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Why teach figurative language?

posted: 10.16.14 by Andrea Lunsford

I have followed the work of Michael Chorost for a long time, since Brenda Brueggemann introduced me to his work on disability studies back in 2001. I will never forget reading the electrifying piece he wrote on losing his hearing completely and then, after having a cochlear implant and working diligently to relearn how to hear, experiencing once again the unforgettable opening notes of his beloved Boléro. Since then I’ve read his Rebuilt: My Journey Back to the Hearing World and a number of pieces he has contributed to Wired

So I was delighted to come across a piece by Chorost in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Your Brain on Metaphors.” It begins like this:

The player kicked the ball.

The patient kicked the habit.

The villain kicked the bucket.


The verbs are the same.

The syntax is identical.

Does the brain notice, or care,

that the first is literal, the second

            metaphorical, the third idiomatic?


It sounds like a question that only a linguist could love. But neuroscientists have been trying to answer it using exotic brain-scanning technologies. . . . The hypothesis driving their work is that metaphor is central to language. Metaphor used to be thought of as merely poetic ornamentation, aesthetically pretty but otherwise irrelevant. “Love is a rose, but you better not pick it,” sang Neil Young in 1977, riffing on the timeworn comparison between a sexual partner and a pollinating perennial. For centuries, metaphor was just the place where poets went to show off.

And that’s the everyday understanding of metaphor and other figurative language, that it is just thought in fancy dress, something ornamental but not fundamental.

Aristotle did not agree. In the Poetics, he says “the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance,” and he also wrote about the importance of metaphor in the Rhetoric. But when the substance of rhetoric (invention and arrangement) were removed from the province of rhetoric by Ramus in the 16th century, that left style as the main province of rhetoric—the less important “fluff” that fancied up the substantive stuff of prose. And that’s the tradition that led to the current widespread misunderstanding of figurative language and its relationship to thought.

Chorost’s article—and the work of contemporary neuroscience—strongly suggest that we rethink the role figurative language, and especially metaphor, plays in thinking and writing today. In doing so, Chorost draws on the work of Lakoff and Johnson, whose Metaphors We Live By made the case (in the 1980s) that metaphor is a foundational constituent of language and thought. To say “she’s out of sight” suggests a container that “she” has somehow escaped. The visual field referred to isn’t really a container, of course, but rather a metaphor. In fact, our language is so full of metaphors—many of which we don’t even recognize or “see”—that once you begin to think about it they are everywhere. Everywhere.

Chorost’s essay reviews contemporary neuroscience attempts to build computers that can generate and understand metaphors, which is part of the project of conceiving of computers that think like humans. While some are enthusiastic about the prospects, others see this goal as far off if not unreachable. In the case of metaphor, not only do they differ across languages but they also are understood differently by different people. The incredible complexity of language, and—Lakoff argues—the fact that language is embodied, distributed across our bodies and brains, makes it unlikely that computers can replicate it any time soon. In Lakoff’s view, computers can surely run models of neural processes, but without those processes being embodied (as language is) the models will never achieve the level of consciousness. So for Lakoff and many others, the use of metaphors (and other figurative language) is distinctly human, distinctly embodied.

Michael Chorost isn’t so sure, and he concludes his essay by saying that what is emerging from contemporary work in neuroscience isn’t just a theory of metaphor (or language) but a theory of consciousness:

Any algorithmic system faces the problem of bootstrapping itself from computing to knowing, from bit-shuffling to caring. Igniting previously stored memories of bodily experiences seems to be one way of getting there. And so may be the ability to create asymmetric neural linkages that say this is like (but not identical to) that. In an age of brain scanning as well as poetry, that’s where metaphor gets you.


Maybe my RAM is like a red, red rose.

While we wait to see what neuroscientists and linguists discover about language and consciousness, we should take a tip from Michael Chorost and start paying very careful attention to figurative language in our teaching and in student writing. Especially in social media writing, where brevity is highly valued, metaphor plays a key role. Yet students rarely recognize their own use of figurative language, even when it is carrying a lot of the freight of what they’re trying to say. I’m beginning to ask students to start by paying close attention to what they and others say (and write) just for a couple of hours a day, recording everything they think might have anything to do with figurative language. We then use this data for a discussion on the definition, nature, and scope of figurative language, and especially teasing out and exploring metaphors where we find them. I find that students are amazed to see how much of their language—and their thinking—is based on metaphor.

In an age of what Richard Lanham calls “fluff”—that is, the age of information and especially information overload—what makes all the difference for writers is their ability to get and hold the attention of audiences. That’s why Lanham argues that style is the most important canon of rhetoric today: it provides tools and strategies for catching people’s attention, and holding it. Perhaps it’s time teachers of writing took a tip from Lanham, Chorost, Lakoff, and others and started putting our attention on style and especially figurative language as keys to effective communication.

[Image: Control rack of the Manchester SSEM, Alan Burlison on]

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