Academic journal article Western Folklore

Metaphors We Live By: Some Examples from Donegal Irish

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Metaphors We Live By: Some Examples from Donegal Irish

Article excerpt

Keith Basso (1990: xii), in discussing the value of anthropological linguistics for the ethnographer, proposes that:

it proceeds on the premise that ethnographic fieldwork is centered on discerning the meanings of local symbolic forms, that language is everywhere a symbolic form without parallel or peer and that the activity of speaking-of enacting and implementing language-is surely among the most meaning-filled of all. On such a view, language emerges as a powerful vehicle of thought and a crucial instrument for accomplishing social interaction, as an indispensable means of knowing the world and for performing deeds within it.

This paper discusses some of the results of recent fieldwork in discovering the meaning of some of Donegal's local symbolic forms as enacted and implemented in the Irish language. The consultants who provided the information are all from Donegal, from Tory Island and from Rannafast specifically, but I believe their testimony has a wider application than in those localities alone. My evidence will support an idea that linguistic metaphors are important in the way that human beings understand the physical environment. My title is borrowed from a well known work by Lakoff and Johnson, who contend that:

Since much of our social reality is understood in metaphorical terms, and since our conception of the physical world is partly metaphorical, metaphor plays a very significant role in determining what is real for us. (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 146)

Their view opposes the objectivist viewpoint that metaphor can, at best, only describe reality, upon which lived human experience has no bearing. The authors discuss a large amount of data in putting forward their argument, and seem to me to make a convincing case. In another work, Lakoff and Turner propose that metaphors in everyday language are not dead, as has been suggested, by virtue of the fact that speakers are not fully conscious of them (1989). On the contrary, they hold that those metaphors which are "most alive and most deeply entrenched, efficient and powerful are those that are so automatic as to be unconscious and effortless" (Lakoff and Turner, 1989, 129). What is most valuable about this view of metaphor is that it treats everyday spoken language as a coherent metaphorical system, as Basso advocates. This paper will examine a complex of such concepts and their importance for understanding the world view of native Gaelic speakers, primarily in a contemporary context. I will, however, also offer some diachronic comparisons in order to suggest that these concepts are of considerable antiquity and importance. Although these are terms which, in themselves, are not ostensibly metaphorical, my argument will propose that metaphorical assumptions underpin their semantic interpretation. Finally, I will discuss Kerby A. Miller's reading of the Gaelic Catholic worldview (1985), in light of my evidence, suggesting that a certain imbalance exists in his interpretation of it, and attempting to redress it to some extent.

In researching the poetics of entertainment of Tory Island over a number of Years, with a particular focus on song, I became aware of two seemingly opposing phrases which cropped up regularly enough in people's conversations. One was the way in which one of my consultants described the schoolhouse dance particularly when things were not going too well at it. The aim of the dance was to provide an niche mhor, a big night, for all the participants, that is, a night which would be discussed for days afterwards because of its sterling performances of music, group and single dances and songs (6 Laoire, 1999). On big nights such as this, certain events permanently enter the island's repertoire of stories, because of the witty or humorous nature of what someone had said or done. This depended on all playing their parts with skill and precision in order to reach the high point. This was known as keeping the night "up. …

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