October 15, 2006

The end of the chapter: not a linguification

Let me mention one other thing about the recent this New York Times story about the death of Gerry Studds. The Times reports that Mr. Studds's husband, Dean T. Hara, said this in a statement:

Gerry often said that it was the fight for gay and lesbian equality that was the last great civil rights chapter in modern American history. He did not live to see its final sentences written, but all of us will forever be indebted to him for leading the way with compassion and wisdom.

Some Language Log readers who have followed the linguification thread might imagine that I would regard "He did not live to see its final sentences written" as a linguification. Not so.

This reference to seeing sentences written is a genuine metaphor, unlike most linguification as far as I can see. It happens to metaphorize something non-linguistic as something linguistic: episodes in history are metaphorized as chapters in a book of history, and thus the final events of an episode are seen, in terms of the metaphor, as the concluding sentences of a chapter. But this isn't what I call a linguification.

When we make the necessary substitutions to get back from the metaphorical image (sentences and chapters and word sequences) to the real world (events and episodes and time flow), the statement made is just right: Gerry Studds did not live to see the end of the episode (which Hara assumes we are living through the early stages of) in which full marriage equality is instituted for gays everywhere.

Linguification is very different. When David Leonhardt said in the Times recently that the phrase spiraling costs had "virtually become a prefix for the words" ‘health care&rsquo, he substituted an entirely false statement about word sequences (that the sequence health care virtually always has the sequence spiraling costs right before it in English running text) for an arguably true statement about the world (that there has been a great deal of public discussion of increases in health care expense over the past few years). The prefixing isn't a metaphorical image for temporal precedence or anything like that. He's not using a metaphor in any sense that I can see.

Metaphorical statements stay true under the translation to or back from the domain used as the source of the metaphorical imagery. If I say the boss is a pussycat (and let's agree for the sake of argument that it's a metaphor, not a novel word sense for pussycat, because those are different), I substitute some highly complex combination of stereotypical properties (like furriness, lovableness, strokableness, ease of handling, and delight in playing with balls of wool) for some highly complex combination of actual properties (things like informality, tractability, pleasantness, harmlessness, non-threateningness, and lack of aggression); but under that translation (which would be very difficult to be fully explicit about), my claim stays true: the boss is claimed to have the latter properties just as a kitten has the former set.

Again, take people who say Iraq is a quagmire. They are making a claim about the real Iraq by translating to another domain where it is portrayed as a bog you can get your feet stuck in. In the real world, difficulty of extracting US armed forces and other personnel (even when they are hated) from a country that needs protection from the danger of all-out civil war and expensive rebuilding and protection of its infastructure; in the analogous imagined world used for the metaphoric imagery, difficulty of extracting your feet when they are stuck in a bog. It's a good metaphor. And what makes it good is that its relevant details are pregnant with implications you can draw: just as your panicked struggles to escape from being stuck in a bog only makes your feet sink deeper in, so struggling to get out of a military occupation in an incipient civil war similarly makes things harder (packing to leave makes an army look vulnerable and ripe for attack; setting a departure time encourages insurgents to think they can win if they just hang on till that time, so they fight harder), and you sink deeper in.

The whole point about metaphor is that the things highlighted in the metaphorized picture should be just as true as the things about the real world that it metaphorically represents. We wouldn't use metaphor as a rhetorical device if it was just a matter of perplexingly replacing statements that are true by other claims that aren't. Metaphor isn't for bafflement. It doesn't slow comprehension down; it speeds it up.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 15, 2006 06:05 PM