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Conceptual metaphors of language

constructing the ideology of the nation-state entailed a very close association with the national language, so it is hardly surprising that the fundamental conceptual metaphor The nation-state is a human being also provides the most frequently used conceptual metaphor for language: A language is a human being. This anthropomorphic conceptualisation of language is so ubiquitous in the Western world, regardless of whether a distinction is made

between human language as a general cognitive faculty of human beings or different linguistic systems (i.e. languages), and it goes back so far into the past that the metaphorical conceptualisation of the nation-state can be said to be derived from it. Two related aspects of human beings from the source domain are projected into the empty blend for language:


which yields “true” metaphorical “statements” (or propositions) such as

the following:

- -


which yields “true” metaphorical “statements” (or propositions) such as the following:

The only restriction on this second domain of projections is that although a language may have sisters, brothers and cousins and may also conceivably have parents, it can hardly be said to be the grandfather/grandmother/grandson/ granddaughter of another language. The element of procreation is problematic in this domain.

Within the framework of the basic metaphor of A language is a human BEING, all the moral characteristics that can be attributed to a person can also be projected onto the conceptualisation of a language, with the notable exception of physical or material qualities, such as:

but hardly:

  • - -
  • - -

From this list we can see that a language may be conceptualised as perfect or PURE, but not as CLEAN or DIRTY.

There is an exception to this restriction on the possibilities of projecting physical characteristics onto language, however. From the metaphorical conceptualisation that a language can die, we can project the concept of health or illness onto a language, such as the following:

Several texts on language, particularly in the nineteenth century, are full of this kind of metaphorisation of language. By way of illustration, consider the following very brief selection of quotations from Richard Chevenix Trench’s book English, Past and Present:

One who now says, “If he call, tell him I am out” . . . is seeking to detain a mood, or rather the sign of a mood, which the language is determined to get rid of. (1855: 11; from “true” metaphorical “statements” [propositions] such as , , RJW)

It is indeed marvellous how quickly a language will create, adopt, adapt words in any particular line of things to which those who speak that language are specially addicted. (1855: 58; from “true” metaphorical “statements” [propositions] such as , , RJW)

When we call to mind the near affinity between English and German, which, if not sisters, are at any rate first cousins, it is remarkable that almost since the day when they parted company, each to fulfil its own destiny, there has been little further commerce in the way of giving and taking between them. (1855: 136; from “true” metaphorical “statements” [propositions] and conceptual metaphors such as , A language is a human being, , RJW)

Its [the genitive form of the pronoun “it”, i.e. “its”, RJW] is, in fact, a parvenu, which has forced itself into good society at last, but not with the good will of those who in the end had no choice but to admit it. (1855: 149; from “true” metaphorical “statements” [propositions] such as , RJW)

Before moving on, I should note that there are two further source domains for the metaphorical conceptualisation of human language, the domain of plants and planting, and the domain of geology. The first metaphorical blend is A Language is a plant, and it can occur in a number of variations—for example, that the essence of a language is like the sap of a tree, or that the language must be planted outside its normal natural environment to the good of those living there.

Texts making use of the A Language is a plant metaphor begin to occur regularly in the latter half of the sixteenth century, particularly with reference to the language contact situation in Ireland, in which the dominant but minority culture using English attempted to force English customs and the English language on the Irish, a policy that was ultimately successful at least with respect to the language. As an example, consider the following quotation from Richard Stanihurst’s “A Treatise Containing a Plain and Perfect Description of Ireland” (1577, in Crowley 2000: 32):

And truly, so long as these impaled dwellers did sunder themselves as well in land as in language from the Irish: rudeness was day by day in the country supplanted, civility engrafted, good laws established, loyalty observed, rebellion suppressed, and in fine the cornerstone of a young England was like to shoot in Ireland. But when their posterity became not altogether so wary in keeping, as their ancestors were valiant in conquering. The Irish language was free denizened in the English pale: this canker took such deep root, as the body that before was whole and sound, was by little and little festered, and in manner wholy [s/c] putrified.

What we read here are the beginnings of a discourse of colonialism, in Ireland and elsewhere, in which plantation literally and metaphorically became the conventionalised way of justifying colonial domination and exploitation.

In the nineteenth century several writers on language use the A language is a plant metaphor. As an example, consider the following quotations from Trench (1855):

Our own is, of course, a living language still. It is therefore gaining and losing. It is a tree in which the vital sap is circulating yet. (85)

It is true that there happened here what will happen in every attempt to transplant on a large scale the words of one language into another. (98)

One branch of the speakers of a language engrafts on the old stock numerous words which the other does not in the same way make its own. (50)

The geological metaphor A language is a geological formation is, strictly speaking, not directly derived from action and image schemata, but if we assume that the basis of any metaphor is some form of cognitive blend, then the way in which geologists conceptualise their discipline ultimately derives from underlying human experiences. Throughout the nineteenth century, writers on language in Britain and America frequently made use of the metaphor, providing comparisons of language as consisting of strata, or layers and deposits of sediment, or as containing fossils or skeletons. Henry Welsford’s book On the Origin and Ramifications of the English Language, published in 1845, contains the following complex description of the history of the Indo- European languages in terms of a landscape changed over the course of time, with the “dregs” of older languages being deposited to provide the basis from which modern European languages have appeared:

The Sanskrit may be regarded as the pure fountainhead: the streams which flowed from it remained long in a troubled state from the turbulence of the middle ages, till, having found a more spacious and secure channel, they have gradually deposited the dregs of the Frankish, the Anglo-Saxon, the Cimbric, and the Celtic and reappeared in the beautiful languages of Montesquieu and Racine, of Goete [sic] and Schiller, of Byron and Scott. (259)

In Champneys’ book History of English, published in 1893, the final mute letter in words such as ride, home, take and so on is described as a fossil:

First of all, the differences in spelling may be briefly dismissed. Enough has been said before on the use of I where we now use J, on the difference of principle in the use of U and V, and about the final E, which was now a kind of fossil in the language. (327)

Oliver Farrar Emerson, in The History of the English Language (1894), talks of language strata:

Moreover, in addition to these linguistic areas representing the words actually used by individuals or by classes of society, there are in the same linguistic area what may be called language strata, overlying one another and differing from one another. (115)

If the basis of myths is the shared conceptual metaphors that we use to refer to abstract notions such as the nation-state and language, we still need to consider how those myths form the substance of ideological discourses about language (and nation). To do this, we need an adequate concept of discourse, which I will present in the following sections.

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