Names and Metaphor

My cultural anthropology professor mentioned something that I think is very interesting. He suggested that what separates humanity from the rest of life on earth is our perception and cognition of everything in a symbolic world. He illustrated this by telling the story of Hellen Keller, saying that once she realized that objects, people, characteristics, and actions all had names it was like a ray of light from above, an epiphany of everything at once.

I think this is brings up a very interesting line of questioning. It seems to me as though my professor is correct in saying that we think symbolically. I don’t picture every idea in my mind when considering it, but instead I think of the name that I associate that idea with. This follows with cognitive psychology’s ideas of associative networks. So that brings us to the value of names themselves and metaphors.

Names seem entirely arbitrary. It doesn’t matter what the name is once we’ve associated it with an Idea. There are some issues though. What happens when multiple things have the same name, or when there doesn’t seem to be an adequate name to describe something with, and an arbitrary one won’t drive the point home? As my History of English Language professor mentioned today, cultures don’t have names for things that they don’t need names for, but they can generate names for anything. A 2nd century Roman wouldn’t understand the words: spaceship, spacesuit, google, or googol, but we could describe these things to him using his own language so that he could associate these names with ideas. He also mentioned using loan words, after all, why make up a new word when someone else already has one?

At anyrate, my main point here concerns metaphor. Metaphor seems to me to be incredibly powerful. Without attributing a name to something and instead using an entire experience we can describe an idea often more powerfully than had we just used a name. The name is just a node index for our minds to search to pick out a single idea, or a category of ideas. But a metaphor is not limited to one idea or one category of ideas. In conversation with my friend Zan he quoted a line from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, part 2:
“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”

When Falstaff says this he means not only that they have literally heard the chimes at midnight, but also that they have experienced a large and encompassing amount of things and feelings. If Shakespeare had instead written,

“We have experienced a great many things, Master Shallow.”

it would be more clearly stating the underlying idea, but neglecting a feeling associated with that idea. By using metaphor we can associate emotion, experience, and additional imagery to an idea or set of ideas.

Perhaps metaphor is language’s most powerfully communicative aspect, or perhaps not. But I would say that our literature and tendancy to base what most consider great works around metaphor is a testament to its brilliance.

Posted in Descriptive Analysis | 3 Comments

More things I want to talk about or Research

Conotation based on phonetics without actually looking at vocabulary… for instance across languages the same sounds have similar meanings?

Describing things using simile, metaphor, and regular adjectives and how it differs drastically depending upon the subject (He was as ugly as homemade soap, the Stars are sort of like The Postal Service meets Johann Sebastian Bach who has been drinking with the Rolling Stones, That fire hydrant is red, My life is a roller coaster). You get the point.

Posted in Descriptive Analysis | Leave a comment

Why we need English 2.0

11-17-2008: I wrote this, in ignorance of a lot of truth about language.  As Seth pointed out, most of my complaints were aimed at written English standards, as determined by some abstract association of English scholars, dictionary authors, and organizations like the MLA.  All other rants were naively uninformed.

English has been changing since it’s creation, just like any language. The difference between American English and most other languages is the incredible amount of hybridization that is constantly occuring. As referred to as a cultural melting pot, the States are also a great linguistic melting pot.

So which version becomes 2.0? Ebonics? 1337 Speak? TexMex? Engrish? or what? Well this is part of the problem and the reason that there hasn’t been a huge movement to renovate our language. The concept isn’t really all that new, nations have been implimenting new standards for languages and alphabets since mass communication has been possible, and somewhat before. Korea for example created an original phonetic alphabet in the 20th century and it only took a little over half a century for it to become the primarily used written alphabet.

My ideas for 2.0

-Remember when you learned the alphabet in school? How they tried to explain long vowels and short vowels and they used little symbols to designate which made which sounds. Why don’t we see these after learning about them, they would make reading english much more user-friendly and much more easily standardized so as to prevent the changing pronunciations of “oo” versus “u” versus “o.” Why does the sound have to depend on the word it’s in? Doesn’t this seem a little stupid?

-Along the same lines as above, get rid of types of phonetics that are rare or outdated. Most people mispronounce “climb” as “clime” anyway, so why not change the spelling? The dictionary could be re-written, they make new editions frequently anyway.

-Get rid of stupid grammar rules. I have to hand it to the guys in charge on this one, they’re working on it. It is now somewhat acceptable to verbify words and split infinitives, but there are still a large amount of pointless grammatical rules that are being maintained for reasons no better than tradition.

-I could list a hundred and one specific instances of things that are stupid, but I’m getting tired of ranting, I think you probably get the point.

I do however recognize the challenge that reworking the entire language (and quite a hefty language we have) poses to everyone, speakers and writers alike. What would we have to do to actually change it? Make people interested in simplifying it, on a large scale. That’s really all it takes.

Posted in Linguistic Problems | 5 Comments


Jargon is in my humble opinion, the most annoying linguistic dilemma EVER.  Definitively Jargon is a terminology used within specific fields of work, interest, or society.  It’s a problem because people that use Jargon want to keep using it and aren’t interested in communicating to people outside of their jargon-using group.  As I’ve said before anything that inhibits communication is a problem.

Nowadays with great things like the internet we have access to a lot more information than we did some time ago.  People have however extended the use of jargon from spoken words to written words.  It’s very difficult for people that are not-proficient in a specific field to understand instructions that are heavily laden with jargon.  The conundrum being that one can’t learn proper use of the jargon without already knowing it.  It’s paradoxical and incredibly frustrating for many people including myself.

To most members of older generations than mine (born in 1986) ours seems to have a jargon.  With modern high-tech playtoys like I-pods, DVD players, PS2s, Halo, LAN parties, AIM, and anything else beyond e-mail on the internet we’ve linguistically separated ourselves from them.  It’s a problem, and we could help to solve it by using more general terminology for items whenever we can.  Instead of an I-pod you can refer to it to your grandparents as “a music player,” a DVD as a “movie” a PS2 as a “Video game system.”  If you need to use specifics then go for it, but general terms are better for understanding between the ages.

So… Be considerate of those that don’t follow your line of speech.  Please?

Posted in Linguistic Problems | Leave a comment


It’s really amazing, this mp3 by John Hodgman and Jonathon Coulton exemplifies some interesting aspects of what I’ve been pondering with respect to linguistics and names. The names of 700 hoboes… Why not? They could be any kind of person’s names but William Fenimore Cooper (famous author) the Hobo just sounds more interesting.

I really would like to do a descriptive comparative analysis of naming conventions across time and cultures.

Posted in Descriptive Analysis | Leave a comment


Briefing myself quickly on the topic by browsing Wikipedia’s article I’m realizing I do not wish to go into to much detail, as much as merely muse.

I was working construction this evening with a part-time carpenter and a painter/artist/paint-salesman. We were putting up sheetrock for a ceiling. It seemed newly interesting to me the way the carpenter, John, used abbreviations. He simply labeled things like “C” for chimney, “CL” (with the L crossing through the C) for Center Line, “TL” for total length. These are clearly personal use, not intended for anyone else to see, interpret, or even understand. The idea made me think of something I realize time and time again working construction: human tool-use. There’s always an easier way to do something, but sometimes figuring out what that easier way is takes longer than doing it the hard way. Linguistic tools are becoming more and more interesting to me the more I see them used in practical day-to-day activity. Things like non-standard abbreviations are just tools, and it’s interesting somewhat that we use language not just for communicating ideas to others, but also to help with our own mental facilitation.

Just musing.

Posted in Descriptive Analysis | Leave a comment

Root of my interest

F-word is one of the reasons why I became interested in linguistics.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment