metaphor

The Shape of Time: Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

Today I’m going to write a bit about the shape of time, a big topic which I’ll need to come back to a number of times to discuss specific examples. Consider this an overview of the topic, which follows on from my last post’s discussion of circular and linear time. In particular, today I’m going to focus on how we use space to think about time, where we locate different times in our mental landscapes. It turns out that this is not as straightforward as it might at first seem, and there is plenty of variation.

Salvador Dalí's The Persistence of Memory (Wikipedia)

Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (Wikipedia)

The first thing we need to cover is the idea that we need to use metaphor to think and speak about time. Time is an abstract idea. We have no direct way of perceiving time, no sense devoted to it. There are, of course, workarounds to this, and in fact in many cases we’re quite good at estimating the kinds of timeframes we tend to have to deal with in day-to-day life. It seems the brain has no one internal clock, though there are regions of the brain that control things like the circadian rhythm (specifically in that case the roughly 20,000 neurons collectively known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus), and it has been suggested that the number of things we experience and the number of memories we create affects our judgement of the duration of time. We are also able to perform motor tasks that require very precise timing, and can judge the minute time difference between sounds coming in one ear and the other in order to have stereo location of sounds. However, our experience of time can also be quite flexible, as Claudia Hammond discusses in her book Time Warped (which I’m working my way through right now). In any case we have difficulty thinking and talking about time without relating it to something else, as suggested by the passage I quoted from St Augustine a couple of posts ago.

suprachiasmatic nucleus and  circadian rhythms (Wikipedia)

suprachiasmatic nucleus and circadian rhythms (Wikipedia)

It is frequently noted then that we use metaphor to talk and even think about time, metaphor particularly drawn from the concrete domain of space, to think and talk about the very abstract domain of time. Indeed that’s generally the way it works, according to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their groundbreaking book Metaphors We Live By — we constantly use metaphors drawn from very concrete, experiential domains in order to think about all the more abstract domains, and we can’t get very far without doing this. Language, and indeed thought, is essentially metaphorical once you get past the concrete and the physical. Space is one of the first things we perceive and experience in life. As babies we soon learn spatial relationships, first learning to make sense of visual data, such as the arrangement of features on a face, and then interacting with the spatial domain as we become able to move through it. Thus unsurprisingly we use spatial metaphors to deal with a whole host of more abstract ideas.

It has been suggested, by Lakoff and Johnson as well as by many others, that all people, cultures, and languages draw on space to deal with time, though it has recently been argued that speakers of the Amazonian language Amondawa don’t do this space-time mapping at all (and indeed they may do very little abstract thinking about time at all, the research suggests). In any case, though most languages draw on space to talk about time, not all cultures/languages arrange time in the same metaphorical spatial relations.

In English, we’re accustomed to talking about time in what is called a sagittal axis, that is back to front relative to our bodies, with the future in front of us and the past behind. But this isn’t the only possible mapping of time onto space. There are some languages that locate the past in front and the future behind, due to the fact that we know what has already happened, but can’t “see” the future. This has long been suggested of Ancient Greek, with the following comment on the word ὀπίσω ‘backward’ in the standard 19th century Greek lexicon by Liddel and Scott: “of Time, hereafter, since the future is unseen and was therefore regarded as behind us, whereas the past is known and therefore before our eyes”. A similar claim has been made of the Madagascar language Malagasy (according to Øyvind Dahl), and other languages as well. While there has been some criticism of these claims, Núñez and Sweetser very convincingly demonstrate that this is the case in the South American language Aymara. The nice thing about their research is that they draw not only on linguistic evidence of this metaphor, but gestural evidence as well. I’ll discuss these examples at more length in a later post.

body planes, including the sagittal axis (Wikipedia)

body planes, including the sagittal axis (Wikipedia)

English speakers also tend to use a left-to-right arrangement for time as well, with the past to the left and the future to the right. Though we never use left-to-right metaphors in speech — you don’t for instance say Boxing Day is right of Christmas — test subjects will tend to arrange temporally ordered pictures in this direction and more quickly recognize temporal orders if consistent with the left-to-right arrangement. This temporal arrangement seems to be influenced by writing direction, with Hebrew speakers showing the opposite right-to-left arrangement consistent with their writing direction. Mandarin speakers tend to more often use an up-down arrangement for time, consistent with their writing direction (at least sometimes and in some places, particularly in Taiwan, but more on that in a later post), and even use up-down metaphors in speech, with above being earlier and below being later. Though I’ve never seen it suggested in any of the research, I wonder if the mechanism for this kind of directionality is not so much the writing direction itself, but at least in part the arrangement of book mechanics. In English books we read the left page and then the right one, and then turn the page to the left. Even before they can read, children master the mechanics of a book, based on the pictures and the turning of the pages by whoever is reading to them, and thus they are trained into understanding narrative, and thus time, as progressing in that particular direction. Of course the arrangement of a book, left to right or right to left, is at least in part influenced by writing direction, but it seems to me to be worth researching what the effect of book direction is, looking for instance at up-down languages like Mandarin to see if there is a secondary left/right bias based on page turning direction. Furthermore, we can consider narrative conventions — in film, it seems to me, journeys out are more often depicted as going toward the right and journeys home towards the left. Look for this next time you watch a science fiction tv show or movie like Star Trek, with journeys away from earth more often depicted towards the right. And what are the cinematic conventions in other cultures?

writing directions of English, Mainland Chinese, and Taiwanese (Bergen & Lau 2012)

writing directions of English, Mainland Chinese, and Taiwanese (Bergen & Lau 2012)

An even more striking example of a different spatio-temporal arrangement can be found in languages that use absolute spatial terms, such as cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), rather than body-relative ones, as in English right and left. The Pormpuraaw languages of Australia, for instance, such as Kuuk Thaayorre, are such languages. Speakers of these languages are always aware of their absolute spatial orientation, since they always have to use these absolute terms to refer to any spatial arrangement. Essentially they would, for instance, have to refer to their north leg rather than their right leg. Furthermore they draw on this spatial reasoning for reasoning about time, always arranging pictures in temporal order east to west regardless of the orientation of their own body, clearly mirroring the course of the sun in the sky. And there are a variety of other shapes and spatial arrangements for time as well, such as concentric, near and far, up and down hill, and so forth. More on these later.

some temporal arrangements (Bergen & Lau 2012)

some temporal arrangements (Bergen & Lau 2012)

There is one last issue relating to our spatio-temporal arrangements I’d like to mention today: how movement is used to think about the passage of time. One can think of either time moving, as if you are watching a river flow towards you, for instance, as in “the holidays are approaching”, or ego-moving, as if you yourself are moving along a path, as in “we’re rapidly coming to the end of the year”. In English, both of these metaphors are available, though this isn’t necessarily true in all languages. And it turns out, you draw on spatial reasoning actively, so that if you are already predisposed to thinking of yourself moving in space, by say going on a journey, you are more likely to think of yourself moving through time. This sort of thing can affect how we interpret ambiguous phrasings such as the sentence “let’s move Wednesday’s meeting back two days”. Does this mean the meeting is now on Monday or Friday? It depends on whether you are thinking from a time-moving perspective or an ego-moving perspective.

time perspective (Boroditsky 2000)

time perspective (Boroditsky 2000)

So that’s a bit of an overview of some of the issues relating to how we use space to think about time. I’ll come back to a number of these examples that I’ve mentioned here and discuss them in more detail in future posts, along with some other interesting cases that I haven’t yet mentioned. The upshot of all this is that we think about time in very different ways, depending on language and a variety of other cultural influences. There seems to be great variation in human temporal cognition. Try to pay closer attention to the ways you talk about time and the kinds of metaphors or expressions you use (not necessarily just spatial ones), and don’t assume these are universal and shared by everyone. It’s endlessly fascinating.


A select bibliography because making footnotes in WordPress is irritating and I’m getting lazy (and sorry about the messiness and inconsistency here, but again I’m feeling lazy):

Bergen, Benjamin K. “Writing Direction Affects How People Map Space onto Time.” Frontiers in Cultural Psychology 3 (2012): 109. Frontiers. Web.

Boroditsky, L. “Does language shape thought? English and Mandarin speakers’ conceptions of time.” Cognitive Psychology 43.1 (2001): 1–22.

Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. “Do English and Mandarin speakers think differently about time?” Cognition (2010), doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010

Boroditsky, L. & Gaby, A. “Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community.” Psychological Science (2010), doi:10.1177/0956797610386621

Dahl, Øyvind. “When the Future Comes from Behind: Malagasy and Other Time Concepts and Some Consequences for Communication.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 19.2 (1995): 197-209.

Gaby, Alice. “The Thaayorre Think of Time Like They Talk of Space.” Frontiers in Cultural Psychology 3 (2012): 300. Frontiers. Web.

Guen, Olivier Le, and Lorena Ildefonsa Pool Balam. “No Metaphorical Timeline in Gesture and Cognition Among Yucatec Mayas.” Frontiers in Cultural Psychology 3 (2012): 271. Frontiers. Web.

Hammond, Claudia. Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception. Canongate Books, 2012. Print.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1980.

Núñez, Rafael E. & Sweetser, Eve. “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time.” Cognitive Science 30 (2006): 401-450.

Sinha, Chris et al. “When Time Is Not Space: The Social and Linguistic Construction of Time Intervals and Temporal Event Relations in an Amazonian Culture.” Language and Cognition 3.1 (2011): 137–169. Print.

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Categories: culture and thought, linguistic relativity, linguistics, metaphor, time, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cognitive Philology and the History of Linguistics: A Personal View

I’ve been asked before what I mean by cognitive philology. I perhaps mean something slightly different, or at least something more specific, by it than what’s described in the Wikipedia entry. My background training has been largely in literary studies and traditional philology, with some formal training in more theoretical areas of structural linguistics, generative grammar, and so forth, though recently I’ve taken to the cognitive school of linguistics with all the fervor of a new convert. So I thought I’d write a bit of a potted history of linguistics to show where I’m coming from. I must admit this is highly subjective, as I’ve focused on the areas of linguistics that have influenced me the most, and so I’m leaving out all kinds of stuff that is important and influential generally, but just not to me personally, and I’ve chosen often to focus on particular linguists who are interesting and/or influential. I’m also grossly oversimplifying things as it suits my purposes, so take it all with a bit of a grain of salt. This post is mainly intended for those with an interest in language, but not much background knowledge; actual linguists need not read any further.1

from Wikipedia: "Figure illustrating the fields that contributed to the birth of cognitive science, including linguistics, education, neuroscience, artificial Intelligence, philosophy, anthropology, and psychology. Adapted from Miller, George A (2003). "The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective". TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 7."

Cognitive Science Heptagram

In traditional philology one studies the history of languages by looking at old texts. So for instance one studies history of the English language by analysing old texts such as, lets say, medieval poems like Beowulf. By looking at texts from different time periods, from different regions or dialects, and by comparing related languages, such as Old English with various related Germanic languages such as Old Norse or Old Saxon, one can make pronouncements about how the language has changed over time and some of the forces that may have driven these changes. A philologist records and reports on the evidence found in historical texts. This approach to the study of language is a very old one, dating back to the 19th century (and earlier) with such founding fathers as Jacob Grimm (yes that Jacob Grimm of the the Brothers Grimm). In addition to collecting folktales, Grimm pioneered the field of comparative philology, devising Grimm’s Law, which described the relationship between certain consonant sounds in various Indo-European languages and how they came into Germanic languages like English.2 Indeed many scholars of the 19th century and earlier, such as Franz Bopp, Thomas Young, Sir William Jones, theorised about the relationship between the various languages which have now become known as the Indo-European language family, and at least as far back as the 16th century comments had been made about such similarities.3 This interest in Indo-European comparative philology kicked off a whole cottage industry in comparative studies in Indo-European (and other) cultures, such as comparative mythology and folklore, which included Grimm’s other great work, the collection of folktales/fairytales he compiled with his brother Wilhelm. Grimm’s Law was one of the first systematic expressions of this correspondence. As for philology, Grimm and his contemporaries were some of the first to take a truly scientific approach to language, focusing largely on phonology (the sounds of language) and language change. Another term for this sort of study is historical linguistics.4

Jacob Grimm

Jacob Grimm

Incidentally, in addition to Grimm, I could have listed here any number of philologists who were important to the study of Old English in particular and the history of the English language in general. For instance Karl Verner who formulated Verner’s Law which explained the seeming exceptions to Grimm’s Law, or the many lexicographers from Samuel Johnson to James Murray, famed editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, which revolutionized how dictionaries are made and used, and many editors of various early editions, such as those involved in the Early English Text Society. One in particular worthy of at least brief mention is Henry Sweet, who in addition to writing various works on Germanic philology, including A Student’s Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, was the model for Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.5 All of these 19th century philologists pushed forward our understanding of language and its history during an explosively productive time.

James Murray

James Murray

Aside from historical linguistics, the study of language throughout the 20th century and into the 21st has become highly theoretical, and often focuses on the spoken language of living speakers, who can be test subjects in the lab. Linguists started to theorise how language worked at some deeper level, rather than just describing it and its history in great detail.6 To a large extent the late 19th and early 20th century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is responsible for the theoretical and structural approach to language. Saussure, for instance, hit upon the distinction between the theoretical system and its actual practice of language, what he termed langue and parole. Saussure is often regarded as the founder of modern linguistics.7

Ferdinand de Saussure

Ferdinand de Saussure

Perhaps one of the most important and influential linguistic ideas of the 20th century, which comes out of this structural approach, is the idea of the universal grammar, proposed by the famous linguist Noam Chomsky.8 This theory holds that all human languages share a basic universal structure which is hard-wired into the human brain, and the differences between languages are mostly surface level, and not indicative of the deeper structure of language. This also presupposes that there is a special language centre of the brain and that language is a specialised function of the brain. Furthermore, this internal grammar is said to be generative, in that it is a set of basic rules through which a theoretically infinite number of expressions can generated.9 This is the difference between human language and the forms of communication that animals use. While human language is infinitely flexible and can generate new expressions and ideas, animal communication is limited to a certain number of fixed expressions. Animals, as far as we know, have no syntax or generative grammar with which to produce novel expressions. They simply repeat the same few messages as required by the circumstance. Followers of Chomsky have sought to define how this universal and generative grammar works, and how we acquire this ability. This approach to language is often referred to as generative linguistics or formal linguistics.

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

There have certainly been alternate opinions, such as the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, associated with Edward Sapir10 and Benjamin Lee Whorf,11 which argues for linguistic relativity, that language difference is indicative of different ways of thinking, and that the language you speak can influence the way you perceive and think about the world.12 Linguistic relativity too has its foundations in Saussure’s ideas, particularly the relationship between thought and language and Saussure’s notions of linguistic signs and the concepts they signify. But the universal grammar model came to be the mainstream of linguistics.13 In the latter half of the 20th century the idea of linguistic relativity has fallen out of favour, and is even now not the mainstream opinion.

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Benjamin Lee Whorf

Also quite influential in the 20th century has been the field of sociolinguistics, which examines language in the context of society — how language is used in different social contexts, such as in different social and socioeconomic groups, and how society effects language. A notable linguist in this field is William Labov, who is widely know for his study of Black English Vernacular (BEV). Labov argued that BEV should not be thought of as substandard, but was in fact remarkably expressive and grammatically consistent, and worthy of academic study.14 This is part of a larger trend in linguistics of the 20th century away from prescriptivism (instructing people about the so-called ‘correct’ way to speak and write) and towards descriptivism (studying how language is actually used in the real world rather than in theoretical and abstract grammar books, without value judgement). A related field is pragmatics, which studies context-dependent meaning, and seeks to uncover the elements of meaning that can’t be explained by the study of the structure of language in formal linguistics. Thus for instance the utterance “It’s cold in here” when said to someone sitting next to an open window is a request to close the window. It is the context of the discourse that determines the meaning. William Labov engaged in this kind of discourse analysis, which has led to my own interest in examining discourse markers (such supposedly meaningless, though actually significant and meaningful, filler phrases such as “so”, “you know”, “I mean”, and “actually”) and their use in medieval narrative.15

William Labov

William Labov

More recently, a new branch of linguistics has developed called cognitive linguistics, which attempts to explain language by drawing on more general theories of human cognition developed by cognitive scientists and cognitive psychologists. Simply put, according to the cognitive approach, language is explained with reference to the same basic principles that govern human cognition generally, as illuminated by the research being done by cognitive scientists. Thus cognitive linguistics can often stray into areas of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Instead of seeing language as the product of a specialised language organ in the brain, as per the universal grammar model, in cognitive linguistics language is intricately linked to human conceptualisation generally. It’s almost as if language is a by-product of human cognition. And so general principles of human cognition, as explored by cognitive scientists, must be able to account for the way language works as much as possible. Thus cognitive linguistics is a necessarily interdisciplinary field, just as cognitive science is, incorporating areas such as neuroscience, psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, anthropology, and philosophy.16

George Lakoff

George Lakoff

One of the most well-known and influential ideas to come out of the cognitive linguistic approach is the emphasis on metaphor, which George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explore in Metaphors We Live By. The argument is that metaphor is fundamental to all language, and indeed to all thought. We use metaphors as a way of thinking about and talking about abstract things by relating them to more concrete things. Thus when we say we are “in trouble” we are metaphorically conceiving of trouble as a container.17 Or when you say you “spend time” doing something you are drawing on the “time is money” metaphor. Some other significant scholars working in these kinds of areas include Mark Turner and Rafael E. Núñez.

Mark Turner

Mark Turner

Along with the greater focus on the cognition of speech has very recently come a resurgence in interest in the linguistic relativity question. In particular, over the past decade cognitive scientists such as Lera Boroditsky have been exploring the ways in which language shapes thought. No longer holding to the hard-line strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that claimed that language determined thought and thus that language was some kind of limiting factor, the argument now is that language can be a factor in shaping habitual thought.18

Lera Boroditsky

Lera Boroditsky

Thus finally we come back to my use of the term cognitive philology. I suppose what I’m driving at is the literary and philological implications of cognitive linguistics. Of course there are other literary scholars who have sought to apply the ideas of cognitive science, and cognitive linguistics in particular, to the study of literature, and this has led to a field often referred to as cognitive poetics. Frequently, for instance, such scholarship examines the use of conceptual metaphor in literary texts, and how that contributes to the meaning of literature.19 But what I’m aiming at is perhaps somewhat broader than just cognitive poetics, involving the intersection of language, thought, history and culture.20 Language is an entry point into the mind, and a particularly useful one when studying historical periods, as the people themselves are long dead. All human culture is the product of human cognition, and can thus not really be understood without the lens of cognitive science; and if language is intimately linked with cognition, it is an important window into the human cognitive process and therefore human culture. Through the study of language, we can study the history of human thought and culture, and I hope to be able to show, in a small way at least, why this is interesting and important for everyone to understand. Language is the monument of thousands of years of human culture.

Cognitive Science Hexagram

Cognitive Science Hexagram

So writing this post has served a double purpose — it explains some of the theoretical background to what I want to blog about, especially important if you don’t already have a background in languages or linguistics, but it’s also an opportunity for me to think out loud a bit. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! As a reward, here’s a sketch by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie discussing language, which picks up on notions of Saussurian lange and parole, Chomskian generative grammar, the relationship between language and culture, pragmatics, and the formulaic nature of language. See how much funnier it is now that you’ve read all that?21


1 Indeed it might actually infuriate you to read this post if you’re an actual linguist, so you may as well stop now. Still here? Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you! [back]

2 For instance the Germanic f in English words such as foot, father, and fish corresponds predictably with p in other IE languages, such as Latin pes/pedis, pater, and piscis (and also with Greek πούς and πατηρ, for that matter — feel free to find correspondences in other languages, or consider other basic words like numbers (one, two, three, etc.) in as many languages as you know. It’s fun! [back]

3 An interesting side note, the Danish philologist Rasmus Christian Rask more or less came up with the same idea as Grimm, and Grimm initially credited him with this, hence it’s sometimes referred to as Rask’s-Grimm’s Rule. [back]

4 At least that’s what linguists working in linguistics departments would call it. Today, scholars focusing on language in literary fields, such as my own medieval studies, still tend to use the term philology. [back]

5 Sweet, not known for a sweet disposition but instead something of an irascible figure — the prefaces to his various works make for quite entertaining reading — was somewhat embittered that he did not receive a university professorship position as he thought he deserved. I’ve often felt quite a kinship with Sweet, and have often said, though I wouldn’t have wanted to live in the middle ages, I would love to have been a Victorian medieval philologist. [back]

6 This also brings up the distinction between diachronic linguistics, which is another term for historical linguistics (that is the way language changes over time), and synchronic linguistics, the study of language at one point in time. [back]

7 Saussure’s work also kicked off the field of semiotics, which has become significant in the literary critical world. [back]

8 Interestingly, I suspect as many people know of Chomsky for his political commentary as for his linguistics work. I guess politics is more flashy than linguistics. However, in a future post I’d like to explore how politics is really all about language anyway. [back]

9 Chomsky devised the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, demonstrating among other things that the generative grammar can produce a syntactically well-formed sentence even if it was semantically nonsense. Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Jabberwocky” achieves much the same effect. [back]

10 Sapir is known for developing the anthropological approach to linguistics, looking at how language and culture interact, a topic I’m much interested in. As a personal side note, Sapir lived for a time in my hometown Ottawa (Canada), working for the Geological Survey of Canada. That’s a connection I’d really like to look more into. [back]

11 Whorf has often been criticised as a dilettante, as he was originally trained as a chemical engineer, and only came to the study of linguistics later in life. However, the strengths and weaknesses of his work should stand for themselves. [back]

12 Essentially the claim is that language can affect the way you think in very fundamental ways; language differences can lead to differences in cognition. The original strong version of this theory, linguistic determinism, claimed that the language you spoke determined the way you were able to think about the world. The more recent versions of this idea claim that language can have an effect on the way you think but is not an absolute determiner of it. You can read more about linguistic relativity on Wikipedia or even better in this easily approachable and very well explained entry by Lera Boroditsky in the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. [back]

13 Linguistic relativity is a complex topic that I’ve already briefly touched on, and I’ll come back to in more detail in an upcoming post. [back]

14 BEV is now more commonly referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. For an interesting discussion of this topic, have a listen to episode 4 of Slate’s excellent language podcast Lexicon Valley. [back]

15 A number of medievalists, such as Suzanne Fleischman, Laurel J. Brinton, and Peter Richardson,  have focused on pragmatics and discourse markers, and they’ve been big influences on me as well. I’ll probably write a fuller post on this topic in another post, as pragmatics and discourse markers were the focus of my research for the first five years or so after completing my doctorate. [back]

16 This interdisciplinarity is what lies behind the graphics I’ve included at the beginning and end of this post. The graphics use the hexagram and heptagram to show the interrelated nature of these fields in cognitive science, an image which also lies behind the name of this blog — the endless knot is a phrase from the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and refers to the emblem of the pentangle or pentagram which Gawain has emblazoned on his shield. It is an image of the interconnectedness of things. Interconnectivity and interdisciplinarity are at the very heart of what I’m doing, and I’ll be blogging much more about them soon. [back]

17 Children learn the basic conceptual schema of “container” when they spend hours putting things in and then taking them out of a box or other container. It seems to fascinate them endlessly to repeat this simple act, which later becomes fundamental to their thinking about the world in later life. [back]

18 Boroditsky’s work has been particularly influential for me lately. I’ve written a bit about this already, and will post a fuller discussion of linguistic relativity later. In the meantime, have a look at Boroditsky’s website, which includes both her scholarly publications and more popular articles, and check out this public lecture, which is a very approachable and entertaining introduction to the subject of linguistic relativity. [back]

19 That certainly is part of what I’m trying to do on this blog. See for instance my post on the seafaring metaphor. [back]

20 Mark Turner has an interesting article along these lines called “The Cognitive Study of Art, Language, and Literature” Poetics Today 23.1 (2002): 9-20. [back]

21 Yes, this whole post has been in part an attempt to show why this sketch is so funny. [back]

Categories: cognitive, Interdisciplinarity, linguistic relativity, linguistics, metaphor, philology | 9 Comments

Scip-gefere: Paddle Your Own Canoe*

The following mini essay is kind of the throughput from my old blog. It was originally posted there over four years ago in three installments. As it was sort of going in the direction that I want this new blog to go, and since I want a test post to kick things off, I’ve decided to repost it here. Originally I was thinking of revising and expanding it, but instead I think I’ll leave it pretty much as is — I’ve updated the wording a bit to account for the fact that it was written a few years ago and I’ve added a few explanatory footnotes. Do feel free to let me know in the comments what you think of the format and style, as this may affect how I continue in this blog.1

One last note about the background of some of the ideas expressed here: I’m writing about metaphor, not simply as a literary ornament, but as a way of thinking about the world. This is a much discussed topic of late, especially in the field of cognitive linguistics (a subject I’ll write much more about in future posts). We make sense of the world around us by thinking about it in terms of metaphor. This is something we begin to do from infancy. When a baby spends hours putting a block in a box, taking it out, and repeating these actions endlessly, he is constructing a mental schema of inside and outside, of a container. We later apply this schema to many things in our language and the world around us. When we say we are “in trouble” we are conceiving of “trouble” as a container. This is a metaphor. The centrality of metaphor to our language and our cognition is explored in the groundbreaking book Metaphors We Live By (1980), by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I’ll probably post more on this topic myself later.

Interestingly, the idea of fundamental cultural metaphors was explored earlier by Ernst Robert Curtius in European Literature of the Latin Middle Ages (1948). I first encountered Curtius while writing my doctoral dissertation, and, after constructing the appropriate footnotes, filed him away as something I should come back to later. Well, Curtius and the book by Lakoff and Johnson mentioned in the previous paragraph are occupying my thoughts in particular these days, so you’ll probably hear more about them later too.

One last point, several of the images below are taken from this excellent website on Ancient Sailing and Navigation, which also has an excellently detailed discussion of the history of these techniques and technologies, so do click on through if you’re interested.

And now the original post…

I’ve become interested in the relationship between science and technology on the one hand, and literature and culture on the other, and I’ve been working this into my lectures a bit.2 Here’s an example of a kind of neat idea I came up with for one of my classes. First a little background:

One courses I taught a few years ago was called Narrative. There weren’t many stipulations for this course other than that we were to consider narrative from fairly broad terms. I was quite excited at the prospect of teaching this course, since my own research was moving in this direction, what with my work on discourse analysis and pragmatics,1 and having recently given a paper at the Narrative Matters conference I was full of ideas. I decided to divide the course into two parts. First we would survey the major narrative genres of western literature — myth, folktale, legend, etc.; epic and saga; romance; the novel; the short story — and then we’d spend the rest of our time on thematic units. I wanted to consider narrative broadly speaking as a way human beings tend to organise information and make sense of their world. Starting off with myth was a particularly good way of introducing this idea. We compared parallel stories such as creation myths, destruction myths (like flood myths), and so forth from the Bible, Greek myth, and Norse myth. This also gave us the opportunity to do a bit of comparative mythology and consider the differences in religious beliefs and some of the different world views these reflect, for instance the very personal relationship between humans and God in the Judeo-Christian world and the relationship based on fear in the Greco-Roman world.

I also wanted to spend some time on some of the fundamental narratives of western culture, and the first thematic unit that I settled on was travel and exploration. As I was prepping my lectures on this topic it occurred to me that there was an interesting parallel pattern between the travel and exploration literature and the world views reflected by this imagery on the one hand, and the development of sailing technology on the other. I suggested to the class that the travel and exploration metaphor could be seen as reflective of cultural change from the ancient world to the modern. This narrative metaphor often describes man’s relation to the world in which he lives — the narrative is symbolic of man’s place in the universe. And the use of this narrative metaphor changes over time to reflect different beliefs about man’s place in the world.

In the Odyssey, one of the oldest recorded travel narratives in western literature, we see human beings at the mercy of the elements, and by extension the gods. Odysseus and his crew are constantly driven about against their will by the elements. And as we had already discussed in our mythology section, this reflects a common idea in Greek mythology that humans are at the mercy of capricious gods, a common Greek view of man’s place in the universe. This of course is entirely consistent with ancient sailing technology. The ancients had square sails. Here’s a picture of a square sail:

square sail

square sail

Ships with square sails are not very manoeuvrable. Essentially you go in the direction that the wind blows you. If the wind was blowing the wrong way, you were out of luck, so you’d have to wait for a favourable wind. Sure, you had oars to row, but that wouldn’t take you very fast or very far. If a storm blew up, you’d use the oars to row quickly to shore, as happens at one point in the Odyssey. Thus sailors were at the mercy of the wind, hence the sense of helplessness in the Odyssey.

As a side note, it’s interesting to compare the attitudes towards sea travel in Homer and in Virgil. While Odysseus is certainly trying to get home, he appreciates his journey and learns many things along the way. Aeneas, on the other hand, is much more focussed on the final destination. While the Greeks were a seafaring culture who lived on a peninsula with many small islands and relied on sea travel for their economy, the Romans were a much more land-based culture who hated and feared the sea, though they were practical enough to become proficient at it when required to do so.

It’s also interesting to see what later writers did with the Homeric story of Odysseus. The same story has three different meanings for Homer, Dante, and Tennyson. Homer’s Odysseus is simply at the mercy of the gods. While he does take some interest in the things he sees along the way, his journey is not his will — in fact he’s against it. His journey and his life is determined by the Fates and the prophecies about what will happen to him. In the Greek mythological world, man can’t control his own fate. In the Divine Comedy, in contrast, Dante places Ulysses in hell. For Dante, Ulysses journey was an act of will — Dante wasn’t familiar with Homer first hand. From Dante’s Christian viewpoint willfulness is sinfulness. Man shouldn’t try to control his own fate, as that was up to God. And finally, for Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses”, the hero’s journey is also an act of will, but it is more positive. Tennyson exalts his purposefulness and striving. Man should try to control his own fate. Thus for Dante sailing out into the ocean is bad and Ulysses is placed in hell for it, but for Tennyson it is good and he is lionised for it.

But back-tracking to the middle ages for a moment, with relatively little advance in sailing technology over the ancient world, we can see a similar metaphor, only the characterisation is different in the Christian world view. For instance, in the Old English elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” harsh exile is pictured in terms of a lonely journey in a boat, and the homiletic implication of this exile/pilgrimage is that the Christian soul’s ultimate destination is back to God. God is the only course to steer towards. Similarly, in the later middle ages, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Man of Law’s Tale, Custance, who is set adrift at sea by her antagonists to get rid of her, puts her faith in God: “In hym triste I, and in his mooder deere, / That is to me my seyl and eek my steere”. God is her sail and her rudder, her means of propulsion and steering. Again, this is a metaphor of the relationship between the Christian soul and God, and therefore of man’s place in the world. Though as in the ancient world, man does not control his fate, it is not a capricious god to whom he is subject.

Known as great sailors in the earlier part of the middle ages, the Vikings, who really only had the square sail, cheated a bit by lowering one end of the sail to allow for greater manoeuverability. But for the most part they made do with very simple means and no sophisticated navigational equipment.4 Here’s a picture of a Norse knarr:

Norse knarr

Norse knarr

They were often blown off course, and as described in the Vinland Sagas, it was often due to accident that they made discoveries such as Greenland and Vinland. Interestingly, there’s quite the mix of chance, fate, luck both good and bad, pagan, and Christian in the Vinland Sagas.

As for the advance in sailing technology, in the late middle ages or early renaissance, the triangular lateen sail began to be used in Europe. Here’s a picture of a lateen sail:

lateen sail

lateen sail

The triangular sail, of course, works like a wing — high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other — and it allows a ship to sail almost directly into a headwind. And so by tacking in a zigzag pattern ships can sail go in any direction and are no longer at the mercy of the wind, as long as there is wind, as seen here:

tacking

tacking

(You can read a good explanation of all this here.) Ships also started using sternpost rudders rather than steering with an oar hanging off the right side (starboard, literally the steering side, as opposed to the left side called port which was the side towards the dock, also known as larboard or loading side). The stern mounted rudder made it possible to steer larger ships, and larger ships could carry more provisions, including most importantly fresh water. These along with the old square sail (to take efficient advantage of favourable winds), as well as improvements to navigational technology allowed for real exploration to begin at the end of the middle ages and throughout the renaissance, kicking off the European age of discovery. Here’s a picture of the complete package:

square sails and lateen sail

square sails and lateen sail

Note both the square sails and the triangular lateen sail.5

These advances too are reflected in the imaginative literature of the period. This is of course the age of humanism, when the cultural focus shifted from the purely religious to the world of man. People began to define their place in the world in terms other than purely spiritual ones. The eighteenth century, for instance, is full of travel literature, perhaps most famously Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver goes out into the world ostensibly to discover things about other people and places, but in fact learns about his own country in the process. Mankind defines itself through its exploration of the outside world, through its own ability to direct its own course in the world. This is a radical shift from the medieval seagoing metaphor as demonstrated most clearly in Chaucer’s Custance, who is really only defined by her relationship to God. The humanist shift in cultural focus goes hand in hand with the seagoing technological shift.

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

With the 19th century we enter the modern era, and the biggest technological advance which changed seagoing was the steam engine. Suddenly ships were no longer dependent on wind at all. Even if there wasn’t any wind, a steamship could still go. The technological progression of the square sail to the triangular sail is completed with the advent of the steam engine. This is dramatically demonstrated in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, in which just such an incident happens. When the winds die down, the steam engines are fired up, and at one point Phileas Fogg nearly burns up the ship itself in an attempt to win his race against time. This is the ultimate expression of man’s desire to control his own fate. Fogg overcomes all obstacles thrown in his way in order to win the bet, and that includes the obstacles of the natural world and the elements. This is reflected of the Victorian elevation of man’s ability to control his world. In this world-view man has a special place in the world, he is at its pinnacle. He even sought to have mastery over nature — nature was something to be tamed or controlled. And it is in the late 19th century that science is really beginning to challenge religion, with the realisation that the geological age of the earth is vastly longer than the Bible accounts for, and Darwin’s evolutionary theory challenges the Biblical creation story. The Victorian man did not adapt to his surroundings, he adapted the surroundings to suit himself, and this is subtly commented upon in Verne’s novel with the description of the British Empire which sought to impose its customs and organization (often unsuccessfully) upon the world. Furthermore, there is a shift from the age of exploration to an age of tourism. The world has been largely explored by Europeans, and Fogg is really more of a tourist than an explorer. The world is a much smaller place, and this makes man’s stature seem the larger. Instead of defining himself in relation to the world, man redefines the world in his own image.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness stands out as the most striking example of the travel and exploration metaphor. But now, instead of a journey outwards, it is a journey inwards. Instead of defining his place in the world, man is defining himself. Man’s relationship with his world becomes his relationship with his own inner psyche. Man’s attempt to control nature and the world around him becomes his attempt to control human nature and the world within him. But his sense of control is an illusion since he has no real self-control.6 Yet again the metaphor is redefined for a new era which is so self-referential and solipsistic.

And so I leave you with this little bit of obscure though apropos verse which explains the post-colonic part of the title:7

Leave to Heaven, in humble trust,
All you will to do:
But if you would succeed, you must
Paddle your own canoe.


* Yes, a footnote on the title. Let me know what you think of the rampant footnoting: Pretentiously academic? Compellingly non-linear? Just plain annoying? Or for a more amusing musing on the footnote, click here. Or go read Got Medieval’s blog, the locus classicus for footnote humour. As for the note itself, the first part of the title of this post, scip-gefere, is an Old English word which means “A going by ship”. As for the second part of the title, read to the end of the post…

1 This is, I suppose, where the obligatory “Gentle reader” trope would go. Not wanting to follow convention, and yet also wanting to follow convention, I’ve relegated it to a footnote, Gentle Reader. [back]

2 I’m planning a post on scientific approaches to literature and the humanities as well. With all these promises of future posts, I’ll have my work cut out for me. [back]

3 Basically the area of linguistics which looks at contextual meaning. [back]

4 It has been suggested that Vikings navigated by means of polarised light using crystals. See here. [back]

5 I think I remember first learning about all this sailing technology from James Burke’s excellent Connections series. You can see the relevant portion here. [back]

6 The the cognitive psychologists would no doubt point out, we are slaves to our own cognitive processes. Have a look at the blog You Are Not So Smart or the writings of David Eagleman for more on this. [back]

7 Academic titles these days seem to almost invariably follow the formula of the two-part structure connected by a colon. The term post-colonic is a bit of a joke on that. Sorry. [back]

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