Over and (not) done with

by Terence MacNamee

Metaphors are very powerful. We take over the assumptions that go with them without even realizing it. Yet how could we get by without metaphors – especially when we need to let the tangible stand for the intangible?

Consider the past. We think of it as something previous, over, finished. But, influenced by writing and books, we think of it spatially, “back in time”: to the left of where we are now (to the right, if we use a Semitic writing system, I suppose). Yet we recognize two kinds of past. There is the past that is over and done with. We just register that it happened: “I saw the house” (and then I looked at something else). But there is a past that still has an effect; we express it by the perfect tense: “I have seen the house” (and now it is part of my knowledge).

Further spatial metaphors are used to express this still-effective, immanent past and its effect on the present. We think of it as either “below ground” or “upstream”. It is either like an archaeological dig in the middle of the modern city, or a hydrographic chart of a river system in a valley.

We know that the very language we speak has a history. The initial metaphor for this from Indo-European studies is the family tree. The branches are the modern European languages, the trunk is the classics like Latin, Greek and Sanscrit, and the roots, which we cannot see, are the conjectured protolanguage supposedly spoken by wandering Aryan ancestors.

We can think of it in archaeological terms too. If we dig down below our modern languages, we find their ancestors, or what is left of them in terms of written texts and inscriptions.

Yet the ongoing relationship of dead and living languages in the Western world is so real that we have come to think of the classical languages and IE itself as being somehow “upstream” from all the the modern languages. In other words, what is historically earlier is “above”, “on the high ground” like the source of a river. That hydrodynamic metaphor does a better job of capturing the idea of a past that continues to influence and shape the present.

We think of all our rivers of language as coming from a single source, the IE protolanguage. Tribes and nations like to trace their origin to a common ancestor. This single-source IE model provides a myth narrative for a unitary “Western civilisation”. But of course we have known for quite a while that the single-source model is an oversimplification; we should be thinking of the contribution of a mass of tributaries as well.

In Chomskyan Generative Grammar, the historical metaphors are recycled in accounting for how language is generated in the present moment. The “surface” structures of speech are created out of “deep” structures; theoretical items not empirically evident are said to be “underlying”. Then again, the other metaphor is used in talk of an abstract, “higher” level, a “higher order of abstraction”, from which the empirical “lower” level is “derived”. The clash of dead metaphors reveals our struggle to express the idea of the past that is ever virtually contained in the present.