Monday, November 29, 2021

A Restless Sea Of Metaphor



Starlings are often called "the mynah birds of the north" for their ability to mimic not just other bird songs, but other animals, including humans. They have even been known to re-create the sounds of telephones, squeaky hinges, sirens, doorbells, and other common sounds they pick up from their environment. No one really knows why they've developed this penchant, although it's been speculated that it allows them to deceive potential predators. I can imagine that a hawk, for instance, might have second thoughts when its intended lunch barks like a junkyard dog. 

Whatever the case, starlings and other birds that tend toward mimicry, are constantly adding to their repertoire from their environment as well as learning from other starlings, passing down certain sounds from generation to generation, often continuing to reproduce sounds from bygone eras long after that sound has disappeared from their habitat. This means that a population of starlings that has existed in a single place for generations has become a sort of data storage system for elements of sound, perhaps even entire soundscapes, from earlier centuries.

I was thinking about this as we sat down to our Thanksgiving dinner last week. 

We tend to think of human language as simply a means of communication, but just as starlings can keep the past alive through their songs, we too, in a way, do the same, even when we are completely unaware of it. For instance, nearly every word we use, can be traced back to a metaphor. Someone sat at the "head" of the table. It wasn't, of course, an actual head, but a metaphorical one that derives from a time when there was no other way to describe that seat of honor. It's "like" a head, we thought, and so it entered the language, subtly shaping generations of humans as we gather together for a repast. Likewise, the chair I sat in had "arms" and "legs." We gathered together to be "in touch" with one another. Some of us had to "handle" a difficult relative or conversation. 

But it's not just when we refer to physical objects that we reveal our linguistic DNA. Our verb "to be" comes from the ancient Sanskrit word blu, which means "to grow" while the English forms of "am" and "is" have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asme, which means "to breathe." Even our fundamental word to describe existence hearkens back to when we had no other word for it so we resorted to a metaphor that reminds us to grow and breathe.

Our language derives from our collective experience as a species and has evolved as more than mere birdsong, functioning as a kind of organ of perception, a creator of reality, and a record of our evolution as conscious animals.

As adults, most of us, however, use our language unconsciously and because of this, I think, we often have a tendency to re-create a familiar reality, especially at traditional gatherings like Thanksgiving. We do it without thinking. We do it because this is the way it's always been done. And even when we strive to break away from the old patterns the ancient metaphors steer us back to the familiar.

Our children, however, do not yet know the metaphors we know. They are still closer to the creative potential of language which is why, if we can remember to shut up and listen, we find ourselves so delighted, often profoundly so, by the things they express as they seek to wrap language around experience and vice versa. 

In our current rush to make our children literate, however, we teach them at younger and younger ages that language is a dead thing, mere communication confined by immutable rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. We rob them of something essential when we compel them to, essentially, shut up and listen. It's a robbery that impoverishes all of us. Children are there to make the familiar once more unfamiliar, but the only way this happens is if language precedes literacy. Literacy is a mere workman's plow that bends our backs toward utilitarian ends, while language is a growing, breathing thing, a restless sea of metaphor, a cacophony of birdsong, that is central to what it means to be human. 


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