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Metaphors, myths, ideologies and archives

We are such stuff As dreams are made on —Shakespeare, The Tempest, act 4, scene 1


This book is about myths that have been told throughout the history of what is commonly referred to as “the English language”, most of which are as alive and kicking today as they were centuries ago, and also about myths that are currently in the process of construction. I shall start at the obvious place—by defining what I understand by the term “myth”. I argue that underlying all myths are commonly shared “conceptual metaphors” (see section 2 for a definition), and that the myths help to drive forms of ideological discourse about English and to construct “discourse archives” (see section 5 for a definition) of various kinds. This first chapter thus focuses on defining how I understand all of these terms and outlining the content of the following chapters.

To start with, consider the central term of this book, “myth”. It is derived from the Greek word риво$, which literally means “story”, and the following chapters will trace out and describe that deepest urge of human beings: the urge to narrate objects, events, beliefs and explanations into being. In our modern world, myths lead an odd kind of dual existence. We talk about myths as though they are equivalent to untruths, but we should bear in mind that this is not the same as saying that they are lies. If we are told that a story we have listened to or an account we are given is “just a myth”, we tend to dismiss it as being fictional. Indeed, by appending the gradable adverb “just” to the assessment of that story or account, we automatically place it below what we take to be truthful, faithful to fact, in a hierarchy of believability.

But although myths are essentially fabrications, they are not lies; they are not told to deceive us. Most of the accounts and stories we believe in are venerated as part of a long cultural tradition. They are the narratives that we need to believe in to make sense of the complex world in which we exist, but as with popular folk traditions it is not possible to identify an original narrator. A myth is not a personal story or an individual act of narration; it is transferred to each of us socially in the course of our interaction with others, and culturally through a history of transference that has made it the property of a group. As we go through life, we learn to accept beliefs about aspects of the sociocultural groups to which we belong (or feel we belong), and we do this by listening to and learning to produce the legitimate narration of myths in social institutions such as the family, the education system, the church and the political system. Myths thus form an all-important part of dominant forms of “discourse” (see section 4 for a definition). In our cognition, they provide a narrative cultural embedding of beliefs, and they help us to construct a foundation for performing acts of identity in emergent social practice. For example, who would be likely to dismiss the significance of classical myths or the modern myths of nationhood or the myths at the foundation of religion, even if, deep down, we might have a sneaking suspicion that they, too, are fabrications?

Despite all the factual evidence, the major reason for the survival of myths is that they “fulfil a vital function in explaining, justifying and ratifying present behaviour by the narrated events of the past” (Watts 2000: 33). Doubting a myth to be factual can even be interpreted as an act of heresy if the story, or even only part of it, is firmly and widely believed by the group.

The French sociologist and social anthropologist Bourdieu (1977: 164-169) used Husserl’s term doxa to refer to a set of beliefs that are taken for granted within a society: doxa is that which “goes without saying because it comes without saying” (1977: 169). Myths are thus part of a doxa . In Greek, So^a meant a common belief or a popular opinion, and if that belief or opinion was considered incontestable, it constituted an “orthodox” belief. Bourdieu’s term “orthodoxa”, which is derived from the Greek adjective opOoq (right, true, straight) + So^a, thus refers to a body of beliefs and ways of thinking which are taken to be right or true. “Heterodoxa”, derived from the Greek adjective erepo^ (different, other) + Sofa, refers to explicit challenges to accepted ways of thinking and believing.

Introducing Bourdieu into the argument at this early point in the proceedings is not an arbitrary move. If myths articulate orthodox beliefs, they represent ways of thinking and believing that have been legitimised by a social group. They represent part of what Bourdieu calls “symbolic power”, by which he means the power to make people see and believe certain visions of the world rather than others. In Bourdieu’s terms, exercising symbolic power over others—using the ability to make them think and act in certain ways—is equivalent to symbolic violence, and those who attempt to exercise symbolic power are in a constant struggle with those who challenge those myths with heterodox beliefs.

My approach to the analysis of language myths can be called “sociocognitive” and constructionist, which implies a perspective on human language which is founded on three governing principles:

  • 1. The faculty of acquiring and using human language, possessed by every individual human being, is an integral part of human cognition—that is, of what we know and use to understand ourselves and the world in which we exist. It is not a separate module of the mind, but is constructed through our interaction with others and the physical world around us and is integrated within cognition as a set of complex cognitive frames,1 scripts[1] [2] and image schemata.[3] This is the cognitive part of the term “sociocognitive”.
  • 2. The frames, scripts and image schemata in our cognition are constructed, and they can be constructed only in social interaction (what Bourdieu 1977 calls “practice”) with others. The development of cognition is thus an ongoing process of learning, as Lave and Wenger (1991) understand this term. Without exposure to social practice, we cannot learn, and we can construct neither human language nor any other aspects of cognition. This is the “socio” part of the term “sociocognitive”.
  • 3. Each individual human being, although she is born into an already existent physical world, is nevertheless the centre point of that world, and her gradual experience of interaction within that world allows her to reconstruct it anew, both individually and socially. We thus construct who we are, just as others also construct us, or piece together, through the course of time, who we are. This is what is meant by the term “constructionist”.

We use human language to help us in constructing our own individual worlds and in reconstructing the world into which we are born. Scannell (2002: 262) expresses this perfectly by stating that we “language the world”. Language is in fact our world, and it is fundamental both to the development of human consciousness and also to our notion of time and our conceptualisation of the fact that each of us has a beginning and an end. In this sense, a sociocognitive approach to human language must be able to deal with variability, change, flexibility and creativity precisely because it hinges on a historical understanding of both the phylogenetic and the ontogenetic development of language. Using a sociocognitive constructionist approach to human language means that I will need to introduce terms as they prove to be necessary, but without burdening the reader with a full-scale theoretical model.

Croft (2001: 93) has coined the term “conceptual space” to refer to cognition, and he defines it as a “structured representation of functional structures and their relationships to each other”. If each of us acquires language socially and if language is integrated within cognition, we will certainly need to develop a sociocognitive theory of language, one in which the social practices in which we are involved move to centre stage.[4] But the present book is not the place to take up this task. In this opening chapter, I introduce aspects of Conceptual Metaphor Theory and of Cognitive Blending Theory, and readers who are interested in learning more about these theories are encouraged to consult the references given.

One point, however, is fundamental to my analysis of English language myths in the following chapters, and I will make it quite explicit at this early point before moving on. When we talk about language, we have an automatic tendency to think in terms of “languages” and not in terms of the capacity of human language. Imagine a one-and-a-half-year-old child beginning to produce his first approximations to words. If the learning environment is bilingual, the child will learn, in the acquisition process, to distinguish which words and which constructions can be used with which communicative partners, but there will hardly be any consciousness that those words and constructions belong to different systems of human language. The child is simply using whatever form of language he[5] has at his disposal to integrate into the group and to achieve his own ends. The fact that some of the words and constructions are from, say, English and others from, say, French is not really significant for the child’s acquisition. In fact, as we shall see in later chapters, the important fact is that participants use whatever language or languages they can in real-time emergent instances of social practice. The construction of individual languages (countable) from human language (uncountable) occurs at a later time, and it is a conscious decision to distinguish system A from system B. My decision to restrict myself to “English” is, in a way, artificial, but it is crucial to bear in mind that the myths presented in this book have all started from the assumption that there are languages, rather than from the basic assumption of human language. This is an assumption which I attempt to deconstruct in several of the chapters, since the myths themselves are essential to the sociocultural construction of individual languages.

One further word of warning is in order at this juncture. Whenever I use the term “deconstruction”, I understand the systematic uncovering of a set of beliefs and the serious questioning of their validity. I do not intend to indulge in poststructuralist interpretations of the kind made famous in literary deconstructionism.

  • [1] The term “frame” is widely used in the cognitive sciences and beyond. By restricting it specifically tocognitive frames I refer to systems of structured knowledge (semantic, experiential, social, etc.) that each of usdevelops through interaction with the world (which obviously includes human language). Clearly, frames maydiffer from one person to the next, but they can be expected to be based on prototypical types of knowledgegained by interaction between an individual and the surrounding world.
  • [2] A cognitive script can be thought of as a subtype of frame which depends on the sequential orderingof a specific type of experience, say, going to the theatre or eating or phoning someone. The term was made wellknown by Schank and Abelson’s 1977 book Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding.
  • [3] An “image schema” refers to recurring structures in cognition that are constructed from our bodilyinteraction with the world beyond ourselves. They establish the basis on which we develop understanding andreasoning, and they may also be transferred from more abstract kinds of experience—linguistic, historical,social, and so on.
  • [4] Croft’s book is concerned with setting up a theory of what he calls Radical Construction Grammar,but such a grammar will ultimately need to take on board elements that, strictly speaking, lie outside the purview of grammar. Hence part of his conceptual space “also represents conventional pragmatic or discourse-functional or information-structural or even stylistic or social dimensions of the use of a grammatical form orconstruction” (2001: 93).
  • [5] Throughout the book I shall alternate between “he” and “she” to designate the generic third personsingular pronoun.
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