Saturday, June 22, 2013

Reconstructing metaphors?

One of the most exciting – and riskiest – applications of historical linguistics is for reconstructing aspects of the culture of a proto-language's speakers, and using that to figure out where they lived and identify their archeological remains. The usual way to do this is to reconstruct a word and its meaning, and take it from there (for example, if they had a word for "plough" they were probably farmers.) A while ago, I came across a different technique that I hadn't previously seen described, outlined in this paper: Using cognitive semantics to relate Mesa Verde archaeology to modern Pueblo languages.

Basically, the idea is that the favourite metaphors of a given culture will be reflected both in its language (notably by compounds, but also in semantic shifts) and in its arts. Thus, to quote one of his examples, in Tewa "roof" is literally "wooden coil-basket", although modern Tewa roofs do not look much like that, while the roofs of Mesa Grande kivas were built to resemble coil baskets. He takes both to exemplify a metaphor BUILDINGS ARE CONTAINERS, which he takes to be supported not only by this case but by a number of other features, such as the use of pottery design motifs on walls and the polysemy of a word meaning "lake", "ceremonial bowl", and "kiva".

I'm not sure how often this is likely to work in practice. For it to work, your metaphors have to be reflected in the kind of material culture that archeologists can dig up – buildings, pottery, baskets if you're lucky. It would seem to require, minimally, a strong tradition of more or less representational art. I would be hard-pressed to think of such cases in, say, North Africa, unless you go further back than we can reconstruct the languages. But where those preconditions are fulfilled, it does strike me as an interesting approach to try, because it targets the kinds of meaning that the speakers themselves would have considered important.


glossographia said...

I agree that using cognitive linguistics / conceptual metaphor theory to integrate archaeology and linguistics can be fruitful but also, like you say, depends on the right kind of evidence surviving. However, I think that for historical archaeologists, this sort of thing is very productive - I'm thinking of people like James Deetz and his analysis of the Georgian mindset emerging out of Enlightenment American values and having an impact on material culture (e.g., patterns of house symmetry). Even more productive, though, might be ethnoarchaeological and ethnographic work where we work in communities where we're not so dependent on the survival of just the right kinds of material evidence. We need a better theory for the material expression of metaphorical ideas before we're going to be able to work well in prehistoric contexts.

John Cowan said...

My favorite example is certainly not archaeological, but it is the persistence of harrowing experience long after harrows are essentially forgotten, existing only as a tractor attachment, and then only known to farmers. Tolkien has a good example concerned with stories (as you'd expect) rather than realia:

If I were to write a story in which it happened that a man was hanged, that might show in later ages, if the story survived — in itself a sign that the story possessed some permanent, and more than local or temporary, value — that it was written at a period when men were really hanged, as a legal practice. Might: the inference would not, of course, in that future time be certain. For certainty on that posit the future inquirer would have to know definitely when hanging was practiced and when I lived. I could have borrowed the incident from other times and places, from other stories; I could simply have invented it. But even if this inference happened to be correct, the hanging-scene would only occur in the story, (a) because I was aware of the dramatic, tragic, or macabre force of this incident in my tale, and (b) because those who handed it down felt this force enough to make them keep the incident in.

lethargic-man said...

I have nothing to add, just that I found this interesting.

Jim said...

The "nave" of a church is an examaple in English, where the church is seen to be a boat - and there is art using this metaphor - because of the way struts curving in to support the roof look, probably because they were often cut from the curved branceehs of trees.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

glossographia: Yes, that's where I felt the problem really comes in – how often is it possible to work back from the "material expression of metaphorical ideas" to the ideas themselves, in the absence of independent evidence?

Jim: Yes, that's a good example – I wasn't aware that there was art using this metaphor.

David Marjanović said...

Hm. A harrowing experience? Like the Harrowing of Hell? Wikipedia explains that one in a way that immediately reminds me of German verheeren "devastate", from Heer "army". The present participle verheerend has gone off into pure metaphor and is applied to all kinds of horrible explosions and stuff. The only connection to agriculture here is the image of an unpaid army living off the land as it marches through and destroys everything.