Language is ... a bullet, a box, a key ... - On metaphors for language

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by greenberg, Nov 20, 2007.

  1. greenberg until the end of the world Registered Senior Member

    I was reading this post by Grantywanty -

    I haven't explored much about this yet - What actually happens when the words reach the other person?

    I suppose my conscious metaphor for language would be language is a key - ie. that words and sentences function as keys that open (or don't open) doors and then one gets to see things (or not). But I suspect this metaphor is a bit lacking.

    What do you think -
    What is your metaphor for language?
    What actually happens when the words reach the other person?
  2. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  3. Spud Emperor solanaceous common tater Registered Senior Member

    Good question, good question!
    I have more than sneaking suspicion that my posts go largely misunderstood or completely misunderstood on Sci.
    So yeah, I use the wrong keys, I open the right doors but nobody's home.

    I have a friend who is a fine artist but, being an artist, his work doesn't resonate with everyone. His paintings are often criticised as being naive or childish and they're neither.
    They always have hidden subtleties, great use of colour and texture and ambiguities.
    He converses like he paints and to me, he's fucking brilliant, others think he is a frivolous idiot.
    At a party, he'll start a conversation with a stranger by ' slapping around some paint' and seeing where it goes from there.

    My general metaphor for conversational language with friends would be pictures, often cartoons and parodies.
    For this reason I absolutely love the posts of Gustav and spuriousmonkey, their posts, even the shortest ones always seem to contain tangents, angles and visual clues.

    So how are my words received by others?.. by friends,.. with warmth, humour, empathy, love and a fair degree of patience. On Sci,.. I've got no fucking idea..really.
  4. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  5. cosmictraveler Be kind to yourself always. Valued Senior Member

    I have found that by saying as much as I can as simply as I can usually

    conveys my thoughts about a subjct. Sometimes others will misinterpert

    what I've said and get pissed off or have another negative reaction to

    them. If I really don't understand what someone is trying to say I ask them

    to "rephrase" their statement in another way. People have a way of not

    seeing what is written but only see what they think is there.
  6. Google AdSense Guest Advertisement

    to hide all adverts.
  7. Grantywanty Registered Senior Member

    I must confess to being quite caught up in the container metaphor - it is deeply embedded in the language, see Cobersts favorite philosopher, Lakoff.

    But I have sometimes tried to loosen the conception of it by saying it is a dance. An improvised one, when small cues move out partners bodies, change tempos, and instigate responding moves that do this also. If you add in the internal prioreceptive and emotional changes each sets off in the other a dance of real aesthetic, participatory -as opposed to audiance experienced - beauty can be experienced.
  8. RoyLennigan Registered Senior Member

    Language is a metaphor. It is a metaphor for experience. We cannot perceive absolute reality. As such, we most certainly cannot convey any great amount of truth by anything we do (or say). When you speak to someone, you arouse the associations that that person has to the sounds that you are making. By putting them in an unfamiliar order, you create the appearance or sensation of "new information," but it is simply old information jumbled into a new order. The only new information is the exact tone and sound the person is making.
  9. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    How come you didn't start this thread on the Linguistics board?

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

    I call language a technology. Words are tools, as are all the other elements of language such as grammar and syntax. Remember that a technology is a way of accomplishing something, and does not have to encompass physical tools.

    The task that language allowed us to accomplish was vastly improved communication. What we perceive as truth is only one of many things that we communicate using language. We also communicate feelings, ideas, social structure, and a virtually limitless set of other things.

    One of the key improvements in communication brought about by language was a (surely unanticipated) increase in its span. It became possible to transmit the expressions of the speaker--with rather good accuracy and detail--through several intermediaries to someone he never met... even someone who was born after he died, in a place he never heard of.

    So, to search for a convenient label for language is as futile as with any revolutionary technology. What would you say agriculture is, for example? Like language, it brought about a profound change in the way humans live. Agriculture is a technology. So is civilization itself.

    I'm not sure what you can call these inventions that could describe them more usefully or accurately than "technologies." This word links them together and stresses their commonalities, which helps us study them.

    Using massively parallel computing, evidence is slowly being gathered which suggests that all languages outside of Africa are related. If they are truly descended from one mother tongue that was brought out of Africa, language may turn out to be the key technology that allowed us to successfully migrate out of Africa in the first place! To call such a powerful toolset a "metaphor" seems to miss the point.
  10. greenberg until the end of the world Registered Senior Member

    Because it is a topic in the field of philosophy of language.

    I'm not looking for a "convenient label" for language, but in exploring the ways in which the phenomenon of language is understood by people.

    This is the philosophy forum.

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

  11. kame Registered Member

    I always thought of language as a medium for ideas and messages to be transmitted through.
  12. Grantywanty Registered Senior Member

    Can you run with this metaphor a bit. Tools tend to work on materials. What are the materials here? We also tend to be quite aware that the tool is not us. Does this hold with language? Tools are often developed in relation to other humanmade artifacts that they fit with: screwdrivers with screws, etc. Is there a parallel here? There are tremendous problems in communicating between people. How does the tool metaphor aid in understanding these problems and achieving solutions? What are the advantages of your metaphor?

    This presumes we do not already have dead metaphors in charge of our conception of language. Perhaps these metaphors have blind spots, are misleading, etc. and it is useful to look at other metaphors to bring to life our thinking about language.

    Michael Reddy found

    that we have a strong underlying conduit metaphor for language. In his essay, not on the link, he points out some of the problems of this metaphor.

    Notice that Kame, above, has presented a classic form of the conduit metaphor for language.

    I may have missed it, but I didn't think this was the point. To call language a metaphor. Rather to examine our conception of language and what happens when we language and what might be an appropriate metaphor for that process.
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2007
  13. greenberg until the end of the world Registered Senior Member

    Questions seconded.
  14. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Well, let's look at our other paradigm-shifting technologies, or toolsets, for a pattern.
    • Fire. What's the material? *Gulp* Starting right off with a hard one. The earliest use of fire was probably to generate environmental heat. The material was the air, but nobody knew about air at the time so in their frame of reference the material was themselves; fire made them warm. Fire also kept predators at bay so the material was other animals. Eventually it was used on food.
    • Flint-knapping and other stonework. Obviously the material was stone. But as flint artifacts became weapons and other tools, their materials were varied, from animals being hunted to wood being cut and trimmed.
    • Agriculture. The material was, again, food. But in the case of farming, also the earth that the plants grew in.
    Perhaps the materials are what tools work with. What we want to identify is what the tools work on: the artifacts or conditions they create.
    • So fire created the conditions of comfort and safety, and eventually created food.
    • Flint-knapping created tools, so it is a recursive technology, but ultimately it created the condition in which man became the apex predator in the entire global ecosystem. It also created the condition in which man could alter his environment by working on wood, hides, stone and other materials. It created the condition of man's dominance over nature: a singular paradigm shift that altered his world forever.
    • To continue: permanent villages. The materials were manifold and perhaps irrelevant. The condition they created was the transcendence of our pack-social instinct. The technology of the village allowed and encouraged us to use our uniquely massive forebrain to override our instinct to live in nomadic extended-family units of hunter-gatherers, and begin living in harmony and cooperation with people we had not known intimately from birth. Once again, a technology created the condition of man's dominance over nature: this time human nature, our animal nature to live in hunting packs.
    • Civilization. Incremental advances in agriculture, stonemasonry and other existing technologies allowed and encouraged us to continue transcending our pack-social instinct, finally learning to live in harmony and cooperation with complete strangers: the other clans we would normally regard as competitors for scarce resources. Division of labor and economy of scale meant that our instinct to live in small independent traveling bands was now a handicap; that huge permanent settlements--with walls and roofs of wood and stone, roadways, draft animals (everywhere except the Olmec cities where the largest domesticated animal was the peculiarly unsuitable turkey), assigned activities and organized leadership--made everyone more comfortable, secure and prosperous. Once again a new technology created the condition of increased dominance over both man's own nature and the nature surrounding him.
    We could go on with the rest of the paradigm-shifting technologies: Bronze metallurgy, iron metallurgy, industry, chemical energy and electronics. But where does language fit in this sequence?

    Like most professional linguists, this amateur is satisfied with the circumstantial evidence that language predates the Neolithic Era. Most language families seem to have roots that go back beyond the Neolithic Revolutions that began around 9500BCE when the first cultivated figs were left for us to find. It's likely--although not proven--that language predates the diaspora out of Africa in 70,000BCE. That puts its invention back in the mists of time, in the Mesolithic, or even in the Paleolithic with fire and flint-knapping.

    So as a paradigm-shifting technology, what were the materials that this toolset worked with, or what were the artifacts and conditions that it worked on?

    Language created the condition that people were able to communicate better. Not just "better," but a textbook case of a "quantum improvement." The modern term "bandwidth" comes into play. Language delivered a quantum increase in the bandwidth of communication. The scope and detail of ideas that could be discussed increased dramatically as language progressed from a small set of syllables and/or hand signals to the six-figure vocabularies, complex syntactical and grammatical rules, and permanent writing systems that characterize our modern languages.

    Language is a tool for people to develop ideas collaboratively. Discussing our ideas in descriptive detail creates more and richer ideas than we could devise as individuals. But moreover, being able to think in words does the same thing. Every one of us, with the odd exception of the musician, sculptor, athlete, etc., thinks predominantly in words. Sure, there's a non-verbal undercurrent of hunger, love, bladder condition, anxiety about work, cute puppy over there, beer deficiency, weeds in the lawn, etc., but that occupies a very small part of our consciousness.

    Because we have language, we think about more subjects, we think in more detail, and we think more effectively. The "artifacts" that we create with the technology of language are ideas.
    Wow is that ever a glass-half-empty point of view. Before language, the communication between people was rudimentary. Far less than what you'd experience today trying to communicate via pointing and pantomime with someone who speaks only Tlingit or Khmer, because those pre-linguistic people didn't have the cornucopia of ideas in their heads that you and the Tlingit guy do have, which have been crafted by a hundred thousand years of collaborative thinking among talking people. You have more to say than those early humans, so it stands to reason that you might have more communication problems than they did.

    My hoover occasionally clogs and I have to stop and fix it. I wish it didn't do that. But not for an instant do I characterize the technology of vacuum cleaning by its "tremendous problems in getting the detritus off the floor." I characterize it by its ability to keep the floor relatively clean so when someone drops in they're not wading in grass clippings, dog hair, and shredded chocolate wrappers. Every technology has its limitations as we struggle to improve it. To ask how language aids in solving the problems that are due to the limitations of language itself is to ignore the fact that language has on the balance been a source of solutions, rather than problems.

    I often sit here and curse at my computer for losing my connection to an interesting website, garbling a document I'm writing, or blowing off a game I'm winning. But not for a second do I lose track of the fact that I wouldn't even be able to do those things if the computer had not been invented. Do I use the computer to solve computer problems? Sure. But my primary use of the computer is to process and transmit data, not to solve the problems that only exist because of the availability of that primary use.

    In fact, the "information infrastructure" is the next step in communication technology, another paradigm shift like written language six thousand years ago. It is changing the way we communicate with each other, the way we store ideas... and ultimately the way we form ideas.

    Technologies change the way we interact with the world and each other, and in the long run solidify man's mastery over nature. Language does just that, and so language is a technology.
  15. Gustav Banned Banned

    happy now guys?

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

  16. Grantywanty Registered Senior Member

    Of course. I didn't ask FR because I thought his was a poor choice. I tried to shift him from resisting the topic to participating. In the collection of essays on metaphor where I first encountered 'The Conduit Metaphor' one of the authors worked out a way of viewing language using a tool metaphor in a rather fascinating way.
  17. Grantywanty Registered Senior Member

    If you meant me, I certainly did not mean this. I meant how can viewing language as a tool or set of tools help us to understand the problems we have communicating. The Conduit Metaphor highlight the mulling over how to put ____________(something) into words - note the metaphor - and relay this - more metaphor - to someone else, where they will try to 'get the meaning out of the words' that have been communicated' - more metaphor. I was asking about how having a tool metaphor for language aids in understanding the problems or the process of languaging. I am not saying 'language is not a tool' or ' language is a bad thing'.

    So you do not see this as at all metaphorical. Perhaps that is where we are talking at cross purposes.

    I think you are focusing on results. Language is a tool that allows these various things to happen.

    I was looking for metaphors that help me understand the process of language, either as experienced while using - phenomenology - or perhaps how it functions between people if one is an observer. Right now we have a number of metaphors for language use. One quite common one is the conduit metaphor, but there are others. I think it is interesting to bring into consciousness that we already have metaphors that affect the way we think about language - I am not referring to metaphors that affect the way we think about people, the world, love, real world objects, etc.

    I think the tool metaphor has a great deal of merit and can help understand some of the complexities of getting around solipsism. The conduit metaphor can be misleading because it can lead us to believe that the meaning is 'in there'. When a good case can be made that words have no interiors and messages do not function as containers.
    Last edited: Nov 23, 2007
  18. greenberg until the end of the world Registered Senior Member

    I'll give this a try -

    Language is a tool.
    Reality is the material that gets worked on with the tool.

    Syllables, words, sentences, paragraphs and texts are cookie-cutters, scissors, hammers, chain saws, hand saws, needles, pins, levers, knives, pliers, sickles, screwdrivers, chisels, blades, drills, wrenches, forks, plows, rakes, spades, clamps, and such.

  19. Grantywanty Registered Senior Member

    Please, one step further. Two people are talking. What is happening with the tools?
  20. greenberg until the end of the world Registered Senior Member

    Let me see.

    Two people are beginning a conversation.

    I say: "Oh, ..." (I search for words)
    I take some dynamite, go to the quarry and blow a piece of rock off. That's how it feels when I start off with this communication, it's really hard and tough, requiring a lot of effort. I'm leaving a lot open for interpretation and coincidence, this is why I didn't take a cookie-cutter or a mould. Working on a rock this way signifes that interpreting and leaving things up to coincidence is a tough job.

    I say: "I was intending to ask you something about language."
    Then I take a chisel and a hammer and roughly sculpt that piece of rock. I am applying some principles of metaphysics that I deem are general enough to be understood by you.

    You say: "What would you like to ask me about language?"
    You give me your rock for a while. I use it to chip off some edges off of my rock. I am using your input to refine my own. With the newly sculpted rock, I say:
    "Could we talk a bit about metaphors for language?"

    I stop because working out this "language is a tool metaphor" is damn tedious.

    Please Register or Log in to view the hidden image!

  21. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I have no problem with metaphors. But "technology" is not a metaphor for language. It is a perfectly accurate and objective description of language that is in wide usage. Look up any list of the key technologies invented over the course of man's history and you'll find spoken language and written language right there.

    A widely quoted definition of "technology" that I'm not able to attribute is: "Technology is the set of tools that the race has found indispensable." Language is incontrovertibly one of them.

    If you'd like to continue finding good metaphors for this particular toolset, don't let me stop you. That's certainly a proper discussion for this subforum. Just don't keep trying to say that "tool," "toolset" and "technology" are metaphors. They're not, any more than "food" is a metaphor for lunch.
  22. Grantywanty Registered Senior Member

    OK. I see where you are coming from. But part of my confusion is really that you are off topic. You have not tried to answer the OP.

    'Tools' and 'Technology' can ALSO be used as metaphors for the process as experienced in the use of language - There's a rather wonderful essay in Andrew Ortony's (ed.) Metaphor and Thought looking at problems and possibilities in communcation using tool and toolmaker as metaphors for language and communicators. So I thought you might be heading in a similar direction.

    On some level it seems like you have taken the thread to be a criticism of language. That certainly was not my intent, nor do I think it was Greenberg's. Perhaps the thread would function better in Philosophy.
  23. greenberg until the end of the world Registered Senior Member

    That's why I posted it there, but it was moved.

Share This Page