Cognitive aspects of language and the creativity of metaphor

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V i k t o r K r u p a

Institute of Oriental and African Studies

Slovak Academy of Sciences


Completed in 2003

C o n t e n t s

Remarks on creativity in language

Creativity in communication as a compromise

Metaphor in critical communicative situations
Lexical metaphor and the componential analysis of meaning

Conceptual distance within metaphor

The prelinguistic basis of spatial semantics

Body as a principle of space organization and interpretation

Anatomical metaphor and its role in vocabulary extension

Cognitive vagueness and terminology of internal organs

The tree as a cognitive model in speech

Nature in Maori metaphor

Nature as a source of metaphors for emotions in Maori

Types of metaphorical transfers in Maori vocabulary

Malay/Indonesian lexical metaphor compared with Maori

Remarks on creativity in language
Creative metaphor is regarded as a gate through which language is enriched with innovations that always have an individual genesis. A creative act is an individual´s act that can be accepted by the society, thus acquiring intelligibility and losing originality. Although creativity disturbs communication, this disturbance is merely a price we have to pay if we want to be able to communicate at all.

A measure of internal coherence and systemic organization guarantees that language is generally intelligible within the community that employs it as a means of communication. Coherence, however, does not imply rigidity; from the standpoint of mutability, language may be viewed as comprising a stable core and a more changeable periphery. In accordance with this subdivision, metaphor takes up a position at the vanguard in the sense that metaphor (and other tropes as well) may be regarded as a gate through which language is enriched with individual innovations. From this point of view one could maintain that metaphor is peripheral in its relation to language as a whole. And yet being peripheral does not amount to being negligible or irrelevant. It means rather that a given phenomenon is not (yet) integrated in the language usage of the whole community, that it is a manifestation of individual variation and creativity that can but need not be conventionalized.

A creative act is an individual´s act in a relative contradiction to the society that can accept and sanction the individual innovation which thus becomes generally intelligible but loses its initial originality. The creative act results from a process that is a posteriori intelligible but a priori unpredictable and conse­quently not deterministic: These are no satisfactory characteristics of creativity in language; from society's point of view the creative act is an individual product that, on the one hand, surpasses the limits of what is usual, conventional but, on the other hand, is not beyond the limits of interpretability by the recipients of the message.

The creative linguistic act represents an infringement of stereotyped communication, a disturbance in the communication act, a sort of a jump, a microcatastrophe. Unfavourable consequences of this microcatastrophe are annulled thanks to the fact that the continuity of language remains preserved upon the macrolevel. An entirely different situation would occur if the level and frequency of such jumps would be high upon the macrolevel because in such a case the context would not be a sufficient means of removing ambiguity or indeterminacy in the communication: Thus the communication act is an axis around which language is revolving, a dominant factor in relation to which language and its structure have merely an instrumental and auxiliary nature. Upon the microlevel one could discover jumps or catastrophes in those instances where the inventory of linguistic means does not change via extension or contraction of meaning but in those instances where an interaction between discontinuous domains takes place. This holds for metaphorization. In vocabulary, metaphor is utilized as a device for labelling new phenomena with old names, overcoming at the same time a certain conceptual distance. Individual metaphors may gradually be incorporated in the vocabulary but a large-scale critical situation produces a more violent reaction that may result in the adaptation upon a higher level. As examples of such an adaptation one may quote China around the beginning of our era, New Guinea in the 20th century and Turkish in the era of Kemalist reforms.

Aristotle was perhaps the first to ponder about the nature of creativity in relation to metaphor. He stresses that what counts is excelling in metaphor because metaphor is the only thing that cannot be taken over from someone else, because it is a proof of talent (Aristoteles 1964: 62). As mentioned before, the definition of creativity in language cannot do with the contradiction between what is usual and what is the fruit of the individual genius. Creativity is inevitably limited by the nature of substance. The latter cannot be made out of nothing, it is given to the human subject in advance and we cannot dispense with it. All we can do is organizing substance in certain ways. That is why creativity occurs upon the combinatorial level, as an ability to produce combinations from given elements of substance - to produce such combinations the probability of occurrence of which is significantly low. But the ability to be creative implies also the ability to select from the produced combinations those that are more adequate than others are.

Creatively valuable combinations correlate with hidden, deep and at the same time surprising links. The cognitive value of a metaphorical expression is higher if the latter points out to a deep and plausible link between phenomena. On the other hand, poetic metaphors unveil rather surprising links between phenomena. The functions of poetry and science do not coincide and the aim of a metaphorical expression in poetry is to arrest the attention of the recipient and to produce a desirable reaction to the poetic creation. And thus the psychologists H. R. Polio and M. K. Smith only confirm a familiar truth when maintaining that the ability to see similarity between dissimilar things is especially characteristic of poetically gifted individuals (Pollio-Smith 1980: 365). The same truth but in different words is stated by K. Connor and N. Kogan (Connor-Kogan 1980: 284-285) who accentuate the ability to find conceptual links between objects and events from disparate domains, across the conventional categories and who consider the metaphorical sensitivity to be inseparably linked to creativity.

Metaphor deserves attention from the viewpoint of the theory of linguistic relativity as well. Metaphors reflect a subject's evaluating attitude towards perceived phenomena, and metaphorization, while employing given language substance, modifies language enriching it with new aspects of things, aspects that are in the beginning original and individual but gradually penetrate into vocabulary and grammatical categories, losing at the same time their freshness and metaphorical vividness.

Metaphorical creativity is not identical with wilfulness. The creative individual cannot completely get rid of language conventions if he wants to be understood by others. If the conventional usage may be characterized by the occurrence of linguistic means in accordance with an established and expected distribution of their semantic variants, then originality is a variation of this probabilistic distribution. The value of a metaphor consists in its incomplete originality; it is precisely this restricted originality that makes metaphor as a bridge between old and new. This means that metaphorical quality must be appreciated as a vector of both originality and adequacy. An independent assessment of either of these two parameters would lead to false results.

The individuality of metaphor also consists in the very choice of its vehicle, i.e. in that component that serves as the carner of the imagery. The author of a particular metaphor acts under the pressure of subjective inevitability, seeking to solve in accordance with his own ideas the inadequacy of available language means, for he perceives them as such in the situation that may be labelled critical. He refuses conventional, ineffectual means of expression and postulates new, more telling and impressive solutions. The choice of a particular vehicle proves that, as far as metaphor is concerned, what counts is not only the content of the message but also its wording. K. K. Zhol characterizes situations of this sort as problematic; the creative activity is thus a reaction of the human subject to changes in his environment and in the case of linguistic creativity metaphor appears as a conflict between conventional means and new situation (Zhol 1984: 266).

It is easy to understand that creativity as a violation of convention disturbs communication (cf. Cherkasova 1968: 36). However, this disturbance in communication is merely a price we have to pay in the case of metaphor (or any other trope and neologism) if we want to be able to communicate at all. Plato points out in the same direction when saying that all cognition surpassing the extant ideas has to look for support in analogies and comparisons (quoted after Batoroev 1981: 182).

The substance of linguistic creativity may be seen in the units of language. This substance is hierarchized and each hierarchical stratum of language structure has sets of units and rules of its own. Various language strata are open to individual creativity to a varying degree. Creativity does not imply a complete freedom in manipulating language units but only such freedom that does not render communication impossible. The phonological level virtually rules out all combinatorial initiative and creation of new combinations of phonemes. The phonemes distinguish meaning without having it, and any individual combinations different from the accepted ones are worthless from the point of view of both creativity and communication. This is proved in poetry by the failure of dadaism and in vocabulary by the rare exceptionality of arbitrary neologisms such as e.g. gas created by the Flemish chemist J. B. van Helmont who lived in the 16th/17th centuries.

A greater degree of freedom in manipulation of language units is admissible upon those levels where there are more numerous sets of basic meaningful units that do not have to obey such strict combinatorial units as in phonology. The violation of fairly loose rules of a probabilistic nature does not have too serious consequences for a successful course of communication.

The combinatorial possibilities of units upon the morphemic level are rather restricted. Especially the grammatical affixes combine with the autosemantic morphemes in accordance with fairly strictly defined rules. If any innovations in the combinatorics of grammatical morphemes occur, these are not changes called forth by a creative intention but rather shifts brought about by analogical pressure or indirectly by changes upon the phonological level.

A full-fledged linguistic creativity occurs only upon the level of autosemantic units. Metaphorical expressions are quite common with the compounds, cf. such words as skyscraper, egghead, Slovak hlavolam puzzle, rodostrom genealogy. They are very frequent in Japanese (e.g. ashikubi ankle, literally "foot´s neck"), in Indonesian (anak sungai brook, stream, literally "river´s child"), in Chinese and in many other languages.

The interval of creative combinatorics is widest upon the syntactic level because the rules regulating the combinations of words into greater syntactic units are incomparably looser than combinatorial rules of morphemes within the words. One could almost maintain that there is no such nonsensical sentence (or syntagm for that matter) for which the recipients would not be able to construct an interpretation, provided that the syntactic rules underlying it have been kept.

Words and syntagms are combined into more complex wholes in accordance with content, semantic, and with formal, syntactic, rules. The so-called literal, conventional speech requires a harmony of these two sets of rules. This harmony appears to be violated in phraseology, cf. Slovak strihať ušami be alert, čierna ovca black sheep, hodiť flintu do žita resign, give up. This contradiction built in the phraseological units is eliminated so that these expressions are considered to be indivisible. Phraseological units often originate from conventionalized metaphors or from other tropes. However, the disharmony between semantics and syntax is always manifest with live metaphors.

In vocabulary the individual creativity manifests itself variability, both intra- and interlinguistic. In T. S. Kuhn's opinion, metaphor reminds us that a different language may articulate the world in a different manner (Kuhn 1979: 414). This is linked both to the fact that reality is inexhaustible as to its properties and to differences in experience accumulated by various language communities in the past - differences that influence the interpretation of what is perceived. Finally, one cannot ignore varying intentions and attitudes of the subjects who are capable of looking for similarities between phenomena of reality as well as of logical reasoning. In the light of what has been said above, the same subject can be metaphorized in different manners not only by members of different language communities but even within one and the same community.

Linguistic creativity as a reaction of human beings to changes in their environment (cf. Zhol 1984: 266) brings about a change in the language usage, and a correct interpretation requires an intensification of mental activities. This means that metaphor includes two creative phases within the framework of the communication act. In the first phase the author tries to carry out his intention via the choice of the metaphoric vehicle from a set of oxpressions that, according to his view, may be taken into account. Subsequently the encoded message is communicated to the recipient who again creatively selects from the set of more or less adequate interpretations the most suitable one. In addition to his knowledge of the language, the recipient takes information from the general context, background and data concerning the author and also the circumstances in which that particular metaphor appeared. In the second phase, the accumulated data make it possible to assign a basis property to the interpreted metaphor and also its tenor, provided it is not explicitly present. All this holds only for live, new metaphor because an interpretation of conventionalized, vocabulary metaphors takes place upon the level of derivation or even etymology. Creativity may be regarded as a temporary violation of balance acquired by language during the process of its development. As far as literal and metaphorical aspects are concerned, language is in a state of internal balance that guarantees its communicative usefulness for the whole language community as well as its overall intelligibility. The balance that follows its temporary violation depends not only upon the structure of language but also from its functions and from demands put upon it. The resulting balance must meet the requirements both of the author and the recipient of metaphor; therefore, the ratio of literal and metaphorical components in lyrics will differ from that in fiction or everyday speech, etc.

The opposition of literal and metaphorical has come about as a consequence of the decay of an original unity into two relative notions that agree with Soroko's antithesis of structure and amorphness, inevitability and chance (or spontaneity), simplicity and intricacy, unbiased and emotional perception of the world (Soroko 1984: 139).

The literal speech is notable for a highly predictable and uniform distribution of various meanings of language units (e. g. words). On the other hand, if the speaker uses speech in a creative manner, he partially violates this distribution and the predictability of occurrence of some of the meanings of the individual words is significantly decreased. The occurrence of these lexemes deviates from the assumed occurrence as observed in literal speech. However, the violation of uniformity, although causing some disturbances upon the stage of interpretation, extends expressive possibilities of language and may be regarded as a manifestation of its adaptability, flexibility and as an assumption of its further development in future.

The idea of literalness and uniformity is linked to that of symmetry while metaphoricity and unevenness is associated with the violation of symmetry. This violation of symmetry is diachronically inevitable because it gives the extant structures a possibility of change and adaptation to new circumstances. At the same time, the existence of internal coherence of language means that the violations of balance never exceeds the limits of a certain interval to avoid disturbances in communication. As Soroko puts it, such processes are realized in systems that produce minimal disturbances to their internal organization (Soroko 1984: 143).

Symmetry in language is transitory since the repeated changes violate it incessantly, being at the same time an ideal because each balance violation is followed by an effort at its renewal, though admittedly upon a different level, in accordance with the conditions and requirements of actual communication needs. Spontaneous metaphors that arise under the pressure of a necessity to say something new about something familiar or to say about a new phenomenon something that enables its integration into the framework of available experience, do astound in the first phase, in the phase of symmetry violation, but later, in the subsequent phase of the renewal of symmetry upon a different level cease to be surprising and gradually become assimilated to literal speech.

The violation of symmetry and uniformity through metaphor is an aberration in the direction of creativity; the latter cannot be squeezed into conventional, aprioristic schemes, at the same time being unable to completely ignore them.

As an objective prerequisite of the existence of individual creativity is the existence of a great, theoretically infinite number of links between referents and signs and consequently an inexhaustible number of possible combinations. In the course of a process of motivated nomination only some of these links or associations become fixed to the sign, marking thus the limit of individual creativity. The complexity of circumstances implies the impossibility of predicting in advance which associations will be selected. However, it is a posteriori clear that they could have been chosen and employed. In other words, creativity may be unpredictable without being unintelligible.

Aristote1es. 1964. Poetika (Czech translation). Prague, Orbis.

Batoroev, K. B. 1981. Analogii i modeli v poznanii. Novosibirsk, Nauka.

Connor, K. - Kogan, N. 1980. Topic-Vehicle Relations in Metaphor: The Issue of Asymmetry. In: Honeck , R. P. - Hoffman, R. R. (Eds.): Cognition and Figurative Language. Hillsdale, N. J., Lawrence Erlbaum Ass.: 283-310.

Cherkasova Y. T. 1968. Opyt lingvisticheskoi interpretatsii tropov. Voprosy yazykoznaniya, No. 2: 28-38.

Kuhn T. S. 1979. Metaphor in Science. In: Ortony, A. (Ed.): Metaphor and Thought. London, Cambridge University Press: 409-414.

Pollio, H. R. - Smith, M. K. 1980. Metaphoric Competence and Complex Human Problem Solving. In: Honeck, R. P. - Hoffman, R. R. (Eds.): Cognition and Figurative Language. Hillsdale, N. J., Lawrence Erlbaum Ass. : 365-392.

Soroko, E. M.1984. Strukturnaia garmonia sistem. Minsk, Nauka i tekhnika.

Zhol, K. K.1984. Mysl, slovo, metafora. Kiev, Naukova dumka.
Creativity in communication as a compromise
The words create, creation, and creativity as such suggest an idea of creating something out of nothing but such creativity is supernatural. Human beings are incapable of such activity because they are part of creation themselves. An absolute creative capacity could perhaps have a disruptive effect upon the order of the world because all or rather any laws could be invalidated at any time and at any time be replaced by new rules, which would result in chaos.

Are there any grounds to justify such a pessimistic conclusion? Instead of giving a straightforward answer I would like to quote the case of an abrupt and massive contact of two very different civilizations, a contact that fully deserves to be interpreted as an impact because of its essentially one-way operation. This is what happened in quite a few islands of Oceania. In some of them the impact of European civilization upon the unprepared local societies resulted in a large scale cultural disruption and even physical decline (Marquesas, Hawaii, Easter Island) or in the rise of syncretic ideologies such as the cargo cult in Melanesia. In parts of Melanesia, the Americans and their superior technical power as well as material wealth interfered with the local religious systems with obvious subsequent deformations of the behaviour of Melanesians. Again, the unexpected change shattered the fragile cultural and social balance and led to undesirable consequences. What happened to parts of Melanesia may perhaps be viewed as a remote analogy of total creation, due to its arbitrary and unexpected appearance.

An achievement is generally considered creative if it is recognized as the realization of an innovative and original idea. However, there are novelties that are produced by men without any extraordinary mental effort. A house can be built in a place where none stood before, or an utterance can be delivered that nobody ever heard, and yet these facts do not meet the requirements put upon a truly creative act.

It is believed that a creative idea ought to meet not only the criterion of originality but also that of usefulness; there are some people who maintain that even this would not do. As Colin Martindale puts it (Martindale 1989: 211), an idea must actually be put to use to be creative in the true sense of word.

Originality is a necessary but not a sufficient prerequisite for creativity, and usefulness is the boundary that separates it from bizarreness. Obviously no one would raise serious objections to considering the demand of usefulness but the criterion itself is in the need of precise qualification. Nothing is useful as such and apart from everything else; being useful is tantamount to being useful to someone (or perhaps to something). But such a specification does not remove all uncertainties either.

Does it mean that the notion of creativity - of which usefulness is a part - is relative? Let us take the invention of the atomic bomb. It no doubt contributed to America's victory in the Pacific war and viewed from the standpoint of (and not only of) America it may be regarded as useful: But those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would hardly be willing to defend the same opinion, and the consequences of the production of the nuclear weapon for the subsequent history of mankind would again be judged in a completely different light. What is useful to a group of people or to a part of mankind need not necessarily be useful to all of mankind and what is useful to all of mankind need not automatically be useful to nature that surrounds us.

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