News Article

SIL linguists contribute to new book on metaphors in endangered languages

Endangered Metaphors cover

Metaphors are a particularly interesting area of language because of their interaction with both language and culture, providing an insight into the ways in which different cultures come to terms with their environments, an insight that will be lost if the metaphorical systems of different languages disappear without being documented…I join [the editors and contributors] in encouraging others to continue their work by documenting metaphors in endangered languages, always bearing in mind that metaphors may be one of the first parts of a language to disappear once it becomes endangered.

- Dr. Bernard Comrie of the Max Planck Institute and University of California Santa Barbara

(June 2012) Endangered Metaphors, a book recently published by John Benjamins and edited by Anna Idström and Elisabeth Piirainen, explores the unique imagery and figures of speech found in a selection of the world’s endangered languages. SIL researchers contributed three of the book’s fifteen articles.

A study of figures of speech in the West Kewa language of Papua New Guinea (PNG) was contributed by SIL International Anthropology Consultant Dr. Karl Franklin. Franklin and his family first began language development work in West Kewa in 1958 and have maintained a connection with the community ever since. “Kewa figures of speech: Understanding the code,” describes the Kewa practice of using veiled language (called saa agaa in Kewa) for some functions, most often as a warning or instruction.

Although there are some clues encoded in the grammar of Kewa veiled speech, true understanding requires an insider’s knowledge of cultural codes. As Franklin discovered in a surprising and uncomfortable situation, a person from outside of the community can easily stumble into issuing a reprimand with no intention of doing so. Franklin’s research on Kewa veiled speech lends support to cognitive linguist Zoltan Kövecses’ assertion that “culture and cognition are inextricably fused.”

Insight into another language of PNG is provided by Sjaak van Kleef and Jacqueline van Kleef with “The use of a conceptual metaphor in the Siroi language of Papua New Guinea: Narrative is climbing a mountain.” Although the Siroi community has relocated to the coast, their traditional homeland is in the mountains. This study illustrates how the traditional Siroi experience of the physical environment is reflected in a metaphor of directional movement. In Siroi, gaining new information is spoken about with language that indicates moving upward (as on a journey up a mountain), while known information involves downward movement (as on a return journey back down the mountain). Siroi speakers are not conscious of the literal ‘up’ and ‘down’ meaning of these words. However, the Van Kleefs found ample evidence of the underlying metaphor.

Like many languages, Siroi has a number of “dead metaphors" which have lost connection to the original imagery. Recognizing this metaphor brought clarity to their understanding of Siroi discourse, clearing up several perplexing questions about the language.

“Numbers that Chumburung people count on,” by the late Gillian F. Hansford, explores the symbolic use of numbers in the Chumburung language of Ghana. Hansford’s insights are based on many years of involvement in language development with the Chumburung community. This study takes a cue from noted linguist Bernard Comrie, who has stated that a language’s unique numerical system(s) may be endangered even if the language itself is strong. Hansford notes several interesting ways in which numbers are used symbolically in Chumburung, including the use of numbers in traditional proverbs and a gender association in which ‘3’ is for men and ‘4’ for women. This distinction commonly shows up in rituals, such as the number of times that mourners walk around the grave during a funeral.

Other studies included in the volume explore topics in languages of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, India, Spain, Finland, Scotland and Germany.

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