Saturday, 10 August 2013

Metaphors and multilinguals

Many years ago, one of my children decided that one good way of putting his newfound walking ability to use was to bolt around the house targeting furniture and people, and asking about the names of whatever he bumped into. One day, he crash-landed on the arm of an armchair. Having asked what that was, and having received the answer um braço (‘an arm’), he forgot to race to his next victim. He was dumbfounded: an arm?? He already knew the word for ‘human upper limb’, so he endlessly repeated his question, first slapping the arms of the armchair, then slapping his own arms, and then alternately slapping each of the two ‘arm’-thingies, until he satisfied himself that those completely different objects indeed went by the same name.

He had no idea, of course, that we adults decided that one good way of putting our vocabularies to use was to extend the meaning(s) of words, for example by means of metaphor. Metaphors use comparisons without using the word like: the arms of an armchair aren’t like arms, they are arms, and we call them so by name. My boy’s bafflement got me baffled, too, about two things. First, why do we say that adults use metaphor and children use overextension (or overgeneralisation)? When big ones call a part of a table leg, and when little ones call any cutlery spoon, we’re all doing the same thing: giving the same name to whatever strikes us as similar. You can read introductory accounts of metaphorical and overextension processes in Chapters 9 and 12 of my book The Language of Language, respectively, and a full account of this armchair episode in Chapter 8 of another book of mine, Three is a Crowd?.

The second thing that got me wondering was what exactly is it that prompts our perception of “similarity” – whether we’re intending to compare things metaphorically or not. Do we say that an armchair has arms because armchairs look like sitting human beings relaxing their arms on their sides, because their lateral appendages feel like arms when we sit, or because we rest our arms on them? That is, what does the “arm” in armchair mean? And, for those languages which have equivalent concepts designating armchairs, does the arm bit mean the same? Not to speak of the chair bit, of course. That is, how are metaphorical meanings got at, in different languages? For a thorough discussion of metaphor generation and usage in English, try Andrew Goatly’s book The Language of Metaphors.

Words and word-based constructions, however, are just one fraction of the linguistic devices that we can use metaphorically. Our languages come complete with gestures, including vocal gestures, through which we can create meanings. Prosodic metaphors are the reason why the “same” word can be used – and interpreted – as a term of endearment or of abuse, as I noted in a previous post. It all depends how you say it: our uses of words create their meanings. Do we use rising (as opposed to falling) tones of voice, say, because rises vs. falls carry distinct meanings in our language(s), because we want to show politeness or encouragement, or because rises but not falls happen to be characteristic of our language(s)? And what do these vocal gestures mean to other people, when we use them, unwittingly, in a different language from the one(s) in which they’re meaningful to us?

Metaphors build on constructed associations of meanings, in arbitrary, culture-bound ways. The same is true of other forms of comparison which permeate our everyday uses of language, including analogy. In a review of Cameron Shelley’s book Multiple Analogies in Science and Philosophy, I argue that analogy is “central to everyday reasoning about everyday happenings”, so much so that “we hardly realise the extent to which it shapes our thought.

Predictably, metaphors and analogies abound in scientific thought, too. Their use “overextends” our thinking from what is familiar to us to what we know (nearly) nothing about, and then, once accepted as legitimate ways of expressing our observations, they constrain further thought, for better or for worse. If we call an X a big bang, say, we want to associate X to whatever we already know of bigness and of bangness. Which, of course, may not match what someone else understands by these words, even if we’re all using them in the same language.

And what to say of the metaphors that riddle discussions about multilingualism? What, exactly, do we mean by labels such as balanced, half-/semi-, dominant, first, mother, standard, which have become “standard” in shaping our thought about language? Why, exactly, do we go on using such terminology? Have a look in my book Multilinguals are...?, for more about this.

My next post keeps to the topic of things we like to interpret metaphorically.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual dreams and nightmares. Saturday 7th September 2013.


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