Thursday, September 11, 2014

Bloomfield: Language (1933), chs. 9 and 24

Leonard Bloomfield was a die-hard behaviorist in his approach to linguistics, and he aggressively against any attempt to explain metaphors or any other linguistic phenomena in "mental" terms (§9.4, pp. 142–144).

He was, however, well aware of the many metaphorical etymologies change in English and other languages, and he did put forward a few speculations about their forms and causes. The relevant parts of his book are in particular Chapter 9 ("Meaning"), particular pp. 149–50, and Chapter 24 ("Semantic Change").

The Ubiquity of Metaphor

My first claim—that he recognizes how widespread everyday metaphor is—can supported by the following quote:
Very many linguistic forms are used for more than one typical situation. In English, we speak of the head of an army, of a procession, of a household, or of a river, and of a head of cabbage, of the mouth of a bottle, cannon, or river; of the eye of a needle, and of hooks and eyes on a dress; of the teeth of a saw; of the tongue of a shoe or of a wagon; of the neck of a bottle and of a neck of the woods; of the arms, legs, and back of a chair; of the foot of a mountain; of hearts of celery. A man may be a fox, an ass, or a dirty dog; a woman, a peach, lemon, cat, or goose; people are sharp and keen or dull, or else bright or foggy, as to their wits; warm or cold in temperament; crooked or straight in conduct; a person may be up in the air, at sea, off the handle, off his base, or even beside himself, without actually moving from the spot. The reader will be able to add examples practically without limit; there is no greater bore than the enumeration and classification of these "metaphors." (p. 149)
He proposes what now appears like a kind of pragmatic repair theory of the comprehension of such phrases:
The remarkable thing about these variant meanings is our assurance and our agreement in viewing one of the meanings as normal (or central) and the others as marginal (metaphoric or transferred). The central meaning is favored in the sense that we understand a form (that is, respond to it) in the central meaning unless some feature of the practical situation forces us to look to a transferred meaning. … He married a lemon forces us to the transferred meaning only because we know that men do not go through a marriage ceremony with a piece of fruit. (p. 149)
He adds a cautionary note on ignoring the difference between languages in this respect:
We are likely to make the mistake of thinking that the transferred meanings of our language are natural and even inevitable in human speech — the more so, as they appear also in other European languages. This last, however, is merely a result of our common cultural traditions; while transferred meanings occur in all languages, the particular ones in any given language are by no means to be taken for granted. Neither in French nor in German can one speak of the eye of a needle or of an ear of grain. To speak of the foot of a mountain seems natural to any European, but it would be nonsense in Menomini and doubtless in many other languages. (p. 150)
Although he doesn't use the concept of "dead metaphors," it is also clear from his discussion of the "isolation" of meaning (Ch. 24, p. 432) that he thinks that many metaphors have no imagistic content for contemporary English-speakers.

The Dynamics of Meaning Change

Bloomfield; photo from the Yale website.
In the chapter on semantic change, Bloomfield first reviews the many metonymic and metaphoric paths by which a word can change its meaning over time, noting:
The surface study of semantic change indicates that refined and abstract meanings largely grow out of more concrete meanings. (p. 429)
He then moves on to the more complex question of what the cause of these changes are. As one might expect, he dismisses
… so-called psychological explanations, such as Wundt's, which merely paraphrase the outcome of the change. Wundt defines the central meaning as the dominant element of meaning, and shows how the dominant element may shift when a form occurs in new typical contexts. … This statement leaves the matter exactly where it was. (p. 435)
As an internative to these tautological theories, Bloomfield suggests that the engine of semantic change has to be the context in which the language is embedded:
The shift into a new meaning is intelligible when it merely reproduces a shift in the practical world. A form like ship or hat or hose designates a shifting series of objects because of changes in the practical world. If cattle were used as a medium of exchange, the word fee 'cattle' would naturally be used in the meaning 'money,' and if one wrote with a goose-feather, the word for 'feather' would naturally be used of this writing-implement. (p. 436)
Linguist Hermann Paul, from
The two latter examples are references to examples he had discussed previously (pp. 428 and 435): The English fee comes from Old English feoh (live-stock, cattle, property, money), and the English pen comes from the Latin penne (feather).

While this contextual theory in itself is clear enough, it still leaves open the question of why people stop using an old word or, in some cases, start using a new one when alternatives exists.

In the last couple of pages of the chapter, Bloomfield sketches a couple of possibilities, mostly of stylistic nature. One of the more interesting ones is his perceptive description of how "the salesman" might not want to sell a house as a house, since the availability of the alternative home will make house call up an image of "an empty shell that has never been inhabited" (p. 442).

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