All posts by Dominik Lukeš


What is not a metaphor: Modelling the world through language, thought, science, or action

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The role of metaphor in science debate (Background)

Recently, the LSE podcast an interesting panel on the subject of “Metaphors and Science”. It featured three speakers talking about the interface between metaphor and various ‘scientific’ disciplines (economics, physics and surgery). Unlike many such occasions, all speakers were actually very knowledgeable and thoughtful on the subject.

In particular, I liked Felicity Mellor and Richard Bronk who adopted the same perspective that underlies this blog and which I most recently articulated in writing about obliging metaphors. Felicity Mellor put it especially eloquently when she said:

“Metaphor allows us to speak the truth by saying something that is wrong. That means it can be creatively liberating but it can also be surreptitiously coercive.”

This dual nature of coerciveness and liberation was echoed throughout the discussion by all three speakers. But they also shared the view of ubiquity of metaphor which is what this post is about.

What is not a metaphor? The question!

The moderator of the discussion was much more stereotypically ambivalent about such expansive attitude toward metaphor and challenged the speakers with the question of ‘what is the opposite of metaphor’ or ‘what is not a metaphor’. He elicited suggestions from the audience, who came up with this list:

model, diagram, definition, truths, math, experience, facts, logic, the object, denotation

The interesting thing is that most of the items on this list are in fact metaphorical in nature. Most certainly models, diagrams and definitions (more on these in future posts). But mathematics and logic are also deeply metaphorical (both in their application but also internally; e.g. the whole logico mathematical concept of proof is profoundly metaphorical).

Things get a bit more problematic with things like truth, fact, denotation and the object. All of those seem to be pointing at something that is intuitively unmetaphorical. But it doesn’t take a lot of effort to see that ‘something metaphorical’ is going on there as well. When we assign a label (denotation), for instance, ‘chair’ or ‘coast’ or ‘truth’ we automatically trigger an entire cognitive armoury for dealing with things that exist and these things have certain properties. But it is clear that ‘chair’, ‘coast’ and ‘metaphor’ are not the same kind of thing at all. Yet, we can start treating them the same way because they are both labels. So we start asking for the location, shape or definition of metaphor, just because we assigned it a label in the same way we can ask for the same thing about a chair or a coast. We want to take a measure of it, but this is much easier with a chair than with a coast (thus the famous fractal puzzle about the length of the coast of Britain). But chairs are not particularly easy to nail down (metaphorically, of course) either, as I discussed in my post on clichés and metaphors.

Brute facts of tiny ontology

So what is the thing that is not a metaphor? Both Bronk and Mellor suggested the “brute fact”. A position George Lakoff called basic realism and I’ve recently come to think of as tiny ontology. The idea, as expressed by Mellor and Bronk in this discussion, is that there’s a real world out there which impinges upon our bodily existence but with which we can only interact through the lens of our cognition which is profoundly metaphorical.

But ultimately, this does not give us a very useful answer. Either everything is a metaphor, so we might as well stop talking about it, or there is something that is not a metaphor. In which case, let’s have a look. Tiny ontology does not give us the solution because we can only access it through the filter of our cognition (which does not mean consciously or through some wilful interpretation). So the real question is, are there some aspects of our cognition that are not metaphorical?

Metaphor as model (or What is metaphor)

The solution lies in the revelation hinted at above that labels are in themselves metaphors. The act of labelling is metaphorical, or rather, it triggers the domain of objects. What do I mean by that? Well, first let’s have a look at how metaphor actually works. I find it interesting that nobody during the entire discussion tried to raise that question other than the usual ‘using something to talk about something else’. Here’s my potted summary of how metaphor works (see more details in the About section).

Metaphor is a process of projecting one conceptual domain onto another. All of our cognition involves this process of conceptual integration (or blending). This integration is fluid, fuzzy and partial. In language, this domain mapping is revealed through the process of deixis, attribution, predication, definition, comparison, etc. Sometimes it is made explicit by figurative language. Figurative language spans the scale of overt to covert. Figurative language has a conceptual, communicative and textual dimension (see my classification of metaphor use). In cognition, this process of conceptual integration is involved in identification, discrimination, manipulation. All of these can be more or less overtly analogical.

So all of this is just a long way of saying, that metaphor is a metaphor for a complicated process which is largely unconscious but not uncommonly conscious. In fact, in my research, I no longer use the term ‘metaphor’ because it misleads more than it helps. There’s simply too much baggage from what is just overt textual manifestation of metaphor – the sort of ‘common sense’ understanding of metaphor. However, this common sense ordinary understanding of ‘metaphor’ makes using the word a useful shortcut in communication with people who don’t have much of a background in this thought. But when we think about the issue more deeply, it becomes a hindrance because of all the different types of uses of metaphor I described here (a replay of the dual liberating and coercive nature of metaphor mentioned above – we don’t get escape our cognition just because we’re talking about metaphors).

In my work, I use the term frame, which is just a label for a sort of conceptual model (originally suggested by Lakoff as Idealized Cognitive Model). But I think in this context the term ‘model’ is a bit more revealing about what is going on.

So we can say that every time, we engage conceptually with our experience, we are engaging in an act of modelling (or framing). Even when I call something ‘true’, I am applying a certain model (frame) that will engage certain heuristics (e.g. asking for confirmation, evidence). Equally, if I say something like ‘education is business’, I am applying a certain model that will allow me to talk about things like achieving economies of scale or meeting consumer demand but will make it much harder to talk about ethics and personal growth. That doesn’t mean that I cannot apply more than one model, a combination of models or build new models from old ones. (Computer virus is a famous example, but natural law is another one. Again more on this in later posts.)

Action as an example of modelling

The question was asked during the discussion by an audience member, whether I can experience the world directly (not mediated by metaphoric cognition). The answer is yes, but even this kind of experience involves modelling. When I walk along a path, I automatically turn to avoid objects – therefore I’m modelling their solid and interactive nature. Even when I’m lying still, free of all thought and just letting the warmth of the shining sun wash over me, I’m still applying a model of my position in the world in a particular way. That is, my body is not activating my ears to hear the sun rays, nor is it perceiving the bacteria going about their business in my stomach. A snake, polar bear or a fish would all model that situation in a different way.

This may seem like unnecessary extension of the notion of a model. (But it echos the position of the third speaker Roger Kneebone who was talking about metaphor as part of the practice of surgery.) It is not particularly crucial to our understanding of metaphor, but I think it’s important to divert us from a certain kind of perceptual mysticism in which many people unhappy with the limitations of their cognitive models engage. The point is that not all of our existence is necessarily conceptual but all of it models our interaction with the world and switches between different models as appropriate. E.g. my body applies different models of the world when I’m stepping down from a step on solid ground or stepping into a pool of water.

The languages of metaphor: Or how a metaphor do

I am aware that this is all very dense and requires a lot more elaboration (well, that’s why I’m writing a blog, after all). But I’d like to conclude with a warning that the language used for talking about metaphor brings with it certain models of thinking about the world which can be very confusing if we don’t let go of them in time. Just the fact that we’re using words is a problem. When words are isolated (for instance, in a dictionary or at the end of the phrase ‘What is a…’) it only seems natural that they should have a definition. We have a word “metaphor” and it would seem that it needs to have some clear meaning. The kind of thing we’re used to seeing on the right-hand side of dictionaries. But insisting that dictionary-like definition is what must be at the end of the journey is to misunderstand what we’ve seen along the way.

There are many contexts in which the construction “metaphor is…” is not only helpful but also necessary. For example when clarifying one’s use: “In this blog, what I mean by metaphor is much broader than what traditional students of figurative language meant by it.” But in the context of trying to get at what’s going on in the space that we intuitively describe as metaphorical, we should almost be looking for something along to the lines of “metaphor does” or “metaphors feels like”. Or perhaps refrain from the construction “metaphor verb” altogether and just admit that we’re operating in a kind of metaphor-tasting soup. We can get at the meaning/definition by disciplined exploration and conversation.

In conclusion, metaphor is a very useful model when thinking about cognition, but it soon fails us, so we can replace it with more complex models, like that of a model. We are then left with the rather unsatisfactory notion of a metaphor of metaphor or a model of model. The sort of dissatisfaction that lead Derrida and his like to the heights of obscurity. I think we can probably just about avoid deconstructionist obscurantism but only if we adopt one of its most powerful tools, the fleeting sidelong glance (itself a metaphor/model). Just like the Necker cube, this life on the edge of metaphor is constantly shifting before our eyes. Never quite available to us perceptually all at once but readily apprehended by us in its totality. At once opaque and so so crystal clear. Rejoice all you parents of freshly screaming thoughts. It’s a metaphor!
Photo Credit: @Doug88888 via Compfight cc

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Charles Fillmore

Linguistics according to Fillmore

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While people keep banging on about Chomsky as being the be all and end all of linguistics (I’m looking at you philosophers of language), there have been many linguists who have had a much more substantial impact on how we actually think about language in a way that matters. In my post on why Chomsky is not really a linguist at all I listed a few.

Sadly, one of these linguists died yesterday. It was Charles J Fillmore who was a towering figure among linguists without writing a single book. In my mind, he changed the face of linguistics three times with just three articles (one of them co-authored). Obviously, he wrote many more but compared to his massive impact, his output was relatively modest. His ideas have been with me all through my life as a linguist and on reflection, they form a foundation about what I know language to be. Therefore, this is not so much an obituary (for which I’m hardly the most qualified person out there) as a manifesto for a linguistics of a truly human language.

The case for Fillmore

The first article, more of a slim monograph at 80 odd pages, was Case for Case (which, for some reason, I first read in Russian translation). Published in 1968 it was one of the first efforts to find deeper functional connections in generative grammar (following on his earlier work with transformations). If you’ve studied Chomskean Government and Binding, this is where thematic roles essentially come from. I only started studying linguistics in 1991 which is when Case for Case was already considered a classic. Particularly in Prague where function was so important. But even after all those years, it is still worth reading for any minimalist  out there. Unlike so many in today’s divided world, Fillmore engaged with the whole universe of linguistics, citing Halliday, Tesniere, Jakobson,  Whorf, Jespersen, and others while giving an excellent overview of the treatment of case by different theories and theorists. But the engagement went even deeper, the whole notion of ‘case’ as one “base component of the grammar of every language” brought so much traditional grammar back into contact with a linguistics that was speeding away from all that came before at a rate of knots.

From today’s perspective, its emphasis on the deep and surface structures, as well as its relatively impoverished semantics may seem a bit dated, but it represents an engagement with language used to express real meaning.  The thinking that went into deep cases transformed into what has become known as Frame Semantics (“I thought of each case frame as characterizing a small abstract ‘scene’ or ’situation’, so that to understand the semantic structure of the verb it was necessary to understand the properties of such schematized scenes” [1982]) which is where things really get interesting.

Fillmore in the frame

When I think about frame semantics, I always go to his 1982 article Frame Semantics published in the charmingly named conference proceedings ‘Linguistics in the morning calm’ but it had its first outing in 1976. George Lakoff used it as one of the key inspirations to his idealized cognitive models in Women, Fire, and Dangerous things which is where this site can trace its roots. As I have said before, I essentially think about metaphors as a special kinds of frames.

In it, he says:

By the term ‘frame’ I have in mind any system of concepts related in such a way that to understand anyone of them you have to  understand the whole structure in which it fits; when one of the things in such a structure is introduced into a text, or into a conversation, all of the others are automatically made available. I intend the word ‘frame’ as used here to be a general cover term for the set of concepts variously known, in the literature on natural language understanding, as ‘schema: ‘script’, ‘scenario’, ‘ideational scaffolding’, ‘cognitive model’, or ‘folk theory’.

It is a bit of a mouthful but it captures in a paragraph the absolute fundamentals of the semantics of human language as opposed to projecting the rules of formal logic and truth conditions onto an impoverished version of language that all the generative-inspired approaches try to do. Also, it brings together many other concepts from different fields of scholarship. Last year I presented a paper on the power of the concept of frame where I found even more terms that have a close affinity to it which only underscores the far reaching consequences of Fillmore’s insight.

As I was looking for some more quotes from that article, I realized that I’d have to pretty much cut and paste in the whole of it. Almost, every sentence there is pure gold. Rereading it now after many many years, it’s becoming clear how many things from it I’ve internalized (and frankly, reinvented some of the ideas I forgot had been there).

Constructing Fillmore

About the same time, and merging the two earlier insights, Fillmore started working on the principles that have come to be known as construction grammar. Although, by then, the ideas were some years old, I always think of his 1988 article with Paul Kay and Mary Catherine O’Conner as a proper construction grammar manifesto. In it they say:

The overarching claim is that the proper units of a grammar are more similar to the notion of construction in traditional and pedagogical grammars than to that of rule in most versions of generative grammar.

Constructions, according to Fillmore have these properties:

  1. They are not limited to the constituents of a single syntactic tree. Meaning, they span what has been considered as the building blocks of language.
  2. They specify at the same time syntactic, lexical, semantic and pragmatic information.

  3. Lexical items can also be viewed as constructions (this is absolutely earth shattering and I don’t think linguistics has come to grips with it, yet).

  4. They are idiomatic. That is, their meaning is not built up from their constituent parts.

Although Lakoff’s study of ‘there constructions’ in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things came out a year earlier (and is still essential reading), I prefer Fillmore as an introduction to the subject (if only because I never had to translate it).

The beauty of construction grammar (just as the beauty of frame semantics) is in that it can bridge much of the modern thinking about language with grammatical insights and intuitions of generations of researchers from across many schools of thought. But I am genuinely inspired by its commitment to language as a whole, expressed in the 1999 article by Fillmore and Kay:

To adopt a constructional approach is to undertake a commitment in principle to account for the entirety of each language. This means that the relatively general patterns of the language, such as the one licensing the ordering of a finite auxiliary verb before its subject in English as illustrated in 1, and the more idiomatic patterns, such as those exemplified in 2, stand on an equal footing as data for which the grammar  must provide an account.

(1) a. What have you done?  b. Never will I leave you. c. So will she. d. Long may you prosper! e. Had I known, . . . f. Am I tired! g. . . . as were the others h. Thus did the hen reward Beecher.

(2) a. by and large b. [to] have a field day c. [to] have to hand it to [someone]  d. (*A/*The) Fool that I was, . . . e. in x’s own right

Given such a commitment, the construction grammarian is required to develop an explicit system of representation, capable of encoding economically and without loss of generalization all the constructions (or patterns) of the language, from the most idiomatic to the most general.

Notice that they don’t just say ‘language’ but ‘each language’. Both of those articles give ample examples of how constructions work and what they do and I commend them to your linguistic enjoyment.

Ultimately, I do not subscribe to the exact version of construction grammar that Fillmore and Kay propose, agreeing with William Croft that it is still too beholden to the formalist tradition of the generative era, but there is something to learn from on every page of everything Fillmore wrote.

Once more with meaning: the FrameNet years

Both frame semantics and construction grammar impacted Fillmore’s work in lexicography with Sue Atkins and culminated in FrameNet a machine readable frame semantic dictionary providing a model for a semantic module to a construction grammar. To make the story complete, we can even see FrameNet as a culmination of the research project begun in Case for Case  which was the development of a “valence dictionary” (as he summarized it in 1982). While FrameNet is much more than that and has very much abandoned the claim to universal deep structures, it can be seen as accomplishing the mission of a language with meaning Fillmore set out on in the 1960s.

Remembering Fillmore

I only met Fillmore once when he came to lecture at a summer school in Prague almost twenty years ago. I enjoyed his lectures but was really too star struck to take advantage of the opportunity. But I saw enough of him to understand why he is remembered with deep affection and admiration by all of his colleagues and students whose ranks form a veritable who’s who of linguists to pay attention to.

In my earlier post, I compared him in stature and importance to Roman Jakobson (even if Jakobson’s crazy voluminous output across four languages dwarfs Fillmore’s – and almost everyone else’s). Fillmore was more than a linguist’s linguist, he was a linguist who mattered (and matters) to anyone who wanted (and wants) to understand how language works beyond a few minimalist soundbites. Sadly it is possible to meet graduates with linguistics degrees who never heard of Jakobson or Fillmore. While it’s almost impossible to meet someone who doesn’t know anything about language but has heard of Chomsky. But I have no doubt that in the decades of language scholarship to come, it will be Fillmore and his ideas that will be the foundation upon which the edifice of linguistics will rest. May he rest in peace.

Post Script

I am far from being an expert on Fillmore’s work and life. This post reflects my personal perspective and lessons I’ve learned rather than a comprehensive or objective reference work. I may have been rather free with the narrative arc of his work. Please be free with corrections and clarifications. Language Log reposted a more complete profile of his life.


  • Fillmore, C., 1968. The Case for Case. In E. Bach & R. Harms, eds. Universals in Linguistic Theory. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, pp. 1–88. Available at: [Accessed February 15, 2014].
  • Fillmore, C.J., 1976. Frame Semantics and the nature of language. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 280 (Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech), pp.20–32.
  • Fillmore, C., 1982. Frame Semantics. In The Linguistic Society of Korea, ed. Linguistics in the morning calm : International conference on linguistics : Selected papers. Seoul  Korea: Hanshin Pub. Co., pp. 111–139.
  • Fillmore, C.J., Kay, P. & O’Connor, M.C., 1988. Regularity and Idiomaticity in Grammatical Constructions: The Case of Let Alone. Language, 64(3), pp.501–538.
  • Kay, P. & Fillmore, C.J., 1999. Grammatical constructions and linguistic generalizations: the What’s X doing Y? construction. Language, 75(1), pp.1–33.
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5 things everybody should know about language: Outline of linguistics’ contribution to the liberal arts curriculum

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This was written in some haste and needs further refinement. Maybe one day that will come. For now, it will be left as it stands.


This post outlines what I think are the key learnings from the output of the research of the field of linguistics that should be reflected in the general curriculum (in as much as any should be). This is in reaction to the recent posts by Mark Liberman suggesting the role and form of grammar analysis in general education. I argue that he is almost entirely wrong in his assumptions as well as in his emphasis. I will outline my arguments against his position at the end of the post. At the beginning I will outline key easily digestible lessons of modern linguistics that should be incorporated into language education at all levels.

I should note that despite my vociferous disagreement, Mark Liberman is one of my heros. His ‘Breakfast Experiments(tm)’ have brought me much joy and his and his fellow contributors to the Language Log make me better informed about developments in linguistics outside my own specialty that I would otherwise not know about. Thanks Mark for all your great work.

I have addressed some of these issues in previous posts here, here and here.

What should linguistics teach us

In my post on what proponents of simple language should know about linguistics, I made a list of findings that I propose are far more important than specific grammatical and lexicographic knowledge. Here I take a slightly more high-level approach – but in part, this is a repetition of that post.

Simply, I propose that any school-level curriculum of language education should 1. expose students (starting at primary level) to the following 5 principles through reflection on relevant examples, and 2. these principles should be reflected in the practical instruction students receive toward the acquisition of skills and general facility in the standards of that language.

Summary of key principles

  1. Language is a dialect with an army and a navy
  2. Standard English is just one of the many dialects of English
  3. We are all multilingual in many different ways
  4. A dictionary is just another text written in the language, not a law of the language
  5. Language is more than words and rules

Principle 1: Language is a dialect with an army and a navy

This famous dictum (see Wikipedia on origins ) encapsulates the fact that language does not have clear boundaries and that there is no formula for distinguishing where one language ends and another begins. Often, this disctinction depends on the political interests of different groups. In different political contexts, the different Englishes around the world today, could easily qualify for separate language status and many of them have achieved this.

But exploring the examples that help us make sense of this pithy phrase also teaches us the importance of language in the negotiation of our identity and its embeddedness in the wider social sphere. There are piles and piles of evidence to support this claim and learning about the evidence has the potential of making us all better human beings less prone to disenfranchise others based on the way they speak (in as much any form of schooling is capable of such a thing). Certainly more worthy than knowing how to tell the passive voice.

Principle 2: Standard English is just one of the many dialects of English

Not only are there no clear boundaries between languages, there are no clear principles of what constitutes an individual language. A language is identified by its context of use as much as by the forms it uses. So if kayak and a propos can be a part of English so can ain’t and he don’t. It is only a combination of subconscious convention and conscious politics that decides which is which.

Anybody exploring the truth of this statement (and, yes, I’m perfectly willing to say the word truth in this context) will learn about the many features of English and all human languages such as:

  • stratification of language through registers
  • regional and social variation in language
  • processes of change in language over time
  • what we call good grammar are more or less fixed conventions of expression in certain contexts
  • the ubiquity of multiple codes and constant switching between codes (in fact, I think this is so important that it gets a top billing in this list as number 3)

Again, althoguh I’m highly skeptical of claims to causality from education to social change, I can’t see why instruction in this reality of our lives could not contribute to an international conversation about language politics. Perhaps, an awareness of this ‘mantra’ could reduce the frequency of statements such as:

  • I know I don’t speak very good English
  • Word/expression X is bad English
  • Non-native speaker X speaks better English than native speaker Y

And just maybe, teachers of English will stop abusing their students with ‘this is bad grammar’ and instead guide them towards understanding that in different contexts, different uses are appropriate. Even at the most elementary levels, children can have fun learning to speak like a newscaster or a local farm hand, without the violent intrusion into their identity that comes from the misguided and evil labeling of the first as proper and the second as ‘not good English’. Or how about giving the general public enough information to have judged the abominable behavior of the the journalist pseudo elites during the ‘Ebonics controversy’ as the disgraceful display of shameful ignorance it was.

Only and only when they have learned all that, should we mention something about the direct object.

Principle 3: We are all multilingual in many different ways

One of the things linguistics has gathered huge amounts of evidence about is the fact that we are all constantly dealing with multiple quite distinct codes. This is generally not expressed in quite as stark terms as I do here, but I take my cue from bilingualism studies where it has been suggested (either by Chaika or Romaine – I can’t track down the reference to save my life) that we should treat all our study of language as if bilingualism was the default state rather than some exception. This would make good sense even if we went by the educated guess that just over half of the world’s population speaks regularly two or more languages. But I want to go further.

First, we know from principle 1 that there is no definition of language that allows us draw clear boundaries between individual languages. Second, we know from principle 2 that each language consists of many different ‘sub-languages’ or ‘codes’. Because language is so vast and complex, it follows that knowing a language is not an either/or proposition. People are constantly straddling boundaries between different ways of speaking and understanding. Speaking in different ways for different purposes, to different people in different codes. And we know that people switch between the codes constantly for different reasons, even in the same sentence or just one word (very common in languages with rich morphologies like Czech – less common in English but possible with ‘un-fucking-convinving’). Some examples that should illustrate this: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re screwed” and “And then Jeff said unto Karen”

We also know from all the wailing and gnashing of teeth derriving from the ignorance of principle 2, that acquiring these different codes is not easy. The linguist Jim Miller has suggested to me that children entering school are in a way required to learn a foreign language. In Czech schools, they are instructed in a new lexicon and new morphology (e.g. say ‘malý’ instead of ‘malej’). in English schools they are taught a strange syntax with among other things a focus on nominal structures (cf. ‘he went and’ vs. ‘his going was’) as well as an alien lexicon (cf. ‘leave’ vs. ‘depart’). This is compounded with a spelling system whose principles are often explained on the basis of a phonology they don’t understand (e.g. much of England pronuncing ‘bus’ and ‘booss’ but using teaching materials that rhyme ‘bus’ with ‘us’).

It is not therefore a huge leap to say that for all intents and purposes, we are all multilingual even if we only officially speak one language with its own army and a navy. Or at least, we enagage all the social, cognitive and linguistic processes that are involved in speaking multiple languages. (There is some counter evidence from brain imaging but in my view it is still too early to interpret this either way.)

But no matter whether we accept the strong or the weak version of my proposition, learning about the different pros and cons would make students’ lives much easier at all levels. Instead of feeling like failures over their grammar, they could be encouraged to practice switching between codes. They could also take comfort in the knowledge that there are many different ways of knowing a language and no one person can know it all.

If any time is left over, let’s have a look at constituent structures.

Principle 4: A dictionary is just another text written in the language, not a law of the language

The defference shown to ‘official’ reference materials is at the heart of a myth that the presense of a word in a dictionary in some way validates the word as being a ‘real’ word in the language. But the absolute truth about language that everyone should know and repeat as a mantra every time they ask ‘is X a word’ is that dictionaries are just another text. In fact, they are their own genre of a type that Michael Hoey calls text colonies. This makes them cousins of the venerable shopping list. Dictionaries have their own conventions, their own syntax and their own lexicon. They have ‘heads’ and ‘definitions’ that are both presented in particular ways.

What they most emphatically do not do is confirm or disconfirm the existence of a word or its meaning. It’s not just that they are always behind current usage, it’s that they only reflect a fraction of the knowledge involved in knowing and using words (or as the philosopher John Austin would say ‘doing things with words’). Dictionaries fullfil two roles at once. They are useful tools for gathering information to enable us to deal with the consequences of principle 3 (i.e. to function in a complex multi-codal linguistic environment both as passive and active participants). And they help us express many beliefs about our world such as:

  • The world is composed of entities with meanings
  • Our knowledge is composed of discrete items
  • Some things are proper and others are improper

Perhaps this can become more transparent when we look at entries for words like ‘the’ or ‘cat’. No dictionary definition can help us with ‘the’ unless we can already use it. In this case, the dictionary serves no useful role other than as a catalog of our reality. Performatively assuring us of its own relevance by its irrelevance. How about the entry for ‘cat’. Here, the dictionary can play a very useful role in a bilingual situation. A German will see ‘cat = Katze’ and all will be clear in an instant. A picture can be helpful to those who have no language yet (little children). But the definition of ‘cat’ as “a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws” is of no use to anybody who doesn’t already know what ‘cat’ means. Or at the very least, if you don’t know ‘cat’, your chances of understanding any definition in the dictionary are very low. A dictionary can be helpful in reminding us that ‘cat’ is also used to refer to ‘man’ among jazz musicians (as in “he’s a cool cat”) but again, all that requires existing knowledge of cat. A dictionary definition that would say ‘a cat is that thing you know as a cat but jazz musicians sometimes use cat to refer to men’ would be just as useful.

In this way, a dictionary is like an audience in the theatre, who are simultaneously watching a performance, and performing themselves the roles of theatre audiences (dress, behavior, speech).

It is also worthwhile to think about what is required of the dictionary author. While the basic part of the lexicographer’s craft is the collection of usage examples (on index cards in the past and in corpora today) and their interpretation, all this requires a prior facility with the language and much introspection about the dictionary makers own linguistic intuitions. So lexicographers make mistakes. Furthermore, in the last hundred years or so, they also almost never start from scratch. Most dictionaries are based on some older dictionaries and the order of definitions is often as much a reflection of a tradition (e.g. in the case of the word ‘literally’ or the word ‘brandish’) as analysis of actual usage.

Why should this be taught as part of the language education curriculum? Simple! Educated people should know how the basic tools surrounding their daily lives work. But even more importantly, they should never use the presence of a word in a dictionary, and as importantly the definition of a word in a dictionary, as the definitive argument for their preferred meaning of a word. (Outside some contexts such as playing SCRABBLE or confirming an uncertainty over archaic or specialist words).

An educated person should be able to go and confirm any guidance found in a dictionary by searching a corpus and evaluate the evidence. It’s not nearly as hard as as identifying parts of speech in a sentence and about a million times more useful for the individual and beneficial for society.

Principle 5: Language is more than words and rules

Steven Pinker immortalised the traditional structuralist vision of what language consists of in the title of his book “Words and rules”. This vision is almost certainly wrong. It is based on an old articulation of language as being the product of a relatively small number of rules applied to a really large number of words (Chomsky expressed this quite starkly but the roots of this model go much deeper).

That is not to say that words and rules are not useful heuristic shortcuts to talking about language. I use this metaphor myself every day. And I certainly am not proposing that language should not be taught with reference to this metaphor.

However, this is a very impoverished view of language and rather than spend time on learning the ‘relatively few’ rules for no good reason other than to please Mark Liberman, why not learn some facts we know about the vastness and complexity of language. That way instead of having a completely misguided view of language as something finite that can be captured in a few simple precepts (often expressed in one of those moronic ‘Top X grammatical errors lists’), one could actually have a basic understanding of all the ways language expresses our minds and impresses itself on our life. Perhaps, we could even get to a generation of psycholinguists and NLP specialists who try to deal with language as it actually is rather than in its bastardised form that can be captured by rules and words.

Ok, so I’m hoisting my theoretical flag here, flying the colors of the ‘usage-based’, ‘construction grammar’, ‘cognitive semantics’ crowd. But the actual curricular proposal is theory free (other than in the ‘ought’ portion of it) and based on well-known and oft-described facts – many of them by the Language Log itself.

To illustrate the argument, let’s open the dictionary and have a look at the entry ‘get’. It will go on for several pages even if we decide to hide all its phrasal friends under separate entries. Wiktionary lists 26 definitions as a verb and 4 as a noun which is fairly conservative. But each of these definitions also comes with usage examples and usage exceptions. For instance, in ‘get behind him’, it is intransitive but in ‘get Jim to come’, it is transitive. This is combined with general rules that apply across all uses such ‘got’ as the past tense and ‘gets’ as the third person singular. Things can be even more complex as with the word ‘bad’ which has the irregular superlative ‘worst’ when it is used in a negative sense as in ‘teaching grammar in schools is the worst idea’ and ‘baddest’ in the positive sense as in ‘Mark Liberman is the baddest linguist on the internet’. ‘Baddest’ is also only appropriate in certain contexts (so my example is at the same time an illustration of code mixing). When we look at any single word in the dictionary, the amount of conscious and unconscious knowledge required to use the word in our daily speech is staggering. This is made even trickier by the fact that not everyone in any one speech community has exactly the same grasp of the word leading to a lot of negotiation and conversation repair.

It is also the sort of stuff that makes understanding of novel expressions like ‘she sneezed the napking off the table’ possible. If we must, let’s do some sentence diagramming now.

Some other things to know

I could go on, some of my other candidate principles that didn’t make this list either because they could be subsumed by one of the items, or they are too theory laden, or because I wanter a list of 5, or because this blog post is over 3,000 words already, are:

  • All lexical knowledge is encyclopedic knowledge
  • Rules of the road like conversation repair, turn taking or text cohesion are just as much part of language as things like passives, etc.
  • Metaphors (and other types of figurative language) are normal, ubiquitous and necessary for language
  • Pretty much every prejudice about gender and language is wrong (like who is more conservative, etc.)
  • No language is more beatiful or amazing than any other, saying this is most likely part of a nationalistic discourse
  • Children are not very good language learners when you put them in the same learning context as adults (e.g. two hours of instruction a week as opposed to living in a culture with no other obligation but to learn)
  • Learning a language is hard and it takes time
  • The etymology of a word does not reflect some deeper meaning of the word
  • Outside some very specific contexts (e.g. language death), languages don’t decline, they change
  • Etc.

Why we should not teach grammar in schools

So, that was my outline of what linguistic expertise should be part of the language education curriculum – and as importantly should inform teachers across all subjects. Now, let’s have a look, as promised, at why Mark Liberman is wrong to call for the teaching of grammar in schools in the first place.

To his credit, he does not trot out any of the usual utilitarian arguments for the teaching of grammar:

  • It will make learning of foreign languages easier
  • It will make today’s graduates better able to express themselves
  • It will contribute to higher quality of discourse
  • It will stop the decline of English
  • It will improve critical thinking of all students

These are all bogus, not supported by evidence and with some evidence against them (see this report for a summary of a part of them).

My argument is with his interpretation of his claim that

a basic understanding of how language works should be part of what every educated person knows

I have a fundamental problem with the very notion of ‘educated person’ because of its pernicious political baggage. But in this post I’ve used it to accept the basic premise that if we’re going to teaching lots of stuff to children in schools, we might as well teach them the good stuff. Perhaps, not always the most immediately useful stuff but definitely the stuff that reflects the best in what we have to offer to ourselves as the humanity we want to be.

But if that is the case, then I don’t think his offer of

a modern version of the old-fashioned idea that grammar (and logic and rhetoric :-)) should be for everyone

is that sort of stuff. Let’s look at what that kind of education did for the likes of Orwell, and Stunk and White who have had the benefit of all the grammar education a school master’s cane can beat into a man and yet committed such outrageous, embarrassing and damaging transgressions against linguistic knowledge (not infrequently decried on the Language Log).

The point is that ‘grammar’ (and ‘logic’ and ‘rhetoric’) do not represent even a fraction of the principles involved in how language works. The only reason why we would privilege their teaching over the teaching of the things I propose (which cover a much larger area of how language works) is because they have been taught in the past. But why? Basing it on something as arbitrary as the hodgepodge that is the treebank terminology proposed by Mark Liberman only exposes the weakness of the argument – sure, it’s well known and universally understood by professional linguists but it hides as much about language as it reveals. And as Mark acknowledges, the aim is not to educate future linguists. There are alternatives such as Dickson’s excellent Basic Linguistic Theory that take into account much more subtly the variation across languages. But even then, we avoid all the really interesting things about language. I’m not against some very basic metalinguistic terminology to assist students in dealing with language but parsing sentences for no other reason than to do it seems pointless.

The problem with basing a curriculum on old-fashioned values is that we are catering to the nostalgia of old men (and sorry Mark, despite my profound appreciation for your work, you are an old man). (By the way, I use ‘men’ to evoke a particular image rather than to make any assertions about the gender of the person in question.) But it’s not just nostalgia. It’s also their disorientation in a changing world and discomfort with encountering people who are not like them – and, oh horror, can’t tell the passive voice from the past tense. Yes, it would be more convenient for me, if everyone I spoke to had the same appreciation for what an adverb is (particularly when I was teaching foreign languages). But is that really the best we have to offer when we want to show what should be known? How much of this is just the maintenance of the status of academics who want to see their discipline reflected in the cauldron of power and respectability that is the school curriculum? If the chemists get to waste everyone’s time with polymers, why not us with trees and sentence diagrams? In a follow up post, Dick Hudson claims that at present “we struggle to cope with the effects of [the disaster of no grammar teaching]“. But I don’t see any disaster going on at the moment. Why is teaching no grammar more disasterous than the teaching of grammar based on Latin and Greek with little connection to the nature of English? Whose rules are we after?

The curriculum is already full to bursting with too much stuff that someone threw up as a shibboleth for being educated and thus eligible for certain privileges. But perhaps our curriculum has now become the kind of stable that needs the janitorial attention of a modern Heracles.

Post script: Minimalist metalinguistic curriculum

I once analysed the Czech primary curriculum and found over 240 metalinguistic terms. I know, riddiculous. The curriculum was based on the work of eminent Czech structuralists (whose theorizing influenced much of the rest of the world). It didn’t make the Czechs any more educated, eloquent, or better at learning foreign languages – although it did make it easier for me to study linguistics. But as I said above, there is certainly some place for metalanguage in general education. Much of it comes from stylistics but when it comes to grammar, I’d stick to about 15. This is not a definitive list:

  1. Noun
  2. Verb
  3. Adjective
  4. Adverb
  5. Preposition
  6. Pronoun
  7. Prefix
  8. Suffix
  9. Clause
  10. Past form of verb
  11. Future form of verbs
  12. Present form of verbs
  13. Subject
  14. Object
  15. Passive

Languages with rich morphology might need a few others to cover things like case but overall in my career as a language educator, I’ve never felt the need for any more, and nor have I felt in the presence of uneducated people of people who couldn’t tell me what the infinitive was. In fact, I’d rather take some items away (like adverb, prefix, suffix, or clause) than add new ones.

Sentence diagramming is often proposed as a way of instilling some metalinguistic awareness. I don’t see any harm in that (and a lot of potential benefit). But only with the enormous proviso that students use it to learn the relationship between parts of their language in use and NOT as a gateway to a cancerous taxonomy pretending to the absolute existence of things that could easily be just artifacts of our metacognition.

Things are different when it comes to the linguistic education of language teachers. On the one hand, I’m all for language teachers having a comprehensive education in how language works. On the other hand, I have perpetrated a lot of such teacher training over the years and have watch others struggle with it, as well. And the effects are dispiriting. I’ve seen teachers who can diagram a sentence with the best of them and are still quite clueless when it comes to understanding how speech acts work. Very often language teachers find any such lessons painful and something to get through. This means that the key thing they remember about the subject is that linguistics is hard or boring or both.

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Binders full of women with mighty pens: What is metonymy

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Metonymy in the wild

""Things were not going well for Mitt Romney in early autumn of last year. And then he responded to a query about gender equality with this sentence:

“I had the chance to pull together a cabinet, and all the applicants seemed to be men… I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”

This became a very funny meme that stuck around for weeks. The reason for the longevity was the importance of women’s issues and the image of Romney himself. Not the phrase itself. What it showed or rather confirmed that journalists who in the same breath bemoan the quality of language education are completely ignorant about issues related to language. Saying things like:

In fairness, “binders” was most likely a slip of the tongue.

The answer to this is NO. This was not some ‘freudian slip of the tongue’ nor was it an inelegant phrase. It was simply a perfectly straightforward use of metonymy. Something we use and hear used probably a dozen times every day without remarking on it (or mostly so – see below).

What is metonymy

Metonymy is a figure of speech where something stands for something else because it has a connection to it. This connection can be physical, where a part of something can stand for a whole and a whole can stand for one of its parts.

  • Part for a whole: In I got myself some new wheels., ‘wheels’ stand in for ‘car’.
  • Whole for a part: In My bicycle got a puncture., ‘bicycle’ stands for a ‘tyre‘ which is a part of the it.

But the part/whole relationship does not have to be physical. Something can be a part of a process, idea, or configuration. The part/whole relationship can also be a membership or a cause and effect link. There are some subdomain instantiations where whole sets of conventional metonymies often congregate. Tools also often stand for jobs and linguistic units can stand for their uses. Materials can also be used to stand for things made from them. Some examples of these are:

  • Membership for members: “The Chess club sends best wishes.” < the ‘chess club’ stands for its members
  • Leader for lead: “The president invaded another country.” < the ‘president’ stands for the army
  • Tool  for person: “hired gun” < the tool stands for the person
  • Linguistic units for uses: “no more ifs and buts’ < if’ and ‘but’ stand for their types of questions
  • End of a process for process: ”the house is progressing nicely” < the ‘house’ is the final end of a process which stands for the process as a whole.
  • Tool/position for job“chair person” < ‘chair’ stands for the role of somebody who sits on it.
  • Body part for use: “lend a hand”, the ‘hand’ stands for the part of the process where hands are used.
  • City for inhabitants: “Detroit doesn’t like this” < the city of ‘Detroit’ stands for the people and industries associated with the city.
  • Material for object made from material: “he buried 6 inches of steel in his belly” < the steel stands for a sword as in “he filled him full of lead”, lead stands for bullets.

Metonymy chaining

Metonymies often occur in chains. A famous example by Michael Reddy is

“You’ll find better ideas than that in the library.”

where ideas are expressed in words, printed on pages, bound in books, stored in libraries.

In fact the ‘binders full of women’ is an example of a metonymic chain where women stand for profiles which are written on pages contained in binders.

It has been argued that these chains illustrate the very nature of metonymic inference. (See more below in section on reasoning.) In fact, it is not unreasonable to say that most metonymy contains some level of chaining or potential chaining. Not in cases of direct parts like ‘wheels’ standing for ‘cars’ but in the less concrete types like ‘hands’ standing for help or ‘president’ for the invading army, there is some level of chaining involved.

Metonymy vs. synechdoche

Metonymy is a term which is a part of a long standing classification of rhetorical tropes. The one term from this classification that metonymy is most closely associated with is synechdoche. In fact, what used to be called synechdoche is now simply subsumed under metonymy by most people who write about it.

The distinction is:
- Synechdoche describes a part standing for a whole (traditionally called pars pro toto) as in ‘The king built a cathedral.’ or the whole standing for a part (traditionally called totum pro parte) as in ‘Poland votes no’
- Metonymy describes a connection based on a non-part association such as containment, cause and effect, etc. (see above for a variety of examples)

While this distinction is not very hard to determine in most cases, it is not particularly useful and most people won’t be aware of it. In fact, I was taught that synechdoche was pars pro toto and metonymy was totum pro parte and all the other uses are an extension of these types. This makes just as much as sense as any other division but doesn’t seem to be the way the ancients looked at it.

Metaphor vs. metonymy

More commonly and perhaps more usefully, metonymy is contrasted with metaphor. In fact, ‘metaphor/metonymy’ is one of the key oppositions made in studies of figurative language.

People studying these tropes in the Lakoff and Johnson tradition will say something along the lines of metonymy relies on continguity wheras metaphor relies on similarity.

So for example:

  • you‘re such a kiss ass” is a metaphor because ‘kissing ass’ signifies a certain kind of behavior, but the body part is not involved, while
  • “I got this other car on my ass” is a metonymy because ‘ass’ stands for everything that’s behind you.


  • all men are pigs” is a metaphor because we ascribe the bad qualities of pigs to men but
  • this is our pig man” is a metonymy because ‘pig’ is part of the man’s work

Some people (like George Lakoff himself) maintain that the distinction between metaphor and metonymy represent a crucial divide. Lakoff puts metonymic connections along with metaphoric ones as the key figurative structuring principles of conceptual frames (along with propositions and image schemas). But I think that there is evidence to show that they play a similar role in figurative language and language in general. For example, we could add a third sentence to our ‘ass’ opposition such as ‘she kicked his ass’ which could be either metonymic when actual kicking occured but only some involved the buttocks or metaphoric if no kicking at all took place. But even then the metaphor relies on an underlying metonymy.

When we think of metaphor as a more special instance of domain mapping (or conceptual blending, as I do on this blog), then we see that very similar connections are being made in both. Very often both metaphor and metonymy are involved in the same figurative process. There is also often a component of social convention where some types of connections are more likely to be made.

For example, in “pen is mightier than the sword” the connections of ‘pen’ to writing and ‘sword’ to war or physical enforcement is often given as an example of metonymy. But the imagery is much richer than that. In order to understand this phrase, we need to compare two scenarios (one with the effects of writing and one with the effects of fighting) which is exactly what happens in the conceptualisation taking place in metaphors and analogies. These two processes are not just part of a chain but seem to happen all at once.

Another example is ‘enquiring minds want to know’ the labeling of which was the subject of a recent debate. We know that minds often metonymically stand for thinkers as in ‘we have a lot of sharp minds in this class’. But when we hear of ‘minds’ doing something, we think of metaphor. This is not all that implausible because ‘my mind has a mind of its own’ is out there: But this figure of speech obviously relies on both conceptualisations at once (at least in the way some people will construe it).

Metonymy and meronymy

One confusion, I’ve noticed is putting metonymy into opposition to meronymy. However, the term ‘meronymy has nothing to do with the universe of figurative language. It is simply a term for a name used to label a the meaning of a word in relationship to another word where one of these words denotes a whole and another its part. So ‘wheels’ are a meronym of ‘car’ and ‘bike’ but calling a nice car ‘sharp wheels’ is synechdoche, not meronymy as this post erroneously claims.

Meronyms together with hyponyms and hyperonyms are simply terms that describe semantic relationships between words. You could say that synechdoche relies on the meronymic (or holonymic) relationship between words or that it uses meronyms for reference.

It doesn’t make much difference for the overall understanding of the issues but perhaps worth clarifying.

William Croft also claims that meronymy is the only constituent relationship in his radical construction grammar (something which I have a lot of time for but not something hugely relevant to this discussion).

Metonymic imagery

Compared to metaphor, metonymy is often seen as the more pedestrian figure of speech. But as we saw in the reactions to Romney’s ‘binders of women’ that this is not necessarily the case:

he managed to conjure an image confirming every feminist’s worst fears about a Romney presidency; that he views women’s rights in the workplace as so much business admin, to be punched and filed and popped on a shelf

The meme that sprang up around it consisted mostly of people illustrating this image, many of which can be found on (see one such image above).

This is not uncommon in the deconstructions and hypostatic debates about metonymies. ‘Pen is mightier than the sword’ is often objected to on the basis that somebody with a sword will always prevail over somebody with a pen. People will also often critique the ’cause of’ relationships, as in ‘the king did not erect this tower, all the hard-working builders did’. Another example could be all the gruesome jokes about ‘lending a hand’ or ‘asking for a hand in marriage’. I still remember a comedy routine from my youth which included the sentence, “The autopsy was successful, the doctor came over to me extending a hand…for me to take to the trash.”

But there is a big difference in how the imagery works in metonymy and metaphor. Most of the time we don’t notice it. But when we become aware of the rich evocative images that make a metaphor work, we think of the metaphor as working and those images illustrate the relationship between the two domains. But when we become aware of the images that are contained in a metonymy (as in the examples above), we are witnessing a failure of the metonymy. It stops doing its job as a trope and starts being perceived as somehow inappropriate usage. But metaphor thus revealed typically does its job even better (though not in all cases as I’ve often illustrated on this blog).

Reasoning with metonymy

Much has been written about metaphoric reasoning (sometimes in the guise of ‘analogic reasoning’) but connection is just as an important part of reasoning as similarity is.

Much of sympathetic magic requires both connection and similarity. So the ‘voodoo doll’ is shaped like a person but is connected to them by a their hair, skin, or an item belonging to them.

But reasoning by connection is all around us. For instance, in science, the relationship of containment is crucial to classification and much of logic. Also, the question of sets being part of sets which has spurred so much mathematical reasoning has both metaphoric and metonymic dimensions.

But we also reason by metonymy in daily life when we pay homage to the flag or call on the president to do something about the economy. Sometimes we understand something metonymically by compression, as if when we equate the success of a company with the success of its CEO. Sometimes we use metonymy to elaborate as when we say something like 12 hard working pistons brought the train home.

Metonymy is also involved in the process of exemplars and paragons. While the ultimate conceptualization is metaphoric, we also ask that the exemplar has some real connection. Journalists engage the process of metonymy when they pick someone to tell their story to exemplify a larger group. This person has to be both similar and connected to engage the power of the trope fully. On a more accessible level, insults and praise often have a metonymic component. When we call someone ‘an asshole’ or ‘a hero’, we often substitute a part of who they are for the whole, much to the detriment of our understanding of who they are (note that a metaphor is also involved).

Finally, many elements of representative democracy rely on metonymic reasoning. We want MPs to represent particular areas and think it is best if they originate in that area. We think because we paid taxes, the police ‘work for us’. Also, the ideology of nationalism and nation states are very much metonymic.

Warning in conclusion

I have often warned against the dangers of overdoing the associations generated by metaphors. But in many ways metonymy is potentially even more dangerous because of the magic of direct connection. It can be a very useful (and often necessary) shortcut to communication (particularly when used as compression) but just as often it can lead us down dangerous paths if we let it.


This post is an elaboration and reworking of my comment on Stan Carey’s post on metonymy:  It seemed to me a surprisingly confused and unclear about what metonymy does. This could be because Stan is no linguistic lightweight so I have expected more. But it’s easy to get this wrong, and rereading my comment there, it seems, I got a bit muddled myself. And, I’m sure even my more worked out description here could be successfully picked over. Even Wikipedia, which is normally quite good in this area, is a bit confused on the matter. The different entries for synechdoche and metonymy as well as related terms seem a bit patched together and don’t provide a straightforward definition.

Ultimately, the finer details don’t matter as long as we understand the semantic field. I hope this post contributes to that understanding but I’ll welcome any comments and corrections.

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Three books of the year 2013 and some books of the century 1900-2013

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I have been asked (as every year) to nominate three books of the year for Lidové Noviny (a Czech paper I contribute to occasionally). This is always a tough choice for me and some years I don’t even bother responding. This is because I don’t tend to read books ‘of the moment’ and range widely in my reading across time periods. But I think I have some good ones this time. Additionally, Lidové Noviny are celebrating 120 years of being a major Czech newspaper so they also asked me for a book of the century (since 1900 till now). It makes no sense to even try to pick ‘the one’, so I picked three categories that are of interest to me (language, society and fiction) and chose three books in each.

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Three books of 2013

Thanks to the New Books Network, I tend to be more clued in on the most recent publications, so 2 of my recommendations are based on interviews heard there.

A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250-1820 by John K. Thornton is without question a must read for anyone interested in, well, history. Even though he is not the first, Thornton shows most persuasively how the non-Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic (Africa and the Americas) were full-fledged political partners of the Europeans who are traditionally seen simply as conquerors with their dun powder, horses and steel weapons. Bowerman shows how these were just a small part of the mix, having almost no impact in Africa and playing a relatively small role in the Americas. In both cases, Europeans succeeded through alliances with local political elites and for centuries simply had no access to vast swathes of both continents.

Raising Germans in the Age of Empire: Youth and Colonial Culture, 1871-1914 by Jeff Bowersox. This book perhaps covers an exceedingly specific topic (compared to the vast sweep of my first pick) but it struck a chord with me. It shows the complex interplay between education, propaganda and their place in the lives of youth and adults alike.

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – the First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage. Standage’s eye opening book on the telegraph (The Victorian Internet) now has a companion dealing with social communication networks going back to the Romans. Essential corrective to all the gushing paradigm shifters. He doesn’t say there’s nothing new about the Internet but he does say that there’s nothing new abou humans. Much lighter reading but still highly recommended.

Books of the Century

This really caught my fancy. I was asked for books that affected me, but I thought more about those that had an impact going beyond the review cycle of a typical book.


Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure published in 1916. The Course (or Le Cours) Published posthumously by Saussure’s students from lecture notes is the cornerstone of modern linguistics. I think many of the assumptions have been undermined in the past 30-40 years and we are ripe for a paradigm change. But if you talk to a modern linguist, you will still hear much of what Saussure was saying to his students in the early 1900s in Geneva. (Time to rethink the Geneva Convention in language?)

Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky published in 1957. Unlike The Course, which is still worth reading by anyone who wants to learn about language, Syntactic Structures is now mostly irrelevant and pretty much incomprehensible to non-experts. However, it launched the Natural Language Processing revolution and its seeds are still growing (although not in the Chomskean camp). Its impact may not survive the stochastic turn in NLP but the computational view of language is still with us for good and for ill.

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published in 1980 while not completely original, kickstarted a metaphor revival of sorts. While, personally, I think Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things is by far the most important book of the second half of the 20th century, Metaphors We Live By is a good start (please, read the 2003 edition and pay special attention to the Afterword).


The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir published in 1949 marked a turning point in discourse about women. Although the individual insights had been available prior to Beauvoir’s work, her synthesis was more than just a rehashing of gender issues.

Language and Woman’s Place by Robin Tolmach Lakoff published in 1973 stands at the foundation of how we speak today about women and how we think about gender being reflected in language. I would now quible with some of the linguistics but not with the main points. Despite the progress, it can still open eyes of readers today.

The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss published in 1962 was one of the turning points in thinking about modernity, complexity and backwardness. Strauss’s quip that philosophers like Sartre were more of a subject of study for him than valuable interlocutors is still with me when I sit in on a philosophy seminar. I read this book without any preparation and it had a profound impact on me that is still with me today.


None of the below are my personal favourites but all have had an impact on the zeit geist that transcended just the moment.

1984 by George Orwell published in 1949. Frankly I can’t stand this book. All of its insight is skin deep and its dystopian vision (while not in all aspects without merit) lacks the depth it’s often attributed. There are many sci-fi and fantasy writers who have given the issue of societal control and freedom much more subtle consideration. However, it’s certainly had a more profound impact on general discourse than possibly any piece of fiction of the 20th century.

The Joke by Milan Kundera published in 1967 is the only book by Kundera with literary merit (I otherwise find his writing quite flat). Unlike Orwell, Kundera has the capacity to show the personal and social dimensions of totalitarian states. In The Joke he shows both the randomness of dissent and the heterogeniety of totalitarian environments.

The Castle by Franz Kafka published in 1912 (or just the collected works of Kafka) have provided a metaphor for alienation for the literati of the next hundred years. I read The Castle first so it for me more than others illustrates the sense of helplessness and alienation that a human being can experience when faced with the black box of anonymous bureaucracy. Again, I rate this for impact, rather than putting it on a ‘good read’ scale.

My personal favorites would be authors rather than individual works: Kurt Vonnegut, Robertson Davies, James Clavell would make the list for me. I also read reams of genre fiction and fan fiction that can easily stand up next to any of “the greats”. I have no shame and no guilty pleasures. I’ve read most of Terry Pratchett and regularly reread childhood favorites by the likes of Arthur Ransome or Karl May. I’ve quoted from Lee Child and Tom Clancy in academic papers and I’ve published an extensive review of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction novel.

Finally, for me, the pinnacle of recent literary achievement is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve used this as an example of how TV shows have taken over from the Novel, as the narrative format addressing weighty issues of the day, and Buffy is one of the first examples. Veronica Mars is right up there, as well, and there are countless others I’d recommend ‘reading’.

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Pervasiveness of Obliging Metaphors in Thought and Deed

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when history is at its most obliging, the history-writer needs be at his most wary.” (China by John Keay)

Die Mykologen - Glückspilze - Lucky Fellows - Fungi ExpertsI came across this nugget of wisdom when I was re-reading the Introduction to John Keay’s history of China. And it struck me that in some way this quote could be a part of the motto of this blog. The whole thing might then read something like this:

Hack at your thoughts at any opportunity to see if you can reveal new connections through analogies, metonymies and metaphors. Uncover hidden threads, weave new ones and follow them as far as they take you. But when you see them give way and oblige you with great new revelations about how the world really is, be wary!

Metaphors can be very obliging in their willingness to show us that things we previously thought separate are one and the same. But that is almost always the wrong conclusion. Everything is what it is, it is never like something else. (In this I have been subscribing to ‘tiny ontology’ even before I‘ve heard about it). But we can learn things about everything when we think about it as something else. Often we cannot even think of many things other than through something else. For instance, electricity. Electrons are useful to think of as particles or as waves. Electrons are electrons, they are not little balls nor are they waves. But when we start treating them as one or the other, they become more tractable for some problems (electrical current makes more sense when we think of them as waves and electricity generating heat makes sense when we think of them as little balls).

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson summarize metaphors in the X IS Y format (e.g. LOVE IS A JOURNEY) but this implied identity is where the danger lies. If love is a journey as we can see in a phrase like, ‘We’ve arrived at a junction in our relationship’, then it surely must be a journey in all respects: it has twists and turns, it takes time, it is expensive, it happens on asphalt! Hold on! Is that last one the reason ‘love can burn with an eternal flame’? Of course not. Love IS NOT a journey. Some aspects of what we call love make more sense to us when we think of them as a journey. But others don’t. Since it is obvious that love is not a journey but is like a journey, we don’t worry about it. But it’s more complicated than that. The identities implied in metaphor are so powerful (more so to some people than others) that some mappings are not allowed because of the dangers implied in following them too far. ‘LOVE IS A CONTRACT’ is a perfectly legitimate metaphor. There are many aspects of a romantic relationship that are contract-like. We agree to exclusivity, certain mode of interaction, considerations, etc. when we declare our love (or even when we just feel it – certain obligations seem to follow). But our moral compass just couldn’t stomach (intentional mix) the notion of paying for love or being in love out of obligation which could also be traced from this metaphor. We instinctively fear that ‘LOVE IS A CONTRACT’ is a far too obliging a metaphor and we don’t want to go there. (By we, I mean the general rules of acceptable discourse in certain circles, not every single cognizing individual.)

So even though metaphors do not describe identity, they imply it, and not infrequently, this identity is perceived as dangerous. But there’s nothing inherently dangerous about it. The issue is always the people and how willing they are to let themselves be obliged by the metaphor. They are aided and abetted in this by the conceptual universe the metaphor appears in but never completely constrained by it. Let’s take the common metaphor of WAR. I often mention the continuum of ‘war on poverty’, ‘war on drugs’, and ‘war on terror’ as an example of how the metaphors of ‘war’ do not have to lead to actual ‘war’. Lakoff showed that they can in ‘metaphors can kill’. But we see that they don’t have to. Or rather we don’t have to let them. If we don’t apply the brakes, metaphors can take us almost anywhere.

There are some metaphors that are so obliging, they have become cliches. And some are even recognized as such by the community. Take, for instance, the Godwin law. X is Hitler or X is Nazi are such seductive metaphors that sooner or later someone will apply them in almost any even remotely relevant situation. And even with the awareness of Godwin’s law, people continue to do it.

The key principle of this blog is that anything can be a metaphor for anything with useful consequences. Including:

  • United States is ancient Rome
  • China today is Soviet Union of the 1950s
  • Saddam Hussein is Hitler
  • Iraq is Vietnam
  • Education is a business
  • Mental difficulties are diseases
  • Learning is filling the mind with facts
  • The mind is the software running on the hardware of the brain
  • Marriage is a union between two people who love each other
  • X is evolved to do Y
  • X is a market place

But this only applies with the HUGE caveat that we must never misread the ‘is’ for a statement of perfect identity or even isomorphims (same shapedness). It’s ‘is(m)’. None of the above metaphors are perfect identities – they can be beneficially followed as far as they take us, but each one of them is needs to be bounded before we start drawing conclusions.

Now, things are not helped by the fact that any predication or attribution can appear as a kind of metaphor. Or rather it can reveal the same conceptual structures the same way metaphors do.

‘John is a teacher.’ may seem like a simple statement of fact but it’s so much more. It projects the identity of John (of whom we have some sort of a mental image) into the image schema of a teacher. That there’s more to this than just a simple statement can be revealed by ‘I can’t believe that John is a teacher.’ The underlying mental representations and work on them is not that different to ‘John is a teaching machine.’ Even simple naming is subject to this as we can see in ‘You don’t look much like a Janice.’

Equally, simple descriptions like ‘The sky is blue’ are more complex. The sky is blue in a different ways than somebody’s eyes are blue or the sea is blue. I had that experience myself when I first saw the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ and was shocked that they were actually white. I just assumed that they were a lighter kind of cliff than a typical cliff or having some white smudges. They were white in the way chalk is white (through and through) and not in the way a zebra crossing is white (as opposed to a double yellow line).

A famous example of how complex these conceptualisations can get is ‘In France, Watergate would not have harmed Nixon.’ The ‘in France’ and ‘not’ bits establishe a mental space in which we can see certain parts of what we know about Nixon and Watergate projected onto what we know about France. Which is why sentences like “The King of France is bald.” and “Unicorns are white.” make perfect sense even though they both describe things that don’t exist.

Now, that’s not to say that sentences like ‘The sky is blue’, ‘I’m feeling blue’,'I’ll praise you to the sky.’, or ‘He jumped sky high.’ and ‘He jumped six inches high.’ are cognitively or linguistically exactly the same. There’s lots of research that shows that they have different processing requirements and are treated differently. But there seems to be a continuum in the ability of different people (much research is needed here) to accept the partiality of any statement of identity or attribution. On the one extreme, there appears something like autism which leads to a reduced ability to identify figurative partiality in any predication but actually, most of the time, we all let ourselves be swayed by the allure of implied identity. Students are shocked when they see their teacher kissing their spouse or shopping in the mall. We even ritualize this sort of thing when we expect unreasonable morality from politicians or other public figures. This is because over the long run overtly figurative sentence such as ‘he’s has eyes like a hawk’ and ‘the hawk has eyes’ need similar mental structures to be present to make sense to us. And I suspect that this is part of the reason why we let ourselves be so easily obliged by metaphors.

Update: This post was intended as a warning against over-obliging metaphors that lead to perverse understandings of things as other things in unwarranted totalities. In this sense, they are the ignes fatui of Hobbes. But there’s another way in which over-obliging metaphors can be misleading. And that is, they draw on their other connections to make it seem we’ve come to a new understanding where in fact all we’ve done is rename elements of one domain with the names of elements of another domain without any elucidation. This was famously and devastatingly the downfall of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior under Chomsky’s critique. He simply (at least in the extreme caricature that was Chomsky’s review) took things about language and described them in terms of operant conditioning. No new understanding was added but because the ‘new’ science of psychology was in as the future of our understanding of everything, just using those terms made us assume there was a deeper knowledge. Chomsky was ultimately right-if only to fall prey to the same danger with his computational metaphors of language. Another area where that is happening is evolution, genetics and neuroscience which are often used (sometimes all at once) to simply relabel something without adding any new understanding whatsoever.

Update 2: Here’s another example of overobliging metaphor in the seeking of analogies to the worries about climate change:  My comment was:

…analogies work best when they are opportunistic, ad hoc, and abandoned as quickly as they are adopted. Analogies, if used generatively (i.e. to come up with new ideas), can be incredibly powerful. But when used exegeticaly (i.e. to interpret or summarize other people’s ideas), they can be very harmful.

The big problem is that in our cognition, ‘x is y’ and ‘x is like y’ are often treated very similarly. But the fact is that x is never y. So every analogy has to be judged on its own merit and we need to carefully examine why we’re using the analogy and at every step consider its limits. The power of analogy is in its ability to direct our thinking (and general cognition) i.e. not in its ‘accuracy’ but in its ‘aptness’.

I have long argued that history should be included in considering research results and interpretations. For example, every ‘scientific’ proof of some fundamental deficiencies of women with respect to their role in society has turned out to be either inaccurate or non-scalable. So every new ‘proof’ of a ‘woman’s place’ needs to be treated with great skepticism. But that does not mean that one such proof does not exist. But it does mean that we shouldn’t base any policies on it until we are very very certain.

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Storms in all Teacups: The Power and Inequality in the Battle for Science Universality

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The great blog Genealogy of Religion posted this video with a somewhat approving commentary:

The video started off with panache and promised some entertainment, however, I found myself increasingly annoyed as the video continued. The problem is that this is an exchange of cliches that pretends to be a fight of truth against ignorance. Sure, Storm doesn’t put forward a very coherent argument for her position, but neither does Minchin. His description of science vs. faith is laughable (being in awe at the size of the universe, my foot) and nowhere does he display any nuance nor, frankly, any evidence that he is doing anything other than parroting what he’s heard on some TV interview with Dawkins. I have much more sympathy with the Storms of this world than these self-styled defenders of science whose only credentials are that they can remember a bit of high school physics or chemistry and have read an article by some neo-atheist in Wired. What’s worse, it’s would be rationalists like him who do what passes for science reporting in major newspapers or on the BBC.

But most of all, I find it distasteful that he chose a young woman as his antagonist. If he wished to take on the ‘antiscience’ establishment, there are so many much better figures to target for ridicule. Why not take on the pseudo spiritualists in the mainstream media with their ecumenical conciliatory garbage. How about taking on tabloids like Nature or Science that publish unreliable preliminary probes as massive breakthroughs. How about universities that put out press releases distorting partial findings. Why not take on economists who count things that it makes no sense to count just to make things seem scientific. Or, if he really has nothing better to do, let him lay into some super rich creationist pastor. But no, none of these captured his imagination, instead he chose to focus his keen intellect and deep erudition on a stereotype of a young woman who’s trying to figure out a way to be taken seriously in a world filled with pompous frauds like Minchin.

The blog post commenting on the video sparked a debate about the limits of knowledge (Note: This is a modified version of my own comment). But while there’s a debate to be had about the limits of knowledge (what this blog is about),  this is not the occasion. There is no need to adjudicate about which of these two is more ‘on to something’. They’re not touching on anything of epistemological interest, they’re just playing a game of social positioning in the vicinity of interesting issues. But in this game, people like Michin have been given a lot more chips to play with than people like Storm. It’s his follies and prejudices and not hers that are given a fair hearing. So I’d rather spend a few vacuous moments in her company than endorse his mindless ranting.

And as for ridiculing people for stupidity or shallow thinking, I’m more than happy to take part. But I want to have a look at those with power and prestige, because they just as often as Storms act just as silly and irrationally the moment they step out of their areas of expertise. I see this all the time in language, culture and history (where I know enough about to judge the level of insight). Here’s the most recent one that caught my eye:

It comes from a side note in a post about evolutionary foundations of violence by a self-proclaimed scientist (the implied hero in Minchin’s rant):

 It is said that the Bedouin have nearly 100 different words for camels, distinguishing between those that are calm, energetic, aggressive, smooth-gaited, or rough, etc. Although we carefully identify a multitude of wars — the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the American Civil War, the Vietnam War, and so forth — we don’t have a plural form for peace.

Well, this paragon of reason could be forgiven for not knowing what sort of non-sense this ’100 words for’ cliche is. The Language Log has spilled enough bits on why this and other snowclones are silly. But the second part of the argument is just stupid. And it is a typical scientist blundering about the world as if the rules of evidence didn’t apply to him outside the lab and as if data not in a spreadsheet did not require a second thought. As if being a PhD in evolutionary theory meant everything else he says about humans must be taken seriously. But how can such a moronic statement be taken as anything but feeble twaddle to be laughed at and belittled? How much more cumulatively harmful are moments like these (and they are all over the place) than the socializing efforts of people like Storm from the video?

So, I should probably explain why this is so brainless. First, we don’t have a multitude of words war  (just like the Bedouin don’t have 100 or even 1 dozen for a camel). We just have the one and we have a lot of adjectives with which we can modify its meaning. And if we want to look for some that are at least equivalent to possible camel attributes, we won’t choose names of famous wars but rather things like civil war, total war, cold war, holy war, global war, naval war, nuclear war, etc. I’m sure West Point or even Wikipedia has much to say about a possible classification. And of course,  all of this applies to peace in exactly the same way. There are ‘peaces’ with names like Peace of Westphalia, Arab-Israeli Peace, etc. with just as many attributive pairs like international peace, lasting peace, regional peace, global peace, durable peace, stable peace, great peace, etc.  I went to a corpus to get some examples but that this must be the case was obvious and a simple Google search would give enough examples to confirm a normal language speaker’s  intuition. But this ‘scientist’ had a point to make and because he’s spent twenty years doing research in evolution of violence, he must surely be right about everything on the subject.

Creative Commons License jbraine via Compfight

Now, I’m sure this guy is not an idiot. He’s obviously capable of analysis and presenting a coherent argument. But there’s an area that he chose to address about which he is about as qualified to make pronouncements as Storm and Minchin are about the philosophy of science. And what he said there is stupid and he should be embarrassed for having said it. Should he be ridiculed and humiliated for it the way I did here? No. He made the sort of mistake everyone makes from high school students to Nobel laureates. He thought he knew something and didn’t bother to examine his knowledge. Or he did try to examine it but  didn’t have the right tools to do it. Fine. But he’s a scientist (and a man not subject to stereotypes about women) so we give him and too many like him a pass. But Storm, a woman who like so many of her generation uses star signs to talk about relationships and is uncomfortable with the grasping maw of classifying science chomping on the very essence of her being, she is fair game?

It’s this inequality that makes me angry. We afford one type of shallowness the veneer respectability and rake another one over the coals of ridicule and opprobrium. Not on this blog!

Creative Commons License Juliana Coutinho via Compfight

UPDATE: I was just listening to this interview with a philosopher and historian of science about why there was so much hate coming from scientists towards the Gaia hypothesis and his summation, it seems to me, fits right in with what this post is about. He says: “When scientists feel insecure and threatened, they turn nasty.” And it doesn’t take a lot of study of the history and sociology of science to find ample examples of this. The ‘science wars’, the ‘linguistics wars’, the neo-Darwinst thought purism, the list just goes on. The world view of scientism is totalising and has to deal with exactly the same issues as other totalising views such as monotheistic religions with constitutive ontological views or socio-economic utopianisms (e.g. neo-liberalism or Marxism).

And one of those issues is how do you afford respect to or even just maintain conversation with people who challenge your ideological totalitarianism – or in other words, people who are willfully and dangerously “wrong”. You can take the Minchin approach of suffering in silence at parties and occasionally venting your frustration at innocent passerbys, but that can lead to outbreaks group hysteria as we saw with the Sokal hoax or one of the many moral panic campaigns.

Or you can take the more difficult journey of giving up some of your claims on totality and engaging with even those most threatening to to you as human beings; the way Feyerabend did or Gould sometimes tried to do. This does not mean patiently proselytizing in the style of evangelical missionaries but more of an ecumenical approach of meeting together without denying who you are. This will inevitably involve moments where irreconcilable differences will lead to a stand on principles (cf. Is multi-culturalism bad for women?) but even in those cases an effort at understanding can benefit both sides as with the question of vaccination described in this interview. At all stages, there will be temptation at “understanding” the other person by reducing them to our own framework of humanity. Psychologizing a religious person as an unsophisticate dealing with feelings of awe in the face of incomprehensible nature or pitying the atheist for not being able to feel the love of God and reach salvation. There is no solution. No utopia of perfect harmony and understanding. No vision of lions and lambs living in peace. But acknowledging our differences and slowing down our outrage can perhaps make us into the better versions of us and help us stop wasting time trying to reclaim other people’s stereotypes.

Storm in a teacupCreative Commons License BruceW. via Compfight

UPDATE 2: I am aware of the paradox between the introduction and the conclusion of the previous update. Bonus points for spotting it. I actually hold a slightly more nuanced view than the first paragraph would imply but that is a topic for another blog post.

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Sunsets, horizons and the language/mind/culture distinction

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For some reason, many accomplished people, when they are done accomplishing what they’ve set out to accomplish, turn their minds to questions like:

  • What is primary, thought or language.
  • What is primary, culture or language.
  • What is primary, thought or culture.

I’d like to offer a small metaphor hack for solving or rather dissolving these questions. The problem is that all three concepts: culture, mind and language are just useful heuristics for talking about aspects of our being. So when I see somebody speaking in a way I don’t understand, I can talk about their language. Or others behave in ways I don’t like, so I talk about their culture. Then, there’s stuff going on in my head that’s kind of like language, but not really, so I call that sort of stuff mind. But these words are just useful heuristics not discrete realities. Old Czechs used the same word for language and nation. English often uses the word ‘see’ for ‘understand’. What does it mean? Not that much.

Let’s compare it with the idea of the setting sun. I see the Sun disappearing behind the horizon and I can make some useful generalizations about it. Organize my directions (East/West), plant plants to grow better, orient how my dwelling is positioned, etc. And my description of this phenomenon as ‘the sun is setting behind the horizon’ is perfectly adequate. But then I might start asking questions like ‘what does the Sun do when it’s behind the horizon?’ Does it turn itself off and travel under the earth to rise again in the East the next morning? Or does it die and a new one rises again the next day? Those are all very bad questions because I accepted my local heuristic as describing a reality. It would be even worse if I tried to go and see the edge or the horizon. I’d be like the two fools who agreed that they would follow the railway tracks all the way to the point they meet. They keep going until one of them turns around and says ‘dude, we already passed it’.

So to ask questions about how language influences thought and culture influences language is the same as trying to go see the horizon. Language, culture and mind are just ways of describing things for particular purposes and when we start using them outside those purposes, we get ourselves in a muddle.

Great Lakes in Sunglint (NASA, International Space Station, 06/14/12) NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center via Compfight

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How we use metaphors

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I was reminded by this blog post on LousyLinguist that many people still see metaphor as an unproblematic homogeneous concept leading to much circular thinking about them.  I wrote about that quite a few years ago in:

Lukeš, D., 2005. Towards a classification of metaphor use in text: Issues in conceptual discourse analysis of a domain-specific corpus. In Third Workshop on Corpus-Based Approaches to Figurative Language. Birmingham.

I suggested that a classification of metaphor had better focused on their use rather than inherent nature. I came up with the heuristic device of: cognitive, social and textual uses of metaphor.

Some of the uses I came up with (inspired by the literature from Halliday to Lakoff) were:

  • Cognitive
    • Conceptual (constitutive)
      • Explanative
      • Generative
    • Attributive
  • Social (Interpersonal)
    • Conceptual/Declarative (informational)
    • Figurative (elegant variation)
    • Innovative
    • Exegetic
    • Prevaricative
    • Performative
  • Textual
    • Cohesive (anaphoric, cataphoric, exophoric)
    • Coherent
      • Local
      • Global

I also posited a continuum of salience and recoverability in metaphors:

  • High salience and recoverability
  • Low salience and recoverability

Read the entire paper here.

My thinking on metaphor has moved on since then – I see it as a special case of framing and conceptual integration rather than a sui generis concept – but I still find this a useful guide to return to when confronted with metaphor use.

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Do we need a gaming literacy: Literacy metaphor hack

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I am a gaming semi-literate!

I was listening to the discussion of the latest BioShock game on the latest TWiT podcast when I realized that I am in fact game illiterate. I am hearing these stories and descriptions of experiences but I know I can’t access them directly without a major investment in knowledge and skill acquisition. So, this is what people with no or limited literacy must feel like in highly literacy-dependent environments. I really want to access the stories in the way they are told by the game. But I know I can’t. I will stumble, be discouraged, not have a very good time before I can have a good time. I will be a struggling gamer, in the same way that there are struggling readers.

Note: When I say game, I mean mostly a non-casual computer game such as BioShock or War of Worldcraft or SimCity.

What would a game literacy entail?

What would I need to learn in order to access gaming? Literacy is composed of a multiplicity of knowledge areas and skills. I already have some of these but not enough. Roughly, I will need to get at the following:

  • Underlying cognitive skills (For reading: transforming the sight of letters into sounds or corresponding mental representations. For gaming: transforming desired effects on screen into actions on a controller)
  • Complex perceptual and productive fluency (Ability to employ the cognitive skills automatically in response to changing stimuli in multiple contexts).
  • Context-based or task-based strategies (Ability to direct the underlying skills towards solving particular problems in particular contexts. For reading: Skim text, or look things up in the index, or skip acknowledgements, discover the type of text, or adopt reading speed appropriate to type of text, etc. For gaming Discover the type of game, or gather appropriate achievements, or find hidden bonuses, etc.)
  • Metacognitive skills and strategies (Learn the terminology and concepts necessary for further learning and to achieve the appropopriate aims using stratgies.)
  • Socialization skills and strategies (Learn to use the skills and knowledge to make connections with other people and exploit those connections to acquire further skill, knowledge as well as social capital derriving from those)

Is literacy a suitable metaphor for gaming? Matches and mismatches!

With any metaphor it is worth to explore the mapping to see if there are sufficient similarities. In this case, I’ll look at the following areas for matches and mismatches:

  • Skill
  • Mode
  • Status
  • Socialization
  • Content
  • Purpose


Both reading/writing (I will continue to use reading for both unless I need to stress the difference) and gaming require skill that can become automatic and that takes time to acquire. People can be both “better” and “worse” at gaming and reading.

But reading is a more universal skill (although not as universal as most people think) whereas gaming skills are more genre based.

The skill at gaming can be more easily measured by game achievement. Quality of reading measures are a bit more tenuous because speed, fluency and accuracy are all contextual measures. However, even game achievement is a bit more relative, such as in recommendations to play at normal or easy to experience the game.

In this gaming is more like reading than for instance, listening to music or watching a skill which do not require any overt acquisition of skill. See Dara O’Briain’s funny bit on the differences between gaming and reading. Of course, when he says “you cannot be bad at watching a film”, we could quibble that much preparation is required for watching some films, but such training does not involve the development of underlying cognitive skills (assuming the same cultural and linguistic environment). Things are a bit more complex for some special kind of listening to music. Nevertheless people do talk about “media literacy”.


Reading is mostly a uni-modal experience. It is possible to read out loud or to read while listening but ultimately reading is its own mode. Reading has an equivalent in writing that though not a mirror image skill, requires relatively the same skill.

Gaming is a profoundly multimodal experience combining vision, sound, movement (and often reading, as well). There are even efforts to involve smell. Gaming does not have a clear expressive counterpart. The obvious expressive equivalent to writing would be game design but that clearly requires a different level of skill. However, gaming allows complex levels of self-expression within the process of game play which does not have an equivalent in reading but is not completely dissimilar to creative writing (like fanfiction).


Reading is a neutral to high status activity. The act itself is neutral but status can derrive from content. Writing (expressive rather than utilitarian) is a high status activity.

Gaming is a low status to neutral activity. No loss of status derives from inability to game to not gaming in a way that is true of reading. Some games have less questionable status and many games are played by people who derive high status from outside of gaming. There are emerging status sanction systems around gaming but none have penetrated outside gaming, yet.


Reading and writing are significant drivers of wider socialization. They are necessary to perform basic social functions and often represent gateways into important social contexts.

Gaming is only required to socialize in gaming groups. However, this socialization may become more highly desirable over time.


Writing is used to encode a wide variety of content – from shopping lists to neuclear plant manuals to fiction.

Games on the other hand, encode a much more narrower range of content. Primarily narrative and primarily finctional. Although more non-narrative and non-fictional games may exist. There are also expository games but so far, none that would afford easy storage of non-game information without using writing.


Reading and writing are very general purpose activities.

Gaming on the other hand has a limited range of purposes: enjoyment, learning, socialization with friends, achieving status in a wider community. You won’t see a bus stop with a game instead of a timetable (although some of these require puzzle solving skills to decipher).

Why may game literacy be important?

As we saw, there are many differences between gaming and reading and writing. Nevertheless, they are similar enough that the metaphor of ‘game literacy’ makes sense provided we see its limitations.

Why is it important? There will be a growing generational and populational divide of gamers and non-gamers. At the moment this is not very important in terms of opportunities and status but it could easily change within a generation.

Not being able to play a game may exclude people from social groups in the same way that not-playing golf or not engaging in some other locally sanctioned pursuit does (e.g. World of Warcraft).

But most importantly, as new generations of game creators explore the expressive boundaries of games (new narratives, new ways of story telling), not being able to play games may result in significant social exclusion. In the same way that a quick summary of what’s in a novel is inferior to reading the novel, films based on games will be pale imitations of playing the games.

I can easily imagine a future where the major narratives of the day will be expressed in games. In the same way that TV serials have supplanted novels as the primary medium of sharing crucial societal narratives, games can take over in the future. The inner life novel took about 150 years to mature and reigned supreme for about as long while drama and film functioned as its accompaniment. The TV serial is now solidifying its position and is about where the novel was in the 1850s. Gaming may take another couple of decades to get to a stage where it is ready as a format to take over. And maybe nothing like that will happen. But if I had a child, I’d certainly encourage them to play computer games as part of ensuring a more secure future.

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