Lexicon® Blog

Beating the Drum for Metaphor

In Brand Name Development, Brand Naming, Branding, Business, corporate naming, Linguistics, Naming, Trademarks on January 30, 2013 at 3:00 am

An engaging recent New Yorker article* describes the constructed language Ithkuil, which aims to be “maximally precise” by “eliminating the ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings) and overall arbitrariness that [are] seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language.”

ninjaOur first response was that the creator of this constructed language had likely not seen our recent blog post about connotation vs. denotation in brand names. The post notes that connotation is often more important than denotation in brand names. An example is gazelle. For the many who have never actually seen one of these animals, the literal meaning may be a bit blurry, yet to them the gazelle is still likely to connote swiftness and grace.

Our second reaction to Ithkuil was to ask why, as its creator noted, overall arbitrariness is so widespread in human language. The answer’s pretty easy if we picture what occurs in ordinary conversation: as communicators, we incline more toward verbal artistry than toward explicit programming. We launch plans as if they were rockets, face problems as if they were adversaries, and target opportunities as if–well, no need to flog a metaphorical horse.

Consider what language would be like without metaphor. Rather than launching plans, we’d simply make them, or start them. Metaphor is so intrinsic to the way we use words, it’s even difficult to find literal verbs to substitute for face in “face problems” or target in “target opportunities.” It’s much easier to find other metaphors: attack problems, meet problems head on, embrace change, aim for opportunities

That gives good reason to suppose that even if a precise language–be it Ithkuil or C++–should ever be spoken, it wouldn’t take a day for a ninja band of metaphors to start creeping in.

No wonder, then, that metaphor should be a staple of brand names. Metaphor helps us to see something new in everyday objects. It enables brands like Tide, BlackBerry, and Volt to stand out from the competition by endowing them with a unique, attractive message.

Metaphors do lose their force over time. Our verb reveal goes back to a Latin verb meaning ‘pull back the veil,’ yet that image no longer pops up when we encounter the word. Metaphor weakening explains how we get unwitting blends of metaphor like:

Over all, many experts conclude, advanced climate research in the United States is fragmented among an alphabet soup of agencies, strained by inadequate computing power and starved for the basic measurements of real-world conditions that are needed to improve simulations.

New York Times, June 11, 2001

The images in brand names subside over time as well. While the newcomer Volt immediately brings to mind an electric charge, the BlackBerry, introduced in 1999, now offers models–the Porsche and the Pearl–in colors other than black. Tide, introduced in 1946, hardly conjures the image of waves in the sea anymore.

But in branding, that’s OK, because a brand name’s heaviest lifting happens up front, when the name is new. A colorful name attracts attention, ties a unique message to a product, and is more likely to spread virally (if you’ll pardon the metaphor) when it’s first introduced.

Therefore, for those – like the inventor of Ithkuil – that wish to make language more efficient, we recommend metaphor, which in a single word can turn a caterpillar into a butterfly.

— Will Leben, Chair of Linguistics

* Joshua Foer, “Utopian for Beginners: An Amateur Linguist Loses Control of the Language He Invented.” The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2012.

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  1. Very interesting. I can’t quite grasp the concept of a perfectly efficient language, though. Cultures change and their language evolves accordingly. As long as the most popular user of language is the human, room for “ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy, and overall arbitrariness” must be allowed.

  2. I read the link. I thought it was interesting that his concept of an optimal language was one that would never be invented naturally by humans, but one that was logical, clean, and free of ambiguity… but since we ARE humans, isn’t it optimal to speak a language that has evolved naturally along with us? We are not creatures of logic. Ambiguity gives us the ability to stretch language, to write literature and poetry, to make jokes with double meanings (and yes, to confuse each other but we can never communicate a concept clearly from one person to another because we are each operating with our own frameworks, schemas, memories, and perceptions).

  3. This reminds me of the tiresome manifestos of some logical positivists, who wished to rid language of its ambiguity and reduce it to a sterile, scientific straight line. How tedious. Even “colourless green ideas sleep furiously” can be an interesting and sensible observation…

  4. I recently re-read Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers by Jacques Barzun, who in 1975 warned about these trite metaphors. Although we cannot avoid them during cocktail chitchat, we can all strive toward better “verbal artistry” in our written communications. I love all writing about writing… and so now love this whole blogging thing happening over here.

  5. Perfectly efficient language is comparable to Joe Satriani’s guitar playing: it is technically perfect and flawlessly performed, but can come across as soulless at times. Not bad, but… dull.

    Owners of brand names no doubt take great pleasure in the fact that, depending on context, Tide (to use your example) doesn’t conjure up an image of waves but of a bright orange box and blue letters. That’s why they’re paying all that good advertising money.

  6. Now that the creator of Ithkuil has cleansed language perhaps they can begin reducing music to its most useful note or art to its most useful color; my guess would be gray.

    • I hadn’t thought of the application of this “logic” to other aspects of human expression. Speaking as a musician who has studied music theory, though, I can tell you that such a system already exists: Schenkerian Analysis.

      The method can take an entire 20-minute movement of a brilliant and complex symphony and reduce it to an ursatz of just two voices and three or four notes scribbled onto a staff with a few Roman numerals scale-degree numerals. Arguably, reducing a large work to the barest of structures can expose the analyst to details invisible when viewed as a whole, but — in my experience — it’s far too academic and unnatural to view music in this way for any serious amount of time. It’s only valuable as a tool when you need to write a thesis and you’re required to present charts and graphs. I had to learn to do this for three years or so. When I was done, I promptly and purposefully FORGOT how to do it!

  7. Interestingly, many of our most popular metaphors no longer even sound metaphorical, as they derive from things like sailing and farming, which are no longer part of our common experiences. As for brand names, whatever value common words may have as trade names, they are more difficult to protect legally than those that are coined, such as Exxon or Xerox.

  8. Ah, yes, inadequate computing power, that well-known alphabet soup-strainer.

  9. What would the value of such a language be to a community? Wittgenstein liked to measure language items against their value in a language game and got quite hung up on how we teach others items in our language (do we point at colors? — how do we get it?) so it becomes questionable to me what the value of learning a non-metaphorical language would be because language apart from community is worthless.

  10. The whole of our language is based on metaphor; language is a metaphor for life. What are words other than the abstracted reality that they purport to represent? Great post.

  11. Languages are not made by press release. Ithkuil would, as you correctly state, barely see the day out before its evolution began. It is usage over hundreds of years that creates a living language – not a stone tablet decree that a person takes it upon himself to carve before retirement age.

  12. ottimo articolo,complimenti

  13. The delusion! The horror and pretense!
    Clearly, it just seems to me, this genius creator of language had Newspeak temporarily blotted out from his consciousness? For it’s just impossible not to hear the fearsome ringing as you think of this new Ith-wtf new language. Funny enough, Newspeak terms were impossibly loaded with metaphor and connotation, while they sometimes pretended to be harmless and accurate… food for thought, hey you Mr. Brains (oops, my bad: I just let synecdoche slip… will you forgive me?).
    I learned English as an adult, and I humbly continue to learn it, along with other languages and my own. And it is sheer pleasure. Especially non-linear meaning, mind you.
    As a “matt” brilliantly remarked above, let’s just reduce music “to its most useful [and pure, lest we forget!] note” and art “to its most useful color”. Fantastic simile, by the way.Oops again.
    Björk has written “Words are useless / Especially sentences…” maybe it is all just a matter of reducing us all to hordes of Oompa Loompas.

  14. PS: Ithkuil builders/speakers/aficionados, just stay away from my blog; in it I rejoice in language as a living, organic medium and I do encourage freer interpretation. Horrendous!

  15. I wonder how many times somebody’s tried to perfect the language. I’ll bet countless. And yet we keep back sliding to a mess like we have now. Fortunately.

    P.S. Very funny, Tim Makarios.

  16. Ah. Just read the article. Yes, countless.

  17. no metaphor, no life. know metaphor, know life.

  18. I loved this piece, like an Eskimo on vacation, it was cool!!!!

  19. Efficient language sounds so colorless. (Or is that mixing metaphors?)

  20. Great post! I can see the appeal of constructing a language like Ithkuil, but I agree that aiming for maximum precision does not guarantee a language that humans would create or use. Vulcans, maybe. Now, I do love the idea of a language of metaphor – it reminds me of that Stark Trek: TNG episode (Darmok), in which the alien race they encounter speaks exclusively in metaphors.

    Sorry, I didn’t plan on being such a Trekkie when I started writing this…

  21. [...] Beating the Drum for Metaphor (lexiconbranding.com) [...]

  22. Language is thought inaccurately presented. If the goal of language is communication on some level, efficiency is not a criteria, productivity is. All good comparison helps clarify a potential obscurity by comparing it to a potential familiarity. Through that comparison many words of explanation can be saved, but not for the sake of efficiency, for the sake of more productive communication.

  23. A great articulation to reaction the NYT article, from a very succinct point of view and interesting angle. Personally I would have gone about it from the point of view of language is use in a broader sense, the the metaphor analogy works beautifully. Awesome read, thanks.

  24. It’s all Greek to me. :)

  25. Nice vantage point from which to see how primitive computer translation or even computer comprehension of human language is, despite what you are lead to believe by the technology that appears in film (Iron Man is good current example), film that intentionally distorts the difference between conceivable technological reality and science fiction.

  26. [...] Beating the Drum for Metaphor Lexicon BlogMore Language   [...]

  27. You can’t invent a perfect language because languages are just like people, they evolve, they change and adapt to their environment. Some have characteristics that are gender specific, age defining, etc. So they can “invent” all they want but the beauty of any language is the history, the syntax, the phonology and the history that defines it. This is just bad juju.

  28. Love it! As the child of a woman who was fanatical about speaking correctly, metaphor was always an amusing way of getting my points across. As it was an established and accepted form of speech, we were permitted to use it. Thanks for promoting its use!

  29. Reblogged this on writer's first publishing and commented:
    “we recommend metaphor, which in a single word can turn a caterpillar into a butterfly.” Love it. Personally, I am a big fan of the extended metaphor, it’s the inspirational line to every story that propels me to complete it. (Even if I have to in the end edit it out, without it, there’s be no story.)

  30. Oh dear. I think that in their attempt to make the language perfectly efficient, they have in fact come up with a way to reduce the variety of things that can be said. Put this insanity in place and watch an entire society lose their imaginations and become more and more robotic. More likely, though, people would defy the language-makers and keep the old language alive.

    I don’t think I’d want to live in a world without metaphor!

  31. Reblogged this on The Splendid Siren and commented:
    Metaphors are cool…ice cubes.

  32. Reblogged this on ExpressionistAura and commented:
    Sound’s Interesting

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