This is an excerpt form a piece I’m currently writing on the function of metaphor within everyday language. It is also the subject of my essay for my degree course which is taking priority at the moment as I have only week before the cut-off date for submission. Despite my lack of references in this little snippet, what I propose here is not mere speculation, it is based on tried and tested theory and observation pioneered by many of the major contributors to the understanding and development of sociolinguistics over the last sixty years or so. The notion that all language is essentially metaphorical and thus highly ambiguous and subjective is one that I find very compelling and a conclusion that I have arrived at in my own work over the years. It’s good to know that I am backed by the academic community in my thinking, makes me feel a little less new-agey (Brrr… as my friend Argus would say).


The strange thing is that the moment you ask what a fig is, the concept of the fig as a definite article (I mean this allegorically rather than linguistically. Also feel free to replace the object ‘fig’ with any concept you like…) is destabilised, thus its believability is brought into question. New metaphors are then required in order to clarify its apparent objectivity, which in effect changes it’s definition to encompass further ideas of what this object, or concept may be.  We thus begin to see that expressing anything definite within language is a task fraught with difficulties, and relies on much implied knowledge of shared social and cultural references and of linguistic conventions, not to mention personal subjective evaluations of what we are hearing or reading weighed against all of the above. That any two people could describe a fig in the same way, based on the same subjective and objective evaluations of it is highly unlikely, in fact it would probably be impossible. It says that any assumed notion of fact, truth or absolutism is in fact highly subjective, and in fact not a truth at all, but a convincing fabrication. Convincing because where you have a consensus in amongst the multitude of social and cultural references that you could possible draw from, then it could be said that you thus have a convergence of opinion. And like the old adage says: “There is strength in numbers”.

However that is all that beliefs are, metaphorical structures that are shared among social groups wishing to maintain a degree of cohesiveness, because it is to the personal benefit of each individual member. Their relationships and positions are reinforced and given evaluative meaning by sharing concepts and ideas, even if that benefit is at the cost of something else. We use metaphor as a means of enacting self-preservation, but also a way of creatively exploring new ideas and ways of looking at things. Almost in contradiction to its cohesive nature, metaphors also work to break with convention through their ambiguity and evasiveness. They are a psychological and linguistic paradox, a way of keeping with convention through recognised structure, but at the same time allowing us to creatively explore our imaginations through the lack of specificity. As many prominent sociolinguists will agree, metaphors are intrinsic to the survival and the success of the human race (Guy Cook, Professor of Language, Open University).

12 thoughts on “I Am Metaphor (excerpt)

  1. Great piece. I think it necessary, though, to make a distinction between belief and belief. We have a belief the sun will rise tomorrow. That belief is based on a stock of information that renders the event highly probable. Then there’s belief, the religious type, which is unfounded and irrational. This type of belief rests on hope. Semantically they’re the same, but in practice they are two completely different beasts. Is there such a “believable” scale in linguistics?


    1. Yes, but like I said to someone recently, the way we convey truths such as the sun setting or not is predominantly based and relies on language and linguistic competence. The language of metaphor is what is being called into question here, so it has little to do with probabilities. If you have eyes in your head to see the sun rise and set then verbal language is unnecessary right? But relating that idea to others who have not witnessed the same is where the trouble begins and where metaphors take centre stage in order to recreate a sense of that experience.
      Really the main focus of sociolinguistics is more about why people use language in the way that they do based on subjective and shared cultural experiences, and how that then affects perceptions of the world around them. So in that sense it’s not about discerning between what might be considered true or not, it’s just about understanding motivations behind language use.
      Even so I think viewing our beliefs through such a perspective is valuable in that deciding what to believe and not is perhaps clarified. It gives us the opportunity I think to exercise more agency in our decision making, which is ultimately what we are both arguing against in terms of religious belief where staunch believers do not question what they are being fed.


      1. Ah, ok, i see the distinction. In that case, wouldn’t it be pushing the idea of metaphor too far to say it applies to all language? Yes, it is a representation of something, a concept, but there’s an artistic element to metaphor which is sort of practicing “super-linguistics.”


        1. That I think is the misconception of what metaphor is and how it works. It’s not just an artful literary term, or device, it applies to absolutely every word we use in order to describe anything. Like I’ve said before, the moment you redefine what an object does then it ceases to be what it was, and you need to describe it differently. The sky is a metaphor for something above us that we think we perceive as being static, an object almost, but in reality it is not so easily definable. So we use the term ‘sky’ in order to simplify our understanding of what that space is, it is a metaphor in that regard. This can be applied to any object or concept, but again it is dependent on language in order to make sense of it. And yes it does apply to all language. This was my point. The artistic, or creative element is actually more mundane than you think, in that it takes a great deal of skill in order to formulate such ideas into language and then to convey those ideas that are mutually agreeable is equally a task that requires skill, drawing on many references and resources based on numerous factors. In and of itself language is a highly creative endeavour, so that is where the artistry in the use of even the most mundane of metaphors lies. Of course you could attempt to measure it in terms of degrees of artistry and performance let’s say, but essentially what I’m saying here through the auspices of Sociolinguistics is that all language is conceptual and open to conjecture, and so it should be. It is exactly the line of enquiry that scientists take. Actually that is a very interesting distinction to make between religion and science, that religion is necessarily concerned with belief in the metaphor, whereas science is about understanding what questions the use of metaphor can generate and thus what new metaphors can be created. Religion gets stuck at acceptance with no further questioning.
          What seems to be the main thread that underpins the study of language in particular is that the creative drive to go against convention by questioning it is exactly why we all use language in the way that we do. We are born innovators who like to have the comfort of some boundaries and rules but only for as long as it suits our purposes and keeps us safe.


  2. I need to really sit down and think about this, not as a point of disagreement, but to wrap my head around the concept. I think I see your point, especially in the context of writing and trying to describe a thing. If I’m grasping it, for instance, if I’m trying to describe a character’s reaction to eating a fig, I’m bound in a way by the readers’ cultural interpretation of what a fig is. Maybe a better example would be a crab, which in American society would automatically be embraced as a pleasing thing, while in others as a vile, unclean sea spider. Neither is true or untrue, but interpretations based on what is accepted when we hear crab.

    I’m taken back years to a fellow I once met from Ethiopia who had us in tears in describing his first experience with a crab. All he saw was spider, no matter what they told him.


  3. I don’t whether I agree or disagree. I think there are areas of human life where metaphor applies and then there are those that have no room for metaphor. Here I have in mind something like math. To say that what we call facts are fabrication makes a joke of knowledge, that is, of justified true belief, so to speak! Maybe I didn’t get you well.


    1. Knowledge is as valuable as it is expendable according to the line of scientific theoretical enquiry. Math is just another language of concepts or metaphors. There is no such thing as justified true belief that is applicable to all, and if you think there is my intelligent friend, then I’m afraid your sense of idealism precedes you.
      I answered the same concerns in my responses to John btw.
      I hope you have fine day.


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