English 270, Fall, 2014
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7. Metaphor, Part 1
2. The Speaker in the Text
Style is the characteristic way in which people (or texts, if you allow yourself to think of a text as something which behaves like a person) choose to express themselves. In speaking or writing, people make choices among different ways of saying things, choosing among different words which have similar meanings, or between one sort of sentence structure and another. When you meet someone in the street, for example, as a speaker of English you will have a whole range of possible greetings--each one a way to recognize another person in passing. But which one you choose will depend on who that person is, how well you know them, whether you like them, your mood at the time. “How do you do, sir?” “Hello, how are you”; “Say man, what’s happening?” “Hi, guy!”--each of these expressions (and you can think of many more) are standard greetings (even if you personally don’t choose to use all of them), and they mean just about the same thing. Each is a formulaic recognition of someone else’s presence, and an invitation to respond with the same. [None of these expressions, by the way, usually asks for any particular information. When we say “How are you,” we rarely are interested in a person’s health. In fact, if someone were to answer, “Well, I’ve got a cold actually, and I have had trouble with my back” we’d find their reply just a little strange--and with what you know about Grice's Maxims for conversational implicature you can even explain why.]
But though these different expressions all mean “about the same thing” (linguists would say the expressions are “cognitively synonymous”), and thus though stylistic choices often do not in themselves make any explicit contribution to an utterance’s meaning, still they all have effect on an audience and make important implicit contributions to what we say. Were you to see some important authority figure in the street, someone with whom you were not close friends but knew well enough to greet, you’d unconsciously consult your inner register competence and you would probably use “How do you do?” or “Hello, how are you?” before you’d go with “Say man, what’s happening?”--and if you DID try the slang register version, you might well get a response you weren’t looking for (which Grice could again explain for you--or could he?).
One of the most important ways stylistic choices affect their readers or hearers is by projecting a speaking voice. Read the following two passages aloud (since hearing may make the effect more clear):
1. Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
2. I haven’t checked these figures, but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain Eastern areas, with this idea they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement and the program that every individual is just as good as every other individual.
Passage 1 is the first sentence of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” It is one of the best known sentences in English. In it Lincoln begins his address by immediately projecting a voice which is formal, controlled, thoughtful, yet also direct, authoritative and sensible. It is a voice perfectly appropriate to its occasion--the dedication of a part of the Gettysburg battlefield as a cemetery for men killed in the Civil War--and it is in large part the sense of voice which Lincoln’s stylistic choices create that has made his words so memorable.
Passage 2, by contrast, is from a Time magazine satire by Oliver Jensen of the way President Eisenhower conducted his news conferences. It obviously echoes Lincoln--it is in fact a translation of Lincoln’s sentence into what in the 1950's was called “Eisenhowerese.” But though both passages say generally the same things, in passage 2 the satirist has made stylistic decisions about how to say those things that are very different from the decisions Lincoln made, and the result is that the passage projects a vastly different sense of speaking voice. In place of the succinct rhythms of Lincoln’s prose which project a sense of a man who is clear about his beliefs and direct in asserting them, this passage projects a sense of a speaker who is sure of nothing, and can do little more than wander vaguely in search of a point to make. Here the speaker seems tentative and disorganized, utterly without authority or conviction.
The implications of this example are several. First, it illustrates that whether drawn from a formal and even archaic register like Lincoln’s remarks on one hand, or whether from an impromptu and informally conversational register in the way the satirist presents Eisenhower, all discourse projects some kind of a speaking voice. Second, the examples also show how the voice projected is a product of words used, sentences written. “Fourscore and seven years ago,” Lincoln begins, purposefully choosing a way of saying “87” that even in the nineteenth century was old-fashioned and formal sounding, and by doing so immediately sends a signal that this is a formal occasion and that the speaker is serious, high-minded, and respectful of tradition. What we perceive as the "voice" of the speaker is the product of the words the writer uses.
Third, and this is most important for the kind of analysis that you will be doing here, even for those English speakers who (unlike you at this point!) don’t know how to describe clearly the voice of passages like 1 and 2 above, and even if they haven’t yet developed the conscious awareness of language necessary to describing how particular words have particular stylistic effects, nevertheless everyone who knows English also knows enough to recognize these different voices, and to do so with a great deal of skill and reliability. In the same way you do not consciously translate words you hear into particular meanings, but rather understand them unconsciously without even trying to do so, you also automatically “hear” style, and you also automatically imagine, even if only vaguely, the speaker behind it.
Given these facts, the analysis we’ll be doing here has a three-fold object. First, it will give you a chance to learn or review a set of basic linguistic and writing concepts. Second, seeing how various writers employ particular language choices in order to accomplish certain purposes should also put you in a better position to make such choices yourself. And third, it will help you become a more empirically grounded close-reader. Whether you have thought about it before or not, whether you want to or not, reading (and on the generative side its sibling writing) absolutely requires you to be aware of the range of stylistic options the language supplies you. Obviously, the more you know about those options, the more control you’ll have of the reading, writing and speaking you do.
RESPONDING TO SPEAKERS--What you may not know that you know
What sorts of stylistic particulars does an audience intuitively respond to? First, we are quite well trained to respond to explicit Characterizing Cues, certain qualities of language through which a text both characterizes its speaker and audience, and establishes a particular relationship between the two. That sounds a little complicated, but sending and receiving such cues is something speakers and listeners do all the time. Through various stylistic choices, we make ourselves seem friendly or distant, stuffy or informal, straightforward or comic. In fact, whether you know it or not, whether you wish to or not, you can neither listen nor speak to someone else without responding, or causing your audience to respond, to one language-defined role or another. To become aware of this process, you only have to think of the different tones of voice you would use to (or hear from) a baby as opposed to a college professor, your mother as opposed to your lover, your best friend as opposed to the mayor of Seattle, your worst enemy to whom you wish never again to say a word, as opposed to your worst enemy to whom you still speak. Part of knowing a language is knowing that the way we speak to one person will not always be appropriate to the way we speak to other people. We are, in fact, constantly at work adopting and interpreting roles--though we often do so without a fully conscious awareness of the process.
In addition to responding to explicit characterizing cues, we are also well-trained to respond to the ways in which certain stylistic choices carry Situational Cues, where the context in which someone says something adds something important to what the lexical meanings (dictionary definitions) of the passage’s words overtly declare. These Situational Cues are important; at times, in fact, they may have even more force than lexical meanings, though more usually they work along with lexical meanings to constitute the whole speech act. Consider, for example, “irony,” an effect whereby a speaker can use a tone of voice, or some inappropriateness to the speaking situation of what he or she says, in order to invert meaning. Imagine, for example, a rainy and unseason-ably cold summer day on which a speaker enters a room and says: “What a lovely day!” Since the conventional judgment of such a day is just the opposite—not lovely, but ghastly—the inappropriateness of such a remark will lead most listeners to suspect that the speaker is being “ironic”—pretending to praise the day, but really disliking it just as much as the rest of us, and in fact saying so, but only by using irony.
The point though, is that in context the net meaning of the sentence “What a lovely day!” is that the day isn’t lovely at all—though the simple lexical content of the words, taken by themselves, would say that it is. The Situational Cues for irony, then, create extra-lexical meaning; and they do so by partaking of a linguistic convention which plays the lexical meaning of an utterance against the particular speech situation in which the utterance occurs, thus making the sentence mean more than (adding something “extra” to) what the words alone would support.
In general, whether through explicit Characterizing Cues or through implicit Situational Cues, speakers and texts bring about certain responses in their readers, and it’s important that writers be able to see them working. Remember that there is simply no way to avoid causing some kind of effect. Words create response whether we want them to or not. The question here concerns how we can become more skilled in characterizing our responses when we read, and more effective in creating responses in our own readers when we write.
SPEAKER ANALYSIS--Step 1: Intuitive Responses, or, Where to begin
To analyze a passage to describe its speaker you’ll find it easiest to begin with the Speaker Checklist below. Since you already know a great deal about characterizing speakers, even if you don’t have much conscious control of what you know, all the Checklist does is to supply a set of questions to start the process of making you more aware of what your intuitions about language can tell you. For the most part, the kinds of judgments involved here are those which you are already quite accustomed to making—though again, usually without even noticing it—in ordinary speaking, reading, and writing.
1) How does the writer set the rhetorical situation? Does s/he speak in the first person? third person? Does the writer project a strong sense of personality, or does s/he try to stay unobtrusively in the background? If the text is a poem or a story, does the writer present him or herself as a kind of “character”? If so, how would you describe that character? Does she seem old? young? stable? a bit odd?
2) How would you characterize the “tone” of the speaker? friendly? formal? distant? stuffy? uneducated? “down home”? vatic? weird? controlled? academic? poetic? authoritative? (Keep in mind that English has hundreds of words that can characterize tone. Often you will need several in order to capture a full sense of your speaker.)
3) What does s/he offer you with which to construct an image of himself/
herself? How learned (say)? Or nervous? Or humorous? Or cynical? Or earnest?
How does the language reflect the sorts of things this speaker knows?
How far, in short, can you use the speaker’s language to fill out
his or her character? Is she a mother? a doctor? a Queen? Is he a kid
brother, a student? Is she sixteen? From the East? Does she/he reveal
any fears? Desires? Interests?
Making clear your general responses to a speaker is a good way to start an analysis. But once you’ve made some judgments about what the language implicitly asks of you, and about how it implicitly characterizes its speaker, your next task will be to explain precisely what you think it is about the speaker’s language which creates the effects that you intuitively feel. Suppose, for example, that your intuition tells you that a speaker seems “friendly.” Analysis wants you to find specific characteristics of the style which create this effect. If the voice seems “friendly,” there will be specific stylistic characteristics which will create this sense for you. Perhaps (for example) the writer’s point of view is first person—the speaker says “I want,” and “I believe” instead of “It is imperative that,” or “One believes.” Or perhaps the writer’s word choices (“diction”) are informal and familiar (“If you want to know more about it”), instead of formal and distant (“Should the reader wish to be better informed”).
Alternatively, if you had a sense that a speaker seemed to be expecting a great deal of sophistication and education from you, your task would be to point to specific words, phrases, or syntactic structures which you felt led you to the response you made. Perhaps there are a number of passive constructions, or the diction is heavily latinate, or the subject matter is relatively abstruse, or there are allusions to classical authors, made with the brevity one would use only with those for whom such allusions are mere reminders of what they already know. Any or all of these stylistic characteristics would tend to create a sense that the speaker is educated, complex, maybe even academic, and, correspondingly, that you, as reader, ought to be able to handle relatively complex matters. All such characteristics are part of a writer’s style, and are relevant to understanding and explaining (“analyzing”) your original responses.
This particularizing step of analysis—through which you move from an intuitive “feel” or “sense” of the style’s effect to a specific description of that style’s characteristics—will require that you either develop or review a certain amount of knowledge about the choices the English language actually offers a speaker, and about what the conventional implications of such choices generally are. Here, the following considerations should help you to be specific about your intuitions:
Diction, or Word Choice
From what level of diction are the writer’s words drawn? Are they simple, and often common, monosyllabic? Or are they “dictionary” words, long, polysyllabic? Are they abstruse or recondite (whether polysyllabic or not?) Formal? Conversational? Do you notice any other peculiarities of diction? Does the writer make up new words? Does s/he use slang? If the speaker uses slang, HOW are the words slangy? Is it the slang of dialect? is it an aggressive slang? is it obscene? Does s/he use old-fashioned language? Jargon? Are words used out of their proper contexts (are levels of diction mixed)? or are they borrowed from other languages?
Syntax, or Sentence Structure
Special Effects: Figures of Form, Metaphors, Images
First, for form: does the writer use phonetic patterns? Are sounds repeated? Is there Alliteration, for example, or Assonance? Are there rhythmic patterns? Or does the writer repeat words or structures to create patterns of words or sentences?
Second, for metaphors: does the writer use them at all? If so, are they new and imaginative, or dead or dying? are they clichés? From what sort of background are they drawn? Barnyards? Banquets? The sky and the heavens? (If they ARE drawn from special areas, what does that say about the speaker? If they are from barnyards, for example, what sort of speaker would know about barnyards? If they are computer talk, who knows that?)
Third, for images (metaphoric and not): are there any? If so, to what senses do they appeal? (Sound, sight, taste, touch, smell, movement?) What kind of awareness/knowledges do these images suggest the speaker has?
This Style Checklist is not complete—there are other choices writers can make. Moreover, neither will everything on the list be interesting in every piece of writing, nor does the list suggest very fully what sorts of effects are generally created by each of these characterizing cues. As I have already said, that is something the speakers of any language actually already know a great deal about, and finding ways to bring that knowledge to bear in conscious ways is a major goal in working with specific examples in class. Some of these cues will certainly occur in the passages you deal with, and you will first need to identify them if you are then to explain the effects you have intuitively (and provisionally) hypothesized.
In steps one and two you’ve identified your responses and you’ve described what you take to be their causes. The last step of the analysis has two parts. The first is simply to check and refine your original responses. As you have become more familiar with the style, and have noticed and described more of the choices your author/speaker has made, you will often find yourself able to be more precise about the responses you first made in Step 1. You may even find that your original response—for whatever reasons—misfired, and that what you originally took to be an honest, straightforward style, for example, now seems to you ironic, or satirical. That’s fine. First responses are not sacrosanct, though they are still strong evidence with which to begin your work.
But having checked/refined your sense of the style, your final task is to connect your now well-informed sense of the text’s style to the passage’s overt meaning. Does the work’s style help, reinforce, or extend, the work’s overt sense? Does it “fit” the work? Is, for example, a text about the dignity of human life written in a “dignified” style? Or does the work’s style in fact run counter to its sense? In a composition textbook, for example, does the writer urge us to write simple and clear prose while using the jargon of education courses and an intimidating array of complex and periodic sentences? (Again, a good example of a style that is brilliantly appropriate to its situation is to be found in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s object is to dedicate a cemetery—a serious and solemn task, and as we saw above, for doing so he creates a voice that is solemn, controlled, and properly respectful of tradition.)
If you’ve done your work well, this last step will be the pay-off, a place where you can see and judge how well writers have used the resources of English to achieve their purposes, and—more important in English 131—a place from which your own sense of style can be refined and extended. For writing well very much depends not just upon a clear understanding of what responses we want from any given writing we do, but also upon our knowing what resources the language provides with which those responses can be pursued.
How to Get This Down on Paper
Writing about style is no different from any other writing you do, but it may seem so owing to the step-by-step method I’ve given you for analyzing various texts. Some of you will find yourselves knee-deep in observations—burdened, in effect, with so much to say, and so much that is disparate and seemingly miscellaneous, that you won’t know how to proceed. The problem, though, lies not so much in the kind of writing you are doing as in the fact that this analytical procedure can be a very productive way to generate commentary. As a result, instead of having most students' traditional worry about whether you will ever think of enough to say, a full analysis of any of these passages may provide you with more material than you can possibly put in a single paper. Of course, not everyone likes that position, but it is an absolute godsend for good writing. Focusing and organizing a lot of information can be tough, but they sure as heck beat trying to make something out of nothing!
What, though, to do? In essence, writing about style is just the reverse of analyzing it, and thus what you do now is to go backwards. In analysis, the task was to start from the details of the text, observing, describing, classifying, in order to come to a general conclusion about the way the piece constructed its speaker, and how well or badly it managed the task. But when, by contrast, you’re writing about style, the task is just the opposite: You begin with your general conclusion—the thing you’ve worked through your analysis in order to be able to say—and you then work step by step to set out your reasons for thinking what you do.
That is important enough to repeat: the analysis process is inductive. When you analyze something, you begin with small bits of information, with just intuitive responses to the text. But then as you work to understand the style of the passage, first by describing your responses, then by explaining those responses by describing the passage’s various stylistic features, you gradually put yourself in position to draw some sort of conclusion about what response the writer is aiming at, and how it is obtained.
A paper about style, on the other hand, ought to start precisely where analysis ends: with your conclusions (though now, since we’re writing an essay, we call those conclusions an "argument," or a "claim," or a "thesis"). Then, with your claim stated, and stated clearly and fully, you can proceed to show your reasons for having made your claim. And please keep in mind that until you give your reader reasons to believe you, your claim about the passage is just (and only) that: a claim. Remember that your reader will not have thought about the passage as closely as you have, and may not see it the way you do. Your job is to write fully, but also convincingly, about what you see your passage's effects to be.
So imagine that your reader also has the kind of chip on his/her shoulder that says “show me!” before believing anything. Your role for such a reader is both to provide a description of the speaking voice you think the passage creates, and to explain as clearly and as fully as you can just what you see in the passage that has led you to your conclusions. Even if the conclusions you have come to seem obvious to you, remember that your reader still may not share them. Here as in any other paper you write you are making an argument, giving grounds to support the results of your thinking. Your task (I say again) is thus to marshal your reasons effectively and efficiently in order to show your reader how they justify your argument.
Seeing it Work
I cited the first sentence of The Gettysburg Address above. I give you the whole of it now, and it is followed by a (very good) student essay written to characterize and explain its speaking voice. Read through the Address carefully and aloud. Then spend a few minutes trying steps one and two of the analysis I outlined above. Then, finally, go on to read the essay.
The Gettysburg Address
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate--we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
From his audience, Lincoln seems to expect serious attention. He seems to expect a mood of sadness, perhaps disillusionment or doubt. But he assumes that he and his listeners share the same broad fundamental beliefs in God, human dignity and democracy. He places himself on the same level as his listeners by joining them in an attitude of awe and respect for the dead they have come together to honor. This rhetorical stance of equality with the audience is crucial because it inspires their assent to his call for further courage and self-sacrifice.
Lincoln achieves these effects, first of all, by means of his choice of the first-person plural point of view. He stands equal with his listeners; “we” and “ours” is used throughout. Lincoln’s mixed diction also contributes to the feeling of his equal stance with his audience. Latin and Anglo-Saxon words are brilliantly combined to convey the sense of a speaker who is educated, capable of grasping abstract ideas, while still remaining a common man. It sends the message: “You and I may be regular guys, but we are capable of grasping ideals and of making heroic efforts.” Almost all of Lincoln’s political ideas are conveyed in Latinate terminology (e.g. “continent,” “nation,” “liberty,” “proposition,” “conceived,” “dedicated,” “engaged,” “civil,” “equal,” “proper”). Along side this abstract but not recondite vocabulary, making his message more accessible to his listeners, are a great number of simple, short Anglo-Saxon words, most of which are in common use (e.g., “fathers,” “men living and dead,” “field,” “ground,” “earth,” “work,” “God,” “brought forth,” “birth of freedom”).
Two or three phrases are worth special note. “Fourscore” is Anglo-Saxon; it is solid, definite, sure. The origin of the word is Germanic, giving it a common cast, yet it was not, I think, even l50 years ago, used frequently; it has an archaic flavor. The word suits Lincoln’s purpose perfectly; it achieves a formal tone without creating distance between the speaker and audience. Another phrase worth noting is “our fathers brought forth.” Again, the words are Germanic in origin. They are common and humble, yet measured and somber in their sound and rhythm, conveying almost a tribal sense between speaker and audience.
The rhythm of “The Gettysburg Address” is slow, and measured, conveying not only the sense of the speaker as laconic and reflective, but the feeling that the occasion itself is a somber one. Repetition is a key device in the address: repetition of words, phrases, clauses (with slight variation) and syntactic forms. Some examples of repeated phrases are “a new nation . . . that nation . . . or any nation. . . that that nation.” A clause repeated with slight change is “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work. . . . It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task. . . .” Parallel constructions abound: “we cannot dedicate . . . we cannot consecrate . . . we cannot hallow . . .” and “conceived in liberty . . . dedicated to the proposition . . . so conceived and so dedicated. . . .” In the last sentence we have a kind of extreme of this repetition of parallel phrases, for “that from these dead we take . . . that we here highly . . . that this nation . . . that this government. . . .” Then, finally, Lincoln ends with still another set of parallels as his conclusion--the famous “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
For the most part, the syntax of the “Gettysburg Address” is loose, allowing for easy comprehension in oral speech. One of the ways Lincoln comes across as a laconic speaker who does not care to show off his education is through his frequent use of short clauses. He can thereby convey complex thoughts in the fewest possible words. Examples include sentence one: “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition . . .” and sentence two: “civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated. . . .” Lincoln will also delete part of a complex conjunction to gain the same effect, (e.g., in sentence four, in place of “so that” he has “for those who here gave lives that that nation. . . .”)
In conclusion, Lincoln’s ability to use complex patterns and syntactic structures, as well as his use of Latinate diction, create a tone of formal, even distanced intellect, and supplies credence to the ideals he holds up to his audience. His Anglo-Saxon word choices and the simplifications of grammatical structures, on the other hand, as well as the point of view he has chosen, help put him on common ground with his listeners.
3. Two Practice Passages
Using the Speaker in the Text to guide your work write out a description of each of these speakers as you "hear" them, and then note as many characteristics of the language in first one passage and then the other as you can.
1. Ecclesiastes, from the Bible, King James Version
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever. The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing which hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
2. Ernest Hemingway, from “Big Two-Hearted River”
Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had expected
to find the scattered houses of the town and then walked down the railroad
track to the bridge over the river. The river was there. It swirled against
the log piles of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water,
colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves
steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed
their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water
again. Nick watched them a long time.
4. Two more passages—more practice
a) Jayne Anne Phillips, from “Home”
I’m afraid Walter Cronkite has had it, says Mom. Roger Mudd always does the news now—how would you like to have a name like that? Walter used to do the conventions and a football game now and then. I mean he would sort of appear, on the sidelines. Didn’t he? But you never see him anymore. Lord. Something is going on.
Mom, I say. Maybe he’s just resting. He must have made a lot of money by now. Maybe he’s tired of talking about elections and mine disasters and the collapse of the franc. Maybe he’s in love with a young girl.
He’s not the type, says my mother. You can tell THAT much. No, she says, I’m afraid it’s cancer.
My mother has her suspicions. She ponders. I have been home with her for two months. I ran out of money and I wasn’t in love, so I have come home to my mother. She is an educational administrator. All winter long after work she watches television and knits afghans.
Come home, she said. Save money.
I can’t possibly do it, I said. Jesus, I’m twenty-three years old.
Don’t be silly, she said. And don’t use profanity.
b) Margaret Atwood, from Surfacing
I can’t believe I’m on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they now have seaplanes for hire. But this is still near the city limits; we didn’t go through, it’s swelled enough to have a bypass, that’s success.
I never thought of it as a city but as the last or first outpost depending on which way we were going, an accumulation of sheds and boxes and one main street with a movie theater, the itz, the oyal, red R burned out, and two restaurants which served identical gray hamburger steaks plastered with mud gravy and canned peas, watery and pallid as fisheyes, and French fries bleary with lard. Order a poached egg, my mother said, you can tell if it’s fresh by the edges.
5. Morphology: Once More from the Top
What it is: Morphology is the study of the permissible forms words can take in a given language. It is the least “regular” of the formal elements that make up the grammar of a language, but just as with phonetics and (as we’ll see shortly) syntax, there are nevertheless a number of basic rules that govern the forms words take in English.
The rules for creating new words in English (a new word is often called a “neologism”) are set out pretty well in Chapter 5. We will continue to use that chapter’s explanation of our ways of creating new words in English. Yule's Chapter 5 is a good chapter.
But as I hope I have also made clear, I’m less happy with the way Yule handles Morphology. This isn’t because he is “wrong”; rather it is because the kinds of simplifications he makes (as any introductory text is going to have to make!) lead to some confusions that in my judgment can be avoided with a little bit different presentation.
So that’s what I’m going to do here—offer you a treatment of some key morphological concepts that will replace/supplement the treatment Yule gives you.
Words in English are made up of one or more basic elements. Each of these elements is called a morpheme. The study of morphology is the study of what sorts of combinations of elements exist in English, and, insofar as we can deduce them, the rules English follows for the combination and use of those elements. Even though a lot of what happens with words depends on language history and on oddities of use and absorption of neologisms into the larger frame of English as a whole, there are still rules and regularities in morphology as well as in phonology and syntax.
First we need some technical terms to identify different morphemes in English.
The twelve basic terms we need are stem, affix (including “prefix, infix, suffix”), free, bound, open, closed, productive, non-productive, derivational, inflectional, lexical, functional.
A free morpheme is an irreducible unit of meaning that can occur either by itself (and therefore free from combination with any other morpheme) or, sometimes, in combination with other morphemes. When a free morpheme occurs by itself, it is identical to its corresponding word. Thus the word “word” is a free morpheme, as are “free” and “cool” and “talk.”
A bound morpheme is an irreducible unit of meaning that can occur ONLY in combination with one or more other morphemes. The morpheme “-dom” which occurs in words like “freedom” and “kingdom” is a bound morpheme, since it does not occur on its own as the word *“dom.”
Thus the word “freedom” is made up of two morphemes, the free morpheme <free> and the bound morpheme <-dom> (from now on I will use the pointed brackets to signify a morpheme—just as we used square brackets to identify phones and forward slashes to identify phonemes). The word "chalkboard" is a little different; it is also made up of two morphemes, <chalk> and <board>, but each or these is a free morpheme. Words made up of two (or more!) free morphemes are called compound words.
Stems and affixes:
We can also talk about words made up of more than one morpheme like “freedom” by determining which of its morphemes is the basic root of the meaning, and which is an attachment whose role is to modify the basic meaning in one way or another. We call the basic root the “stem,” and those morphemes which are attachments to the stem that modify, alter or adjust the stem’s basic meaning we call “affixes.” English has three kinds of affix: the prefix, suffix, and infix. The first two occur very, very frequently, and most students learn about them in grade school. The third, the infix, is rare in English, though very common in certain other languages. (There are a few English infixes that are not slangily vulgar, but most are in fact vulgar, like “absofuckinglutely” or "fanfuckingtastic." This may be why students are not taught about infixes in grade school.)
Affixes are either inflectional or derivational:
Inflectional affixes are additions we make to a stem that adjust for person, number, tense, or comparative relationships. Some languages have a great number of these (Russian, Latin, Spanish), while others have none at all (Chinese, Vietnamese). We have just 8 in English: those which attach to verbs (<-s>, <–ing>, <-ed>, <–en>), those which attach to nouns ( <-’s>, <-s>), and those that attach to adjectives (<-er>, <-est>). (English used to have a larger number of inflectional morphemes, but most of ours have disappeared over the past 800 years. In fact, there is one more that is still used by some, but has gradually disappeared. It has been said that at this point in the history of English this inflectional affix is never learned naturally but only through schooling. Very few speakers know how to use it, or even try. Can you guess what it is?)
Derivational affixes change either the meaning or the function of the word to which they attach. There are lots of derivational affixes. One of the most common is the <-er> suffix attached to verbs that means “one who does the action of,” as in helper (the one who does the helping); other common derivational affixes include the <able>, a suffix that means “capable of being” (e.g., helpable means “capable of being helped”), the <-ly> suffix that turns an adjective into an adverb (e.g., “quick” to “quickly”), the <un-> prefix that negates the meaning of whatever it attaches to (e.g., undo, unable, uncool, unendingly) and the <re-> prefix that means “do over” (e.g., replant, replace, remember). Most affixes are bound morphemes, but there are still quite a few, like <able> or <full>, that are free.
Open and Closed morphemes:
The whole set of English words can be divided into two classes. One, the class of closed morphemes, is made up of all the words that a language can't function without. These words are the prepositions, conjunctions, articles, pronouns, and the inflectional affixes of English. The number of such words in English changes very rarely. They are used very, very frequently--they are in some sense the bones of the language. Other words change, they can be modified by adding prefixes and affixes, and we can make up new ones whenever and wherever we want to. This class of morphemes is closed because it almost never add new members and it only rarely loses the ones it already has. In theory we could add a new preposition or conjuction to English, but in fact we don't. We can't usually even think of candidates for such new words. What new conjunction, say, would we ever need? Currently, of course, we have "and," "or," "but," and a goodly number of others--but we probably don't even have a way to propose any new members to this class.
The rest of the language's morphemes belong to the open class of morphemes--a class that can, and fairly often does, add new members and drop others (when we just stop using them). In this class are verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. We say of them that they belong to the open class because its membership can change when we add new ones (two new members of the class of open morphemes in English are "email" and "blog"), or drop old ones.
Functional and Lexical morphemes:
Closed morphemes are almost exclusively what we call functional morphemes—they do less to give you basic meanings in a sentence than they do to establish relationships between other morphemes. Thus in the sentence “The dog walked down the street” we have four functional morphemes, all of which are belong to the closed set of morphemes: <the>, <-ed>, <down>, and (again) <the>.
The rest of this sentence is made up of what we call lexical morphemes—the ones that, we might say, do the heavy lifting of meaning in the sentence, the work of identifying and describing a subject, and of saying things about that subject. They are also all members of the Open Class of English morphemes.
Finally, a word about productive and unproductive morphemes.
This is about how we make, or produce, new words. We use these terms generally about stems and affixes. A productive morpheme is one we can use to produce a new word. Thus the morpheme <-er> in the word "player" is a productive morpheme. We have hundreds of words in English that use this suffix, but we can always add more to the list of English words with the <-er> suffix because it is a productive morpheme. Suppose we take the noun “word” and use it as a verb. We can do this without actually changing its form at all (as Shakespeare does when he has Cleopatra say of Octavius Caesar late in Antony and Cleopatra “He words me!”—meaning that she thinks Caesar is speaking sweet words to her, but doesn’t mean anything he says.)
We could say then that one (like Caesar) who "words" another (like Cleopatra) is a “worder” of people—he uses words without committing himself to their actual meaning. Were we to use “worder” in a sentence, it might be the first time anyone had ever done so—but even though no one had ever heard it before, any hearer, in the right context, would understand what we were saying because we are following a standard morphological rule of English, and thus part of the things competent speakers of English know, even when they don't know that they know them!
The same kind of productivity applies to the morphemes <–able> and <–full> (the second usually spelled with just one “l” when used as a derivational morpheme) and to many another morpheme as well. We even occasionally have strange new productive morphemes, like the ending syllables of “chocoholic” or “shopoholic.” The phoneme <-oholic>, derived from the word “alcoholic,” is relatively new to English as a productive morpheme, but has nevertheless become relatively common. If someone is a great reader, for example, we can call them a "bookoholic"—and because that neologism follows the rules of English morphology for the creation of new words, all speakers of English will understand what we mean. In fact, someone has probably already used that word! [note: I just now did a Google search for “bookoholic” and it turned up 14,700 entries!]
(I know I’m a golfoholic. What do you do to excess that is really fun, that you would have trouble giving up, and that might not finally be all that good for you [a definition which someone might give of the bound, open, productive, lexical, derivational morpheme <-oholic>]?)
A last word on words:
One new word to English is a word coined by linguists themselves: “uptalk.” It’s a verb that means to pronounce sentences in such a way as to make them rise in tone at the end. This tendency came into English a decade or so ago, and has become quite common among some speakers. (Some of you in this class may uptalk on occasion!) The word “uptalk” itself is an example of a neologism that has been formed by combining two free morphemes, “up” and “talk” into a verb, “to uptalk.” But like any other word in English, we can derive new words on the fly, as it were, by adding appropriate affixes. Thus we can speak of one who “uptalks,” or “is uptalking,” or we can speak of an “uptalker.” Anyone who knows the base word “uptalk” will also be able to recognize, understand, and use each of these other forms. (Curzan and Adams, How English Works, 2nd ed., 110).
Last Nugget: What interesting morphological questions does the word "cranberry" raise?
6. What Grammar Is and What Grammar Isn't--
7. Metaphor: the Jewel of any Language
Part 1: Literary Metaphor
A metaphor is a special use of language which offers a comparison asserting a similarity between two apparently dissimilar things. Sometimes these comparisons are explicit (“my love is like a rose”), sometimes they are implicit (“the heirs were wolves”), sometimes they are submerged—which means more or less buried within language. To say someone “attacked” his sandwich is to compare eating with warfare, though only in a very indirect, half-hidden way. Explicit comparisons with “like” or “as” are usually called “similes.”
Metaphors are among a language’s most powerful tools, and as such they present a number of complicated issues. First, think of metaphor in terms of the semantic logic of comparison. Whenever you say A is like B, you ought also to be able—provided it is a well-formed comparison—to add some sort of adverbial expression (often termed the “grounds” of the comparison) that would specify the way you think they are alike. Thus, “My love is like a rose” is a comparison of a love to a rose, and you could add something like “in that s/he is sweet, soft, and beautiful” in order to specify the grounds upon which your comparison is based.
What makes metaphor a particularly powerful form of expression is that while the logic of comparison demands that we understand the expression by understanding some way in which a likeness exists between the thing talked about (in this case “my love”—traditionally called the metaphor’s “tenor”) and the thing the tenor is compared to (in this case “a rose”—traditionally called the “vehicle”), very often, especially in literary contexts, the adverbial phrase that would define the way in which a vehicle is like its tenor is omitted. Instead, the expression’s interpretation is left up to its readers/hearers to supply. To be sure, as speakers of a language we are usually capable of doing just that—we supply our best guess as to what the likely grounds for comparison would be.
Consider the comparison that opens Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet:
Here Shakespeare’s speaker compares his aging self (the metaphor’s tenor) to the autumn of the year (the metaphor’s vehicle), the season when leaves turn color and fall from the trees, leaving them bare and shaking in the cold autumnal winds. But while the speaker gives you details about autumn, he doesn’t actually explain how they are like him. That doesn’t, however, mean we can’t understand his thought. For if we think of the details he gives us, they suggest things we know about how old age is like autumn: if trees lose leaves as the year grows old, so human beings lose hair, and if trees begin to look thin and bare as their leaves fall, so, too, do older people begin to look gaunt and less full. And if wind can cause bare limbs to shake, so can the weaknesses and palsies of old age.
So we could rephrase what Shakespeare writes by expanding his metaphor with a “how”-clause that gives the grounds which explain how the metaphor is to be understood: In me you may see someone who is in his autumn in that my signs of age are like a tree's signs of going dormant: its falling leaves are like my falling hair, its bare boughs are like my loss of strength and beauty, its wind-shaken limbs suggest the palsy I may soon have.
When we expand metaphors in this way we can say that we are "interpreting" the metaphor; we can also say we are participating in a kind of "argument"—something that can be either true or false, or relevant or irrelevant. From this point of view, we can say a metaphor makes a kind of claim about its tenor which we may judge in one way or another: interesting and provocative, or, alternatively, perplexing, misleading, hackneyed, or just plain wrong! The fact is that part of our ability to understand metaphors is our ability to make judgments about how "apt" or "imaginative" or "effective" or even "true" any given metaphor is.
So: a metaphor is not just a comparison, it is also a kind of argumentative claim. We can express that a little more formally by saying that the speaker/writer of a metaphor says in effect: I claim that A is like B, and in support of that claim I can either supply the grounds that support my claim (a full comparison that includes one or more "how"-clauses) or I can leave it to you to do it for me (a condensed metaphor, where you as reader/hearer are left to supply appropriate "how"-clauses).
Whether implicit or explicit, full or condensed, then, all metaphors have a logical form of something like “I assert that A is like B in that G,” where G stands for the metaphor’s grounds—or the explanation of how it makes sense to compare these obviously dissimilar things. Grounds are thus often supplied by one or more of what we can call “how”-clauses.
Expanding condensed metaphors by supplying how-clauses is actually one of the key processes of literary interpretation, since literary metaphors very frequently omit their how-clauses. As a result, recognizing, exploring, and then making explicit the semantic logic of metaphoric comparisons is a central skill that sophisticated readers must cultivate. Indeed, those readers who have not learned to explain the ways in which literary metaphors work will be missing precisely what is often the most powerful dimension of literary expression. Conversely, those who have learned to recognize, explore and then explain metaphors will tend to be more successful readers and writers about literary matters.
So good poets use metaphors well, and often without including how-clauses to explain how their readers are supposed to understand their comparisons. But for the rest of us (and for bad poets!), not all metaphors allow one to drop the how-clause and still be understood. We can get away with “My love is a rose” because it has been used so many times that it is a thought that anyone can understand. But the very similar looking metaphor “My cat is a dog” doesn’t work anywhere near as well. Indeed, it seems a pretty unclear way of saying something, since without any other help, hearers of that sentence are unlikely to know how to proceed in understanding the proposed comparison. Indeed, since the comparison is implicit (there is no “like” used), we may not even think it IS a comparison! Does the speaker mean she actually has no cat, but a dog instead? Or does she simply mean she does have a cat but that it is a terrible cat? (as in the expression “what a dog of a meal”).
In such cases of indecision a hearer can ask the speaker for the relevant grounds: “I don’t get it—how is your cat like a dog?” At which point the speaker might add an explicit how-clause: well, she’s like a dog in that she waits at the window for me to come home in the evening. Indeed, instead of “My cat is a dog” she might even clarify her comparison by rephrasing the sentence as “My cat sits in the window at night, dog-like, patiently waiting the sound of my car in the drive.” There she would have given you both tenor and vehicle, along with the grounds that explain how, exactly, the comparison is to be taken.
So let me sum up. Metaphors are comparisons in which two non-identical, dissimilar things are compared in order to focus on one or more ways in which they are alike. Sometimes the ways in which they are alike is fully spelled out, but very often the ways in which the two things are alike is not articulated. This creates what is in effect a compression or condensation of meaning—which in the hands of a skilled poet offers readers an opportunity to explore the semantic logic of that poet’s language in an effort to find satisfying significations, but which among unskilled poets and all the rest of us can lead instead to failed communication or even misunderstanding.
The Semantics of Metaphor
That’s a brief sketch of what a metaphor is—now let’s talk about the semantics of metaphor. How do human speakers of language go about making sense of these comparisons?
Linguists have often talked about metaphor in terms of semantic features. You learned in our semantics chapter about "lexical fields" as a way of grouping various words in terms of the similarities of the entities they refer to. Thus dogs, cats, elephants, human beings, and ducks are all members of the lexical field of "animals," while broccoli, mustard, grapes and lettuce are all members of the lexical field of "edible things." Of course, duck, for some is also a member of the lexical field of "edible" things--though none of the other members of that field listed here are animals.
To organize the relations between the lexical fields of reference of different words linguists have often resorted to what they have called "semantic features." This is a way to categorize any given word in terms of the kinds of things it can be used to refer to, and it includes such things as human and non-human, animate and non-animate, concrete (as in something actually visible, even touchable) and abstract (or, "not-concrete"). These are binary categories, which means they demarcate exactly the class of those things that have the named quality, and exclude everything else. Thus, you and I are members of the [+human] class; we are also [+concrete] and [+animate] (where the brackets indicate we are using these words to designate semantic features. And we can distinguish ourselves from our pets (except those which don't breathe) by noting that while our pet dogs and cats and fish are like us in being marked [+animate], we are differentiated from them in that they are not human—which makes them [-human].
Linguists have proposed lots of semantic features, some with very large classes like [+/- human], [+/- animate], [+/- female], and these can be hierarchically arranged. Thus anything that is [+human] is necessarily [+animate], too, which means that [+human] is subordinate to [+animate]. Similarly, anything that is [+female] is necessarily [+animate], but not necessarily [+human] (though many obviously are!). The sorts of semantic features like these that govern large classes of entities can be called primary features, and they give a way to understand certain sorts of syntactic constraints we must follow when we string words together to make sense. Thus one can say: “The woman wrote an essay” or you can say “The elephant wrote an essay,” and both are syntactically correct. But the first of those two makes an easy sense, while the second requires some special maneuvering. Elephants can do many wonderful things, but writing isn’t among them, and that, in fact, is true for all the animals in the universe except human beings. Thus we can say that while “write” is itself neither animal, vegetable or mineral, still, because it can be used only in combination with entities that are marked [+human], it is also marked for [+human agent], meaning that semantically the word can only be used when the subject of the verb—the agent—is human.
That said, some of you will say that “The elephant wrote an essay” might actually be useable in a conversation, and you’d be right. It might be about Babar, the elephant character in the French children’s stories who did all sorts of human things, or it might be about real elephants but saying something about their doing something that wouldn’t literally be writing, but could still be called that because it bears a certain likeness to it. Maybe the elephant was using her trunk to push around the sand in front of her, and the result was such that you might say: “That elephant’s trunk has moved so much sand that she’s written an epic with it.” In that case, though, you have actually clarified the sentence to show that you are speaking metaphorically, not literally. You could then make your meaning fully explicit with a how-clause: What the elephant has done in the sand is like a kind of writing in that she has used her trunk like a pen to make designs in the sand that bear some resemblance to a series of words or hieroglyphs.
And as for the Babar example, the real solution to that quandary is to notice that Babar may “be” an elephant, but he is also a character in a story, and in that fiction he is marked [+human-like], and thus, pretending as we read that Babar can talk and write and wear suits, we understand easily whatever he does, whether it is marked [+human agent] or not. Babar isn’t after all a story about elephants in the wild, it’s a fantasy about elephants who are pretty much like humans, except with very big noses.
So what? The thing that makes a reader of the Babar sentence go into metaphor-reading mode is an automatic perception on that reader's part of a mismatch of primary features. Elephants are marked [–human], but the verb “write” is marked [+human agent]. So when we read the sentence, we very quickly notice the mismatch and either instantly think that the sentence makes no sense (a literal reading), or we go into our metaphorical reading mode—something all speakers of human languages learn to do—and sort it out that way (a figurative, or metaphoric, reading).
For a different example, think of what happens in Shakespeare’s King Lear when Gloucester remarks at 4.1.33 that before he jumped off the cliff in an effort to kill himself he had been made to “think a man a worm.” With this he makes a comparison between human beings and worms, but his expression is condensed because he doesn’t explain anything about the ways in which he thinks these two entities are alike. He assumes his listeners will fill in that missing part, expanding the bare terms of the metaphor to include the ways in which the likeness makes sense. When this happens, I think of it as a condensation of meaning—something that interestingly does not lose meaning, but instead becomes much more dependent on a reader’s capacity to “read into” what is on the page by looking for features of worms and human beings that could justify such a statement.
What is powerful in literary condensations of this sort is that the expanding we must do if the metaphor is to be understood is left to our imaginations, and often, by using our imaginations, we can expand the expression in very provocative ways. Here Gloucester says only that he used to think man was worm-like, but how exactly could man be worm-like? Gloucester doesn’t say, so we reader/hearers must unpack the comparison to supply an appropriate how-clause, a range of possible meanings, any one of which, or even all of which, might be ways to understand what Gloucester has in mind. Thus humanity might be worm-like in being low, mindless or crawling. Those are all either secondary or tertiary semantic features of worms that could apply to human beings in certain circumstances like those Gloucester was in. Or maybe human beings are to be understood as worm-like in their being repulsive to the touch, a thing no one would want to handle, and thus a thing no one could possible love. Or maybe it’s only to declare us more like a worm than the thing we more frequently would like to think ourselves: a copy of the divine. Each of these would fit, even explain, Gloucester’s state of suicidal despair—why would any human being want to go on living if they really thought themselves to be as low or mindless or soulless or undeserving of love as a worm?
The general point here though isn’t simply that every metaphor has a multiplicity of meanings, but rather that many metaphors have a wide range of potential implication, much or all of it unspoken and functioning only by indirection. As a result, once we’ve noticed a metaphor—“man is a worm”—we are offered an opportunity to explore the logic of how the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor are, and are not, like each other, and to ask how the comparison’s very incompleteness offers perspectives of one kind or another on the speaker or the situation. Sometimes those meanings seem actually intended by the line’s speaker (as Gloucester certainly does mean to suggest that he had been thinking that man is as lowly and unlovable as a worm). But at other times such meanings are only ironically present. Thus we may think—in ways Gloucester himself was obviously not thinking—that while man may indeed be worm-like, many of this play’s characters are far more worm-like than he is. Indeed, although Gloucester has done some pretty stupid and harmful things, and had decided to kill himself in despair, ironically he is by no means the wormiest of this lot. Edmund, Goneril, Reagan, Cornwall—even Lear himself—all seem more worm-like than Gloucester.)
But let’s return to the way linguists would use semantic feature analysis to clarify just HOW it is that we construct these meanings. Man is but a lowly worm, Gloucester says, but that is physically impossible and semantically impossible, too, at least as a literal expression, since “man” is marked [+human], and “worm” is marked [–human]. But the fact that it is “literally” impossible sends our minds into their metaphorical search routines. And what does THAT mean? It means that when we can't interpret something literally we search our internal semantic inventory for ways in which the expression in question could make sense as a comparison. So although the verb here is “is,” and thus suggests identity, it can only make sense if we read it as “is like.” “Like” is the great adjustor word—it allows us to use all sorts of different and diverse words in new contexts to generate new meanings. If we can’t explain something, we’ll sometimes say, “Well, it’s like when you….” Do that well enough and your listener gets the point. But how? How do we figure out that point?
Understanding metaphors, then, is about understanding semantic features, so let's go a little farther towards understanding what we human beings know about the way the semantics of words works.
There are actually three different kinds of semantic features: primary, secondary, and tertiary.
Primary features (like [+abstract (vs concrete), +living, +human, +animal, +vegetable, +/-female, +locomote, +cause, +growing/inchoative and quite a few others]) govern large classes of words. Thus the word cat is marked for: [+animal], [-human], [+/-female]—which means cats are animals, but not human, and can be either male or female. In this they are unlike stones, which though [-abstract] like cats and all other objects in the world, are [-animal]. They are also [-living] and therefore also neither [+female] or [-female]. These features give a fairly general way of seeing similarities and differences across large classes of words.
Secondary features then extend this basic meaning skeleton by adding things we know more specific to given entities. In the case of cats we could add several secondary characteristics: four-legged, whiskered, long-tailed, purring and meowing, pointy ears, domesticated, may hunt small animals and insects, is more or less omnivorous, and has sharp retractile claws and a long tail. (You can, no doubt think of others—e.g., has fur, is a big self-groomer, normally lives to 15 or so). Those features would hold for all cats generally, but (as I say above) with significantly less general scope with respect to all the other concepts and objects in the world than primary features have.
Tertiary features are those significances that come along with a word like cat but which are not necessarily true of any or all of cats, but are rather contained in our cultural knowledges about them. Thus it is said often that cats can see in the dark, although that is actually not true. They can indeed see in lower light than we can, but not in the dark. Still, because it has been said a lot, it has become part of what we “know” (or think we know!) about cats. Similarly it is said of cats that they always land on their feet. This, too, is not actually true (I have paid vet bills for a cat who did not land on his feet when he fell from a height of some ten feet), though they are on the whole pretty agile. Other tertiary features of cats include stand-offishness, nap happy-ness, silent or sneaky walker, sexual profligacy, is easily scared, and is a creature of the night. Many of these features MAY be true of any given cat, but none are necessary to cats as a whole. (Most of my cats have gone to sleep early and didn’t get up until morning.)
So, when someone says “I think there is a new cat-burglar in the neighborhood,” we first recognize that "cat-burglar" is an implicit and condensed comparison (this particular burglar is like a cat somehow, but how is unspecified) and then go on to construct our understanding of how that comparison makes sense by searching through our mental inventory of things-we-know-about-cats that would fit this conversational context, and especially we look through those tertiary features we’ve learned here and there all our lives long, and in this case we can expand this metaphor by proposing that this is a burglar who, like a cat (at least according to our culture’s general semantic store of information about cats), works stealthily and by night. (Note, again, that those two features are both tertiary features; neither is necessary to being a cat, but both are associated with cats and certainly work well here to explain the grounds that support the implicit comparison here of a burglar to a cat.) What we would not expect is that the cat-burglar had retractile claws or fur. Indeed, we'd be pretty surprised if either turned out to be true.
Concepts to know from all of this: metaphor, simile, tenor, vehicle, grounds (how-clause), semantic features (primary, secondary, tertiary), condensation/compression.
part 2: Conceptual Metaphor
Literary metaphors are not the only metaphors in language, even though that has been the traditional understanding of them. In fact, metaphor is a very common occurrence in speech and writing of all sorts. Indeed, we live in a world of figurative comparisons, and most of them pass us by without our even noticing that they are metaphors. Consider the way we talk about arguments. Here is a paragraph about argument:
The language of that paragraph is not unusual, but it is pretty much all based on a single metaphor: engaging in arguments is like engaging in war.
Commenting on the way we talk about arguments as if they were wars, George Lakoff writes:
He then goes on to explain:
George Lakoff, "Humans as Symbol-Using Creatures," p.105
Now, the interesting question is not whether this “understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another” happens at all (it obviously does); rather, it is whether the use of war as metaphor in cases like this changes or limits or controls what we actually do when we argue. Lakoff, perhaps the inventor of the field of metaphor study in linguistics, thinks the answer to that question is unequivocally YES.
We could think about this better, perhaps, with a contrastive example. Suppose we changed the metaphor of argument from war to, say, conversation. Here instead of talking about “winning” or “losing” an argument you might instead look to “understanding” and “agreeing.” In that metaphorical context, instead of attacking or undermining your opponents arguments, you’d be offering ideas, explaining why you believe something, giving support to your explanations, engaging others in dialogue about whether and how they might not agree, looking to find ways to bridge differences. Your kind of argument, you might think, would be a whole lot less stressful than an argument whose participants worked within the language of war.
Can we define the difference that shift of metaphor makes? Those who think about conceptual metaphor would suggest it makes a huge difference. Thinking of argument as war reinforces notions of force and winning at any cost; it promotes an ethos of competition, winning and losing, a kind of verbal violence which may actually lead a lot of people to avoid engaging in it altogether. Argument as conversation, by contrast, is far less agonistic, far less threatening either physically or emotionally to its participants. In conversation one can in fact (though in reality we don’t always manage this) agree or disagree without recrimination, or a sense of loss or self-endangerment. Preferring the metaphor of argument as conversation would also allow “face” to be handled differently. As in normal life, conversational argument would allow for conventions of respect and face-saving as part of what makes the process work, and not as a sign of weakness.
If any of that is true, it leads to another question: if argument as conversation can in fact take place, and if most of us would prefer that form of argument to a more agonistic mode, why is argument so often NOT like a conversation? Why does argument so often turn into ego vs. ego? Is it the nature of argument itself, or is it the metaphorical frame within which it is set?
[When I polled you as a class on the question of whether you tend to avoid arguments because of their aggressive, competitive nature almost every one of you indicated that yes, indeed, you did. Would that be the same if an “argument” wasn’t so stressful an enterprise? if it were no more or less than an intelligent and thoughtful conversation?]
These considerations seem fairly uncontroversial. Others are not. Thus the government declares a war on drugs, and we may not notice that that declaration, too, is a metaphor. For what it has us really saying is that we will treat drugs as if they were an enemy to be resisted by all extraordinary means, and we will attack drug runners and peddlers as if they were soldiers in the druggy army. To use this expression instead of something more literal—like "we are going to enforce our drug laws fully and effectively"—seems to many to make us sound more serious, more forceful, and perhaps even, since Americans don’t like to think we ever have or ever could lose a war, already half successful just for having declared one!
So from a president’s point of view to use the war metaphor here makes sense. But does it also make sense in terms of what we actually do? Or in terms of what our actual goals for a national policy with respect to drugs might be? Some would argue that to use a metaphor like war restricts our vision and our realm of possible actions, and converts ordinary human beings (some of which you may know—indeed, one of whom might be someone in this very class) into “enemies.” In fighting "the War on Drugs," such critics would argue, we are thus short on treatment, long on imprisonment, short on clarity about what elements of drug use are abhorrent and socially destructive and long on general and blanket condemnations that many think sweep with the good along with the bad.
We have as a nation similarly declared a “War on Terror.” Maybe that is just the right metaphor—certainly the Bush administration liked it, and the Obama administration has at the very least not very clearly rejected it.
But there are again those who say that the war metaphor here, too, obscures our full vision and, in consequence, our very conceptualization of appropriate ways to respond. If it’s a war, it makes sense to use bombs and drones and so on. And indeed, maybe it makes sense to do that whether we call it a “War on Terror” or not. But, as we noted above with the "War on Drugs," the semantic features of "war" tend to license all sorts of actions that civilized nations reject during peacetime, and this in turn has given rise to the notion that conducting a "war" on terror all around the globe has in fact been way of authorizing a set of actions that Americans, and American law, would normally reject, and screening out, as inappropriate to war, certain actions which might (critics would maintain) result in better outcomes than the dropping of bombs. Critics would say that calling this a "war" helps mask what is an extraordinarily expensive enterprise that wreaks death and destruction even when carried out as humanely as possible. If you are at war, they would argue, you are not working as effectively as you might for political solutions, or for winning hearts and minds with well- targeted foreign aid, infrastructure projects and the like.
Please understand. I’m not here taking a side in this conversation.
Rather, I only point out that we deploy metaphors in many different and
very important ways in all sorts of contexts and all sorts of places,
and to suggest that you as citizen as well as student will
be better served in the long run if you can come to see how these hidden
conceptual metaphors can structure thinking. If the metaphors around
us do in fact impose ways of thinking about many things, wouldn’t
we all want to be able to free ourselves from their over-all conceptual
(adapted from Lakoff, "Humans as Symbol-Using Creatures," pp.105-6)
Two Examples of Metaphor at Work
1. Two Cartoons
9. The English 270 Portfolio
The portfolio for this class is like many other portfolios: it is a collection and display of the work you have done, together with a reflective essay describing your experience in the course. This project thus offers you a chance to review your quarter's work, as well as to put that work into some kind of narrative perspective. Your portfolio should include:
1) A detailed listing of the contents of the Portfolio.
2) All of the exercises/writing you have done for this class over the course of the quarter.
3) A two to three page Self-Reflective Essay.
The Self-Reflective essay should be about your experience in this class. You should prepare for it by reviewing your work for the quarter, but the actual essay may take a number of forms. It may, for example, discuss the nature of the learning you have done this quarter, describing what you take to be your work's strengths, how those strengths may have changed over the course of the term, and anything you think you still might be able to improve. Or it may be a narrative of your experience in this course: why you took it, what problems it presented to you as it progressed, and what you did to address them. Or it may discuss how your attitudes about language have developed, changed, or not changed during the quarter: what were you thinking when you came in, and how has that changed in the ten weeks since?
However you choose to set it out, the object of the exercise is to have you review your experience in the course, to think about that experience, and to do something towards evaluating and making sense of it.
The portfolio counts for 60 points of the course grade; I will evaluate the daily assignments included in the Portfolio on the basis of completeness and quality of involvement (30 points total). The essay I'll evaluate on the basis of responsiveness and thoughtfulness as follows (30 points total):
The Portfolio should be submitted in a large mailing envelope. Its
presentation should be neat, ordered, and careful. To have it returned,
be sure to address it and to provide postage sufficient for the thirty
pages or so you will have submitted.
Munro and Hermeneutics
Last week we began to develop a reading of Munro’s “Boys and Girls.” In this process we have done what we can call interpretation—which means reading the literal story in a figurative way. From this point of view the story is not just about what a woman growing up on a rural Canadian farm remembered about the time the horse got away. It is certainly about that, too, but what trained readers of fiction know how to do is read such stories figuratively, either as metaphors for their own lives, or as a way of talking about human experience in a more general sense. We thus can understand the story as not just about this one child’s growing up, but also about how many (or even all) children grow up.
Moreover, in this story we accept/expect that the author intended that we see this as more than just a “story.” That last element is not necessary for our thinking of this story as a work of literature, or as a literary work, since there are stories we read as literature whose authors’ intentions are either unknown or, if known, not really intending that their story be anything more than just a story. From that point of view, the decision to see something as “literary” in the sense of capable of supporting figurative reading is finally not the author’s, but the reader’s.
In doing what we did with “Boys and Girls” we were enacting a fairly standard role, that of the hermeneut, or of one practiced in hermeneutics. Historically, hermeneutics has been most developed in religious traditions; there you generally have one or more sacred texts which become revered in part because they seem to answer important questions. The answers provided, however, couldn’t possibly be particular to the many, many different situations for which they are sought. Instead, one sees applicability of particular passages to particular situations. This is tricky, and it calls into being a set of interpreters who can do this work. Jewish rabbinical tradition and Christian exegetical tradition develop out of this work and dominate the practices of much of western culture (religion often plays a role in other cultures as well), but while much of hermeneutics as a recognizable process was originally religious, it has also been generalized from the practice of mapping experience onto religious texts or vice versa to the practice of mapping our sense of human experience onto secular “figurative” texts.
We can see figurative texts in two broad categories:
1. texts that seemed intended to be read figuratively, or at least lend themselves easily to such readings, and
2. texts that were clearly not so intended, but which have been read in such ways anyway.
“Boys and Girls” is an example of the first. As an example of the second, let me tell you about a classroom interchange I heard of a few years ago. The class was in geography, and at a certain point the teacher referred to the Thames (the large river that runs through London). She called it the [tεmz]--which is in fact how the British pronouce the word. But at this point one of her students quickly interrupted by saying, “you mean the [θemz], don’t you?”
The sentence “You mean the Thames, don’t you?” is not meant to be read figuratively. It is clearly an effort to correct the teacher’s pronunciation—though, ironically, done so by someone who didn’t actually know how to pronounce the word.
But even though what the professor and the student said is not a “literary” or “figuratively intended” text, we can still see it as a text with multiple “intentions,” and as such readable in ways that go beyond what could be explained by its original intention. Because if you say it was enough just to get that intention straight, you will leave out ways of reading that are both very interesting and yet not “intended” by the speaker of that sentence.
She seems to have meant to be correcting the teacher, but why? Perhaps helpfully, perhaps as a form of subtle attack. Thus she may also have “meant,” though in an unconscious or unrealized way, to be asserting herself in a classroom interpersonal dynamic where she was trying to establish her own sense of agency, of “knowing-ness”; and, any of her actual intentions aside, she was also participating in an exchange that we can read from a cultural point of view as a particular kind of episode in the academic ritual of class-taking. From this last point of view what the student says constitutes a moment of resistance, perhaps, to the sort of disciplining that schooling of necessity constitutes—the over-riding of students’ prior understandings or conceptual dynamics with new information by a teacher.
I’m not being cynical in this last—there is, we have agreed as a culture as well as individually for the most part, good reason for this ritual of education. Learning often requires unlearning; it can be upsetting, painful, boring, intrusive, and all of that. But while we think these rituals are worth enduring because it’s hard to see how we will promote learning in any other way, they can also be wrong-headed and more aimed at indoctrination than education (let us say), or they can simply be a personal exercise in power/domination by a teacher who feels threatened.
But the point is that if we limit ourselves simply to the expressed intent, or even the possible set of intents, of an “author” of a given text, we will be excluding much from what we might quite reasonably and significantly want to say about what a text in its full context “means.”
All of this will matter a great deal as we move on to our next reading: Jasmine. It bears much resemblance to “Boys and Girls,” though it is also very, very different. Some of the themes of B&G are used here, too—which should not surprise us because human cultures, though they differ, all begin in a similar place, with the physical and psychological necessities of human existence. What we do in response to those necessities certainly differs by culture, but the traces of the origins of those actions are similarly there.
So as you read the first chapters of Jasmine, use B&G as a template—against which to ask: what is similar, and what is different.