Tradition and metaphor

What kinds of metaphors have scholars used when writing about traditional music, and what can we learn from them? This post explores some ways that metaphors have been used to structure historical understandings of the concept of tradition in the light of some recent ideas from cognitive linguistics, suggesting that the language we use when writing or talking about tradition is more significant and revealing than it might first appear.

A glance at the historical literature and popular discourse around folk and traditional music shows many kinds of metaphors for tradition. Some examples include:

  • Tradition is an old building (William Motherwell; Walter Scott)
  • Songs are pebbles in a stream (A.L. Lloyd)
  • Groups of tunes are families (Samuel Bayard)
  • Traditional performance is a journey (Motherwell)
  • Songs are ‘beautiful peasants’ (Joseph Ritson)
  • Songs are ‘antique’ statues (Thomas Percy)
  • Transmission is reverse alchemy (Ritson; Scott)
  • A song collection is a museum (Robert Burns and James Johnson)
  • Tradition is a treasure chest; well-spring (Kist o’Riches; Tobar an Dualchais website)

Traditionally, metaphor is understood as a function of poetic language – a piece of decorative illustration, that shows the poet’s skill in describing the world using beautiful or revealing phrases. Cognitive linguists, however, suggest that metaphors don’t just help us describe reality as it exists; they are necessary for us to conceptualize it in the first place, and as such determine our experiences of reality and what we can say and think about it. When we use a metaphor such as tradition is a building we are using a concrete (no pun intended) metaphor to conceptualise something abstract. This is an example of conceptual metaphor, rather than linguistic metaphor. In the latter, we use the word for one thing to describe another (‘my dentist is a butcher’). Conceptual metaphor is where we use one concept to understand another concept – usually a more abstract one. In this case, conceptual metaphor allows us to produce inferential structure about ‘tradition’ (an abstract domain) by borrowing it from the concrete domain of buildings and, specifically, the ways they are affected by the passage of time.

However, the metaphors we use don’t just combine two separate domains – they combine two levels of experience – the basic (sensorimotor) level and the abstract level at which most theoretical discourse takes place. This is a thoroughly everyday process; we habitually use our understanding of objects, actions and processes we can see and hear to understand things we can’t. We can’t, for example literally grasp an idea; but we can grasp an object (at least one and light enough to hold in our hands and carry around with us). We therefore understand ideas as objects. The word ‘comprehend’ in English has as its root ‘prehendere’, the Latin word meaning ‘to grasp’. This verb suggests an understanding of facts or concepts as a special kind of object, namely, a tool. To grasp an object entails taking possession; to grasp a tool means to prepare ourselves confidently to explore its possible uses. Thus, our concept of understanding uses a metaphor from the physical to move up into the abstract domain; in doing so, it brings with it certain metaphorical implicatures. To understand the ‘object’ of discourse is to be able to ‘wield’ it, to put it to work in constructive ways, which can exert a shaping force on reality.

When we talk about abstract theoretical concepts, such as ‘class’; ‘nationhood’, ‘ethnicity’, or tradition, we derive our inferential structures from the domain of objects. We often talk about the nation as if it was a literal container. It isn’t – this is a metaphor; however, the notion of a container allows us to make use of inferential structures based on the imagined qualities of various containers. Some of these are more salient than others, depending on the discourse. Is it a large, relatively empty container, or a small, relatively full one? Is it transparent or opaque? Are its boundaries, rigid, or porous? These kinds of speculations and inferences are at work all the time in abstract sociological and political discourse, and have obvious implications for everyday politics. Getting people to imagine the country as a small, crammed container with leaky sides serves the interests of those who favour tighter laws on immigration; their opponents can argue the opposite, but may fare better by changing the metaphor; for example, by evoking the image of the nation as a well-to-do and nurturing family, capable of supporting all its children.

The most important implication of this approach is that language is not a transparent medium. It doesn’t just describe the world as it exists and thus allow us to speak truthfully about it. Instead, it shapes the inferential logic of discourse. The metaphors used by students of traditional music thus don’t just illustrate a prior reality, they allow us to hold structures of understanding in our minds and, as such, shape the internal logic of how that reality is discussed. They determine what can be said truthfully and logically about things like traditional music and its transmission. Once we have accepted one basic conceptual structure, we are obliged to honour its entailments; otherwise our arguments will appear inconsistent.

According to this way of thinking, we don’t just use metaphors occasionally, as illustrations of factual reality. We construct factual reality and rules and inferential structures using metaphor. The metaphors we use effectively determine whether our statements are true (because logically sound) or not. If reality doesn’t match up with our conceptual models, we must change the metaphor. This is the basis process whereby we refine our knowledge of the world, squaring our theories of reality with the experiences we have of it. In science, the metaphorical system shared by researchers is referred to as a paradigm. A change in this system is called a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift entails changes in the ways we write and act in research: ideas also affect discourse and practice. In the humanities, it is less common for researchers in a field to share a single research paradigm, and we therefore talk about various theoretical approaches which are often in conflict with one another. These are competing paradigms, conflicting metaphorical systems.

Another very important implication of recent research is that these metaphors are not only found in text and speech but also in images, sound and music. This supports the idea that they are not confined to the verbal mode but also structure visual and sonic modes (more on this later).

An important consideration is that writers don’t just use one metaphor to talk about traditional culture; they use all sorts of different metaphors. In the ballad scholarship of the eighteenth century, it is common to find traditional material described using words such as ‘fragments’, ‘monuments’, and ‘relics’. These are not just isolated metaphors, but seem to structure the whole conceptual model used to understand both the nature of the materials, their origins and the role of collectors and antiquaries. William Motherwell (1827) uses the metaphor of a cathedral to describe the operation of oral tradition:

It is granted at once that the ‘expressions and illusions’ of these compositions fluctuate, and that frequently, but these changes never alter entirely the venerable aspect of the whole ballad. It is like repairing gradually the weather worn face of an ancient cathedral, by the insertion here and there of a freshly hewn stone, as need may require. (Motherwell 1827, xi)

This metaphor has certain implications and entailments. Firstly, it implies age, strength and size. Secondly, it has entailments based on the processual metaphor Motherwell adopts for describing transmission which is that of gradual and conservative repair to the structure of a large (sacred) building. It also has entailments for how we understand the other actors involved in the system; those involved in the tradition are portrayed as ‘caretakers’, rather than architects; they are concerned with maintenance, not creativity. It also suggests that tradition is a stable structure; although its physical contents change over time, its shape persists. This notion of tradition as immanent structure, rather than content, is a basic and highly significant entailment of Motherwell’s metaphor with implications for collection and editing practices. The metaphor is not just an illustration of a prior reality – it determines the epistemological terms of enquiry and the attendant practices of Motherwell’s basic approach.

Although scholars use different metaphors to describe tradition, we should expect to find some level of cohesion between them. That is, they might have different specific content, but share certain basic structures and metaphorical entailments. Thomas Percy, for example, writing several decades before Motherwell, used a similar metaphor to describe the tradition. Like Motherwell, he sees the tradition in terms of stone objects persisting over time:

[M]ost of them are fragments too mutilated and imperfect to afford much pleasure to a reader in their present state; and . . . most of them contain charming hints, which might give occasion to very beautiful songs, if supplied and filled up, in the manner that old broken fragments of antique statues have been repaired and completed by modern masters. I think I could fill up the breaches of some of them myself. (Thomas Percy to David Herd, quoted in Harker 1985, 33)

Like Motherwell, Percy sees the songs as ancient stone objects that have been worn down (‘mutilated’) by time and tradition. The transmission process is natural, but basically degenerative. The important entailment shared by Percy and Motherwell is the assumption of ancient authorship; the cathedral had an architect, the statues a sculptor. Change takes the form of decay and weathering. Percy takes the analogy further to suggest an equivalency between editorial reconstruction and the restoration of ancient monuments by ‘modern masters’. The logic of this approach derives from inferential structure provided by his basic metaphor. Again, it has implications for the role of actors involved; are they passive or active; creative or destructive? What remains to be done? What actions should we take relative to the materials to hand?

Where a wholly new metaphor is introduced to discourse, we see a paradigm shift. That is, the change in discourse indicates an underlying change in common ways of thinking about tradition and attendant research practices. This is because the metaphors clash – their basic structures and logical entailments cannot be reconciled with one another. Writing almost two centuries after Percy, A.L. Lloyd (1952) used the notion of a stream to describe the transmission process. In his metaphor, the objects of tradition taken separately, were imagined as stones in a river, continually worn smooth by the water. The basic structure of this metaphor is this:

  • Tradition is a stream
  • Songs = pebbles
  • Water = time
  • Traditional change = the smoothing away of rough edges over time

Notice how this metaphor shares Percy’s and Motherwell’s notion of songs as objects and that of continuity over time. Like Motherwell, he constructs the traditional process as a change in the form and consistency of stone objects, both evoke natural process metaphors (‘weather-worn’; the ‘river of time’). The transmission process is one of shaping by taking away material gradually from an object. In both, the traditional object retains its integrity. But these metaphors have further entailments which diverge from one another:

  • In the role of individuals in the transmission process
  • In the nature of the change undergone
  • In the basic function of tradition in determining the identity of tradition and its objects
  • In the origins and role of composers

Percy and Motherwell both suggest ancient authors whose work has been broken down by time. Unlike Percy, who sees tradition as essentially a ‘wearing down’, Motherwell suggests that tradition (the preservation of traditional materials in oral practice) plays a role in preservation, albeit a passive one; for Lloyd, however, this position is totally reversed. For him, tradition is a process of completion. Tradition itself (though still seen as a natural process) takes the place of the ancient architect or sculptor; it is a creative process which determines the identity and character of traditional songs. Lloyd, however, stops short of attributing authorial status to individual participants in tradition; what makes a song traditional is its involvement in a quasi-natural process – the smoothing action of tradition on musical materials. As such, although these authors are talking about the same subject, Lloyd’s metaphor could be seen as indicating a paradigm shift in scholarly practice – a change in the basic metaphorical mapping used to conceptualise tradition.

As mentioned above, conceptual metaphors are realised multimodally; they can be conveyed using various modes of communication, not just language. The introduction to Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802) for example, is prefaced with this image:

Scott Frontispiece

The image introduces his study and can be read as standing for the textual ‘monuments’ (Scott uses this term quite a bit) contained in the book. Instead of expressing the ‘ruined building’ metaphor verbally like Motherwell, he invokes it visually. As will be apparent by now, one possible explanation for the existence of conceptual metaphors cross modally is that the cognitive linguists are correct in arguing that the metaphors used in language and imagery both reflect the same basic conceptual models that are cohesive and allow us to think about abstract and complex subjects such as traditional culture. Importantly, they are prior to language and other modes. This insight reverses the role of metaphor from being a local aspect of discourse – an illustration of a prior reality – to a conceptual basis for constructing a more complex cognitive reality.

This discussion has suggested that paying attention to the metaphors used by writers can reveal underlying conceptual models. When we see new metaphors emerging, new ways of thinking are also emerging. Most importantly, however, these metaphors don’t just illustrate a prior reality independent of thought and language; they provide a framework for thought, discourse and practice, determining the inferential structure (and thus the logical truth conditions) of discourses on abstract subjects. This has important implications for how we understand the role of metaphor in folk music historiography, and how we ourselves use language in our attempts to conceptualise processes such as oral transmission.

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