Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Metaphors Other People Live By

Okay, so there's this book, Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, 1980). I've got it as assigned reading for a philosophy of language class. It's excellent, filled with the kind of revelation that's stunningly obvious once somebody points them out, but which never would have occurred to you otherwise. Get it, read it, grok it, because I'm definitely not going to be able to do it justice in this post.

The basic gist is this: we talk in terms of metaphors. Not literary metaphors like "love is a flower", but much more basic ones. Every concept we talk about, and (it is convincingly asserted) every concept we think about, is expressed in terms of other concepts.

Consider two paragraphs ago, when I said the book is filled with revelations: this is not a literal claim. The metaphor in that case is that the book is a container and revelations are objects contained within it. I also said that I would not be able to do it justice: the book (is a person who) deserves justice, and explaining it poorly is a sort of miscarriage of justice.

One of the most common kinds of metaphors in our language, according to Lakoff and Johnson, are orientational metaphors, where concepts are described in terms of spatial orientation. Examples, direct from the book: Happy is up (that boosted my spirits), sad is down (I'm depressed); conscious is up (wake up), unconscious is down (he fell asleep); health and life are up (Lazarus rose from the dead), sickness and death are down (he fell ill); having control or force is up (I am on top of the situation), being subject to force or control is down (he is the low man on the totem pole); more is up (my income rose last year), less is down (If you're too hot, turn the heat down); prestigious status is up (he's at the peak of his career, or even how hard it was to phrase this without using the words "high status"), lack of status is down (he's at the bottom of the social hierarchy; low status); good is up (things are looking up), bad is down (he does high-quality work).

Lakoff and Johnson point out that all of these metaphors are consistent with one another: more is up, and up is good, and more is good. Sad is down, down is bad, and sad is bad. There are subcultures that use inconsistent metaphors (for example, members of an ascetic cult might think "more is up, up is good, but more is bad"), but these are only ever subcultures, these things are are in the broader language.

These things aren't just in the language, they're in the way we think. Consider: Where is Heaven? Where is Hell? If they existed, they obviously wouldn't be literally anywhere we can access, up and down would be meaningless with respect to the afterlife. But we still think of Heaven as being above us and Hell as being below us. Up is good, down is bad.

And the denizens of Heaven and Hell: ever hear of this dude they call God in the Highest? We call for "gloria in excelsis Deo". And of course all the angels serve under God, in some cases literally (some of them he sits on; they're called Thrones). At the other end of the spectrum, Satan is the lowest of the low. More on demons in the next section.

People are always trying to build the tallest skyscraper in the world. It's been a constant competition ever since skyscrapers were invented, because up is good (in mythology, too; the story of the Tower of Babel is a point of overlap between skyscrapers and heaven). But who cared when the Russians dug the deepest hole in the world at the time? Nobody! (Except the people who circulate the lies about it breaking into hell.) Nobody would even ever have bothered to dig deeper except that there's oil down there. Nobody cares about big holes because nobody cares about down, because down is bad.

--- So what does this have to do with D&D/writing?

One of my biggest complaints about most science fiction and fantasy, especially roleplaying (i.e., amateur storytelling), is that aliens (be they elves, Klingons, lichs, Sebaceans, Goa'uld, anthropomorphic animals, or whatever) are always just humans in non-human bodies. American humans, at that. (Some good tips for mitigating this effect can be found here.)

Some authors do better than others at this: the alien-ness of aliens is a plot point in the Ender's Game sequels, but even the Formics and Pequeninos are just humans with one or two bizarre concepts ("there's no such thing as an individual" and "one needs to be vivisected in order to advance to the next stage of life") pasted on. The House Elves of Harry Potter take utmost joy in slavery, something which is even more alien to we liberty-obsessed American humans.

But, and this is the important part, they always use all the same metaphors we use in English.

What I'm saying is this: alien minds will use alien metaphors. If you're writing aliens, be careful about the non-literal language they use. If they don't have a reason to use the same metaphorical constructions we do, then they shouldn't. But even more, if you don't want them to just read like humans in alien bodies, give them different metaphors for the sake of giving them different metaphors.

C.S. Lewis actually once did this at least half-competently: in The Screwtape Letters, the demons use words like "Lowerarchy", and speak proudly of being demoted to a more prestigious, lower rank. For demons, having control or force is down, more is down, prestigious status is down, good is down. (Or, put in a more C.S. Lewis-y way, bad is good, so just reverse everything we say about good and call it a day.) Satan, the big boss, the one with force and power and prestige, is at the bottom, and all his inferiors (I almost said "subordinates") are arrayed above him.

Lakoff and Johnson even provide guidelines for doing this, albeit accidentally. Make sure your alien metaphors are consistent with one another. If demons think good is down and more prestigious is down and more power is down, it won't do for it to suddenly turn out that they think more is up. That's inconsistent and will grate on the reader, even if they don't consciously notice it.


Let us now, as an exercise, construct a culture by constructing its metaphors. Let's imagine that this culture is profoundly xenophobic, insular, and isolationist. Which is to say: out is bad; in is good. Let's just take the previous examples and plug "out" and "in" in place of "up" and "down". Most of these metaphors actually exist in English (container metaphors being another of the most common kinds of metaphors we use), and the only change will be that we're emphasizing them over vertical metaphors. Some of them will take all-new metaphors. So the metaphors, and the kinds of things these cultural xenophobes would say:
  • happy is in: "I am in good spirits."
  • sad is out: "I am out of good spirits." (not "I am in bad spirits")
  • conscious is in: "I am in my body."
  • unconscious is out: "I'm feeling out of it."
  • health and life are in: "I'm in good health."
  • sickness and death are out: "I am out of health."
  • having control or force is in: "I have an in with the organization."
  • being subject to force or control is out: "I'm outside his power." (This could get confusing: it means exactly the opposite of what we mean, where to be in someone's power is to be under their control. If one actually uses examples such as this in the text, one should be sure to add a note to clarify it, to avoid a Shaka, when the walls fell situation.)
  • more is in: "I'm in great wealth."
  • less is out: "I'm out of money."
  • prestigious status is in: "The inner circle of the organization."
  • lack of status is out: "He's an outside man on the ring."
Obviously, these people will think that heaven is within oneself, and hell is outside (be it outside the self, outside the home, outside the city, outside the civilization, outside the world, or what have you). Obviously they'll be big on meditation, focusing on the self, spending time inside oneself rather than thinking about the outside world. Perhaps good people, when they die, remain inside the body -- perhaps this culture approves of necromancy for allowing people to, in some way, remain inside their bodies. Or perhaps they believe that the soul simply remains inside the heaven of the body for as long as the body remains intact, so they practice mummification, to preserve the heaven of the body for as long as possible.

The world, of course, is the center of the universe. But it isn't spherical, it's flat. The city is the center of the country, the country is the center of the world, and the world is the center of the universe. If you go too far out, horizontally, you'll reach Hell. The sky and the ground are probably conceptually less important to this culture than they are to us. Demons literally live outside the world (but you must be sure not to say demons live in Hell; you might say instead that demons live at Hell, a more neutral non-metaphorical term); the people who live outside the country are actively demonic; the people who live outside the city are bad; the people who live outside the home are merely distasteful. A culture of xenophobes is also likely to be a culture of introverts. This is unlikely to be a very large country; more likely it is to be many city-states, each of which comes into belligerent conflict with one another despite (indeed, because of) their shared culture.

Notice how I have taken a one-concept description ("xenophobic/insular/isolationist"), derived the sort of metaphors they use, then derived additional details of their culture and religious beliefs that follow from the metaphors. Consider this as a world-building technique.


But "in is good, out is bad" is still a pretty human metaphor. We can easily see the culture of xenophobes being a human culture. What about truly alien minds? Let's consider creatures who are not subject to the force of gravity at all. Perhaps they're celestial beings, or they live in space, or they're jellyfish-people who live in a gas giant (with an atmosphere so thick it would take a lifetime to float from bottom to top or vice versa) and are neutrally buoyant. Spatial metaphors may not be completely absent from their vocabulary, but they're likely to be much less important. Being radially symmetric, the aliens themselves won't have a front or back or sides, so they're unlikely to have many metaphors that hinge on front or back or sides. They might have concepts of up and down, or at least top and bottom, unless they're perfectly spherical jellyfish. But there's no difference between travelling up and travelling down, so vertical spatial metaphors will probably be mostly absent from their vocabulary. But we're trying to make truly alien-minded aliens, so let's just expunge all spatial metaphors entirely. Yes, container metaphors, too. No in/inside/out/outside.

So... what metaphors will they use, then? Let's suppose, for the sake of simplicity, that they see colours like we do. (Actually improbable, if they're gas-giant-dwellers; it's probably very dark inside a gas giant. Maybe we're talking outer space jellyfish, then.) Perhaps, then:
  • happy is red: "I am red with joy."
  • sad is violet: "I'm feeling blue."
  • conscious is red: "I was orange and alert."
  • unconscious is violet: "I'm going to go see purple [i.e., sleep] for awhile."
  • health and life are red: "The redness flows in me."
  • sickness and death are violet: "My breathing organs are tinged with violet."
  • having control or force is red: "I oranged and he gave me all his money." (Exactly what sort of activity "oranging" is might need to be explained.)
  • being subject to force or control is violet: "He is the violet man in the painting."
  • more is red: "My boss reddened my pay today."
  • less is violet: "My savings are so blue I can hardly feed my family."
  • prestigious status is red:  "He reds [i.e., rules] the country." (Note that, in this culture, red, not purple, will be associated with royalty.)
  • lack of status is violet: "He was purple with envy."
One advantage of color metaphors: it allows for somewhat more of a spectrum than spatial metaphors. Which of course implies that these aliens think in terms of continua where we think in terms of black or white. It'll be impossible to get a straight yes-or-no answer out of one of these guys; they'll always give you some shade of "maybe-leaning-towards-yes" or "almost-but-not-quite-no" -- which they'll have words for, probably the same words as they use for the colors. "Strong yes" is red, "strong no" is violet, "maybe/mu" is green or greenish-yellow. (They probably also use more of the color spectrum than the six or seven colors we choose to pick out as the most important ones.)

Similarly, what we call "middle management", these creatures would call "green management", a "middleman" would instead be a "green man". "But Ludus Carcerum," you say, "a middleman is literally in the middle between two people! That's not a metaphor at all!" Au contraire, I say: a greenman is green between a purpleman and a redman. Well, okay, maybe I'm making this particular concept more of a metaphor than it is in English, which is hardly a bad thing. (Interestingly, this may imply that, in this color-oriented culture, all transactions are considered inherently and explicitly unequal.)

Also: "infrared" and "ultraviolet" are likely to be roughly equivalent to our "110%" and "less than nothing", respectively.


There are, of course, countless other ways you could do it.

Maybe all orcish metaphors are in terms of violence. Consider the situation: an orcish elder explains the plan to pillage and massacre the village of Aardham. A young upstart orc things they should pillage and massacre Beantown instead, and shouts out, metaphorically, "the elder is advocating peace!" Meaning the elder is saying bad things, not that he's literally advocating peace, which he obviously isn't. Or perhaps an orc eats the most delicious pie he's ever eaten, he might opine that "This pie really stabs me in the face!"

The above examples, of course, privilege happiness, consciousness, health and life, control and force, more, and status, which is itself an anthropocentric view. What if a culture doesn't care about control or status, but does care about, say, delicious flavor? Delicious is up, disgusting is down! Or whatever.

As long as you make sure your metaphors are consistent with each other and with the culture you're trying to get at, pretty much any variation is good.


Or consider this: a culture that uses only metaphors. A culture that uses no metaphors at all.

Earlier, I linked in passing to TNG: Darmok, the episode where the Enterprise encounters a culture of aliens who speak exclusively in metaphor. It wound up being one of the most praised episodes of TNG; it was certainly one of the episodes that was most like traditional (e.g., Asimovian) science-fiction. They did it reasonably well, if a bit awkwardly. I wouldn't expect anybody to be able to do it without any awkwardness. But it's a very interesting concept to explore, and I'd love to see it explored by more people.

A culture with no metaphors at all, on the other hand, would be even more awkward to write. You wouldn't be able to use orientational or container metaphors. They would never speak of being in love. Indeed, they would probably become confused if you used the word or tried to describe love at all: love, at least according to Lakoff and Johnson, is not a literal thing. A metaphor-free culture would never reify. Emotions, colors, properties, actions, thoughts, etc., are only metaphorically things at all. A metaphor-free culture would have no concept of "concepts".

Metaphor-free language would be so difficult to think with, let alone communicate with, that I doubt such a culture would have anything like the focus on linguistic communication that we do.

It's sort of like a thought experiment I came up with years ago: a culture that, early on in their development of mathematics, discovered that you cannot divide by zero without entailing terrible nonsensical things, and on that basis concluded that all of mathematics is just incoherent, and thus threw out the whole discipline, so all of science and engineering in this culture is just purely trial-and-error, so they never get beyond the iron age.

A culture that never invented/discovered metaphors may have long since discarded language as almost entirely fruitless.


But don't take my word for any of this! Read the book, it's excellent.

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