Language: Quirks and Perks


Quote: Language has all the suppleness of human flesh, and something of its warmth.
—Arthur Quinn, Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase.

Quinn’s book is a short, gently humorous introduction to figures of speech with plenty of examples. (At their simplest, figures of speech are a form of speech artfully varied from common usage.) My eye caught on the metaphor in the Quoteas it felt fresh and apt, in a heartwarming way despite the mention of flesh.

Here is the context of the Quote. See what you think of his other metaphors for language. (The emphasis is mine.)

In the end we must reject any strict distinction between ordinary usage and the figures. If we do not, language becomes a prison house from which only poets can escape, and they always to be recaptured. The figures become a turning of language against itself, not the realization of its deepest potential. And we, already alienated by science from the world, become aliens within our own consciousness as well.

Finding ourselves at home with language means making appropriate choices, not necessarily unusual ones. Great writing is unusual because it is great, not great because it is unusual. (Pace Joyce.) The figures which are the most unusual are the least useful.

In writing this book I have tried to use every figure of speech which I described (except the praecisio). A number of these I expect never to use again. Yet is is good to feel the full range of choices so that we never again think of language as dead and rigid, an alien thing. Language has all the suppleness of human flesh, and something of its warmth. And that is true whether we choose to follow the strict discipline of the isolcolon or the polymorphous perversity of the anthimeria.

A few short notes, before discussing metaphors.

  • Great writing is unusual because it is great, not great because it is unusual is a chiasmus (or inversion of word order in phrases).
  • Praecisio is a synonym for aposiopesis, where the speaker or writer stops mid-sentence as if unwilling or unable to continue.
  • Isocolon is a figure in which consecutive clauses or sentences are grammatically or structurally parallel.
  • Anthimeria is a kind of, or a synonym of, enallage, which means deliberate grammatical mistake and can therefore be polymorphous indeed.
  • pace (preposition): With due deference to; despite. A courteous or ironic apology for a difference of opinion. (Shortened OED definition.)

Image by Jagyasini Malakar

Mixed metaphors are a frowned upon (e.g. the sun floated up the sky like a golden coin), but it’s not always obvious why some metaphors are compatible and other’s are not.

Quinn uses five instances of language in a metaphorical context. The first two jar. First he talks about a prison house, then about something living that can turn against itself and that has potential. However, it still works if you are generous in your interpretation and let (the illusion of) causality flow the other way (from the second to the first sentence). Here’s a summary of the content concerning language.

Unless we reject distinctions between ordinary usage and figures, language (a living thing) will not realise its potential, it will turn on itself, and it will become a prison. To be comfortable with, and proficient in, language, we must chose our words carefully. We mustn’t think of language as dead and rigid and alien, but instead as supple human flesh.

There are still seemingly different metaphors floating around: prisons, potential, proficiency, aliens, flesh. How to reconcile them?

Image by Benjamin Child

When constructing a simile or metaphor we do not identify one entity with another completely. For example, in the moon was a coin on the horizon we do not think of the moon as being a flat metal piece with engravings. What is compared or conflated is a certain property, perhaps the shine, the size, one’s inability to attain it. Likewise, when Quinn talks about language as a prison house, he wishes to associate certain properties of a prison house to that of a language. These properties may be numerously phrased, but if chosen carefully, as adjectives for example, allow for apt comparisons between metaphors.

(It is a matter of ear and interpretation; you may disagree with my choice.)

Where possible, I drew on the adjectives already present in the text.

  1. Language as a prison house. rigid and dead 
  2. Langauge as a living being that can turn on that itself and has potential. supple and alive
  3. Language as something or someone to be at home with (either comfortable with or proficient in). familiar
  4. Language as dead and rigid and/or an alien thing. rigid and dead and foreign
  5. Langauge as having suppleness of human flesh and something of its warmth. supple and alive and familiar.

The dichotomies rigid vs supple, dead vs alive, familiar vs foreign are central to Quinn’s arguments; they allow for coherence between his metaphors and for contrast between his arguments.

Lastly, saying something of its warmth, Quinn has highlighted a property of living flesh and all the associations it brings, like sustenance, comfort, and life. Without the warmth, his metaphor would he been less remarkable and less memorable, but also he would have missed the opportunity to mention a smidgeon of truth. Because beyond bare communication, language is inseparable from being human, and humans need warmth to survive. Literature exists only because we seek the warmth of words at its hearth.


Reading Recommendations

  1. Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase, Arthur Quinn. Because he spends less time telling you about figures, and more time showing you examples pulled from the wilderness of literature.
  2. Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Because it discusses types of metaphor in-depth.
  3. Posts on QQ that feature metaphors.

4 responses

Questions? Ideas? Comments? Let me know.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: