Words in and out of their social context (2014-15)

Funding scheme: Network Institute, Academy Assistants

Applicants: Christian Burgers, Gerard Steen

Academy Assistants: Britta Brugman, Kiki Renardel de Lavalette

Running time: October 2014 – July 2015 [project completed]

Budget: Salary costs for two student assistants at Master’s level from two different faculties at 0.2 fte per assistant for one academic year

Output publication: Burgers, C., Brugman, B.C., Renardel de Lavalette, K.Y., & Steen, G.J. (2016). HIP: A method for linguistic hyperbole identification in discourse. Metaphor and Symbol, 31(3), 163-178. doi: 10.1080/10926488.2016.1187041 [pdf, supplementary materials]

Project Summary:
One of the biggest challenges in the light of language and communication research is the fact that expressions can change meaning depending on the referent. For instance, an expression like “one of the biggest disasters of the 21st Century” is literal when referring to the Thailand Tsunami of 2004, but hyperbolic when referring to Holland’s defeat in the 2010 World Cup Final. This means that, to properly understand and code linguistic expressions, it is necessary to go beyond the expression itself and also take ontological aspects of social reality into account.

In this project, we take on the challenge of developing a method to code linguistic expressions using both their linguistic features and the social context in which the utterance was made. Since our goal is to provide a first step of integrating these features, we focus on one particular type of language use: Hyperbole (extreme exaggeration). Key to hyperbole is that its linguistic structure includes a referent of size or magnitude (e.g., biggest of the 21st Century) that stands in relation to an evaluation object (e.g., disaster). However, to properly understand hyperbole, it is also necessary to compare and contrast the evaluation object to its ontological referent (e.g., Tsunami, World Cup Final). Thus, hyperbole stems from both its linguistic structure in relation to its ontological referent.

Our project goals is thus to develop and validate a reliable method of hyperbole identification that takes both linguistic structure and ontological referents into account. Because this is a first step towards an ambitious goal, we use manual coding in this first stage of the project. If our method proves to be reliable, however, it cannot only be used to further research into hyperbole, but it can also be automated in a follow-up project to further research into language and big data.