Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

In the last post, I mentioned a project. That is what has been killing my creativity for the past three months. The topic is metaphorical language; how it is stored and processed in the mind. Now, I don't know if I am built for research, have a research bent-of-mind. I don't know, for instance, how flattering it is that I got the idea for my first serious linguistics project from a science fiction novel (Embassytown by China Mieville, if it matters.) But over the past several weeks, I have managed to stumble and bumble along, and in this big jumble of data collection and experimental software and statistical tools, I have (almost) developed a taste for it. 

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is the first book I read post topic-selection. It is a book that is (un)popular for its intricate claims. I love it! The essence of the book is the claim that metaphors are the vessel for meaning. Linguistic experience is rooted in conceptual metaphors. 

We generally associate the word 'metaphor' with the literary device. Aristotle said something about a perfectly constructed metaphor being the awesomest thing ever (it's been long since I quoted Aristotle, my memory is a bit rusty.) According to Lakoff and Johnson, we need to stop thinking of metaphors as some sort of flourish that poets add to their language and realize that it is something we all employ. It would be impossible to speak about 'concepts' without metaphors, that is, without likening them to concrete perceptual and physical processes. To explain what they mean, the first example they provide is that of the metaphor of ARGUMENT as WAR. 

Your claims are indefensible
He attacked every weak point in my argument. 
His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. 
I have never won an argument with him. 
You disagree? Okay, shoot! 

We cannot talk about arguments, without talking about war. The experience of ARGUMENT finds embodiment in the language of WAR. As someone who is entirely inept at arguments, always takes them as personal attacks and surrenders in every argument with a 'Fine, I'm wrong. You win,' I can personally attest to this metaphor. 

But that is not the end of their line of thought. What if instead of talking about ARGUMENT in terms of WAR, we adopted the language of DANCE? Imagine a culture where two partners are said to perform an argument, where claims are choreographed to aesthetically please, where strategies are twirls. Will the resulting act of communication be an argument at all? Not as we view it, at any rate. When the words change, they conclude, so does the experience, and with that, the very action changes.

The point here is that not only our conception of an argument but the way we carry it out is grounded in our knowledge and experience of physical combat. Even if you have never fought a fistfight in you life, much less a war, but have been arguing from the time you began to talk, you still conceive of arguments, and execute them, according to the ARGUMENT is WAR metaphor because the metaphor is built into the conceptual system of the culture in which you live. 

They give examples of other such metaphors, a stand out being TIME is MONEY. You can spend time, give someone your time, and so on. These are called structural metaphors, where the language is so structured that ideas are objects that can be spent, stored, buried, wasted and given. The authors stress however that these metaphors are only partially structured, so you can spend time, but there are no time banks like money banks. The metaphors of time don't hold true for all the structures and linguistic usages of money. 

Another interesting kind of metaphors is the orientational one. Anything that is GOOD is UP and BAD is DOWN. So your spirits rise, you are at the peak of your career, you do high-quality work, something boosts your confidence. In contrast, you fall into depravity, you are under someone's control and so on. The authors explain again that these distinctions are not randomly assigned but based on a network of physical and cultural experiences, that may vary across societies according to what is valued more and what needs to be brought into focus. They give many instances, so many instances that you are overcome with awe by the sheer power of their observation and inference-making skills. 

Eventually, things begin to get really complex, when you see that ARGUMENT is conceptualised as more than just WAR. There can be an ARGUMENT is a BUILDING metaphor (his claims were shaky) or an ARGUMENT is a JOURNEY (you can't retract your claim now, having come so far.) This is where the arbitrariness of such a descriptive piece of writing as this book begins to show through. All the hypotheses proposed by Lakoff and Johnson are strictly experiential and with every new page, they stray away from language science and into the realm of philosophy. This is not necessarily bad.

Towards the end of the book, they talk about the meaning and subjectivity of truth. How any statement is true only relative to some understanding of it. France is hexagonal, Missouri is a parallelogram, Italy is boot-shaped. All of these are true to a little boy drawing a map in school and laughably wrong to any self-respecting professional cartographer. 

It is because we understand situations in terms of our conceptual system that we can understand statements using that system of concepts as being true, that is, as fitting or not fitting the situation as we understand it. Truth is therefore a function of our conceptual system. It is because many of our concepts are metaphorical in nature, and because we understand situations in terms of those concepts, that metaphors can be true or false.

The first time I heard of Lakoff had been (I later recollected) in a book where Steven Pinker made fun of his very unempirical analyses. The 'language is thought' hypothesis has been somewhat carelessly thrown out by most linguists. (But if you are interested in some recent relevant research on this, I refer you to a favourite cognitive linguist.)

In Embassytown by China Mieville, the book that gave me the idea for the project, there is a race of aliens called Ariekei. The one difference between humans and the Ariekei is that the alien language has no metaphors. The Ariekei can only talk about things that are physically and perceptually concrete. Unlike humans, you see, the Ariekei cannot lie. Embassytown has many holes, but one thing it did impress upon me was the value of our ability to draw creative links between what is and could be. Metaphors We Live By shows the extent of this, and it is so inspired. It is a beautiful read for any speaker or learner of English. It will give you a whole new perspective on the language and a keen awareness of every word choice you make the next time you speak.


Viktoria Berg said...

Your link to Lera Boroditsky´s talk almost led me on an hours-long dive into the interesting topic of linguistics (= procrastination, at the moment). However, I must study pharmacology - my professor of that subject is Indian, by the way! :-) He lectures in English, but speaks very good Swedish, too, so during question time it´s a fine mix. Most of my immigrant class mates love his lectures, because he is so easy to understand. Anyhow, thanks for this reading tip, I´m putting it on my list; I think I would certainly enjoy it!

Brian Joseph said...

What an interesting subject!

Among other fascinating points is the structuring arguments around a system of dance. I like that and I think to some extent it can be a great way to engage in discussion. Of course when the person on the other side wants to engage in war, it makes it difficult.

Priya said...

Viktoria, glad (and not) to have wasted your time! :)

Brian, it would be very interesting to see such a conversation play out, you're right! Imagine how frustrating it would be to the one who wants a war ;)

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