Parasitic plants and buttons: on language imagery

Marten van der Meulen‘s second blog post is about imagery and usage.

Writing a usage guide is hard work, not in the least because the subject matter can be dry like a desert. Who but the most hardened language pundits will not gasp for water after reading page upon page on inverted sub-clauses and preposition stranding? Of course, (most) writers of usages guides are very much aware of this. They solve the problem in different ways. Humor is a much observed solution (its other function of course being the mediation of otherwise often quite harsh accusations). Another solution, often employed to explain intricate subjects, only recently caught my eye: the use of particular types of imagery. Two in particular are used often: language as clothing and language as a garden. Of course these images are not limited to the usage guide domain, but they seem to occur with particular frequency in this medium.

Only last week David Shariatmadari asked himself in The Guardian if language was like fashion. He dissected the imagery used and found it wanting, but of course that is ultimately only to be expected of any type of imagery: things seem similar, but are not the same. Nonetheless, the comparison is frequently used: we betray ourselves by the language we use, similar to how we betray ourselves in the way we dress. “If we care so much about clothing, why are we so indifferent about the way we use language?”, F. Bakels asked in 1956, in a pamphlet on the preparation of written pieces for editors called Goed taalgebruik en het persklaar maken van stukken.The lenghtiest example I have come across was in the introduction to Van Wageningen’s Even tijd voor … onze taal! (“Now it’s time for … our language!”), published in 1946. Van Wageningen questions readers at length on why we care if a button is missing from our shirt, but do not care if we use a word that has “lost its zing” (“verloor zijn kracht”)?

Source: the Internet (but no longer to be found)

Source: the Internet (but no longer to be found)

The other frequent type of imagery found focusses on language as a garden, from which noxious weeds (i.e. wrong words or constructions) have to be weeded out. An example of such a vegetative image is found in a booklet called Ons Nederlands (“Our Dutch”), published in 1946, where I came across the sentence Via is een machtige woekerplant geworden (“[the word] Via has become a mighty parasitic plant”: a very strong comparison of something that suffocates a structure. Other examples include the amazing title of a book from 1897, called Onkruid onder de tarwe. Proeve van taalzuivering (“Weeds in the wheat. Example of language purification”) by Hippoliet Meert, which is of course based on Matthew 13:25.

It is interesting to consider the extent to which these images are aptly applied. Personally, I think the clothing image is quite good: people immediately judge us by the way we speakjust as by the way we dress. However, we can easily go and change the way we dress: to really change the way we speak borders on the impossible (see what Labov said on the Prinzivalli-bomb threat case). The garden image works in the sense that we can decide to use only pretty words and clever constructions, just like we can fill our garden with roses. But it does not work because although we can try to eradicate weeds, they creep into our personal language at a subconscious level: there is very little we can do about it.

Of course, it could be that this is a feature of some of the Dutch books I have been reading lately. A quick search through the 1996 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage produced one example of a garden image, which was unrelated to weeds in any sense but did have positive connotations: on page 513 under the head word names and appellations we find the sentence Such correspondence is a paradisal garden for the amateur collector of unexpected connections.

There are plenty of other types of imagery to be found, although they do not seem as pervasive in usages guides as far as I can tell. I’ve come across, for instance, language rules are like traffic rules, language is like the weather, and language is like water. A complete survey of images used for language is beyond the humble scope of this blog post. I would be happy to learn of any other clothing/garden images you come across in your own usage guides or general reading!

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4 Responses to Parasitic plants and buttons: on language imagery

    • Marten says:

      Thanks! When I read your reply I suddenly realised that of course words such as “stem” and “root” are, of course, ultimately also derived from the natural world.

  1. Maciej Rataj says:

    If you want to find more on the LANGUAGE USE IS CLOTHING metaphor I recommend “The Stories of English” by David Crystal (2004: 9). I’m also sure Crystal uses the same metaphor in “The Fight for English” (2006). Stephen Fry also uses this metaphor in the episode of his podcast entitled “Don’t Mind Your Language”.

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