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This review appeared in Volume 1 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Language and the Senses: New Directions in Linguistics

by Marsel Danesi

Fogelin, Robert J. Figuratively Speaking. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. Pp. viii, 120. (ISBN 0-300 04229-9)

Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Pp. xxxviii,233. (ISBN 0-226-40317-3)

Lakoff, George. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Pp. xvii,614. (ISBN 0-226-46803-8)

Lakoff, George and Turner, Mark. More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1989. Pp. xii,230. (ISBN 0-226-46812-7)

Langacker, Ronald W. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987. Pp. x,516. (ISBN-880-471-2611)

Levin, Samuel R. Metaphoric Worlds: Conceptions of a Romantic Nature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. Pp. xv, 251, (ISBN 0-300- 04172-1)

Shapiro, Michael and Shapiro, Marianne. Figuration in Verbal Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press,1988. Pp. xvi,286. (ISBN 0-691-06735-8)

In the last decade or so there has been no dominant orientation or methodology in the practice of linguistics. As Hymes and Fought (1981) have argued, in the century-old history of linguistics the idea of a "mainstream" approach crystallized shortly after the publication of Noam Chomsky's influential Syntactic Structures in 1957. As never before, linguistics came to restrict its specific purview to the elaboration of procedures and algorithms for separating grammatical from ungrammatical sentences. The study of any other phenomena in human languages was considered to be either marginal or to fall outside of the domain of linguistics proper. Figurative forms of communication in particular were relegated to the status of anomalous strings, easily explainable in terms of some semantic deviation from a more fundamental literalist system of meaning patterns.

The abandonment of this mainstream mindset can probably be traced to 1971 when Dell Hymes demonstrated how the larger human and social context was an active participant in shaping the rules of grammar -- which were thought of as being immune to such "external" forces. In the fifties and sixties, grammatical systems were conceived of as being machine-like generators of infinitely well-formed sentences, insulated from the vagaries of human and social experience. Hymes argued masterfully that the specific capacities of people, the organization of speech categories for socially-defined purposes, and the sensitivity of rules to situational parameters all had decisive roles to play in determining grammatical behaviour. Hymes' persuasive case against the status quo triggered heated epistemological debates on the nature of language and on the goals of linguistics proper that lasted throughout the seventies.

One of the by-products of this debate has been the emergence of an extensive and intensive interest in metaphor. The first token of this new Zeitgeist was the publication at the start of the eighties of a small book on the primacy of metaphor in all forms of speech by George Lakoff -- a linguist trained in the Chomskyan tradition (e.g. Lakoff 1970) -- and Mark Johnson, entitled appropriately enough Metaphors We Live By (1980). The awareness of metaphor as an important phenomenon is at least as old as Aristotle, but in making it the primary target of investigation for linguistics proper, Lakoff and Johnson broke radically with the long-standing tradition of viewing meaning as grounded on a literalist cognitive substratum. For linguistics, therefore, Metaphors We Live By did indeed chart a new course. Not everyone has readily adopted the Lakoff and Johnson paradigm, but a glance at the recent literature shows how profoundly they have influenced the current generation of linguists. Never before has there been such an intense interest in the role played by figurative structures in language and thought.

In this essay, I will look at resent books written not only by Lakoff and Johnson -- Lakoff (1987), Lakoff and Turner (1989), Johnson (1987) -- but also by others who have made metaphorical communication the focus of their theoretical and empirical interest Langacker (1987), Fogelin (1988), Levin (1988), and Shapiro and Shapiro (1988). Books such as these are beginning to give linguistics a more semiotic emphasis and, in so doing, to provide a coherent scientific discourse that is making it increasingly more possible to discuss and investigate the intriguing prospect that language might well be a"semiotic" extension of human sensorial experience.

The seven books selected for this survey will now be examined in order.

  1. Robert J. Fogelin, Figuratively Speaking:

    In the seven chapters of this small book, the author gives an up-to-date examination of figures of speech, showing essentially how they work semantically and why they are so appealing to us. Building on the ideas of Wittgenstein and H.P. Grice (e.g. 1975), Fogelin takes the traditional position that metaphor is a derivative of literal, propositional modes of semantic programming. The importance of this book is that Fogelin gives us a contemporary examination of the criticisms that have been brought against this view in recent years, and then offers a detailed reconstruction of this view within the framework of contemporary speech-act theory. Although I am not persuaded by his analysis, Fogelin does indeed make his case forcefully and directly.

    In the first chapter ("Introduction," pp. 1-4), Fogelin simply states the speech-act basis of his analysis. In the second chapter ("Figurative Predications," pp. 5-23), as well as in the third ("Figurative Comparisons," pp. 25-31), he outlines the details of his Gricean theory. This is really no more than a modern restatement of Aristotelian comparativism, which is defended in the next two chapters ("The Standard Criticisms of Comparativism," pp. 33-67; "A Dilemma for Theories of Metaphor," pp. 69-76). In the final two chapters ("A Theory of Figurative Comparisons," pp. 77-93; "Clarifications and Elaborations," pp. 95-113), Fogelin puts the finishing touches to his speech-act theory.

  2. Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind:

    While Fogelin and the school of thought he represents would see metaphorization as a product of some rational thought process, Johnson reflects the more recent tendency, reminiscent of Giambattista Vico and of the so-called Romantic philosophers, to view linguistics as a semiotic transformation of bodily experience. Through metaphor we are able to convert the external world of the senses into an internal one of representation. Rationality, in this perspective, is itself a product of this conversion process.

    Johnson makes essentially this argument in the first chapter ("The Need for a Richer Account of Meaning and Reason," pp. 1-17). In the next three chapters ("The Emergence of Meaning through Schematic Structure," pp. 18-40; "Gestalt Structure as a Constraint on Meaning," 41-64; "Metaphorical Projections of Image Schemata," pp. 65-100), Johnson describes the concept of image schema which is the mental mechanism through which bodily experience is transformed into metaphorical cognition. Semioticians will find nothing particularly radial in this concept -- it is, after all, essentially a version of iconicity theory. The way in which Johnson articulates the theory of image schemata is so clear and insightful, however, that it merits the attention of even the inveterate semiotician. For Johnson, and Lakoff for that matter, an image schema is a mental representation of recurrent pattern (colour, shape, dimension, movement, etc.) that is extrapolated from our bodily experiences. Image schemata are then used by the mind to organize our concepts and, eventually, to give our conceptual organization its very shape. In the last four chapters ("How Image Schemata Constrain Meaning, Understanding, and Rationality," pp. 101-138; "Toward a Theory of Imagination," pp. 139-172; "On the Nature of Meaning," pp. 173-193; "All This, and Realism, Too!," pp. 194-212) Johnson comes essentially to the conclusion that Vico reached in the eighteenth century; namely that all meaningful thought originates in the imagination -- that part of the mind which generates our image schemata and their metaphorical codifications.

  3. George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things:

    This is perhaps the most persuasive and controversial statement of the "language-as-bodily experience" theory. In the ten chapters that make up the first part of the book ("The Mind beyond the machine," pp. 1-154), Lakoff puts forward a detailed and often impassioned case in favor of rejecting the classical notion of mental category as some abstract, insulated gestalt. He offers abundant evidence that different languages, different cultures, and different individuals structure the world in different ways. Thus, there is no universal notion for, say, "love", but rather many human views of love.

    At the cognitive root of category-formation are image schemata and their metaphorical tokens. The details of this theory are elaborated in the eleven chapters making up the second part of the book ("Philosophical Implications," pp. 157-373). In the final three chapters that make up his "Case Studies" (pp. 377-585), Lakoff shows how his way of doing linguistic analysis might be carried out.

  4. George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason:

    This book can really be considered a continuation of the "case studies" initiated in Lakoff's previous book. Essentially, Lakoff and Turner look at how metaphorically-structured concepts allow our minds to get hold of the world and how they manifest themselves in the poetic medium.

    In the opening chapter ("Life, Death, and Time," pp. 1-56), the authors perform a case study of three metaphorically-structured notions -- life, death, time -- and how they crystallize in the poetry of Milton, Shakespeare, Eliot, and many other English poets. In the second ("The Power of Poetic Metaphor," pp. 57-139) and fourth ("The Great Chain of Being," pp. 160-213), the authors give the details of their theory, defending it against more traditional views of metaphor and conceptualization, as well as providing a concept-based taxonomy of figurative expression. Needless to say, this stands in stark opposition to the Gricean account of metaphor as a speech option in normal communication. The most interesting chapter, from the perspective of the semiotician, is the third ("The Metaphoric Structure of a Single Poem," pp.140-159). Here, Lakoff and Turner, using the poem "The Jasmine Lightness of the Moon," by William Carlos Williams, show the reader exactly how to perform an analysis in terms of their notion of conceptual metaphor. A conceptual metaphor can be thought of as a formula that has some topic domain (e.g. "life") which is explicated in its vehicular instantiations by a specific lexical field derived from sensorial experience.

  5. Ronald W. Langacker, Foundations of Cognitive Grammar:

    This is perhaps the most significant of the books under review, given that it provides the theoretical apparatus for conducting research in what is being called "cognitive linguistics" -- a form of scientific inquiry that makes such phenomena as metaphor the primary objects of investigation. This new focus now also has its first periodical voice in the form of the newly established journal published by Mouton and called, appropriately enough, Cognitive Linguistics. The aim of this journal is to document and discuss the phenomena that the Lakoff-Johnson-Langacker approach would consider of primary importance in linguistics, i.e. the relationship between cognitive categories and language. In twelve chapters making up three parts ("Orientation," pp. 9-98; "Semantic Structure", pp. 275-484), Langacker discusses and illustrates how to do cognitive linguistics which is based on the analysis of how the conceptual and experiential core of linguistic categories reveals itself in the formal structure of language. Specifically, Langacker deals with topics such as: the relationship between conceptual structure and the formal characteristics of natural languages (including prototypicality, mental imagery, metaphor, etc.); the functional principles of verbal organization as manifested by iconicity and markedness; and the relationship between language universals and relativistic aspects of language programming. In short, Langacker provides the theoretical backbone to the Lakoff Johnson notion of language-as-bodily experience, and thus provides the necessary theoretical tools for carrying out systematic research on this notion.

  6. Samuel R. Levin, Metaphoric Worlds:

    Inspired by the work of Lakoff and Johnson, Levin locates the much-needed historical coordinates within which cognitive linguists now work, but which they seldom acknowledge or are even aware of. In the opening chapter (pp. 1-26), Levin gives us a concise introduction to Lakoff and Johnson's theory of conceptual metaphor. Then, he takes the reader -presumably the cognitive linguist -on a historical journey through the epistemological and ideological origins of this theory, stopping occasionally to look at and assess contrasting viewpoints. He looks, for example, at the phenomenological approach of Husserl (pp. 27-60), at the Vichian notion of metaphor as primordial poetry (pp. 106-130), and at Aquinas' theory of analogy (pp. 131-155). In all cases, he allows the reader to look at the theory of conceptual metaphor using the template of historical parallels.

  7. Michael Shapiro and Marianne Shapiro, Figuration in Verbal Art:

    The Shapiros are among the few who have made good on Saussure's desire to make the scientific study of language a fundamentally semiotic enterprise (e.g. Michael Shapiro 1983). Although this book can be placed under the general rubric of cognitive linguistics, it is much more interested in the semiotic nature of verbal creativity. It is a masterful analysis of "figurative verbal art" (poetry, myth, etc.). To the best of my knowledge no such comprehensive work has previously existed. After four introductory essays ("Theoretical Preliminaries," pp. 1-82) on the structure and semantics of figures of speech, the Shapiros dissect literary creativity into its figurative components in the second part of the book ("Literary Analysis in a Topological Perspective," pp. 83-214). In the final part ("Figuration in Popular Culture," pp. 215-266), they isolate the underlying figurative notions in popular myths and cultural icons. This book comes essentially to the same conclusion as that reached by Lakoff and Johnson: namely that language and thought are extensions of the human sensory system. In addition, it discusses the semiotic process that probably underlies such extensions. The particular version of semiotic that the Shapiros adopt is the Peircean one.

To understand why the increasing publication of books such as these charts a radically different course for linguistics, it is instructive to look at the traditional modus operandi in the field. The central notion that has guided most of the theoretical and empirical activities in this science since its inception in Saussure (1916) has been that of structure. Indeed, during the fifties and early sixties the term structuralism became a metonym for this field of inquiry (e.g. Harris 1951). The idea has always been to document and catalogue the basic forms of sound and grammar as they manifest themselves in the world's languages. In other words, the focus has always been on the structures of language in themselves. The investigation of how the mind produces and understands these structures, or of how it utilizes them to acquire knowledge, has either been relegated to the fringes of mainstream research or else assigned to some other disciplinary domain (e.g. psychology, cognitive science, etc.). The first so-called "structuralists" on the North American continent came to view the practice of linguistics in terms of a classificatory methodology (e.g. Bloomfield 1933). They sought to fashion a field of inquiry akin to the biological sciences based on the development of appropriate taxonomic frameworks for relating language structures to each other.

Exceptions to this rule can be found in Edward Sapir (e.g.1921) and those who followed his lead, especially his famous pupil Benjamin Lee Whorf (1956). These linguists ventured to look beyond language forms and categories in themselves in order to see how they shaped, and possibly even created, the world of human meaning. Apart from sporadic research of this nature, linguistics has, by and large, limited its primary interest to matters of form and structural design.

In 1957, Chomsky claimed a radical break with tradition, but, in hindsight, there really was nothing essentially new about transformational grammar. The concept of transformational rule, for example, was a logical extension of previous work by Chomsky's structuralist mentor Zellig Harris (e.g. 1957). In the perceptive words of Anttila (1976:65), the original version of Chomsky's transformational theory was no more than "a natural outgrowth of structuralism, a particular variety of structuralism." The only real difference between transformationalism and structuralism was an emphasis on mathematical formalization techniques in the study of structure (e.g. Chomsky 1966, 1982).

When extended to discussions of the relationship between language and mind, research on grammar has led to what I should call the "computational fallacy." Underlying much of the linguistic research of the last few decades is the notion -- metaphorical in nature -- that the mind can be compared to an automaton -- an abstract machine which manufactures strings of wellformed sentences on the basis of neurologically programmed rules. This computation device is involved primarily in generating literal, propositional modes of speech. For many linguists, these modes constitute the objects of inquiry. All non-literal speech is seen to fall outside the domain of synchronic linguistics. As Johnson Laird (1988:52) has recently observed, the computational approach relies on the assumption that only theories of the mind that "can be expressed in a form that can be modelled in a computer program" are germane to the field. Hobbes' (1656) dream of studying rational thought as a process akin to addition and subtraction has found its way into much research on grammar.

It is primarily in the context of the computational fallacy that the books under review are to be understood. The exception is Fogelin's book. In essence, Fogelin attempts to preserve the view that natural language meaning can be easily handled by formal logic. Metaphor, therefore, is guided by semantic projections of the literal that are sensitive to speech situations. But the other books argue essentially in favor of taking up the challenge of the Sapir-Whorf agenda for linguistics, suggesting that what is really interesting to study are the ways in which language is tied to sensorial experiences. These books put forward a precise program for studying language in terms of its semiotic properties.

The works by Lakoff, Turner, and Johnson are especially convincing. Let us take, for example, Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The title of Lakoff's book refers to a convention reflected in the Australian aboriginal Dyirbal language (Dixon 1982) that classifies women, fire, and dangerous things within the same category. Lakoff designates this as a radial category, reminiscent of Wittgenstein's (1953) view of categories as definable only by family resemblance. In a radial category there are central members which link up all the others by a principle of chaining. Another example used by Lakoff Is the Japanese classifier hon. This form is used for long thin objects (sticks, pencils, etc.). It is also employed to classify hits in baseball (by association from Its use for classifying bats), telephone calls (because they are made over long, thin wires), movies (which come on reels of long, thin film), and so on. The main point of Lakoff's argument is that lexical categorization does not depend on any logical, objective set of criteria. It is intrinsically tied to experience: "Experience here is taken in a broad rather than narrow sense. It includes everything that goes up to make up actual or potential experiences of either individual organisms or communities of organisms -- not merely perception, motor movement, etc., but especially the internal genetically acquired makeup of the organism and the nature of its interactions in both its physical and its social environments" (Lakoff 1987:xv).

To buttress his experientialist position, Lakoff enlists the mounting evidence of psychology which suggests that the formation of concepts depends on such experimental parameters as basic-level categories (e.g. Berlin and Kay 1969, Rosch 1978) and prototype effects (e.g. Rosch 1981). In this way, Lakoff is able to argue convincingly that knowledge is not organized by means of abstract categories, but "by means of structures called idealized cognitive models" (Lakoff 1987:68). These models are not mere representations of the world; they emanate from within the conceiver. In other words, concepts emerge in the context of language, not apart from it. Among the various manifestations of these models, those based on metaphor are especially dominant in cognition. When we conceptualize about something like anger, for instance, we do so in culturally-specific ways through metaphorical discourse. In English, anger is portrayed in terms of the physiological effects that it is perceived as producing: He was foaming at the mouth; You make my blood boil; He's letting off steam; etc. Models such as this play an enormous role in our cognitive organization of the world. The conceptualization of anger unfolds through recourse to metaphorical imagery. It is only when Such metaphorized images have become institutionalized through usage that we are no longer consciously aware of them.

Lakoff concludes his book with case studies to illustrate what form scientific inquiry and empirical research might take from the experientialist perspective. Johnson's book gives a solid philosophical foundation to this perspective, essentially making the case that the human imagination -- the faculty which produces our images of the world -- transforms the input from the human sensory system into metaphorical symbols. This is why we say that we see, grasp, or touch upon "ideas"; that we enter into a "conversation" or a "debate"; that we "feel" up or down. These image-schemata build up in our memory systems to produce our common concepts. Meaning is, therefore, the result of "the way we experience our world as a comprehensible reality" {Johnson 1987:102). To say that a concept exists, therefore, "is to say that some of our experiences have a certain recurring structure by virtue of which we can understand them" (Johnson 1987:102).

Johnson's main argument is that metaphor transfers the external world of physical experience into an internal world of meaning through image-schemata, which he defines as "those recurring structures of, or in, our perceptual interactions, bodily experiences and cognitive operations" (Johnson 1987:79). Lakoff (1987:444-446) refers to these schemata as manifestations of "effortful activity" that is involved in portraying locations, shapes, movements, etc. in cognitive terms. Lakoff illustrates this notion with several examples. If one were asked, for instance, to explain an idiom such as spill the beans in terms of its associated imagery-content (Where are the beans before they are spilled? How big is the container? Is the spilling on purpose or accidental? etc.), then even those speakers who claim not to have a conscious image of the idiom can answer such questions in remarkably uniform ways -- the beans are supposed to be kept in a container; the container Is always about the size of the human head; etc.

Langacker's Foundation of Cognitive Grammar (1987 lays the foundation for a general theory of experiential, or cognitive, linguistics. Langacker looks at how image-schemata shape our common cognitive operations. In fast, Langacker uses the term "space grammar" vicariously for his approach. For Langacker nouns designate a "region" in some domain: a count noun encircles a bounded region; a mass noun designates a region that is not specifically bounded. These spatial qualities underlie the morphosyntactic and semantic properties of nouns. This analytical framework is extended to all parts of speech, allowing for a specific set of procedures to be constructed for analyzing grammatical phenomena.

The ideas advanced by Lakoff, Johnson, and Langacker, and exemplified by Lakoff and Turner in the mental processes involved in interpreting poetry, are not new to the Gestalt school of psychology (e.g. Kohler 1947) or to humanistic philosophy (e.g. Vico, in Bergin and Fisch 1984). As Levin has showed, they are also not new to the history of ideas. Semioticians, as the Shapiros ably demonstrate, do not need to be reminded of the importance of metaphor. But for linguistics, the focus on figurative language constitutes a radical new departure. Cognitive linguistics, as it is now being labelled, is beginning to provide linguists with the methodological tools for going beneath structure in order to study what Ernst Cassirer (1946) called the unconscious grammar of experience. The canons of this grammar are not those of logical thought, but of an archaic mode of cognition that still has enormous power over even our most rigorous thorough processes.

Above all else, the work in cognitive linguistics has made it crystal clear that the world is not made up primarily of logical categories of thinking. Rather, it is conceptualized in terms of verbal categories which are cognitive extensions of the human sensory system. As Hilary Putnam (1987:12) remarks, to formalize the content of such verbal signs or sign-analogs is virtually impossible since it ~'would involve formalizing our entire conception of what it is to be human, of what it is to be intelligible in human terms." Cognitive linguistics provides an alternative to the formalization approach that has characterized a large part of synchronic linguistics.

The move away from formal, mathematical approaches toward a study of language in its contextual manifestations and in its relation to the world of sensorial experience is of obvious Interest to semioticians. As Vico would have put it, linguists are beginning to understand that the human mind Is not just a grammatical machine because It "does not understand anything of which It has had no previous Impression from the senses" (In Bergin and Fisch 1984:123). This Is because the "human mind Is naturally Inclined by the senses to see Itself externally In the body; and only with great difficulty does It come to understand Itself by means of reflection" (In Bergin and Fisch 1984:95). The Lakoff Johnson Langacker approach to language suggests that the brain's ability to manufacture Images Is a more basic function than Its ability to produce propositional thought. The prevalence of metaphorically-constructed models of reality suggests that human concepts start as hypotheses about the physical environment. These are at first tied directly to the senses. It is only after they have become routine through cultural diffusion that conceptual schemata become free of sensory control and take on an abstract quality.


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Marcel Danesi is Professor of applied linguistics and of italian linguistics at the University of Toronto. He is author of Applied Psycholinguistics (1985), Cervello, Linguaggio, eo Educazione (1988), Neurolinguistica e glottodidattica (1988), Robert A. Hall and American Structuralism (1989), and of numerous works on linguistic, educational, and semiotic topics.

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