Sunday, 6 October 2019

Do Metaphors Reveal The Contradiction At The Heart Of Our Language?

As a fiction author, I have to nail my colours to the mast of metaphor. For who would want to read a novel which read something like "He did this. Then he did that"? without any metaphors and similes and images to bring the action alive? Even speechmakers resort to metaphors rather than just providing a literal presentation of the message it is they want to transmit. Hell, some scientists indulge in metaphor to communicate their abstruse mathematical equations when translating them to effects in our reality.

And yet, we have to acknowledge a fundamental paradox at the heart of our reliance on metaphors in what it says about language itself. Metaphors and similes express things in terms of something else. These two things cannot be the same, can't be mere homonyms for one another, otherwise what would be the point (other than a very short list of two). Now we have form for this, seeing as our dictionaries which provide and define our vocabularies for us, also define words in terms of other words, which themselves can be looked up and, well defined in terms of other words in the dictionary. (You can look up words to find their etymological roots, usually Anglo-Saxon/ Norman-French, Greek or Latin, but sometimes words have shifted away from these original root meanings, like a decaying half-life, so you are non the wiser: 'screen' means both to hide something behind it, as well as to project something upon it, fundamentally contradictory).

The dictionary definition of our words forms a perfect closed circle, except for the constant change of word usage which means it's still closed, but considerably less than perfect. There is no basecamp of primordial words from which all other words derive. There is supposedly an Ur language, the first ancestor of human language, but we don't know what it was. So there is no rooting magnetic core at the heart of language against which all words can be defined. And when we employ metaphors, we face a similar lack of solidity. Take the humble simile, describing something as 'like' or 'as' something else: his aspirations were as vaporous as a plane's contrail. Aspirations are an abstract concept, therefore in a physical or material sense they can't be like anything else. But that's okay, we're saying they're vaporous anyway, like the short-lived exhaust trail of a passing airplane. And there's the nice bonus of aspirations being aimed skywards to raise us from our current state, matching something skywritten by the plane. But both aspiration and contrail have other associations; the pollution of the burned plane fuel; the hanging contrail evidencing a plane that is no longer in sight; the possibly political, social or advertising fostering of one's aspiration. Is aspiration a noble mental construction, or does it share the more bodily drives of ambition or appetite? So in fact the humble simile more approaches a Venn  Diagram - what they share where they overlap, still leaves great chunks of their structure that have nothing to do with each other.

A Venn Diagram yesterday

Because the overlap of shared meaning is a fraction of the two wholes, this makes metaphors rather hard to land perfectly. In focusing on the shared meaning between the two words, it calls for an obliteration of the other shades of meaning and association of the two words. Many metaphors don't stack up to an even cursory reading. I have just read and reviewed two novels in which most of the metaphors were nonsensical yoking of images together - one of the authors was, I think, doing this deliberately, although I couldn't see to what end.

So is the conclusion that language is eternally and internally referential without ever being able to settle on a single definitive interpretation of a sentence's meaning? Well in one sense yes, but while this is useful in fiction where we are appealing to the imagination of forms that don't necessarily accord to the evidence of our eyes and our understanding of reality, it's not terribly useful in spoken communication (or increasingly in communication online) when we are trying to transmit ideas or an argument unambiguously.

In his book "You Are Not Human", Simon Lanchester asserts that the origins of our alphabet used important notions of man's reliance on hunting, on different animals and tools for the kill, to give shape and name to the earliest letters. This makes sense when you think of the earliest cave paintings being chockfull of images of animals and their hunters who looked to imitate their habits in order to get up close to them (imitating their calls, dressing up in same animal skins etc). Therefore there was a close relationship between letters, the sounds those letters made when combined into words and what those words were actually expressing: letters about animals and hunting, forming words aggregated into sentences that were talking about hunting. However, when those alphabets were taken on and transformed by seafaring nations like Phoenicia and the Ancient Greeks, they became stripped from this meaning. The earliest surviving records of these alphabets are found mainly listing mercantile inventories. The magical imaginations behind the hunting/animal alphabet are replaced by a far more prosaic numbering and categorising based alphabet. The sound of our words no longer bear any relationship to the meaning of those words. And this is why we are yoked to the notion of metaphor. We don't have the word to express directly in order to convey the precise meaning, so we have to try and illustrate its meaning in terms of something else is shares a partial quality with.

Animals still have a formative role in our language, just consider children's alphabet primers, how many of those 26 letters are illustrated with an animal - 'Z' is for zebra etc. But we have severed the animals from our former reverence for them as expressed in our very language. Now we have a mercantile and categorising relationship to animals, as food, pets, predatory threats to our farms or huntable just for pleasure, so that our very language both provides a threat to animal survival and, as Lancaster argues, to our fellow man as we dehumanise groups through animal metaphors, 'Rats', 'Dogs', 'Pigs', 'Vermin', 'Snakes', 'Worms' etc.