Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Michel Bréal: Semantics (1900)

Bréal; from Wikimedia Commons.
Apparently, this book by Michel Bréal is considered by some to be a foundational document in semantics. However, it's not mentioned in Saeed's textbook, and I wouldn't have heard of it if it weren't for a footnote in a paper by Harald Weinrich — so think it's fair to say it's fallen pretty much into obscurity by now.

I looked at because I was interested in seeing what Bréal had to say about metaphor. It turns out that his observations are that the phenomenon is (1) widespread (2) mostly dead (3) often synaesthetic.

The Psychological Basis of Metaphor

As for the widespread nature of metaphor:
Our business is not to claim admiration for these images, which indeed have ceased to be images, but to show that language is full of them. (p. 123)
His take on the emergence of metaphors seem to be that they are invented for communitative purposes, not that that it reflects deep psychological structure. Most of his attention is devoted to the connection between cultural variables (e.g., Roman land ownership institutions) and the choice of metaphors.

However, he says that they demonstrate "the universal intelligence, which does not vary much from one nation to another" (p. 123). In his discussion of grammatical analogy, he also claims that opposites like night/day and dead/alive tend to take on similar forms, and that "Language here reveals to us a fact of psychology;" providing a hand-wavy sketch of the psychology of this phenomenon (p. 68).

The Death of a Metaphor

There is not doubt that Bréal thinks that metaphors wither and die over time:
But the metaphor remains such at its outset only; soon the mind becomes accustomed to the image; its very success causes it to pale; it fades into a representation of the idea scarcely more coloured than the proper word. (p. 122)
But for the child who learns to speak them the complication [of faded historical meanings] does not exist: the last meaning, the meaning farthest removed from it original, is often the first learnt. (p. 133)
More indirectly, this is also evidenced by his interest in the difficulty of etymological problems. He notes, for instance, that it is not immediately obvious which of the meanings of the Latin gemma are the older, "pearl" or "bud." In fact, Cicero seems to have gotten the historical order wrong (p. 125).

Synaesthetic Metaphors

Bréal also notes the importance of cross-sensory transfers of meaning:
A special kind of Metaphor, extremely frequent in all languages, comes from the communication between our organs of sense, which permit us to transport the sensations of sight into the domain of hearing, or the ideas of touch into the domain of taste. We speak of a "a warm reception," "a broad style," "a bitter reproach," "a black grief," with the certainty of being understood by everybody. … A deep sound, a high note were originally images. (pp. 129-30)
Again, however, he warns the reader not to pull etymologies out of a hat:
Sometimes it is difficult to tell exactly from what organ of the body these expressions came: for example, it was long considered doubtful whether the adjective clarus came from sigh or from hearing. Without the words acies, acus, acutus, acer, we should not know that acid (the French aigre) did not always belond to the sense of taste. (p. 130)
 So much for introspective psychology, then.

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