Friday, July 18, 2008

Do Words Ever Feel Like They're Literally on the Tip of Your Tongue?

In the course of writing my book with Russ Hurlburt, I started to notice what I took to be a pattern in our subject Melanie, and others, to over-literalize their metaphors into phenomenological reports -- that is, to regard themselves as having real conscious experiences that match the explicit or implicit metaphors they use to describe their mental lives, to think of themselves, for example, as literally seeing red when angry, being "blue" when depressed (Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel 2007, p. 72), or as experiencing their thoughts as sometimes literally in the back of their heads or minds (Hurlburt and Schwitzgebel 2007, p. 160). I'm generally suspicious of such claims.

So at the latest meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, when Jonathan Weinberg claimed to have a word on the tip of his tongue, I jumped in with the question of whether he really experienced a feeling like that of having a word near the tip of his tongue. Perhaps wisely, he denied it. Yet for all my skepticism, I feel some pull toward taking the "tip of the tongue" expression literally as an actual description of the phenomenology of having a word or name near to hand but not quite there.

In the case of seeing red when angry, I looked at cross-linguistic data: If people really do sometimes see red when angry, we might expect to see versions of that phrase across languages, or at least a cross-cultural association of red and anger; but we don't. For the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, however, there's much broader cultural agreement about the metaphor. Schwartz 1999 surveyed 51 Indo-European and non-Indo-European languages and found that 45 out of 51 used something like the "tip of the tongue" metaphor. Korean puts it particularly nicely with the phrase "sparkling at the end of the tongue".

So maybe there really is a widespread phenomenology here that this metaphor is latching onto?


Anonymous said...

"Schwartz 1999 surveyed 51 Indo-European and non-Indo-European languages and found that 45 out of 51 used something like the "tip of the tongue" metaphor."

Though I think the paper is interesting, and the author's informal survey is of some value, that isn't much of a statistic. The fact that Dutch and Afrikaans both have the same metaphor isn't terribly enlightening. ;-)

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa said...

Huh. I'm having a bit of a hard time understanding just what this phenomenology would amount to. I don't know if I think that spoken words feel like they literally have locations at all.

I have no idea what it would be like, for instance, to have the literal phenomenology of having my spoken words located in my feat, or on top of my head. Do you think there are possible sensations like that?

Gina Rini said...

It seems at least possible that there is a neurological basis for the relevant phenomenology (assuming that there is some phenomenology at work behind the metaphors).

Suppose that the tip of the tongue experience is an expression of some almost-but-not-quite failure of the linguistic faculty to match a meaning intention with a public semantic unit. That failure involves some pattern of activity in lexical areas of the brain, which, had the search been successful, would have immediately triggered a certain motor program controlling tongue and voicebox production of the constitutive phonemes. If this is right, then in the cases of failed semantic retrieval, perhaps the subject sometimes nevertheless feels something like a partial excitation of the relevant muscles - or at least the afferent area of motor cortex - albeit in a highly indeterminate way.

This is, of course, lousy ad hoc neuroscience. But if it were true, it might explain why people think they are feeling the words in their tongues; they have no better way of interpreting this really odd experience involving indeterminate and unproductive motor activity in the speech production system. After all, you're never usually aware of the motor program driving effective speech production. But perhaps when you lack conscious experience of the relevant semantic item, you're much more likely to have something like experience of motor program encoding with no corresponding output.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hey folks!

Kenf: Yeah, raw numbers of languages isn't that enlightening by itself. The fact that unrelated languages like English, Korean, and Cheyenne all share it that's more interesting.

Jonathan: Well, there's a weak version and a strong version. On the weak version, the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (often) involves some sort of mouthish/tonguish imagery or sensation (beyond just the sensations of ordinary speech). On the rich version, it feels in some way like there's a word there. I agree with you that it's a little hard to understand the strong version! But I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand, either.

Gina, that's a nice little story! There might be something like that behind the phenomenon. Or a slight variant: The gross motor movement is initiated before the specific details of phonemic expression are used to tweak it into shape, and in tip of the tongue you get the gross movement kind of stalled and left to hang. (Yet it also seems like more than that, too, when it persists over time....)

Anonymous said...

"The fact that unrelated languages like English, Korean, and Cheyenne all share it that's more interesting."

Well, we need a lot more information to draw any serious conclusion. In each language, exactly what is the phrase, how common is it, how long has it been in the language (is it a recent borrowing), etc. The Hebrew phrase might be a borrowing from Yiddish, for all we know. That would be a lot different from Hebrew/Arabic using the same phrase for a long time.

Then, in each language, what are the other metaphors used for "tongue" and relating to words, etc. We have cat got your tongue, tongue-lashing, etc. So the tongue is the speaking thing in English, at least for some metaphors. Is "tongue" used that way in the other language? Or do words come from the mouth or throat or is it related to breathing or whatever.

You'd need to do that kind of careful, exhaustive research. Ideally you'd be asking native speakers, in that language, without prompting them with "how do you say tip of your tongue in your language" or something. I don't know how he asked these people the question, but it sounds like he said something like "do you have an expression like tip of your tongue your language". It was probably a pretty leading question.

Anyway, once you've done your careful linguistic study, exploring the metaphor usage of each language, only then could you even begin to suggest anything about the relationship of the metaphor to what people are actually "feeling".

Genius said...

when a word is on the tip of my tongue it seems to feel nothing at all like a word being on my tongue. I presume Jonathan, at least, agrees.

I guess if anything it feels like a wall in my head although I'd probably give a better answer if there actually was a word on the tip of my tongue right now.

Anonymous said...

First, I agree with what kenf said. It might be case of borrowing, so careful analysis of when the metaphor appeared, and such things should be done.

But in case it appears that it is not the case of borrowing, here are my thoughts...

When I have a word on the tip of my tongue, I can't fully remember the word though I know that I know it, and I feel that I will remember it any moment now. (I guess that would be the description of the "core phenomenology")

So far in that description there is nothing literally true about "tip of the tongue" metaphor. However commonality of the metaphor can be explained with its obviousness - the word is presented as a physical thing which leaves the mouth, and in that metaphor, now the word is presented at stuck in some place in the body before leaving the mouth. So, lips, tongue, throat, are obvious choices. I mean to say, the commonality of the metaphor might be based on the obviousness of the analogy.

Another thought is that when we have a word on the tip of our tongue, we even vaguely remember what kind of movements of tongue and lips we should make. We might not even remember what the actual sounds are, but we may remember roughly how it "feels" to pronounce that word.

So, the power of this metaphor might be further enforced by this.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

I don´t know if Pinker latest book is not a revival of Sapir´s and Whorf´s thesis (language determines the way we think)in a nativistic version, i´m looking forward to read it, but perhaps the way we use our linguistic expressions could be an index of how our cognitive machinery operates and the case for many linguistic expressions as a result our mind/phenomenology works.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

Sorry i meant to say in the final line: as a result of how our mind/phenomenology works.

Anonymous said...

So I just typed "tip of my tongue" into and looked at the public domain sources. Here are some examples. Seems like the metaphor has two meanings. My guess is that the meaning in question is actually a later one. I think if you read this it's pretty clear the origin of the metaphor is that words issue from the mouth, the tip of the tongue is the last place place a word can issue forth from, before being expressed. So if it's on the tip of your tongue, it hasn't been said yet but it is ready to be said. In the use in question, the metaphor is that it is ready to be said (you know it) but you just can't issue the word from your mouth. The metaphor really isn't about feeling something in your mouth.

"I considered with myself for a moment. I know not how the words came to the tip of my tongue. 'Life is short,' said I at last, 'and hell is eternal"
-Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 1818, Sept, Page 684

And, Moyna, it was on the tip of my tongue to ask her about Hariy, but she was gone.
Moyna. Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art - 1836, Page 253,

"Once or twice lately Maud has spoken with some anxiety of the vicar, and I assure
you it has been on the tip of my tongue to tell her the report we had ..." Dickens 1870

Tip of my Tongue. To have a thing on the tip of my tongue means to have it so pat that it comes without thought; also, to hsave a thing on the verge of one's memory, not quite perfectly remembered. (In Latin, in labris natat" Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898, page 1230

Anonymous said...

um, people, there's a great deal of cognitive psychology literature on this phenomenon (far beyond the scope of the Schwartz paper, which simply analyzes the concept itself).

here's an abstract of a review article (you can cut & paste the url, even if you can't see it):

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks!

Anon 10:20: Yes, of course there's a huge literature on the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (I took a whole graduate seminar on it in the mid-90s with Art Shimamura), but I'm not aware of any research on the *phenomenology* of it. Admittedly, I haven't done a serious lit search with that in mind. If you know of anything, I'd be very interested to hear!

Kenf: I don't mean to be drawing any strong conclusions from Schwartz's list. I agree it's not a serious linguistic study! (And to be fair, Schwartz just presents it in an appendix; it's not the main thing going on in the article.) You're also right to point out that the metaphor has another quite different use in English -- meaning almost the opposite of the use I had in mind! For all that, though, I still find the cross-linguistic data an interesting contrast to "seeing red" -- one that somewhat mitigates my skepticism about the impulse I and some others (but evidently not...

... Genius) feel to find some phenomenological reality in the metaphor. But as...

... Tanasije aptly points out, it's a pretty obvious metaphor (unlike "seeing red"), so maybe the broad cross-linguistic usage doesn't mean much.

Anonymous said...

A few ideas that might help to map the phenomenology of the TOT:
- Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia: sounds induce taste in the mouth in rare people (maybe on the tip of the tongue?)
- Aphasic anomia: patients that can't find words, sometimes restricted to specific categories. Some of them have also so-called tongue apraxia ("apraxie bucco-linguo-faciale" in French neurology).

And more interestingly, I think,
- Semantic satiation: the reverse of the TOT (?), words seem to disconnect from their meaning when repeated or heard many times in a row. The phenomenology of semantic satiation seems to me very different from the TOT. The former is kind of intriguing and amusing, the latter is annoying and sometimes very disturbing. Could we compare both states while measuring tongue movements?...

One last thought: if the TOT phenomenon is literally located on the tip of the tongue, then is normal speaking an ongoing out-of-the-tongue experience?

Very interesting post, thanks also for putting the paper online.

Anonymous said...

One complicating thought: if introspection is (heavily?) theory-laden, it might be that the metaphors literally determine what it seems like for us. That is, habitually thinking in terms of tongue tips and such shapes the very phenomenology, or at least our access to the phenomenology. It may not be that there is an independent wide-spread phenomenology; rather, there is a wide-spread metaphor shaping all of our access. The appropriateness of the metaphor may be its link to speech--trying to say something--rather than a ubiquitous phenomenal feel.

Of course, the "Schwitzgebelian" challenge is to find a reasonable way to separate these possibilities experimentally. Stalin vs. Orwell, anyone?

If we have a prior established theory of phenomenal character, we might be able to read detect the qualitative feel using a scanner. But I'm not sure how to establish such a theory without answering questions like these first, and therein lies the problem.

For the record, I don't feel anything on my tongue, as far as I can tell--it's more of a mental "trying" and a sense that I already know what I'm looking for. But the sound, the phonetics, seem to matter.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thoughts, Oncle! I especially like the idea of comparing semantic satiation as a contrast....

Josh: Yes, the "Schwitzgebelian challenge" -- and the problem that you mention arising from it -- is exactly the kind of think I think is so important to address, if we're going to have a science of consciousness! There's a world of difference between living in a Stalinesque or Orwellian situation, even if we can't reliably tell which we're in -- so here I disagree with Dennett.

(There may be marginal cases -- perhaps like the cutaneous rabbit -- where the difference collapses, but Dennett overgeneralizes, or does so if he means to deny the difference between Stalinesque and Orwellian generally.)

Genius said...

three somewhat disjointed thoughts

1) maybe the use of the metaphor creates the phenomenology?

2) there is that thing that you can do when you try to remember a word trying out the first letter and seeing if it triggers anything - I can imagine one could do that and move their tongue or think about moving their tongue at the same time?

3) doing an experiment - instead of (2) it seems I may push my tongue to the front of my mouth when in that state. I suppose its like that thing when people put their tongues out slightly when thinking.

Anonymous said...

two issues:

- If the phenomenology really is theory-laden (and not some primitive sense-datum) then what have we learned if the phenomenology is widespread? That a particular theory is popular?

- what's the goal in producing cross-cultural evidence? As far as I can tell, there's some sort of "convergent truth" assumption that if an idea is shared across many cultures, than there's something epistemologically special about it.... ie if an idea is popular it must be right.

And yet all sorts of wildly wrong ideas have been popular across cultures (the earth is flat), particularly where our own bodies are involved (the heart is the seat of the soul).

I fear that all we've learned from the popularity of the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon is that all cultures use their tongues for language. Which isn't much of a result.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

As an off-topic let me say that having advance throughout the papges of Pinker´s latest book, this book is not a neo-Whorfian book but a witty arrangement of factoids about linguistics, actual political affairs,literature, philosophy, neuroscience, primatology, evolutionary psychology and laughs. (Though, as Churchland, Poetry in motion’ Nature 450, 29–30; 2007, i´m critic with the philosophy of sentence comprehension or the sententioanl propositionalism that Foder, Chomsky and Pinker supports)

Returning back to the issue at hand in this post, it is probably that some cognitive states have attached a given phenomenal quality as in the philosphical branch called cogntive phenomenology is said.

Billie Pritchett said...

I teach Korean students, and I was trying to convey to them "the sparkling at the tip of your tongue" metaphor, but they didn't understand. Do you know the phrase in Korean?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi folks - thanks for the continuing comments!

Genius: On 1: That could be - though you still need an explanation of the cross-cultural frequency of the metaphor (maybe it's "obviousness" is enough?) On 2 & 3: Interesting idea and observation.

Holyoke: On 1: Yes, possibly! On 2: Certainly cultures can converge on false views, so I wouldn't infer from "across cultures people seem to believe P" to "therefore, P"; but that doesn't mean that cultural convergence isn't epistemically interesting.

Anibal: I'll agree to that!

Billie: Hm, interesting! In light of your comment, I wonder how accurate Schwartz's reporting is. (I did confirm it myself in casual conversation for Spanish and Chinese, though the Chinese speakers were a bit ambivalent about it.) I'm afraid I don't know the particular Korean phrase.

Anonymous said...

Relatedly, for those of us with synesthesia the effect of one sense merging with another can also be disconcerting

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that these examples relate to a synaesthesia effect. In which case, wouldn't red be replaced with whatever your culture most often relates with anger? Making cross-cultural examinations looking for red a null find.