-component theory of working memory, and suggests that one part of working memory, the phonological loop is indeed limited by duration (two seconds of material); but it is not this part of working memory which is involved in this generalization (instead it is the episodic buffer which is limited by information, not time).

Adapting an existing tradition, my suggestion is that a kind of regular poetic form – meter – is constrained to operate over sequences which are no longer than can be held in working memory.  In Fabb What is Poetry I suggest that three other kinds of regular poetic form are similarly constrained: rhyme, alliteration and parallelism.  This requires a similar separation between two aspects of a form: (i) the constraints it places relative to a sequence of words, where the sequence is limited in length, and (ii) the overall pattern it forms over a text, where there is no upper limit.   Consider for example rhyme.  The constraint relative to a sequence can be stated for an English sonnet as ‘the final word in a line must rhyme’ (note that again this refers to the line as the relevant section, a section of limited length).  Rhyme can then be distributed in various kinds of pattern, which can hold over couplets, quatrains, octave/sestet or the whole poem, where there are no upper limits on the size of unit over which the pattern is defined.  Similar claims can be made for alliteration, where the rule requires e.g., one word in every half-line to alliterate, or one word in every line.  The same alliteration pattern can then be sustained throughout a whole poem (e.g., in the Somali gabay genre).  Parallelism is a looser structural notion, and can be found intermittently in prose (unlineated text) as well as poetry; when it is found in poetry, however, each part of a parallel pair is relatively short in length (Fabb “Poetic Parallelism”).  In conclusion, it appears that the four most widespread kinds of regular form found in poetry all hold of relatively short textual sequences, short enough to fit into working memory capacity.

Though Fabb What is Poetry shows that these claims appear to hold true for many different poetic traditions, the claims suffer from a lack of relevant psychological evidence.  First, we know rather little about the capacity of working memory as regards how many words will fit into it, and how different languages with different kinds of word place different demands on working memory (Cohen-Mimran et al).  Second, the measures offered, e.g., Baddeley’s fifteen words, depend on the words being syntactically connected in a coherent way (enabling chunking), but this is not always true of poetry where nonsyntactic concatenation is more common (Fabb “Why is Verse” suggests that poetic lines actually have no syntax).  Third, as far as I know there are no experimental results telling us how many words within a poem can fit as a sequence into working memory.

The generalization is that certain regular poetic forms must hold over a sequence of words which can fit into working memory.  This rules out two possibilities.  First, it means that regular poetic forms such as meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism cannot hold of prose. This is because the difference between prose and poetry is that only the latter has sections (e.g., lines) which are not isomorphic with syntactic or linguistic prosodic constituents; it is these sections over which the poetic forms hold, and which are limited in upper length.  Second, it means that in poetry, regular poetic forms cannot depend on long sequences; to give a specific example, there should be no poetry in which the only constraint on rhyming words is that they must fall at the end of quatrains (because they would be too long).

Note that the generalization does not apply to poetic lines as such.  Whitman’s lines can be longer than likely to fit into working memory.  But these lines also have no regular poetic form; the poetic forms emerge temporarily in Whitman’s poetry, just as they can do in prose.  The generalization applies only to poetic lines which have certain kinds of regular form. However, other kinds of poetic form may not be constrained in the same way; for example, in the Hiberno-Latin poem Altus Prosator (attr. St Columba) the first word in each of the six-line stanzas is alphabetically constrained: A in the first stanza, B in the second, etc.  Though the pattern is unconstrained (as it always is), there is nevertheless a rule, “put an alphabetically constrained word at the beginning of each stanza,” which because of the size of unit referred to would be impossible for rhyme, alliteration, metre, or parallelism. It is worth noting that this type of form depends on writing (which may allow for the larger units relative to which it is defined).

If the generalization is correct, then it might suggest that working memory has a role in the processing of regular poetic forms such as meter, rhyme, alliteration and parallelism; long-term memory is also important, for the overall patterns (including the very complex patterns formed by rhyme schemes or by responsion in Greek odes).   Does it have any consequence for the aesthetics of poetry: e.g., arising from the need to hold a metrical line as a whole unit in working memory.  Hogan suggests that the relation to working memory has a function of fostering aesthetic experience by enabling what Abhinavagupta calls “savoring” and that such savoring is in part a matter of fuller or richer encoding of verbal properties, relative to our (usually non-aesthetic) encoding of ordinary language

Future Research

(i)     It would be useful to know a lot more about working memory capacity and how it relates to linguistic form.  For example, psychologists claims about working memory capacity tend to refer to lexical/syntactic words, but it is clear that prosodic words (and prosodic constituency) are relevant in metre and other aspects of poetry.

(ii)    I know of no relevant experimental work to test working memory capacity and poetry.  In comparison, there is a big body of work on long term memory and poetry (particularly oral poetry).  The relation between the two kinds of memory would also be interesting to explore, as regards poetic form and the line.

(Thanks to an anonymous reviewer who forced a complete rewrite and resubmission.)

Works Cited

Baddeley, Alan. “Working Memory: Theories, Models, and Controversies.” Annu. Rev. Psychol.  63 (2012): 1–29.

Cohen-Mimran, Ravit, Jasmeen Adwan-Mansour and Shimon Sapir. “The Effect of Morphological Complexity on Verbal Working Memory: Results from Arabic Speaking Children.”  Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 42 (2013): 239–253.

Cowan, Nelson. “The Magical Number 4 in Short-term Memory: A Reconsideration of Mental Storage Capacity.”  Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24 (2000): 87–185.

Fabb, Nigel “Why is Verse Poetry?” PN Review 189. 36 (2009): 52–57.

Fabb, Nigel “There is no Psychological Limit on the Duration of Metrical Lines in Performance: Against Turner and Pöppel.” International Journal of Literary Linguistics 2 (2013): 1-29

Fabb, Nigel. What is Poetry?  Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Fabb, Nigel. “Poetic Parallelism and Working Memory.”  Oral Tradition 31/2 (2017). Special issue on Parallelism in Verbal Art and Performance, ed. Frog & Lotte Tarkka.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Literary Universals.” Poetics Today 18 (1997): 223–249.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Miller, George A. “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.”  Psychological Review 101 (1956):  343-352.

Tsur, Reuven. Poetic Rhythm: Structure and Performance. An Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics. Berne: Peter Lang,1998.

Turner, Frederick and Ernst Pöppel. “Metered Poetry, the Brain, and Time.”  In Beauty and the Brain. Biological Aspects of Aesthetics. Eds. Ingo Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger and David Epstein.  Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1988, 71–90.

Willett, Steven J.  “Working Memory and its Vonstraints on Colometry.” Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica. New Series 71 (2002): 7-19.


Stefano Versace, University of Birmingham

This entry suggests that a specific kind of repetition, far from being an accidental feature, is inherently present in all manifestations and at all levels of poetic form. That is to say, when one writes or reads a poem, an intention to repeat a linguistic sign must play a crucial role in any poetic form in the world’s languages. Therefore, repetition can arguably be regarded as absolute universal of poetic form. For example, poetic meter can be seen as a repetition of a pattern over two or more lines; parallelism can be seen as a repetition of a syntactic or semantic structure; rhyme as a repetition of phonological segments over two or more lines, at designated positions. If we understand it in this way, repetition may constitute a viable basis to further understand poetic form and to investigate several psychological effects associated with poetry.

It has been claimed by Ribeiro (“Intending to Repeat”) that the only feature consistently holding of every poetic form in the languages of the world is repetition. Ribeiro substantiates this claim by identifying several possible kinds of repetition, and inferring that the common ground to all is an intention to repeat, which, coupled with an intention to relate a text to preceding texts of a similar kind, may surface in diverse forms (e.g. a sonnet intends to establish a relation to all preceding sonnets). In this way, several kinds of poetic form can be seen as kinds of repetition, of different aspects of language, at different levels.

To elaborate on Ribeiro, I suggest that repetition can be thought of as an intentional state that picks something that has already been expressed, or at least intended, and expresses it again. This intentional state is characterized by inherently being in a relationship with an antecedent, i.e. a previously expressed form, which influences the interpretation of a new utterance, or linguistic item. The repeated form may occur in exactly the same form of the antecedent (sameness), or in a partially different form that includes variation of the original form (variation). Since repeating any kind of linguistic sign means establishing the afore-mentioned relationship of a linguistic sign with an antecedent, repetition involves different kinds of memory. The antecedent may consist of a section of the same text, or a previous instantiation of the same form in another text, or in a given poetic tradition. The relationship is established in two directions: a repeated form looks backward to its antecedent(s); and it also looks forward, to its possible further repetitions. In this sense, the term “memory” is intended here as a general faculty, not distinguishing between its different component parts (see Fabb for further discussion of this issue). Fabb also argues that the poetic form “line of verse” constitutes the fundamental, non-linguistic unit in which the linguistic material is sectioned. Other poetic forms, such as poetic rhyme, are defined by, and hold of the line of verse. Many forms of repetition often seem to rely on this sectioning of the text, at different levels: for instance, lines, rhyming phonological segments and syntactic structures often constitute the object of repetition.  Specific poetic forms, as I show below, may differ in the relationship between sameness and variation they specifically instantiate. All texts that we term “poetic” entertain a relationship to a varying degree with this interplay of sameness and variation.

In the following I show in more detail how some formal features of poetry can be understood in terms of repetition.

Poetic meter as repetition. The poetic form that commonly goes under the name “poetic meter” is characterized by two possible kinds of repetition. The first one is the fact that two lines in the same meter instantiate the same abstract form. They thus repeat that very form, as rules that hold of these lines and of each other possible line written in that meter. For example, each line written in iambic pentameter repeats the formal features of iambic pentameter, regardless of the linguistic material constituting the lines themselves. The second way repetition informs poetic meter surfaces at the level of single lines and is less abstract: meter can be seen as a repetition of, e.g., a rhythmical pattern, or other kinds of phonological regularity. In this sense, a line of iambic pentameter instantiates a repetition of an iambic metrical foot five times. This further implies that any metrical line is in some relation of sameness to both precedent and subsequent lines in the same meter. However, lines in the same meter will also combine this relation of sameness with variation, for example, in how the linguistic material is fitted to the meter, or in the specific variation (e.g., of stress patterns) that a regular meter commonly exhibits.

Poetic rhyme, alliteration and other sound-patterning schemes as repetition. Poetic rhyme is the repetition of some designated phonological features, over different lines, at specific places within the lines. For example, if this repetition concerns all the phonological material from the last stressed syllable to the edge of the line, or at mid-line position, the result is a “perfect rhyme”. If the repetition solely targets consonants at word beginning, it results into the form known as alliteration; repetition may also concern vowels, in which case is commonly called assonance. An example of a form combining, together with poetic meter, also rhyme and alliteration is Icelandic skaldic poetry (cf. Árnason). Finally, but somewhat less commonly, this kind of repetition may specifically target morphological structures, thus being a repetition of higher-level linguistic units. In this case, the repeated units are best defined in terms of morphemes, rather than phonemes. These specific forms tend to rely more on repetition of the same material, and exhibit less variation, than what is found in poetic meter. On the other hand, additional complexity may arise in the repeated patterns that poetic rhyme or alliteration may exhibit.

Grammatical parallelism as repetition. Grammatical parallelism is the repetition of a same, or similar syntactic structure over two or more lines, or groups of lines. Several poetic traditions, such as, for example, Mongolian Baatarlag Tuul (cf. Poppe), are characterized by this form. This repetition normally relies on more or less regular variation of the specific linguistic material combined in the same syntactic structure, except in specific poetic forms that may require the very same linguistic material, such as the Italian canzone. The question may be asked whether, and if so how, this kind of repetition combines with other poetic forms. Jakobson for example claimed that where a tradition exhibits regular parallelism, poetic meter is never to be found. Other kinds of poetic forms and devices can be seen as the output of some kind of repetition.This thus appears to be a necessary condition on the form of language in verbal art.

Future Research

Acknowledging the role of repetition as an absolute universal of poetic form has the advantage of shedding light on characteristics of verbal art as diverse in their very nature as, for example, meter and lexical repetitions. Identifying the common ground of these features as a key feature of the poetries of the world is an important step towards understanding the deeper structures and effects of these features. Furthermore, a formal understanding of repetition in poetry may improve the fine-grain psycholinguistic investigation of poetic language and its effects.

All this raises the question of why repetition is such a widely attested poetic feature. Why did it come to be so, and what role does it play in producing the psychological effects normally related to poetry? For example, the effect known as “Semantic Satiation” (cf., e.g., Warr, Margulis), as an effect by which a linguistic expression loses its meaning if repeated several times, may bring us closer to an explanation of the semantic indeterminacy and vagueness often related to language in poetry. On the other hand, the same effects of indeterminacy and vagueness can receive an explanation in terms of Relevance Theory, which would in turn account for repetition as a feature increasing pragmatic processing (cf. Pilkington). Although we are still far from an understanding of why repetition is so widely found in the products of human psychology that we term “poetry,” this concept may offer promising ground to understand and further investigate its mechanisms.


Works Cited

Árnason, Kristian. The Rhythms of Dróttkvaett and other Old Icelandic Metres. Reykjavik  Institute Of Linguistics, University of Iceland, 1991.

Fabb, Nigel. What is Verse? Language and Memory in the Poetry of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Jakobson, Roman. “Grammatical Parallelism and its Russian Facet.” In Roman Jakobson. Language in Literature.  Ed. K. Pomorska and S. Rudy. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1987, 145-179.

Margulis, Elizabeth Hellmuth. “Repetition and Emotive Communication in Music Versus Speech.” Frontiers in Psychology 4 [167] (2013): 1-4.

Pilkington, Adrian. Poetic Effects: A Relevance Theory Perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2000.

Poppe, Niklaus. “Der Parallelismus in der epischen Dichtung der Mongolen.” Ural-Altaischen Jahrbücher 30 (1958): 195-228.

Ribeiro, Anna Cristina. “Intending to Repeat: A Definition of Poetry”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65.2 (2007): 189-201.

Warr, Peter B. “Repetition and Verbal Learning.” British Journal of Psychology, 56.2-3 (1965): 147-156.

Rhythm Requires Poetic Sections

Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

This is a proposed as an absolute (implicational) universal, and comes from Fabb and Halle (Meter): Where a text has a sustained regular rhythm, it is also divided into sections of determinate length.

Texts with a regular rhythm (sustained over a long stretch of the text) are called metrical.  The rhythm need not be periodic, and can vary; it is regular in the sense that it includes a range of variations which are overall subject to a set of rules.  In other words, metres are found in poems, defined as texts which are divided into poetic sections.  The following definition is from Fabb.

A poem is a text made of language, divided into sections which are not determined by syntactic or prosodic structure.   Such sections are called “poetic sections.”

The universal means that there is no metrical prose.  Meter depends on the division of a text into poetic sections – that is, meter depends on the text being poetry.  The fact that meter depends on sectioning can be seen also in the fact that metricality is locally sensitive to the edges of sections; the beginnings of lines tend to be metrically looser, the ends of lines metrically stricter.  Note that this is unconnected with how the text is written on the page. If we wrote out Paradise Lost as prose, the division into sections would still exist (it would still be a poem as defined above), as demonstrated by the fact that a generalization holds that every tenth syllable is word-final.

The universal also distinguishes regular rhythms in language from regular rhythms in music.  In music, regular rhythms can be sustained indefinitely over musical sequences which are not divided into sections; in other words, music can be a kind of “metrical prose” (Fabb and Halle “Grouping”).

The explanation of the universal is provided in the Fabb and Halle theory of meter, and is basically that regular rhythms are derived from counting.  In this theory, a regular rhythm is produced by rules which control the prosodic structure of the text relative to an abstract representation which is a periodic multi-level grid.  The grid is constructed by rules which build the grid from one end of a sequence of syllables (or morae) to the other end of the sequence; each meter is governed by rules which will build a well-formed grid only if the number of metrical syllables or morae fits within a specified range (e.g., for iambic pentameter, the grid can be built for a line of 9, 10 or 11 metrical syllables).  Thus in order to produce a regular rhythm, the text must be divided into sections which are of the right length to have a grid constructed from them, i.e., the text must be divided into sections (such as lines) of a determinate length, hence must be poetry and cannot be prose.

This universal combines with the universal controlling the length of the poetic line (Fabb), to produce a derived combined universal: Where a text has a regular rhythm, it is also divided into sections of determinate length which are short enough to fit into working memory capacity.

Future Research

There are some cases of what appear to be prose but have forms such as rhyme (e.g., Arabic rhymed prose or saj’).  The organization of these types of prose is underexplored; it is worth looking for examples of ‘metrical’ prose in which a regular rhythm is sustained over a long sequence where there is no evidence that the sequence is divided into subsections.

[See also Geoffrey Russom, “Comments on Fabb, ‘Rhythm,’” and Nigel Fabb, “Response to Russom.”]


Works Cited

Fabb, Nigel. What is Poetry?  Language and Memory in the Poems of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. “Grouping in the Stressing of Words, in Metrical Verse, and in Music.” In Language and Music as Cognitive Systems. Ed. Patrick Rebuschat, Martin Rohrmeier, John A. Hawkins, and Ian Cross. Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2012, 4–21.

Fabb, Nigel and Morris Halle. Meter in Poetry: a New Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.



By: Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.


Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

There are numerous story universals. These may be divided first into event universals and character universals. (On universals of setting, see “Imagery.”) Event universals may be further divided into motifs, on the one hand, and broad story arcs or story genres, on the other.

Character and Motif

The basic character universals are unsurprising as they derive from the common structure of stories as sequences of events in which a main character pursues a goal. That main character, which is to say the primary agent in pursuit of the goal (e.g., the lover in a romantic story or the central warrior in military conflict), is the hero. Other universal characters divide primarily into those who help the hero and those who block the hero’s achievement of the goal. On the other hand, some universal character types are more particular. The older confidant to the female lover, the friend who acts as go-between, the domineering father, the inept ruler, are all candidates for universality. Perhaps more interestingly, different literary traditions have a character who manipulates the other characters and the events of the story to produce the particular result he or she desires. The character is hardly plausible realistically and is therefore particularly striking. Presumably, the origin of this character is in the author’s own manipulation of characters and events. At some point, it occurs to authors to put a character with their own authorial powers into the story. (On this final type, see Hogan “Shakespeare.”)

Motifs are limited narrative sequences that may be embedded in different story arcs or genres. Several important motifs have been isolated by pre-cognitive researchers. A prominent example of a motif is the quest, the long and dangerous journey to acquire some particularly valuable object. (Campbell’s treatment of the quest is probably the most famous.) The birth of the hero  is also a cross-cultural motif (see Rank). Lalita Pandit has suggested that the inclusion of staging–in effect, a play within a play—may be a universal of theater (“Patriarchy” 103). This is an inclusion of the same general type as found in the manipulator character mentioned above, a projection of the author’s relation to the story into the story itself. It is also an instance of a discourse universal–the embedding on one narrative within another, as in flashbacks or prophecies. Pandit has suggested further that the false imagination of a wife’s infidelity is a cross-cultural motif in patriarchal societies (“Patriarchy”). Raducanu has taken up and extended Pandit’s argument, indicating that a test or trial of a woman’s chastity—in connection with imagined infidelity–is a consequential cross-cultural motif (see Trials of Women’s Chastity).

Prototypical Stories

As to the larger sequences of events or genres, I have argued that there are several cross-cultural story arcs, three or four of which are particularly prominent (see The Mind and Its Stories). Fundamental to my argument is the idea that the generation and reception of stories are guided primarily by prototypes, which is to say standard or average cases, rather than more abstract, necessary and sufficient conditions. In each case, the prototype is a matter of categorization processes. When authors begin to imagine a love story or a heroic story—whether they self-consciously apply a particular label to the topic or not—they necessarily link some structure with that topic; the structure is, after all, what makes it a love story or a heroic story, rather than something else. My contention is that, in keeping with ordinary semantic processes (see Rosch), that structure is provided by prototypes.

More precisely, when creating a narrative, authors may choose any topic they like and they may develop that topic in any way they wish. But they will most often begin with a standard genre category (again, this need not be a matter of self-conscious labeling). They will then follow the prototypical story structure and deviate from it only insofar as deviation is required by their specification of the prototype (e.g., in the personality traits they simulate for the main characters) or their sense of what will best fulfill the emotional and thematic (e.g., political or ethical) purposes of the story. Similarly, when interpreting and responding to a narrative, readers will begin by tacitly presupposing the prototypical structure and deviate from it only when that is necessary.

As is usual with cognitive explanations of literary patterns, this merely extends ordinary processes to the case of literature. When setting up a restaurant, an entrepreneur will begin with a genre prototype (e.g., fast food restaurant or family style restaurant), following the prototype (customers ordering at the counter for a fast food restaurant, customers being seated by a host or hostess at a family style restaurant) and deviating from that prototype only insofar as this seems to enhance the success of the restaurant or is a function of prototype specification (e.g., bringing tortilla chips with salsa in a Mexican family style restaurant). Narrative production operates similarly, though with perhaps more emphasis on innovative prototype deviations in the service of the main aims of the literary production. As usual, those main aims are producing an emotional effect and conveying thematic—usually political or ethical—concerns; in other words, authors seek to produce works that are both sweet and useful, as Horace famously put it (75).

Almost all stories involve general, story prototypical elements. A prototypical story, no matter what the genre, begins by establishing a particular goal for a hero or heroes. The unfolding of the story involves a hero or heroes seeking that goal. This hero is frustrated in his or her goal pursuit, usually due to the actions of a blocking character. That blocking character is typically a villain, thus a malicious and intentional opponent, and may be a family member. Moreover, the internal norms of the story indicate that the villain’s actions are not simply disagreeable, but more objectively wrong. The hero and the villain are often in conflict for reasons having to do with identity categories, the social in-group versus out-group divisions that organize their societies. The hero passes through a series of experiences that are non-ordinary and emotionally engaging. Ordinariness is of course defined relative to social expectations of the target audience; in other words, it is an indexical universal. For example, flying in an airplane is extraordinary for some audiences (e.g., those in the early days of aviation), but not for others. The hero’s experiences are frequently drawn from motifs, such as the quest motif. Moreover, these experiences often involve exile or some related removal from home. The hero may receive the aid of some helper, sometimes a figure with unusual social authority (e.g., a highly respected figure from the enemy side in a heroic plot). The hero’s exile is regularly part of a “tragic” middle, in which the protagonist seems furthest away from achieving his or her goal.

The story finally resolves when there is no longer any possibility of goal pursuit. In the majority of cases, there is a comic resolution, making the entire work into a tragi-comedy. In this case, the hero achieves the goal, often in an idealized way that assures it cannot be lost (as in the formulaic ending of a romantic story, “they lived happily ever after”). This idealization commonly involves social reconciliation, at least among those who are crucial to the wellbeing of the hero, such as his or her family. This may require that the blocking characters form two sets, those who are corrigible and those who are incorrigible. The former may undergo a sort of conversion, which allows their incorporation into the comic society, whereas the latter may be excluded from that society. In tragic cases, the conclusion still involves the necessary end of goal pursuit. However, in the tragic case that end results from the achievement of the goal being rendered impossible—for example, by the death of the hero. Sometimes that tragic resolution is preceded by a moment of (comic) hope, making these into what might be called “comi-tragedies.”

It is important to emphasize here that this is a prototype, not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. There are plenty of sequences of events that we would count as stories, but that do not conform very closely to this outline. For example, if I recount my day to my wife, that is a sort of story, but it may have few of these features. That is what makes this a prototype-based account. On the other hand, it does indicate that some stories should feel like better cases of the category “story,” precisely because they are more prototypical. Thus Romeo and Juliet is a better case of a story than my rambling tale of the day’s events—or, for that matter, a work such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Of course, I might shape the events of my day by for example elevating minor frustrations into conflicts with the covert machinations of villains in my department. But that would make my tale a better case of being a story precisely by making it more prototypical. Similarly, I may interpret a work by Beckett in a way that makes it more story-like, thus more prototypical. (Note that this does not in any way suggest that a story is better because it is more prototypical. For example, a banal Hollywood romance may be highly prototypical; that does not mean that it is better than Waiting for Godot.)

Here, as with most literary universals, the prototypical story structure may be explained by reference to common cognitive processes along with—probably rather quick—convergent development across traditions. Emotion is particularly important here, as it is in the definition of particular genres. Specifically, we all understand trajectories of human action by way of our intuitive psychology, the set of psychological principles for which we are innately prepared (see, for example, Boyer 100). This intuitive psychology includes dispositions, circumstances, beliefs, and goals. We first of all understand the hero’s initiation of actions as a matter of emotionally engaged goal pursuit. That goal pursuit is directed by beliefs—for example, beliefs about enemy nations in heroic plots. The trajectory itself is qualified and specified by the hero’s dispositions and circumstances—thus character and setting in the simulation of a fiction. In this way, the basic elements of a prototypical story are provided by intuitive psychology.

The “outcome emotion” of a story is the emotion provoked by the conclusion of the story. Goal pursuit aims at happiness. In the usual or default (prototypical) case, recipients identify with the protagonist. Thus they generally experience emotions parallel with those of the protagonist—for example, empathic love in relation to the protagonists in a romantic story. That parallel emotion is a form of happiness when the protagonist achieves his or her goal at the end of the work (in comedy). It is a form of sadness when that goal becomes unachievable (in tragedy). Thus the outcome emotion of a work is most often happiness (as comedies are more frequent cross-culturally), but may also be a form of sadness. (There are rarer cases where it is something else, such as anger.)

Emotional response, including outcome emotions, may be intensified in a number of ways. One obvious way in which an outcome emotion may be altered is by changes in the preceding emotions. Consider a simple example. If I go to the doctor expecting to be told that I have a chronic, degenerative disease (e.g., Parkinson’s disease), I will be relieved to be told that I have Lyme disease. However, if I go to the doctor expecting to be told that I’ve just been working too hard and need some rest and relaxation, I will be distressed to be told that I have Lyme disease. The outcome state (having Lyme disease) is the same in both cases. However, the outcome emotion differs radically. In each case, this is due to the contrast with the prior emotion, as I experienced it in anticipation of the outcome. This contingency of the outcome emotion on prior emotions gives rise to the tragic middle of tragi-comedies. Authors quickly recognize that it is perfectly nice to hear of two people falling in love, then getting married. However, listeners and readers are much happier at the outcome when the lovers are united after being separated, exiled, and nearly killed. The same process accounts for cases of comi-tragedy when this occurs.

The “familialization” of conflict—making the blocking characters into family members—is a matter of intensification as well. We expect or at least hope for more thorough loyalty and support from family members than from strangers. The attachment bonds one feels with family make conflict more painful—directly for the (simulated) hero, empathically for the (simulating) reader. This pain is relieved by the social reconciliation that often accompanies the hero’s achievement of his or her goal.

The motif of exile fits here as well. Our emotional organization of space divides the world fundamentally into home and not home. Home is cognitively familiar, but more importantly it is “where the heart is”—where we feel “place attachment.” Place attachment is related to person attachment (see Panksepp 407n.93) and our separation from home can be painful in precisely the way separation from a loved one is painful (and of course the two are often interrelated). Thus, for reasons of emotion intensification, we would expect different literary traditions to organize space into home and exile and to separate the hero from home in the tragic middle.

The tragic middle of course includes events other than exile. It generally involves the hero facing obstacles to achieving his or her goal. The nature of that goal is determined in part by the social quality of human cognition and emotion. Even our most basic, physical needs are inseparable from social interaction, cooperative and competitive. For example, even our acquisition of food is bound up with coordinated practices of hunting, gathering, or farming, as well as competition for resources. It is certainly possible for us to face purely physical obstacles in goal pursuit, and some stories treat such obstacles. But our social nature tends to make the goals themselves highly social (e.g., romantic union) and the main forms of help and hindrance social as well. This would lead us to expect to find blocking and helping characters. The principle of emotional intensification enhances this expectation in that our emotional response to people is more vigorous and sustained than our emotional response to things. I may be temporarily irritated with a door that flies open and hits me, but my anger is far greater in strength and duration if a person hits me. Moreover, my response to a person hitting me is commonly stronger to the extent that the act was intentional and malicious. If someone trips and smacks me accidentally, that is different from punching me—as is intending a playful jab that happens to be a tad too battering for my wispy frame. Thus we would anticipate the elaboration of blocking figures into plotting, malicious villains.

The implications for helping characters are parallel, but generally less consequential. This is true in part for the simple reason that it is more difficult to give inadvertent help than to do inadvertent harm. But it is also due to the fact that generally our emotional response to hedonic experiences is much less analytic and demanding than to aversive experiences. It appears that we are willing to accept benefits produced by chance, but we feel the need to understand the reasons for harm—presumably so that we can avoid similar harms in the future. Thus we may be perfectly willing to accept a hero succeeding by dumb luck. However, as Aristotle pointed out, we tend to recoil from stories in which a hero fails through no fault of his or her own (XIII.2; 1452b). This is one aspect of “hedonic asymmetry,” the non-parallelism of negative and positive emotions (on the general idea of hedonic asymmetry, see Frijda 323).

It is important to dwell for a moment on our different attitudes toward intentional and unintentional harms, as they tell us something important about emotional response. We may initially respond with anger in both intentional and unintentional cases. However, we quickly modulate our response to unintentional harms. One of the most important forms of modulation is ethical. We might inhibit or enhance our emotional response to a given action depending on whether we view it as ethical or unethical. Thus it generally becomes important that our preferences in a literary work broadly align with our ethical evaluations. If we consider the blocking character morally justified and the hero unjustified, that will constrain our emotional response. Of course, stories of this sort occur—and many of us may even prefer them, in part for their intellectual stimulation, in part for their non-habitual quality. However, we would not expect this to be the default or prototypical case.

The evaluative concerns of a story—and thus its thematic point–are often bound up with social identity categories. These categories are a fundamental means of organizing intra- and inter-societal relations in real life. They have profound psychological consequences, affecting one’s understanding of and emotional response to other people (on some of these consequences, see chapter one of Hogan Understanding Nationalism). For example, it appears to be the case that we tend to respond to in-group members with parallel emotion (e.g., sharing their mirth), but often respond to out-group members with a complementary or opposed emotion (e.g., resenting their mirth). (On parallel and complementary emotions in identity categorization, see Gazzaniga 164 and Hain and colleagues 155.) It is thus unsurprising that identity categories figure prominently in prototypical stories.

The preceding observations perhaps suggest one reason why ethical and political themes are of such importance in literature, and why that importance is found across traditions. That importance is, to some extent, a by-product of the emotional function of literature. Ethical and political concerns engage our modulatory processes and thus become consequential for our emotional response. Of course, other factors enter as well, such as who is paying for the production or preservation of stories and what ethical or political concerns he or she might have. Moreover, once present, ethical and political concerns may be developed systematically and autonomously.

Before going on to specific genres, it is important to remark on two points raised but not answered by the preceding reflections. The first concerns tragedy. Again, it appears that tragedy occurs less frequently than comedy across cultures. Why might that be? In part, this is a topic requiring further research. On the other hand, some points seem clear enough given what we know presently. First, sadness is an aversive emotion, while happiness is hedonic. Thus we would expect people in general to prefer comedies to tragedies, leading to the predominance of the former. Indeed, the problem is not so much why there are fewer tragedies than comedies. It is why there are tragedies at all.

One possible explanation for the existence of tragedy derives from the fact that compassion activates the reward system (see Kim and colleagues; the reward system is the system that governs “wanting” and “liking” [see Chatterjee 309]). Our experience of compassion is therefore not wholly aversive, but ambivalent, with a hedonic component. Understanding the operation of tragedy, then, should require a good understanding of ambivalence and the ways in which simulation may shape or direct ambivalence. It seems likely that the structure of prototypical tragedy will be explained most fully by such an understanding of ambivalence. For example, it may be the case that comi-tragic enhancement occurs principally in works that we consider melodramatic or that we criticize as emotionally manipulative, and that this is a matter of just how ambivalence is developed. An ambivalence-based account of tragedy would include reference not only to sorrow and compassionate reward response, but also modulatory processes, particularly bearing on the former, where ethical and thus thematic issues are likely to enter again. For example, Aristotle’s idea of a tragic error is a way of considering modulatory ambivalence (see Aristotle XIII.3; 1453a). We feel sorrow for the hero’s fate, but we also recognize that he or she is in some degree responsible for that fate, which modulates our response. Unfortunately, the nature of empirical research, with its necessary concern for isolating variables, has given us much less knowledge about ambivalence than more unequivocal emotion states—despite the fact that most of our real emotional experience is probably ambivalent to some degree.

The second issue worth commenting on is the case of non-identification with the hero. The default or prototypical case appears to be one in which the recipient of the work empathically hopes that the hero will achieve his or her goal. However, it does happen that we disagree with the hero’s goals and hope that he or she changes those goals in the course of the story. This is not necessarily a problem as the point of a cross-cultural pattern is that it recurs across traditions, not that it characterizes every work. Moreover, one point of tying genres to prototypes (not necessary and sufficient conditions) is that individual narratives will converge only approximately and in varying degrees, not wholly. However, it is still worth remarking that the non-identification story is commonly of two sorts. In the simpler version, we hope for the happiness of the protagonist. However, we think that the protagonist is mistaken about what will make him or her happy. In the more complex case, there are two or more protagonists and we hope for a reconciliation of the happiness achievements of these different protagonists. The two types of non-identification may occur together, as in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night where audience members are likely to feel that Orsino should give up on Olivia and that his happiness goal should be reconciled with that of Viola. The same point applies to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park with respect to Edmund, Mary, and Fanny. Thus we are usually dealing with a complication of identification in these cases, not a repudiation of it.

Story Genres: Romantic Tragi-Comedy

But, again, the full prototypical forms of stories are not confined to this general structure. They divide into more specific genres as well. In isolating these genres, I began by more or less accidentally noticing the recurrence of certain story types across literary traditions, suggesting genre prototypes. From here, I saw that the story types themselves had certain features in common, suggesting the story prototype just discussed. I then sought to explain these features by reference to emotion. I found that I could explain the story prototype by general features of emotion operation, with the differentiating characteristics of the genres explained principally by reference to differentiating features of specific emotion systems.

Romantic stories start with some prefatory material that introduces the protagonists. The main action begins when the protagonists fall in love. This establishes their goal of romantic union. The lovers face obstacles. Often, these obstacles involve identity categories such that the lovers fall into non-intermarrying groups. There is usually opposition to the union coming from some social authority, typically parents. The parents often prefer another spouse for one of the lovers. This links the socially separated lovers sequence with a love triangle sequence involving a rival. That love triangle may be the main story sequence or subsidiary to the story of the lovers’ social separation. (Both the romantic and heroic prototypes have two partially separable sequences, though the reasons are different in the two cases.) The lovers are separated, with one often exiled. Sometimes the separation is associated with imagery of death or rumors of death. The lovers are often helped in their union, sometimes by a character with some sort of authority (either through social position or some merit, such as intellect, as with the wily slave of Roman New Comedy). The efforts of the helper and the lovers alter the situation so that the lovers are able to be reunited. This may involve the discovery that the identity opposition was mistaken (e.g., the beloved is not actually a slave, but a patrician kidnapped in infancy), the hero’s achievement of social prestige, the disgrace of the rival (sometimes involving defeat by the hero), or something else. The lovers are united and reconciled with society, including their parents; however, the rival may be excluded from the reconciliation.

Once again, it is important to stress that this is prototypical, not necessary. Individual stories will approximate the prototype to a greater or lesser degree. Specific elements of the prototypical sequence may be missing or altered. The point is simply that there appear to be tendencies of this general sort.

As should be clear, many features of the romantic plot are explained by the principles governing the general story prototype. The meeting and falling in love are simply versions of establishing the goal. The centrality of identity categories is part of the story prototype and explicable in the same way. The obstacles are a matter of intensifying the outcome happiness. We see familialization in the establishment of parents as blocking figures, and the emotion-intensifying organization of space in exile. The imagery of death is a straightforward instance of creating a tragic middle. The existence of a helper character—enabled by status or skill–fits the general social nature of goal pursuit. The comic achievement of romantic union is typically idealized in the usual manner, with social reconciliation completing the intensification of the outcome happiness. The common incorporation of the family into the comic society obviously functions as part of this idealization. The place of the rival is complicated by the fact that his or her presence in the society may pose a lingering threat to the happiness of the lovers. It seems to be the case that the rival is most likely to be incorporated into the comic society when events have excluded the possibility of such a threat—for example, if it is discovered that the rival is a close relative of the beloved (as in The Marriage of Figaro), thus precluding their romantic union.

Only a few elements of the romantic prototype are not explained by the story prototype. Some of these are a straightforward result of other developments in the story. For example, social authorities (e.g., the beloved’s parents) may object to the lover on the basis of his or her identity category. In tragic versions of the story, this objection may never be overcome. In comic versions without social reconciliation, it may also not be overcome. However, in intensified, comic versions, the conflict should be overcome. There are two obvious ways that this may occur. First, the identity opposition may itself be overcome. This may involve a broad change in society and may run contrary to dominant beliefs in the real society in which the story occurs. This version of reconciliation may be more common in modern works that set out to criticize social taboos (e.g., on interracial, gay, or lesbian romance). On the other hand, these may also be more frequently tragic, pursuing their thematic point through the cultivation of compassion. In any case, the other obvious way in which identity conflict may be reconciled is through the discovery that one of the lovers has been mis-categorized. Alternatively, the objection of parents or the social limitations on the lovers may be a matter of achievement, rather than identity. A simple case of this occurs in stories where a lover simply does not have the financial means to establish a household. In this case, there is one obvious solution—the lover achieves the sort of success that was previously lacking. One or the other form of social inhibition—that bearing on identity categorization or that bearing on achievement—seems likely to predominate in one or another social milieu (e.g., feudal society may foster the former, while capitalist society is more consistent with the latter). This introduces a typological element into romantic prototyping. Finally, the blocking characters may not object to the lover himself or herself, but may merely consider the rival superior. In that case, the obvious means of reconciliation is to alter the relative status of the hero and rival, either through the achievement of the former or the disgrace of the latter. Thus the most prototypical versions of the romantic story seem clearly explicable regarding the means of goal attainment.

The existence of a rival, and thus the love triangle plot, is not predicted by the general story prototype. However, it is hardly anomalous. To some extent, it derives from social factors that recur cross-culturally. The main factor is the assumption of that men and women will marry.  In other words, the main cultural alternative to marrying one person is not remaining single, but marrying another person. Given general cultural imperatives to marry, one would expect that social opposition to a character’s marital choice would involve an alternative.

On the other hand, the love triangle plot may develop independently of any social disapproval of the main lovers. In other words, the rival may not be a socially approved alternative. Indeed, it may even be unclear whether there are or are not primary lovers, thus whether or not the beloved does or does not reciprocate the feelings of the hero or heroine. As the phrasing of this point suggests, in cases of this sort, we commonly have a single rather than a dual protagonist. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, for example, the lovers are Anne Elliot and Wentworth. However, the protagonist in the novel is clearly Anne; she does not share this role with Wentworth. It is also not clear until the end of the novel that Wentworth actually loves Anne. Moreover, the development of Wentworth’s relationship with Louisa—the rival—is not socially preferred. (There is a love triangle of the socially preferred sort as well. Lady Russell has disapproved of Wentworth and favors William Elliot as a spouse for Anne.) Cases of this sort seem best explained as part of the intensified emotional development of the focal lover’s goal pursuit.

The most obvious unexplained feature of the romantic plot is of course that it concerns romance, with the specific goal of union of the lovers. The general prototype says nothing about the definition of goals. Differentiation of goals is precisely what distinguishes narrative genres in this sense. The goals of all these genres involve the pursuit of happiness. However, that happiness is of a different sort in each case. Again, a fundamental claim of this account of story genre is that particular happiness goals are defined by emotion systems, individually or in interaction. The happiness goal of the romantic genre is defined by romantic love. Romantic love does not seem to be a single human emotion system. It is, rather, the result of several emotion systems interacting, with cumulative effects resulting from their mutual enhancement. These emotion systems are attachment (the bonding that occurs most obviously between parents and small children), sexual desire, and reward (for discussion of this analysis of romantic love, see chapter three of Hogan What). Again, the reward system is the system that governs wanting and liking. It is also the system involved in addiction. What occurs in drug addiction may be understood as a specific form of what we might call “reward dependency.” Reward dependency is the narrowing of wanting and liking such that any enjoyment becomes reduced to or at least contingent on one sort of enjoyment–the drug in addiction or the beloved in romantic love. The romance-specific features of the romantic prototype are, first of all, a matter of the protagonists’ goals being defined by the particular complex of emotion systems involved in romantic love.

Attachment in romantic love, enhanced by reward dependency, tends to make happiness fragile. There are two primary sources of that fragility. The first is the world, especially the social world, outside of the couple. That is the source of the socially separated lovers sequence. But there is another source of insecurity in such relationships. That is the inscrutability of the beloved. However much we may think that we understand and sympathize with another person, we do not know their thoughts and feelings directly and with certainty. There is always a possibility of doubt. The contingency of our happiness on someone else—not only his or her presence and behavior, but his or her love as well—makes that doubt consequential, sometimes deeply so. This is the reason that jealousy may become so important in romantic love. When not the result of social preference, the love triangle plot may be understood as a development from this aspect of insecurity in the emotional profile of romantic love. Moreover, the possibility of doubt helps to explain why the final resolution of the romantic plot is apparently more likely to incorporate socially disapproving figures (such as parents) than rivals—except in cases where the rival has been rendered innocuous (e.g., by the discovery that he is the long lost sibling of the beloved).

Thus we see that the cross-cultural recurrence of the romantic prototype can be readily explained, largely by reference to emotional factors. The point extends to other cross-culturally recurring genres. Those too are explicable by reference to happiness goals defined by emotion systems or combinations of emotion systems. Conversely, this account suggests that we should find cross-cultural genres that derive from other systems or combinations of systems. We cannot consider all these genres and their explanations in detail. However, it is worth sketching their outlines.

Story Genres: Heroic and Sacrificial

Romantic tragi-comedy may be the most common genre in written traditions. The heroic genre is very frequent as well. It too involves two separable, but usually interrelated sequences. These are the usurpation story and the invasion story. The usurpation story concerns a legitimate leader of some social identity group, such as a nation. His or her legitimacy is usually connected with both moral right and competence. Sometimes complications occur and there are problems with his or her rectitude or capacity. Indeed, there are cases in which even the political legitimacy of the leader is not entirely straightforward. In other words, heroic plots often involve some degree of ambiguity and ambivalence. When a heroic story has social authority, however, both the ambiguity and ambivalence may be widely denied—or, rather, excluded without comment. A good example of this is the Mahābhārata in India. The superiority of the Pāṇḍavas over the Kauravas usually goes unquestioned. But the text itself is much more equivocal—a point recognized in literary reworkings of the poem (e.g., in the representations of the character Karṇa, from Bhāsa to Tagore). Another complication of the heroic plot is that the story may not concern the leader himself or herself, but a loyal soldier or advisor. (This might result in part from an attempt to avoid offending rulers in the real world—for example, the monarch of a nation in which a play is enacted.)

The main action of the usurpation story begins when the legitimate leader (or related authority, such as a particularly loyal and brave soldier or a wise and benevolent advisor) is dislodged from his or her position and replaced by a rival. That rival is typically villainous (it is difficult to usurp a kingship by accident). Moreover, he or she is often a family member and the displacement commonly entails exile, as we would expect. During this period, the legitimate leader may be linked with imagery or rumors of death; indeed, he or she may literally die, being replaced in the remainder of the story by a son or daughter. In exile, the leader (or his or her son or daughter) gains the support of helpers and often manages to accomplish some remarkable feat that leads to his or her restoration. The restoration is partially idealized in that the peace and stability of the society appear to be established even into the distant future.

The remarkable accomplishment of the leader is often connected with the invasion (alternatively, threat and defense) sequence. The invasion sequence begins with a peaceful, autonomous society defined by some social identity category (e.g., a nation). That society is overrun by an antagonistic out-group, which ends the in-group autonomy. That invasion is often facilitated by an in-group collaborator, who may in turn serve as the usurper in the usurpation sequence. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antonio joins with Alonso to enable the latter’s invasion of Milan, which in turn allows Antonio to usurp his brother’s position as Duke of Milan. When the usurper does not collaborate with the enemy, he or she may prove to be incompetent or cowardly in the defense of the home society. Despite the failings of the usurper, the home society struggles against the invaders, with much death and destruction in the tragic middle. It may recruit a helper, specifically a collaborator, from the enemy camp. This is often a character with moral authority who rejects the practices of his or her own group, condemning them as immoral, thus further legitimating the in-group of the main hero or heroes. More importantly, the usurped, legitimate ruler may return and successfully oppose the enemy. In the full, comic version, the home society eventually expels the invader, establishing a sort of utopia.

Here, as with the romantic genre, most points follow from the general story prototype, along with some common social phenomena bearing on social authority. The specificity of the genre derives principally from the emotion systems defining the hero’s goals. The main emotion involved in the heroic story is pride, both a sense of accomplishment (a matter of satisfying standards) and a sense of social status (a matter of inspiring esteem). The usurpation sequence concerns individual pride. The threat and defense sequence concerns in-group pride for some social identity category (such as a nation). Indeed, the psychological importance of both individual and social pride makes the duality of the heroic story, if not predictable, then at least unsurprising in retrospect. Like the romantic genre, the heroic plot commonly involves not only an affirmation of positive goals, but also a response to the emotional pains associated with those goals. Again, romantic love may be disturbed by insecurity, including jealousy. Pride is undermined most fully by (private) shame or (public) humiliation. Indeed, these are related disturbances as jealousy is often associated with shame, and public knowledge of a lover’s infidelity is probably the prototypical case of romantic humiliation. In heroic narratives, the shame and humiliation come in the tragic middle with the deposing of the leader and the defeat of the home society. They are overcome in the idealized conclusion.

Two things are particularly worth noting about the heroic genre. First, it is the predominant genre defining and organizing group identity, particularly national identity. As such, it is widely and deeply consequential for politics (a point I have discussed at length in Understanding Nationalism). At the same time, it is a highly ambivalent and ambiguous genre, as already indicated. Romantic plots are almost always straightforward. We want the lovers to be united, full stop. But things are messy in heroic stories. People are killed, mutilated, deprived of loved ones. Even when the suffering is experienced by the out-group, authors and readers typically do not feel good about this, or they do not only feel good about it.

One striking result of the ambiguity and ambivalence of heroic plots is the recurrence of what may be called an epilogue of suffering. We would expect a heroic story to stop with the restoration of the legitimate leader and the decisive defeat of the enemy. But often this is not the case. Rather, something frequently happens after the expected ending. This epilogue may take one of two forms. In its simple form, it is merely a lament, a sort of threnody for the dead. Surprisingly, the lament may focus on the defeated enemy, exposing us to the pain of the out-group and evoking sympathy for people that the entire work seemed designed to oppose. The more complex form is even more surprising. This is a mini-narrative of guilt and reparation, often involving a second degradation of the hero, where he or she goes through a sort of punishment for the cruelties of the war. The punishment may be divine, but it may also be self-inflicted, an expression of piercing remorse. The reparation implied by this epilogue serves in principle to make the idealized community possible, freeing it from the sins that are inevitable in warfare. But it is not that simple and there is often something disturbing about the conclusion of heroic stories. Again, this is surprising in that it runs counter to the in-group jingoism that is so often a central part of heroic narrative. But, considered from another angle, it becomes less surprising, indeed perfectly explicable. The very nature of literary simulation encourages us to imagine the subjectivity of other people in detail. That makes it difficult to accept their suffering, even when they are enemies. This operation of simulation is perhaps the main reason that literature is thought to have humanizing effects.

The introduction of guilt brings us to our third “major” genre—sacrificial tragi-comedy. The goal in sacrificial tragi-comedy is physical well-being generally, but most prototypically the acquisition of food. This goal is defined by the hunger system. In an age of supermarkets and widespread obesity, it may seem that acquiring food does not constitute much of a goal. But, for most of human history, satisfying hunger was a pressing task virtually every day. Such satisfaction was continually threatened by environmental dangers, prominently drought and ensuing famine. (Parallel points hold for general health and ravaging diseases, such as smallpox.) When famine came, it was not easy to explain. When an enemy invades one’s territory, the cause of one’s suffering is clear—the greed of the invaders. When society prevents the union of lovers, the source of pain is straightforward—commonly, the identity categories of the lovers. But famine seemed explicable only by reference to divine displeasure at social violation. It was thus a matter of guilt. The sacrificial story begins with some violation of divine precepts. That violation may be widespread within the society or it may have been committed by one or more members of the society who may be seen as representing the society as a whole—for example, the ruler. In either case, the violation is commonly understood as resulting not from spontaneous faults of the in-group, but from the seductive manipulations of some internal enemy, some out-group member within the society. The violation leads to divine punishment of the group—the tragic middle in which we find the opposite of the goal (thus here famine rather than the satiation of hunger).

The devastation found in the tragic middle can be reversed by placating the offended deity. That can be done only by reparation, some reversal of the original sin. Since sin involves self-indulgence, reparation is often understood as a matter of self-sacrifice. (I do not find the cognitive and emotional reasons for this to be entirely transparent. It is a topic for further study.) In this case, the sacrifice is social rather than individual. There are two ways in which such sacrifice commonly proceeds. In the “purgative” version of the story, it is the guilty parties who are punished—often purged from society through exile or death. In contrast, the “penitential” version commonly presents the sacrifice of an innocent scapegoat, someone who is pointedly not guilty of this or any other sin. The suggestion in this case seems to be that this is a pure self-sacrifice, since it is not required as reparation for any individual sins. The sacrifice leads to the restoration of natural well-being, usually in an idealized form of abundance.

Many elements of the sacrificial plot are well explained by the story prototype—for example, the contrast between devastation in the tragic middle and plenty in the idealized conclusion. Others, including the specification of the devastation as famine, are a function of the motivation system of hunger. Still others are a matter of overcoming the aversive emotion of guilt. Finally, there are contributions from cognitive processes of causal inference. On the other hand, there appear to be more features of the sacrificial plot that call out for further study, such as the precise relation between the sacrifice of innocents and the overcoming of collective guilt—or for that matter the relation between the emotion of remorseful guilt and other emotions connected with being “guilty” (i.e., being responsible for a moral violation), but not necessarily feeling guilt.

Minor Genres: Familial, Seduction, Revenge, and Criminal Investigation

In The Mind and Its Stories, I identified only these three genres—romantic, heroic, and sacrificial. In connection with this, I argued that prototypes are context sensitive and that there are three important contexts for happiness goals: physical, personal (or inter-personal), and social. Drawing on empirical research, as well as the literary data, I argued that the prototype for physical happiness is plenty, abundance of food; the prototype for personal or inter-personal happiness is romantic union; and the prototype for social happiness is domination or authority within the in-group and domination of out-groups by the in-group. This helped to account for the place of these genres in distinct literary traditions.

However, this did not imply that there would be no other cross-cultural genres. Indeed, the explanations for these genres seemed to suggest that there would be further patterns, though perhaps with less frequency. For example, the fact that romantic stories combine attachment goals with sexual goals might lead us to expect that there would be stories with attachment goals or sexual goals alone. Similarly, we might expect stories of individual pride, shame, and humiliation to occur, dissociated from national government or warfare.

In Affective Narratology, I took up these theoretical issues and also expanded my study of literary traditions, considering further story patterns. I argued that there are other cross-cultural genres. However, they do not appear to recur with the same frequency or prominence in different traditions. By frequency, I mean the number of occurrences of a given genre within the larger body of literature. By prominence, I mean the social importance of instances of the genre. The sacrificial genre, for example, has enormous prominence in the Judeo-Christian tradition due to the story of Jesus; it also has great frequency, in part due to retellings of that story. The minor genres also appear to be less autonomous. In other words, when they do appear, they are more likely to form subplots, dependent on heroic, romantic, or sacrificial main stories. The minor genres also seem to be more diffuse, with greater variability in elements, and fewer standard characteristics. A possible exception to these limitations is the family separation and reunion genre, which may belong in the major genre category. It appears to occur frequently, though it does not seem to have the prominence of the other genres, and its autonomy seems less clear. (This is a point for future research.)

The family separation and reunion genre involves just what the name suggests. A family is together. Parents and children or siblings are separated in the tragic middle. This may be due to the actions of one or the other party (e.g., the parents may abandon the children, sometimes in the belief that this will benefit the children). Alternatively, this may be the result of some villainous behavior, such as kidnapping, by a blocking figure. The separation may be quite enduring, extending over the children’s growth to adulthood. It may be associated with imagery of death or rumors of death. It clearly involves the displacement of some characters from home, even if we would not necessarily refer to this as “exile.” Commonly, one party seeks the other and, often with the aid of some helping figure, the family is reunited. An interesting twist in this story occurs when the final reunion is preceded by misidentification of the parent or child (e.g., when the child takes someone unrelated to be his or her long-lost father).

Most features of this genre are explained by the story prototype plus the specific features of the attachment system—its relation to family bonds, its goal of proximity to and accessibility of the attachment object, and so on. The negative emotion treated by the genre is simple and straightforward—attachment insecurity. Again, such insecurity has two sources, the attachment object and the world. This difference accounts for the division of familial narratives into those where one of the parties (e.g., a parent) is responsible for the separation and those where some third party (or a force of nature, such as a shipwreck) is responsible. Moreover, the resolution of the aversive emotion is achieved not only by the final reunion, but also by sometimes making parental love and self-sacrifice the motivation for the initial separation.

The motif of mistaken identification may be related to a developmental fact. Specifically, it may derive from our propensity to find substitutes for our parents in other people—for example, teachers or political leaders—whom we idealize. On the other hand, “misrecognition” occurs in many cases of the minor genres. This suggests some more general explanation. The obvious candidate is emotion intensification. Misrecognition may make it seem that the final goal of the hero is less likely to be achieved. But if this is the case, one might wonder why misrecognition does not appear to be an important motif in the major genres. But that might simply be a matter of how misrecognition would work its way into the narrative. Shakespeare uses misrecognition in partially romantic sequences in All’s Well that Ends Well and Measure for Measure, as well as The Comedy of Errors. It may simply be that some sequences make such misrecognition plausible while others do not. Even so, it seems that the motif is less common in the major genres than one might expect. It is yet another topic for further research.

A final point to make about family separation and reunion stories is that the idealization of their conclusions is often limited or absent. This is in part a matter of the family genre itself. Parents and children are, obviously, not the same age. Especially after years of separation, they cannot necessarily anticipate many years together. The attachment insecurity imposed by the span of human life is not readily erased. On the other hand, there is a degree of ambivalence in most genres. In this way, it seems that most goal achievement involves ambivalence—due either to the nature of the achievement itself (e.g., the late reunion with parents in familial narratives) or the way in which the goal is achieved (e.g., through violence in heroic narratives). In this way, the question is rather why the romantic genre especially seems so rarely affected by ambivalence and why the sacrificial genre may involve less than the usual ambivalence as well.

As noted above, along with an attachment-based genre, we might expect a genre based on sexual motivations. We find this in seduction narratives. Seduction narratives prototypically involve a man deceitfully seducing a woman, often misidentifying himself in the process. The woman may agree for reasons of sexual pleasure. However, it seems more common that she agrees in order to have a child (sometimes as a means of achieving power or status in a patriarchal society). In other words, the genre based on the sexual desire system involves both hedonistic and fertility concerns. The seducer abandons the woman, who pursues him. One or both may die, or they may be united in a marriage that is likely to leave readers troubled—though pregnancy tends to make the marriage resolution less disturbing, if hardly unambivalent. One unusual aspect of the seduction genre is that the sexual goal is achieved relatively early in the story and what follows treats only the associated aversive emotions. Specifically, death often punishes one or both parties for their guilt, while marriage resolves the woman’s social humiliation and sexual shame. This development is hardly surprising, given the nature of sexual desire, its resolution, and its consequences. Again, it seems that the main features of the genre are explained by the interaction of the specific emotion systems (especially sexual desire, in this case) along with the common features of the story prototype.

The reference to shame or humiliation and guilt reminds us that stories treating these concerns are hardly confined to large social problems such as mutinies and famines. They occur at a more personal level all the time. As such, we would expect them to encourage the creation of other genres—and they do. Revenge narratives occur in different times and places, though again not with the frequency or prominence of the major genres. There are two common versions of the revenge story. One involves sexual violation; the other, murder. Both are highly ambivalent and commonly suggest that the actions of the revenger are, at best, only slightly less heinous than those he or she is revenging. This ambivalence is enhanced by the fact that the revenge often leads to the deaths of innocent bystanders as well, sometimes through misrecognition. In the sexual betrayal version, one spouse’s infidelity humiliates the other spouse, who takes revenge often by murdering the offending parties. In the murder version, someone has murdered an attachment figure of the hero (e.g., his or her spouse or father). The revenge is then a reciprocation of the murder—often following the killing of others due to confusion or accident. The outcome in both cases is typically far from idealized. Even in the best case, the protagonist finds himself or herself alone, still deprived of the attachment figure (e.g., the adulterous wife or murdered parent). He or she has not restored his or her own wellbeing, but merely extended the pain of grief to others in the society (e.g., the families of his or her victims, whether guilty or innocent). Here, again, we see elements of the story prototype integrated with particular emotion systems. The revenge plot is related to the heroic plot, but it is not underwritten by social ideology supporting the in-group’s hierarchy of authority or its autonomy (e.g., national integrity). Indeed, revenge is more appropriately set against the social necessity of law—a point made particularly clear in Aeschylus’s Eumenides. In this way, one would expect that revenge narratives would often be highly ambivalent, or even tragic.

A further, minor genre is that of criminal investigation. In some ways, this could be seen as a version of the revenge narrative, except that the offense and revenge are both understood as public or collective. The crime is against society, not an individual, and the punishment is enacted by society. This entails other differences. Emotionally, the action is not linked with attachment loss or betrayal, or with shame or humiliation. One problem with both the heroic and revenge narratives is that they involve action sustained by anger or rage, a standard response to shame or humiliation, and rage may lead to precipitate violence, thus the harming of innocents (see Walker and Knauer 725 on shame and violence; see also Scheff, and Scheff and Retzinger). This tendency is reduced in criminal investigation narratives, which may involve more deliberate and painstaking attempts to establish guilt. The principle emotion in these cases is something along the lines of indignation at antisocial behavior. This is not to say that there is no ambivalence in the criminal investigation narrative, though there is usually less ambivalence than in the other minor genres. One source of ambivalence comes with the possibility of corruption on the part of investigators—a recurring concern in this genre. This problem is compounded when the wrong person is punished for the crime, in this genre’s version of the mistaken identity motif. Another source of ambivalence is found in the recurring distinction between the hired henchmen, who are caught and punished, and the criminal masterminds, who often remain beyond the reach of the law. My inclination is to explain these recurring patterns simply by reference to things that happen cross-culturally in the real world when legal systems develop. Corruption occurs; false convictions take place; criminal bosses live in luxury while their hirelings languish in prison or die on the scaffold.

Future Research

Story genre is probably the most thoroughly investigated area in the study of literary universals. We have detailed and extensive hypotheses regarding a range of genres and the relation of these genres to one another. We also have considerable evidence for their cross-cultural recurrence. Finally, we have plausible explanations of these universals, based on—and at the same time partially extending—work in affective science, cognitive science, social psychology, and related fields. (For further discussion, see Hogan The Mind and Affective.) But this hardly means there is nothing more to be done.

First, the preceding analyses are undoubtedly mistaken in at least some respects. Even insofar as they are correct, all the preceding descriptions and explanations may be developed and extended by further research. Moreover, many of the specific claims are vague and should be made more precise. For example, what exactly is the relative frequency of the different genres, and their relative prominence? What is a good way of defining these concepts? A published work with few readers should presumably not weigh equally—even in frequency counts–with a work that is widely and repeatedly read. In connection with this, the distinction between major and minor genres should be made more precise and systematic. The study of both major and minor genres would also benefit from greater precision in determining what traditions do and do not have which genres and which versions of genres—and which do and do not have tragedy. We also need to consider what should constitute a tradition. In addition, we have treated some cross-cultural narrative motifs—types of narrative sequence that may be embedded in different genres. But clearly there are others. What are they? The same point holds for character types. Perhaps more significantly, we need to consider whether there are other cross-culturally recurring genres.

As indicated in the foregoing discussion, there are many specific questions that have arisen in relation to analyses that we have already undertaken. For example, we need to look more carefully at the relation of helping characters to social authority, to ascertain the strength of that relation, reasons for it, any variance it may have with genre, and so on. We need a better understanding of the psychology of sacrifice and reparation, both within and outside literature. Our current understanding of the motif of misrecognition seems too limited, and our explanations appear to fall short in accounting for its relation to genre. The list could be greatly extended.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. In Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Art. Ed. Sh. H. Butcher. 4th ed. New York: Dover, 1951, 6-111.

Bhasa. Karna’s Burden. In The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays. Trans. A. Haksar. Gurgaon, India: Penguin, 2013.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972.

Chatterjee, Anjan. “Neuroaesthetics: Growing Pains of a New Discipline.” In Shimamura and Palmer, 299–317.

Frijda, Nico. The Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Gazzaniga, Michael. Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Ecco, 2011.

Hain, G., G. Silani, K. Preuschoff, C. D. Batson, and T. Singer. “Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members’ Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping.” Neuron 68 (2010): 149-160.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm, ed. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP and Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Shakespeare, Eastern Theatre, and Literary Universals: Drama in the Context of Cognitive Science.”  In Shakespeare East and West. Ed. Minoru Fujita and Leonard Pronko. Richmond, Surrey: Japan Library, 1996, 164-80, 189-90.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Understanding Nationalism: On Narrative, Identity, and Cognitive Science. Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 2009.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm and Lalita Pandit, eds. Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1995.

Horace. “The Art of Poetry.” Trans., Burton Raffel. In Richter, 68-77.

Kim, Ji-Woong, S.-E. Kim, J.-J. Kim, B. Jeong, C.-H. Park, A. Son, J. Song, and S. Ki. “Compassionate Attitude toward Others’ Suffering Activates the Mesolimbic Neural System.” Neuropsychologia 47 (2009): 2073– 2081.

Pandit, Lalita. “Patriarchy and Paranoia: Imaginary Indfidelity in Uttararāmacarita and The Winter’s Tale.” In Hogan and Pandit 103-133.

Panksepp, Jaak. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Raducanu, Adriana. “The Earth, the Pillar and the Stone: Does Testing the Female Mean Empowering the Female in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and the Turkish Tale Sitti Nusret?” Gender Studies (Romania) 11 (2012): 35-54.

Rank, Otto. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology. New York: Grove P, 2015.

Richter, David, ed. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Boston, MA: Bedford Books, 1989.

Rosch, Eleanor. “Prototypes.” In Hogan, Cambridge, 680– 682.

Scheff, Thomas. “Social-Emotional Origins of Violence: A Theory of Multiple Killing.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 16 (2011): 453-460.

Scheff, Thomas and Suzanne Retzinger. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1991.

Shimamura, Arthur and Stephen Palmer, eds. Aesthetic Science: Connecting Minds, Brains, and Experience. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.

Tagore, Rabindranath. “Dialogue Between Karna and Kunti.” Trans. Ketaki Kushari Dyson. Available online at .

Walker, Julian and Victoria Knauer. “Humiliation, Self-Esteem, and Violence.” The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology 22 (2011): 724–741.


By: Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Comments on Keen: Universal Principles versus Uniformity

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Suzanne Keen is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on empathy and literature. As such, and also as a feminist and even as a human being aware of the world around her, she is deeply sensitive to the implausibility of claims that people’s empathic responses are all the same. In keeping with this, she is committed to arguing against claims that everyone reacts identically to situations of human suffering (see “Narrative Empathy: A Universal Response to Fiction?”). I completely agree with Keen in this. In the context of the Literary Universals Project, however, it is important to stress that the existence of literary universals in no way entails uniformity in individual response. Indeed, as universals are usually formulated, they are incompatible with such uniformity. Of course, Keen certainly recognizes this point. Nonetheless, it is important to make it clear for readers who may not be aware of the incompatibility.

More technically, the existence of universal principles in literature is most often inconsistent with uniformity of output in individual cases. This is true for two reasons. First, the universal principles bearing on persons often involve indexical features, features that change the output of the principles depending on the person to whom they are applied (see my “Possibility”). For example, it appears to be a universal principle that recipients (e.g., readers) are more likely to empathize with people or characters in their identity groups than people or characters outside their identity groups. Identity groups vary from person to person. In consequence, the output of the principle in any given case—that is, who a given person empathizes with—will vary. Greeks will be inclined to empathize with Greeks; Trojans, with Trojans. If, on the whole, Greeks tended to empathize with Greeks, not Trojans or any other enemy, while Trojans tended to empathize with Greeks or any other enemy, not Trojans, we would have a divergence in principle, not universality. Moreover, even among Greeks, there will be differences—due, for example, to sex category identity.

The second reason that universal principles do not predict individual uniformity is that, most often, there is not a single principle for any domain, but a range of alternative principles. For example, I take it that ethical evaluation is in part a matter of emotional response and in part a matter of emplotment. In both cases, several principles are available. One form of ethical response stresses pride and anger, particularly in-group pride and anger against antagonistic out-groups. This form tends to draw on heroic narrative structures which support the in-group in inter-group conflict. It celebrates group loyalty, bravery, and so on. Another form of ethical response stresses the alleviation of suffering, as shared empathically; another focuses on disgust and the purging of moral “contamination.” Thus, two recipients of a story are likely to have different ethical reactions to a situation insofar as those recipients differ in the emotions and story structures they favor. Faced with the same story, a reader whose ethical preferences involve empathy (e.g., with the misery of separated, same-sex lovers) will respond differently from a reader whose ethical preferences are connected with disgust (e.g., at homosexuality).

Thus, for the most part, universals bearing on empathy and literature would not predict uniformity of individual response. Rather, they would predict divergence of response, based on indexical features of outputs (e.g., in-group bias) and diversity of principles (e.g., ethical orientations toward empathy or toward empathy-inhibiting emotions, such as disgust or anger).

Given these conclusions, one might ask, where does this leave the topic of literary universals and empathy? One point worth noting is that different traditions often appear to stress something that may reasonably be characterized as empathy, understood as “an affective response that is more appropriate for another’s situation than one’s own” (in Hoffman’s definition [4]). When Aristotle refers to our éleos or compassion–for example at páthos or suffering (see, for example, Poetics XIV.4)–he seems to suggest some sharing of the hero’s anguish. When the Sanskrit literary theorist, Abhinavagupta, maintains that the crucial rasa or “sentiment” of a work is a function of the memory traces activated in the recipient, he is connecting the audience’s feelings with experiences parallel to those of the characters, thus presumably pointing toward what we would call an empathic connection (see Abhinavagupta’s Locana [81, 117, and 182] and his Aesthetic Experience [96-97 and 112]; for discussion, see chapter two of my The Mind). When the Arabic theorists stress the importance of developing raḥmah or compassion, following exemplary literary characters, they seem to be suggesting that we should share feelings with the compassionate character and have a parallel feeling for the target of that character’s compassion–thus a feeling that is more relevant to that target’s situation than to our own (on the Arabic theorists, see my “Stories”).

Outside theoretical reflections, it seems clear that various literary traditions are filled with works that presumably affect readers in ways that are far more consistently empathic than we would expect from mere chance. Every reader may not share Lǐ Qīngzhào’s grief over her husband’s death in “聲聲慢” (“Shēng Shēng Màn” [Late Sounds]). Indeed, in the “co-creation” of the poem stressed by Keen, some readers may make it into a poem about something completely different than her husband’s death. (I once had a star basketball player in my class who found the poem hilariously funny; I hope she “co-created” the poem in a way that made it treat some very different topic.) But it seems unlikely that the status enjoyed by the poem for centuries has resulted only from formal features (e.g., rhyme). In other words, it hardly seems plausible that readers’ emotional responses would vary randomly—sometimes contempt, disgust, hate, sexual arousal, rage, etc., and once in a great while empathic grief, just by chance—as the speaker sits at her window, recalling an earlier night, just like this one, waiting for her husband to return from a trip, and now realizing that he will never again appear across the courtyard, amid the clustered blossoms at its border, arriving home. (For a discussion of this poem, seem my “Affect Studies.”)

Thus, it seems likely that the experience of empathy is in fact an important feature of literary experience cross-culturally, even though individual response is not uniform. Moreover, it seems clear that, cross-culturally, literary works are often designed to foster empathy (whatever their actual effects). In connection with this, one might wish to investigate a range of further areas for possible universals as well.

For example, in The Mind and Its Stories, I distinguished between what I called categorial and situational empathy. The distinction was between empathy based on shared identity categorization (“categorial empathy”) and empathy based on having been in a comparable situation (“situational empathy”). I would now say that all empathy is situational (i.e., there is no distinct type of empathy that is categorial). In other words, we have an experiential sense of what another person is feeling based on the activation of emotional memories from a similar situation (in keeping with Abhinavagupta). Identity categories make a difference. However, they make a difference to one’s interpersonal stance, the attitude one takes up toward the other person, an attitude of parallel or opposed emotion. We are inclined initially to adopt a parallel stance toward persons with whom we share an active identity category. Thus, we are inclined to empathize with them. In contrast, we are likely to adopt an opposed stance toward out-group members, perhaps feeling Schadenfreude at their suffering, rather than sharing that suffering. (For evidence bearing on this topic, see Gazzaniga 164, Keestra 237, Hain et al. 155, and Klimecki and Singer 542.)

In terms of this distinction, we would expect in-group empathy to be far more prominent than out-group empathy cross-culturally. Indeed, we might expect out-group empathy to be virtually absent. However, I have also argued that, as authors imagine the lives and experiences of out-group members in detail, they come to experience them as more fully human and to portray them in ways that manifest and are likely to foster empathy. This is a general, human propensity, and likely to be found in life as well as art. It is the sort of experience that leads Majnūn, in Niẓāmī’s renowned Persian poem, to share the feelings of both sides in a war, even though one side favors him and the other opposes him: “While each warrior thought of nothing but to kill the enemy and to defend himself, the poet was sharing the sufferings of both sides” (58). Indeed, I have argued that heroic stories often include remorse over the harm done to the enemy (see chapter four of The Mind). These points are all apparently statistical universals of literature and empathy. Moreover, they potentially open up other areas of study bearing on interpersonal stance, identity categories, and other factors that interact with empathic sensitivities cross-culturally.

Another area for possible research is Keen’s own division of empathic appeals into those aimed solely at the in-group, those aimed at out-groups, and those aimed at both out-groups and in-groups. It seems clear that dominant groups frequently write for their peers in support of in-group prerogatives. It is also clear that, in some places at some times, writers from oppressed groups have appealed to dominant out-groups. One might reasonably ask to what extent the latter has occurred cross-culturally. We certainly find works that appeal to a dominant group on behalf of dominated people. For example, a work such as Śūdraka’s Little Clay Cart contains at least suggestions of a challenge to the oppression of Śūdras (members of the servant caste). There are parts of the Mahābhārata that seem to present a non-orthodox view of gender (see chapter six of my Sexual), plays that rewrite the Rāmāyaṇa in ways that pose (limited) challenges to patriarchy (see chapter three of my Affective), and so on. In most of these cases, there appears to be at least some recruitment of empathy. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to say if the author was part of the dominated group, and it is often fairly clear that the author was not. In this way, these cases may not strictly fit Keen’s division. However, they manifest a related appeal for empathy across identity groups. As with all study of cross-cultural patterns, we may ask if such appeals occur widely or narrowly; if they occur in particular circumstances (suggesting implicational or typological universals); if they are an instance of some other pattern.

The preceding list of topics is far from exhausting the possibilities for the study of literary universals and empathy. My point here has not been to give anything like a definitive catalog of such possibilities. Rather, I have simply hoped to suggest that research on literary universals and empathy has hardly begun. It is important to recognize that there is not individual uniformity in empathic response (and that there are other non-universal aspects of literature, such as recently developed techniques that are sometimes claimed to bear on empathy), as Keen has discussed clearly and forcefully. But it is also important to recognize that literary universals are largely inconsistent with such uniformity. In short, the rejection of individual uniformity does not mark the end of research in literary universals and empathy—no more than the search for linguistic universals is cut short by the fact that we do not all say the same thing. The recognition of individual variability is, rather, a preliminary to research on cross-cultural patterns. Indeed, cross-cultural patterns are to a great extent patterns of individual variability that reoccur—in different proportions and with different specifications–across traditions.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Poetics. Trans. with a critical text by S. H. Butcher. London: Macmillan, 1895.

Armony, Jorge and Patrik Vuilleumier, eds. The Cambridge Handbook of Human Affective Neuroscience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Chang, E. C. “Analyzing Li Qingzhao’s Poem ‘Sheng Sheng Man.’” Bilingual Chinese Poetry and Prose. (accessed 22 February 2017).

Gazzaniga, Michael. Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York: Ecco, 2011.

Hain, G., G. Silani, K. Preuschoff, C. D. Batson, and T. Singer. “Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members’ Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping.” Neuron 68 (2010): 149-160.

Hoffman, Martin. Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Affect Studies and Literary Criticism.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Ed. Paula Rabinowitz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Available at .

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “The Possibility of Aesthetics,” The British Journal of Aesthetics 34.4 (1994): 337-49. (Reprinted on Cogweb,

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Sexual Identities: A Cognitive Literary Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Stories and Morals: Emotion, Cognitive Exempla, and the Arabic Aristotelians.” The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity. Ed. Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004, 31-50.

Keestra, Machiel. “Bounded Mirroring: Joint Action and Group Membership in Political Theory and Cognitive Neuroscience.” In Valk 222-248.

Klimecki, Olga and Tania Singer. “Empathy from the Perspective of Social Neuroscience.” In Armony and Vuilleumier 533-549.

Lǐ Qīngzhào (李清照). “聲聲慢.” In Chang.

Nizami. The Story of Layla and Majnun. Ed. and trans. Rudolf Gelpke in collaboration with E. Mattin and G. Hill. Final chapter trans. Zia Inayat Khan and Omid Safi. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 1997.

Valk, Frank Vander, ed. Essays on Neuroscience and Political Theory: Thinking the Body Politic. New York: Routledge, 2012.