> Dear Mr. Lawler,

>      We are students from the University of Richmond who are taking an
> expository writing class.  In our class, with Dr. Dona J. Hickey, we
> have studied one of your works, "Metaphors We Compute By", which we
> thought was very interesting.

>      In your work, you have given many metaphors for computers:
> "The more metaphors you use, the better."  Each of your metaphors about
> computers is different, which helps us to understand computers in
> different ways.  We also found that it is true as you said, "People can
> understand things better if they use a metaphor and know that they're
> using it."

>       As for metaphors, we found out that each person's experience and
> background affect the way people see things.  Your work is easy to
> follow and clear to understand.  However, in some places, we thought we
> might be misunderstanding your ideas.  It would be very helpful if you
> would help clarify them.

>       We thank you so much for all your help and look forward
> to hearing from you.
>                              Sincerely yours,

>                              Barbara Salinas
>                              Khuankaew Anantachart
>                              Yukiko Oka
Dear Barbara, Khuankaew, and Yukiko:

    My apologies for being late in responding to you. I appreciate your interest, and your very interesting questions. I'll try to talk about them in order.

> 1. In your work, you claim, "In fact, computing was orders of magnitude
>    easier to learn and understand than a natural language."  In what
>    ways did you see computing language as easier than natural language.
>    As for us, we thought that since computers were invented by human
>    beings who have been using natural language for a long time, how
>    could it happen that the new invention would be easier to understand
>    than a human's own natural language?
    The key word was learn. Everybody knows how hard it is to learn a real human language; there are thousands of words and thousands of rules and millions of possible constructions, and pronunciation gets in the way even if you understand the grammar. Computer languages are different. There are never more than several hundred words you have to learn, the grammar is always completely regular (strange, perhaps, but logical), and there's no pronunciation to worry about.

    That in itself is a significant difference, and it's easy to see why it makes things simpler to learn. Of course, that doesn't make it simpler to use. You're right that people instinctively use their native language without apparent effort, while computer languages seem not to be so intuitive, and to require more effort.

    On the other hand, we never use computer languages in situations where we'd use a real language -- people do not converse in FORTRAN -- and the contexts in which computer languages are appropriate are themselves unnatural ones; most people experience a considerable amount of anxiety and difficulty in dealing with computers (or any new technology) at first (and sometimes for a long time), and this carries over to the "languages" they use in trying to do so. It's not that the languages themselves are hard, but rather that the concepts they represent are unfamiliar. That's in fact why metaphors are useful in the first place.

> 2. Since we all know that you are a linguist and people's backgrounds
>    will have an effect on their ideas, we thought that, for you, the
>    best metaphor may be "Computing is a linguistic activity".  However,
>    of all metaphors you have listed, which one do you think is not a
>    good one?  One of our friends thought that "Computer is a servant"
>    made her feel negative toward computers.  Which metaphors do you
>    think don't show a good relationship to or with computers ?
    I like to use a lot of metaphors; I don't think there can be a "best" one. Even if I did have a favorite, though, that wouldn't say anything about anybody else. People are very different from one another.

    That said, let me address the issue of appropriateness of metaphors. If your friend thinks that the Servant metaphor made her feel negative about computers, it would certainly be silly for her to use it, or to have to use it. It wouldn't be appropriate for her; though it might be for somebody else. I think of a metaphor as being appropriate (for somebody, in some situation) when it helps them understand and deal with the situation in some useful way. If there are emotional distractions, or if the metaphor forces some unuseful behavior, or if it obscures an important part of reality, then it's inappropriate.

    But there can't be any really "bad" metaphor, in itself. Nor can there be any really "good" ones. All metaphors are lies, after all. A computer really isn't a person, or a servant, or a god, or a desktop, and so on. It's just that pretending it is can sometimes help us cope better. Sometimes. Like all lies, metaphors and other symbols have to be judged on their usefulness, not on their intrinsic worth.

> 3. In your conclusion, you say that some metaphors have Mythic
>    Status; that is, they develop from the "Cultural Unconscious".
>    Could you explain more about this ? Members in our group come
>    from different countries which are Spain, Thailand, and Japan.
>    Among our group, we have different metaphors for computers. Does
>    it mean that metaphors will be developed differently, based on
>    different culture? And how does myth affect metaphors ?
    In the first part of the lecture I go into some of those questions briefly, and then pick them up in the conclusion. Here's what I had said in the first section:
  "One thing we can take for granted about our audience when we
   write or teach is that they are members of our culture.  As such,
   they are parties to a number of communal jokes we play on one
   another for various purposes.  One word for such jokes is Myth.
   A myth is a species of metaphor that is:

  "(a) Widely, even universally, known and used in a culture or subculture;
   (b) Largely unconscious in nature [possibly because of (a)];
   (c) Literally false, or even ludicrous, when spelled out."
    When I used the phrase cultural unconscious in the conclusion, this is what I was referring to. And, yes, different cultures have different metaphors, and different myths, and different presuppositions about the way the world is and the ways people should behave in it.

    I like to think of a myth as a story made up by a three-year-old child. We've all heard such stories -- once upon a time we used to tell them. They're strange by adult standards, and they're often silly, and they don't make a lot of sense, but they're comforting, and familiar, and they certainly captivate three-year-olds.

    We were about that age when we absorbed our native languages and our native cultures, and the stories we made up to ourselves then to make sense of what we were experiencing then are our myths. It's not surprising that myths seem unbelievable to adults; but the child in us clings to them, and our cultures continue to speak to that child.

    As for how myth affects computers, it doesn't. It affects people. And it affects them most by being invisible to them, by masquerading as common sense, by staying unconscious, and by resisting analysis and change, the same way three-year-olds resist being told something that they don't want to hear. As a friend of mine once put it, "The grammar of mythology is a bloody business"; that is, when their myths are threatened, or appear to be threatened, people can get very angry, even violent. And even discussing myths in an objective way can appear threatening to many people.

    One of the hardest things about learning about another culture and another language as adults is that one doesn't have the opportunity to make up those comforting stories as children, and one has to figure out what's going on consciously. Sometimes cultures share myths, and that can help; but sometimes they're wildly different, and that can be uncomfortable, even painful, to deal with. That's one reason why I took a fairly light-hearted approach to the lecture when I wrote it. Such an approach is less threatening and may get through where an authoritative tone would repel.

    In fact, in thinking through your last question, I guess I have come to the conclusion that I do have a favorite metaphor, after all. It's the last one I presented: Fun And Games. If myths are stories that children cling to, it seems to me that one of the best ways to change them, and grow them up to where they can deal with technological reality, is to treat computers as better playthings; toys that don't threaten the Inner Child. It's much more subversive that way. And much more fun.

    Thank you once again for your flattering attention, and for your extremely interesting and insightful questions. As always, I learn best from students' questions. That's the best part of being a teacher.


  - John Lawler       Linguistics Department and Residential College     University of Michigan

    "Language is the most  massive  and  inclusive  art  we know,  a           - Edward Sapir
      mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations."       Language (1921)

Metaphors We Compute By English Grammar Metaphor The Eclectic Company The Chomskybot