Thursday, January 25, 2007

Block That Metaphor!

Steven Pinker, who has a new book coming out in September, looks at the role of metaphor in our thought process. (He also has some interesting things to say about swearing.) An excerpt:

"He attacked my position and I defended it." It uses the metaphor of argument as war. Or how about "this program isn't going anywhere," which uses the metaphor of progress as motion.

Says Pinker: "Look at almost any passage and you'll find that a paragraph has five or six metaphors in it. It's not that the speaker is trying to be poetic, it's just that that's the way language works.

"Rather than occasionally reaching for a metaphor to communicate, to a very large extent communication is the use of metaphor," he says.

"It could be that 95 per cent of our speech is metaphorical, if you go back far enough in language."

Why? Here, the teacher part of researcher and author Steven Pinker comes to the fore, offering a boring explanation and an interesting explanation, both with an element of truth.

The boring explanation is that using metaphor is a quick-and-dirty way of expressing a new idea without the trouble of coining [notice the metaphor] and propagating a new word.

"But that presupposes that the mind itself works metaphorically, that we see the abstract commonality between argument and war, between progress and motion. And it presupposes that the mind, at some level, must reason very concretely in order that these metaphors be understand and become contagious.

"And that's the more interesting part of the story."

[HT: Arts & Letters Daily ]

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