What is it that we use most, not only in our moments of wakefulness but also when we are asleep, dreaming? It’s language without which we find it impossible to conceive human life. It is an integral part of our being because it’s one of the determining elements of what constitutes human. But still we rarely pause to ponder what forms the bedrock of language. It’s because language is overused to the extent that it turns into our second nature. It becomes something like our skin; it’s not taken notice of unless it starts cracking or gets scratched or scalded under the assault of incoherence. What we fear most is incoherence or dumbness because in our opinion, it reduces us to the level of dumb animals.

Speech impairment makes us pitiable but speech is taken for granted if we have it. Speech is what sets up apart from other hitherto known creatures in our world. But what is the core of speech? It’s metaphor. Now what is metaphor? In simple words metaphor is a way of describing something by comparing it to something else. Something described in the process is quite different from what it is being compared to. “…Even in the most commonplace discourse, it is hardly possible to venture a few steps without treading on dozens of metaphors. For metaphors are everywhere, not only in language, but also in our mind.

Far from being a rare spark of poetic genius, the marvelous gift of a precious few, metaphor is an indispensable element in the thought-process of every one of us. We use metaphors not because of any literary meanings or artistic ambitions, but quite simply because metaphor is the chief mechanism through which we describe and even grasp abstraction”, says Guy Deutscher.

Fritz Jeff Capra in his book Uncommon Wisdom tells us how in the early 20th century great nuclear scientists who conducted the experiment of exploding atom in the laboratory were struck dumb for quite some years and months because they found the language quite inadequate to describe the process of exploding atom. He [himself a physicist] further narrates that he has found the glimpses of similar experience in the poetry of Japanese Zen masters, Chinese sages and Middle Eastern mystics. These wise men were able to describe their indescribable experiences because they employed metaphor as the nuclear scientists did much later in modern times.

Guy explains why we are not aware of the presence of metaphor while using language in the normal course of life. It is because metaphors after their repeated use or overuse become dead metaphors which are there in the innards of the language but not noticeable for being stale and thus lifeless. He explains ‘the role of metaphor in the making of linguistic structures, by tracing a stream of metaphors that run right through language, and flows from the concrete to the abstract. In this constant surge, the simplest and sturdies words are swept along, one after another, and carried towards abstract meanings. As these words drift downstream, they are bleached of their original vitality and turn into pale lifeless terms for abstract concepts - the substance from which the structure of language is formed. And when at last the rivers sinks into the sea, these spent metaphors deposited, layer by layer, and so the structure of language grows, as if a reef of dead metaphors’.

So metaphor is fundamental to language, not only to poetic one but also to prose, to language per se in reality. In prose and speech we use dead metaphors which are hardly noticeable but in genuine poetry metaphors stand out because they are fresh.

Why we find the best linguistic expression in poetry is because it employs fresh metaphors which help expand the boundaries of language. Herein lies the secret of poets’ ‘divine madness’ as they can come up with comparing things which cannot be compared in the normal course of life. They can describe something by comparing it with something different. And more gifted among them can even dare to describe something by comparing it to something that is its opposite.

Poet Hafiz Barkhurdar in his legend of Sahiban describes the pain of his female protagonist with teary eyes when she is separated from her beloved Mirza thus: “Kaunbujhaae Hafiza, Agglaggay darya [who can douse the river that is set ablaze]”.

To illustrate the point that even prose cannot do without metaphor, a small para is reproduced here from Dr. Manzur Ejaz’s autobiography: “asalvich GUJRAY hoye waylay de baray gul karna saukhahai par jadon unhaan haalan vichon LANGHIA jaarehahondahai, odonohdaapna RORRH hondahai jesvich khalqat RURRH rahi hondi hai. Hun eh sawal keetay jaanday henn joKHUBBA PAASA os waylay eday PUTHAY SIDDHAY kamm kiun karreh asi [It’s really easy to talk of the time past. But when one was going through that time, it had its [force of] flow and people were swept along. Now questions are raised as to why Leftists were doing such odd things at that juncture]”.

Let’s now see how this simple para in Punjabi has a number of what we call dead metaphors. ‘Guzarna’ is a physical act of crossing or passing the way which has been used for the abstract movement of time. ‘Langhan’ is again a physical act of passing through which here is used for people experiencing the present that is abstract.

One never ‘passes through time’ because it’s not something concrete. ‘Rurrhan’ and ‘Rurrh’ denote physical act of flowing or being swept along but here are used as metaphors to describe people being overwhelmed by exigencies of the present. Time is neither a slope nor a river but metaphor can make it look as if it is. ‘Khabba passa’ means left wing or leftists that are supposedly the people who challenge the satus quo and are progressive. Now again left side literally has nothing to do with progressive or reactionary thought. Since those who held unorthodox religious and political views sat on the left side in the royal courts, the word left has been accepted as a metaphor to describe people who want to change the status quo.“Puthhay siddhay’ point to the wrong and right positions of concrete things. But it’s used here for an abstraction.

Next time when you read a political statement or hear a story from a raconteur, try to find the metaphors used regardless of their being alive or dead. Discovering the structure of language can be a source of cerebral delights that would fire your imagination. Remember humans have invented nothing better than language. Thus nothing would be more pleasurable than discovering its core pregnant with delightful secrets. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Note: this piece has been inspired by Guy Deutscher’s book The Unfolding of Language.

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2019