I found the juxtaposition of two recent articles (found via Arts & Letters Daily) on language quite interesting. Wine writer Colin Bower is frustrated with the use of simile and metaphor in wine writing: why can’t we describe the experience of tasting a wine in a direct, factual way, without the use of metaphor?
Wine is always described as being like something else. This is appealingly post modern. If a chardonnay tastes a bit like a peach, what then does the peach taste like? A chardonnay? And if so, what does either taste like? If you must describe the Van Loveren 2001 limited edition Merlot as being “chocolately”, does it mean that chocolate tastes like the Van Loveren Merlot? And if we like the Merlot on account if its tasting like chocolate, why don’t we eat chocolate instead of drinking wine?
Consider this dilemma facing the wine writer, and then apply the evolutionary psychology and cognitive science prowess of Steven Pinker to the problem. Pinker has a new book on language called The Stuff of Thought coming out in the fall. One of his topics will be metaphor:
While swearing may garner public attention, perhaps the more surprising aspect of Pinker’s work traces the pervasiveness of metaphor in language. Not flowery poetic allusions or rhetorical similes but concrete-to-abstract transitions so common in everyday speech and writing that we often don’t even recognize them as metaphorical.
Consider this sentence:
“He attacked my position and I defended it.” It uses the metaphor of argument as war. Or how about “this program isn’t going anywhere,” which uses the metaphor of progress as motion.
Says Pinker: “Look at almost any passage and you’ll find that a paragraph has five or six metaphors in it. It’s not that the speaker is trying to be poetic, it’s just that that’s the way language works.
“Rather than occasionally reaching for a metaphor to communicate, to a very large extent communication is the use of metaphor,” he says.
“It could be that 95 per cent of our speech is metaphorical, if you go back far enough in language.”
Why? Here, the teacher part of researcher and author Steven Pinker comes to the fore, offering a boring explanation and an interesting explanation, both with an element of truth.
The boring explanation is that using metaphor is a quick-and-dirty way of expressing a new idea without the trouble of coining [notice the metaphor] and propagating a new word.
“But that presupposes that the mind itself works metaphorically, that we see the abstract commonality between argument and war, between progress and motion. And it presupposes that the mind, at some level, must reason very concretely in order that these metaphors be understood and become contagious.
“And that’s the more interesting part of the story.”
Thus, with respect to wine Bower concludes
I’ve had to give up on so-called facts. They don’t exist. It took wine writers to prove this to me. Nothing is ever knowable for what it is. Admit it, you can no more say what a taste is than you can say what a colour is or what a feeling is.
I think Mr. Bower is a little too postmodern for his own good, and should leaven in some Pinker: it is in the nature of human language to use metaphor as hooks into our shared knowledge when we are describing a personal, potentially unknown experience to someone else. Metaphor provides the flavor and culture referents that we use to communicate our personal wine experiences to each other. Facts don’t carry enough information without the metaphor hooks for us to put them in context.