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Language as Metaphor?

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    Can’t help but notice that the more I play with language, the more intrigued I am with its origins and evolution.

    In one sense, language itself is metaphor. Words are symbols and not the things themselves – which brings to mind an example often offered by Campbell and his friends, Alan Watts and Buckminster Fuller: “the menu is not the meal.”

    Language wasn’t invented on the first Tuesday in April of 232,000 B.C. as a complete set of abstract sounds with fixed meanings – though that seems sometimes how we view it today.

    So where does language come from?

    As a child, we all learned to talk without having to take classes on syntax, sentence structure, and the eight parts of speech. As infants we laughed and cried and made baby sounds – googahs and gawgaws and such, often mimicking the sounds surrounding us – such as the sounds animals make.

    Our first recognizable word with clear meaning is often “mama.” Babies seem to naturally make a “mmm” sound when content and happy and safe and sound, which happens most often when Mom is in the vicinity, since love and all good things flow from her.

    An easy association to make – things that feel good – suckling and hugging and napping, “mmmm, mmmm, good … ” – and She-Who-is-the-Whole-World to me, also “mmmm, mmmm, good …” – an example of pre-literate, even pre-conscious, metaphorical thinking?

    Theorists such as David Abrams (whose elegant volume, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More Than Human World, is an enchanting, delightful brain-spinning read) suggest language developed from humanity’s interactions with the natural world – the plants and animals and breezes and waters and such all around one. (To give a totally simplistic analogy using onomatopeia, “splash” and “gush” are English words that echo the sound water makes when it’s splashing and gushing – so it’s no surprise to us that the word splash refers to the sound water makes when it splashes or is splashed … yet the word splash is not the splash itself, but represents it – again, a metaphorical relationship of sorts; not the best example of the actual dynamic at work, but maybe gets across the gist of what I’m trying to say).

    Spoken language, then, appears to have emerged from human experience and interplay with the natural world, creating a set of collective metaphors that, over time, have become more abstract and removed from the natural world … and written language as well, as it developed, also emerged out of metaphor.

    Egyptian hieroglyphs, for example, don’t just represent abstract sounds (though over millennia hieroglyphs changed, especially in response to the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet throughout the Mediterranean world, so over time moved away from image and more towards abstract symbol). The hieroglyph for “bee,” for example, represented the sound a bee makes – zit zit – but also included the image of a bee, and referred as well to the land of milk and honey.

    Egyptian hieroglyphs are both images and sounds.

    The ancient texts are full of double meanings and hidden clues. The name of the lion, for example, was ra-ra, an onomatopoeic word in imitation of the sound of the lion’s roar. Is it an wonder, then, that we find the sun god Ra appearing as a lion, or that the lion runs beside the chariot of the pharaoh Rameses II as a direct sign that Rameses ( Ra-mose) is the son of the sun god Ra and the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet? …

    The pictorial aspect of the hieroglyph contains total meaning. The hieroglyph of the giraffe, for example, means “to foretell,” because the long neck of the giraffe allowed it to see farther into the distance. The picture of a wall falling down carries the message of something overthrown, and the hieroglyph for a jackal means ‘to digest.’

    In modern Western languages writing is used in an abstract, linear fashion. If we read the word “jackal,” for instance, the mind conveys memorized sound and visual associations. Hieroglyphic writing and thinking works in a circular fashion. The hieroglyphic image – jackal – is there before our eyes and can expand, evoking within the prepared viewer a whole complex of qualities and associations from abstract, intuitive notions or states of being to relationships and understandings that cannot be defined but must be experienced on many levels.

    A jackal, for example, buries its kill until the natural elements have digested it. It knows the right moment to dig up the carrion and finish the eating and digestive process. The jackal-headed god Anubis was not only the neter [god/image] for the human digestive system, but also the one who knew just the right moment to lead the newly dead person before Osiris and the forty-two Assessors, who test the spirit for worthiness to enter the Immortal Realms. Jackal thus represented readiness, timing, preparation, digestion, and immortality: these are some of the images and knowings that would be evoked in the mind of an ordinary Egyptian when seeing the hieroglyph for the jackal.

    Jean Houston, The Passion of Isis & Osiris, p. 120


    Over time, the Phoenician alphabet morphs from natural image to abstract sign: the letter A, for example, originally depicted an ox or bull, but gradually adopted the de-animated form it has today. (Abrams and others argue that as writing developed and became more abstract, this created distance between the reader and the natural world, creating space for a reflective ego to emerge – but that’s another story.)

    As far as a specific language today that relies almost exclusively on metaphor, there are the Dine’ – aka the Navaho – whose poetic use of image made their language the ideal “code” that the Japanese couldn’t break in WWII: hence the term “windtalkers” to describe the role of the Dine’ who transmitted classified messages for the military during the war.

    Excuse my rambling as I wander far afield – but seems the relationship between language and metaphor – and how myth appears intertwined with the emergence of language – merits further discussion.


      Oh Stephen, now you’re hitting bull’s eye!

      Language… I’m blessed being dutch because we’re used to learn besides dutch also english, french and german. Three germanic and one romanic, members of the the same group yet very distinct (nomative vs verbative {is that the proper word?}). But in utter contrast: there are more languages in Papua-New Guinea then in the rest of the world, mainly by it’s extreme accidented landscape, shouldering english to mandarin to hopi to latin to hindi: the other is an alien, and taste good by the way.

      How things and experiences are cast in words is nature, nurture, environment and interpretation (read: the the tale of the winner). Each speaker of a languge considers its own as the perfect representation of the right sounding words. Splash and gush suffice in english, but sounds as ‘spetter’ and ‘plons’ in dutch. My daughters first sounds sounds as pwa-pwa-pwa-pwa, which I take as curious variation (!).

      Where does it come from? Apes evolving, mumbling, the males on hunt (MwuhMhuh!, meaning mammoth {english is strange: mother-moth?}), the woman more sedentary invent, unfold and refine speech, civilizing the game-loaden males on returning to their primitive settlement. The world is infinite, and hence the various languages.

      Just into the reading of Sumerian history, an almost complete civilisation emerges from nowhere with a equal male-female balance (a requirement for a true and fruitfull culture) with an extreme steep developing language, wedges in clay is the technology only. A marvalous mythology, much copied, unsurpassed in it’s origins.

      Ramblings are ok, and lots of references sweep through my memory and the pile of unread books grows out of my chimney (that’s certainly not english, but I’m sure you’ll understand), and I’ve not even mentioned Chomsky! (Now I did.)

      On metaphors, the menu is not the meal: your perception of reality is not the reality, but only your perception of it, and hence it is not the reality. Ceci, c’est n’est pas une pipe. Your senses are impaired, your vocation crippled.



      Sorry to take so long to respond. Exchanges on these message boards unfold at a much more leisurely pace than the speed of social media. When I read something profound, I often have to let it sit and simmer in the back of my mind for several days for the full flavor to come through. I have to say your words certainly strike a chord (speaking of “hitting the bull’s eye”).

      What resonates most for me is your concluding thought:

      On metaphors, the menu is not the meal: your perception of reality is not the reality, but only your perception of it, and hence it is not the reality. Ceci, c’est n’est pas une pipe. Your senses are impaired, your vocation crippled.”

      Yes! A thousand times, yes!

      When we encounter an object in the external world, we don’t observe the actual “thing in itself” (Kant’s dinge an sich), but an image formed by our senses (not that this is anything new for you). The rose I see is perceived differently by a dog, or a butterfly, or an amoeba encountering that same rose. Our senses, in conjunction with the mind (considered a sixth sense in Hindu/Buddhist metaphysics), in effect construct the universe out of metaphors – the subjective sensory images we perceive. Archetypal psychologist James Hillman offers imagination as the organ through which we perceive and engage “reality” – which could be described as a projection of the interior world onto the external universe.

      I find myself bringing this back to myth (as metaphor), which then serves as both the womb, and the substance, of experienced reality.

      We can expand this theme and approach mundane reality as we would a dream, where everything we experience, everything we encounter, has a symbolic value that deepens and enriches life. Life as a waking dream is a perspective adopted by the many cultures that value oracles. Hence, everything bears significance: the appearance of a rainbow or an abrupt shift in the flight of a bird speaks volumes to an African pygmy or Australian aborigine, as does an I Ching spread to a Taoist adept. “All that exists is but a metaphor,” to paraphrase Campbell’s favorite quote from Goethe (“Alles Verganglich ist nur ein Gleichnis.”). We can interpret, analyze, and engage the stuff of life just as we can the stuff of dream, if we view life with a mythic eye.

      Does embracing the metaphor that consensus reality is as illusory and transitory as dream somehow negate the searing pain I feel when I touch a hot stove? Hardly. On one plane, I can recognize that I “am One with” a brick wall – but it doesn’t follow that I’ll decide to physically become one with that wall while zipping along the freeway at ninety miles an hour. That would be reading the metaphor a mite literal . . .

      The mythical perspective is in addition to that of waking consciousness – not to replace rational thought and ego consciousness, but deepening and enhancing our experience.



        If we perceive any input to our senses as a metaphor in a distinctive, tuned language, then dreams are truely in focus of this other sense which seems to switch off at daylight. One can say that dreams are another perception of the fragmented reality, where the awake mind has it own (corresponding) part. Most people will be satisfied by such an idea, but it can or will be very frightening if our dreams come to life before our very eyes. Then you close your eyes, shake your head as if to cleanse the mind, and when you have a closer look at it again, it is gone. That’s why I consider time as reciprocal.

        ‘The menu is not the meal’ is a phrase of an inspiring fellow, to which this website is devoted.


          “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” John 1:1

          Perhaps we have it backwards? First we had the Adamic/Proto-Indo-European language then these thought forms gave rise to physical form.


            The evolution of language and abstract thought is Fascinating. From its inception and emergence the need to Comprehend encode  and convey information Has grown as a tree along with our species . I love the organic metaphor of vegetation both annual and perennial. Our ancestral family tree , the etymological tree of languages , Darwin’s tree of life , Genesis tree of life and tree of knowledge , the Burning Bush . One and All metaphors … “There is a tree of many One” . Language has now been abstracted to binary , mathematical information comprised of 0, 1 … yes , no … Stop , flow … The exponential growth is breathtaking … ultimately leading to The black hole information paradox … Where it shall lead is unknown … but it does make for one interesting Journey and Mythic narrative … I do so love the myths we live by …


              I consider it ridiculous to have ‘a word’ first after which ‘things’ emerge. Topsy-turvy reasoning: I say ‘blue’, hence ‘the Sky is blue!’ And the sky is not blue, it is diffracted sunlight (blue defracts most) you see. The rest is transparent.

              For most people, exponentials, logarithms, math in general and logic reasoning are perpendicular to their personal perception and resulting understanding or awareness of the fragmented or simplified reality surrounding the comfy habitat. Once thrown out of such prejudice, nothing remains. Escapism to religion, dictators and servility remains. Nulling as a beast. That is utter human poverty where in contrast a lazy dalit beggar is more respectfull.



                much can be lost in translation especially where metaphor and myth meet . In John 1:1 “word” in the original Greek is Logos . There have been volumes written on the intended meaning and insights that are referred to. There are philosophical and metaphysical debates going on to this day that affect our contemporary understanding of the very nature of reality vs our Human perception of reality… I enjoy being a fly on the wall listening to these debates … With Greek language come Greek rational logical discourse and the foundation and bedrock of western thought and civilization. Hellenism Did carry its own Hell within its Coach as it traveled and spread with Alexander. The spread propagation of civilization Ó the linguistic poetic metaphors we use a Coach by land an Ark by sea . What things they contain inside !!! How many compartments??? Sub classification??? Oh the science of it , the naming and classifying of nature and reality …may we saluté with a quark from the punster Munster Mark !!!



                  Dear R³,

                  Agreed up to Alexander, but you’ve lost me from ‘Ó’ onwards to Mark. things are lost in translation indeed (and cultural differences too). Oh Stephen, what a wonderfull subject! But science and conviction cannot merge into democratic truth, like your hands shaking themselves: it will never fit.



                    No worries those are Riffs on western literary Biblical scientific Joycean Allusions … Just Having fun injecting a little humor . Joseph Campbell loved James Joyce who was adept at metaphor entendre language etymology …

                    the Word that was in the beginning could be anything from the Big Bang to Om To the Cosmic background noise … In some archaic idioms to name something is to create it , speak it into being … Lots of fun to empathize with ancient idioms of thought … assume a disposition of Suspended disbelief for a time …


                    “In a deeper sense, no matter what classification system we use, and no matter how fragmentary or poor our historical records, it remains the case that all human languages are related — and all human literatures too — because all human beings are related. All human beings, let us remember, are closely related; and all human languages are born, bear their fruit and die in the minds and mouths of human beings.”

                    Robert Bringhurst, A Story As Sharp As A Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World

                    Though this be only tangentially related to the conversation, it’s a favorite quote, from a brilliant work, that I thought worth sharing. Bringhurst has a poet’s eye, rather than a scholar’s, which enhances and amplifies his study of the role myth (and language) play in this culture indigenous to the American northwest.


                    JCF has posted a few excerpts on its YouTube channel of thought-provoking conversation with anthropologist Wade Davis. Here’s an example that seems relevant:



                      There is much cognitive dissonance in our species. That is what I enjoy and where I long to dwell . Between the opposites. In the midst of multiple perspectives.


                      “If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”


                      ― Joseph Campbell


                      Is seeing the path of others wrong ?

                      We in the west often long for the connection to the earth to the season to vegetation to animal life our ancestor had . We catch glimpses of this path in indigenous and eastern perspectives and paths. But these paths while being foreign and new to us are well known paths to our species and it’s collective consciousness.

                      We are a restless lot . We do enjoy the Journey to exotic landscapes mindscapes worldviews. We enjoy our collections of perspectives … we enjoy our collections of myths.

                      Can we learn to appreciate our own perspective and myth that we live by ?

                      Is our reality just as mythic as we purport other peoples to be ?

                      The rat race and labyrinth of modernity is fraught with scientific & mythic connotations.

                      I think I shall go to the Everglades , become one with the river of grass , the Sea of Reeds !!! Yet that path is known , tread by indigenous feet for millennia …

                      “Though nothing can bring back the hour
                      Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
                      We will grieve not, rather find
                      Strength in what remains behind;
                      In the primal sympathy
                      Which having been must ever be;
                      In the soothing thoughts that spring
                      Out of human suffering;
                      In the faith that looks through death,
                      In years that bring the philosophic mind.“


                      Where do I find mine own Path ?

                      How do I sink below ?

                      How do I rise above ?

                      How do I sink below ?

                      How do I rise above ?

                      How do I sink below ?

                      How do I rise above ?

                      I shall plant myself here now and seek …

                      What is this Cosmos that revolves around my center my still point connected to the stillness in All ?

                      Our calling is to recapitulate resurrect the archaic mythic the foreign the dead , move forward and cloth them in newness of life in this our evolutionary metempsychotic episode …



                        R³, your path is unique as anyone’s, so engage!

                        “The rat race and labyrinth of modernity is fraught with scientific & mythic connotations.”

                        As long as the word connotations is part of the statement, I accept it. Without it, I reject it. Science and fraught are as unrelated as mortality to belief.


                          Mars ,

                          For me science is as mythic as myth. I enjoy science. It is a tool of discovery and classification created by humanity to understand the mystery of nature . It is not nature. It does not exist in nature. It is at best an attempt to draw a symbolic abstract map. But the map is not the territory. The best we can do is create metaphors and equations to explain nature. I thoroughly enjoy Richard Feynman presentation of the scientific method. Something I adhere too. I also enjoy exploring the mythopoetic aspect of humanity and being  which is why I am here . Your interest is appreciated and engaging.


                          Robert R Reister


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