Thursday, September 21, 2006

As slippery as an eel

So on to the promised language-oriented thing:

I've been interested in idioms for a long time but like many researchers, have never had a really solid criterion, or even a semi-solid criterion, for drawing a boundary line between an idiom and a metaphor. Some things are clearly idioms ('bell the cat'), some clearly metaphors ('All the world's a stage'), but for many expressions, it's quite unclear whether to locate them in one box or ther other. In the course of a lecture in Stuttgart, a student was asking about an expression in Japanese, 'make X dance', meaning to control someone as a puppet, pull their strings, so to speak (there's another one!). We were trying to decide whether that was a real idiom or not...

...and Michal Starke suggested that one possible way to distinguish might be to ask whether the interpretation is available after literal translation from the language under investigation into some other language. That seemed to draw some clear distinctions—'X kick the bucket' doesn't translate, 'fear gripped X' does translate; we decided the 'make X dance' expression also translates.

This is clearly not going to make things black and white -- metaphors can depend on culture-specific entities (like stages or puppets) for which literal translation equivalents might not be findable in the target language because of cultual differences. Furthermore, closely related cultures/languages, in contact for one reason or another, might borrow idioms--I recently learned that the British English idiom 'pull the chestnuts from the fire', meaning to solve the problems or save the situation, also exists in Italian, which seems like a possible candidate for a borrowed idiom. But nonetheless, it seems like a possible start.

Aside: Did you notice that in that story about the 3.3 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis infant fossil, they found a hyoid bone, to which tongue and throat muscles attach? The bone differs significantly between apes and humans, and the differences may be related to the language adaptations of the human vocal tract. The little female's hyoid looked more apelike than humanlike, although she walked upright. So did her arms and shoulders.
Update: Ah, of course the Language Loggers noticed. Hey, could one call the Language Loggers 'Language Lumberjacks'? That'd make a fun Ling 201 constitent-structure bonus question.


Blogger Claire said...

what does "bell the cat" mean? I've never heard it.

5:50 PM  
Blogger hh said...

Funny you should ask! I'd heard/read it before but it certainly wasn't on my radar at all until I was recently reading something about the evolution of self-sacrificing behavior that used it -- I think in Pinker's "The Blank Slate" -- and since then it's been rattling around in my head.
It means to be the sacrificial lamb, the bearer of bad news, e.g. -- you might say "John's going to bell the cat" if a group of people have decided that their boss needs to be informed about something that won't make him happy, and John drew the short straw. (There's another one). It's apparently from a tale (Aesop?) about a bunch of mice with a simple plan: If they can just get a bell attached to the cat's collar, they'll all be a lot safer (be able to hear her coming, see?) There's just one problem -- which mouse is going to bell the cat?
Looking around, I see that this one site does have it as an Aesop's fable.

10:09 PM  
Anonymous Jane said...

The translation test is like the flipside of the (rather doubtful) lexicographic technique for determining polysemy - can the putatively monosemous word be translated by a single word in another language?

12:06 AM  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

The translation test is pretty useful, I think.

I also wanted to let you know I used your book in class for the first time, and the students were very positive about it. We didn't cover the whole book (mostly chapter 7), but some of them read the whole book on their own. They loved it.

12:10 PM  
Blogger hh said...

Hey, thanks so much! That's really good to hear. Hard to know how these things are going to go over when you're working through it on the page...I mean, I taught it, of course, but I knew what I was trying to say.

11:14 PM  
Anonymous russell said...

This probably just confuses the issue, but your post reminded me of a handout on idioms and metaphor that I happened upon a few weeks ago. It's available here:

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was not surprised to learn that afarensis walked upright, but I was little surprised that her arms and shoulders did, too.

7:02 PM  
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