Dead and living metaphors

The language is a trouser. About car use in Norwegian language debate
Forfatter: Kristin Fridtun
Forlag: Samlaget (Norge)
LANGUAGE DEBATE / How can the metaphor be tested against factual knowledge?


Kristin Fridtun's book on metaphors in Norwegian language debate joins a number of books on metaphors we have received in Norwegian over the past 20 years. Fridtun shows in an entertaining and educational way that different metaphors for language provide different thought possibilities: language can be perceived as organism, natural resource, system, building, tools or clothing. All of these metaphor systems have the basis that we "use tangible things in our surroundings to structure and understand the language". The exception is "system", which can be concrete, but often has a more abstract character.

We are talking about a "living, vital" language. Language can be a force of nature and flow like a river and water the culture. Or we can perceive language as a clockwork, where all the wheels interlock. It can also be a building we live in where we constantly joke together new expressions. Language is also an instrument we use to change the world – we seize and understand the world through language. And we can choose between the terms, like when we put on different clothes.

There are conflicts between these different metaphorical forms, all of which are in many variants: Language cannot be both an art product and an organism, both a building and a natural resource. At least not at the same time with regard to the same thing. But Fridtun also shows that the same authors can use one metaphor in one context, but another and contradictory when it suits them. A so-called mixed metaphor, meaning "mixed metaphor," is meaningful, although on closer reflection it turns out to be absurd: "She plowed through a brick of a book in two days." Say that someone can "plow" through a "brick". But if "brick" is perceived as a dead metaphor with a definite meaning, "a thick book," the term is unproblematic. For "plowing" does not just mean plowing in the field.

Metaphor and ideology

If I use the dead metaphor "chair legs", it does not imply that chairs can walk or be treated as human beings. If I say that "language is the bone man stands on, therefore we fall apart without language", the matter becomes another. Here, the metaphor is the premise of an argument. Then the metaphor starts a game where the human body structures the concept of language. But dead metaphors do not necessarily work ideologically. We are not affected by them as metaphors when they have a fixed meaning.

Virtual Market
Amjadipoor Efat, Mercato Virtual. See

The metaphors bring forth aspects of the case to be elucidated, in this case the language. But all metaphors become absurd when pressed. Metaphors perceived as metaphors are fictions: they are possible descriptions.

Fridtun does not touch on the relationship between language and thought, but does not really address philosophical questions such as the metaphors' reference, truth, meaning and ontological status. How can the metaphor be tested against factual knowledge? Fridtun mentions that it is no longer the case that the national target is the fresh mountain water that causes the language in urban areas to grow. Now it is the other way around, so the cities and English "irrigate" the rest of the language community. It is quite possible to discard metaphors and say that some metaphors are more vain than others. But Fridtun does not find fundamental reflections on how this is possible.


Fridtun's list of metaphors is not exhaustive either. For example, economics is not mentioned: Some have a "rich language". The poet creates new valuable linguistic combinations, while a jargon can be poor, and the language is a "treasury". It's about "selling" an argument. A wording, a linguistic trademark provides "cultural capital" (Bourdieu). Even though people are in a time crunch and time is money, they still read things completely without informational value.

If I use the dead metaphor "chair legs", it does not imply that chairs can walk or be treated as human beings.

Here are the changes underway: "Buying the Argument" does not produce any hits in Atekst before 1989. "Buy the Argument" now gets almost four million hits on Google. If you are going to buy what I say, it must be worth the money! Georg Johannesen transferred Marx to the literature and talked about "utility" and "commodity". After all, even transfer – the Greek meaning of meta-for – often happens to and from an account.

If I "buy" an argument, it means that I accept it, but not that I see all communication as financial transactions. Any dead metaphor, which we do not perceive as metaphor, can be made alive. But when it is not revitalized (the expression itself is a metaphor, as Fridtun points out), the meaning is relatively stable. This point tends to be lost when making lists of cognitive metaphors with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson as the role model. A dead metaphor has a definite meaning, which need not be ideological. When someone buys what you say, it is not necessarily because capitalism has also taken over the control of the brain. The same goes for "appreciating" going for a walk. It also doesn't mean that the trip has a price tag, or that the economy has "colonized" your world of life. But of course an overly ideological critic can interpret it that way. And this interpretation usually means that dead metaphors come to life.

Alternative metaphor theories?

Fridtun is not only young and promising, but already an established prose writer in the Norwegian public. The weakness of this book is not a lack of creativity, writing or originality. The problem is that Fridtun only adheres to Lakoff and Johnson's metaphor theory, especially their 1980s classic: The metaphors of everyday life.

The problem is that Fridtun sticks exclusively to Lakoff and Johnson's
metaphor theory.

It is too easy to say that metaphors work even if – or by virtue of –
that they are dead. It might as well be the other way around. Which dead metaphors characterize the way we see something and which do not? If I translate something into English, I give the text "a new language suit". This is a dead metaphor, a conventional term. I don't think of clothes at all when I use the term. It simply means that I translate into English. To "translate" is itself a metaphor, an abstract expression. I don't cross the river in a boat. If one does not separate dead metaphors and etymology from innovative metaphors, everything becomes metaphor. An innovative metaphor may be built on a metaphor system, but need not be. To take an example from Lakoff and Johnson: "The foot of the mountain". The rest of the mountain is not structured from the human body. Based on this dead metaphor, a poet could try to create metaphors such as "the head of the mountain", nose, ears, etc.

Kristin Fridtun

The so-called interaction theory of IA Richards, Max Black and Paul Ricoeur was based on the fact that the metaphor creates new meaning. These authors are not mentioned. Neither Thomas S. Kuhn nor Mary Hesse discuss the relationship between metaphor and science. At the end, Fridtun moans:

"I know that the language metaphors are meant to be here, since language is an abstract phenomenon that cannot be directly grasped, but inside I think it feels 'wrong' to argue from metaphors. I must probably live with this ambivalence. " But ambivalence is a good starting point for further research. If Fridtun reads more widely in the vast metaphor theory, we will surely enjoy this in forthcoming books.

See also

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