US Intelligence Crunches Metaphors to Understand Foreign Language

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The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, a small arm of the US intelligence community, is distributing $20 million grants to computer scientists who can parse a language and determine a culture's relationship with a certain concept. It's called, The Metaphor Program.


It may seem like an enormous amount of money to spend on linguistics research but IARPA hopes that techniques developed during this project will eventually help intelligence analysts parse the huge amounts of data pouring into their coffers. As The Atlantic reports:

In the first phase of the IARPA program, the researchers would simply try to map from the metaphors a language used to the general affect associated with a concept like "journey" or "struggle." These metaphors would then be stored in the metaphor repository. In a later stage, the Metaphor Program scientists will be expected to help answer questions like, "What are the perspectives of Pakistan and India with respect to Kashmir?" by using their metaphorical probes into the cultures. Perhaps, a slide from IARPA suggests, metaphors can tell us something about the way Indians and Pakistanis view the role of Britain or the concept of the "nation" or "government."

The assumption is that common turns of phrase, dissected and reassembled through cognitive linguistics, could say something about the views of those citizens that they might not be able to say themselves. The language of a culture as reflected in a bunch of text on the Internet might hide secrets about the way people think that are so valuable that spies are willing to pay for them.

Recent studies have already shown that using differing metaphors causes people to frame issues differently — describing Crime as a Virus, rather than as a Wild Beast, resulted in test subjects more likely to suggests social reform than harsher punishments for criminals. Just changing the phrasing resulted in opinion differences "larger than those that exist between Democrats and Republicans, or between men and women," according to the study's researchers. The IARPA wants to study this effect on a broad scale, seeing how Farsi, Russian, English, and Spanish speakers' world-views differ by studying the construction of their metaphors.

For more, read on at the Atlantic. [IARPA via The Atlantic]

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Is it odd that I don't think 20 million dollars worth of grants* is an enormous amount of money to spend on linguistics research?

*or is it multiple grants of $20 million each and I've misread/not understood the article?