Language is all about the stories

In my experience, communication is a matter of patience, imagination. I would like to believe that these are qualities that we have in sufficient measure.

– Picard, Captain of the Starship Enterprise, Star Trek: The Next Generation, episode Darmok

In an episode of Star Trek, the challenge is to communicate with a new species when their language is based on metaphors, stories that yield images and meaning with a few words. The breakthrough comes when they have a common experience together, and Picard realizes that the language is based on analogies.

Darmok and Jalad… at Tanagra.

– Dathon (meant as a metaphor to fight a common enemy)

Shaka, when the walls fell.

– Dathon and Picard (meant as a metaphor for failure.)

From Wikipedia:

metaphor is a figure of speech that describes a subject by asserting that it is, on some point of comparison, the same as another otherwise unrelated object.  Metaphor is a type of analogy and is closely related to other rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance including allegoryhyperbole, and simile.

I have an idea I am trying to express, but I might be tripping up on the precise definitions of metaphor, collocation, analogy, and idiom.  (Please correct my mistakes.)

I was thinking about Judy Thompson saying that the key to learning English is not the grammar but the idioms, the grouping of words we put together (collocation) that has a specific meaning to native English speakers.  Perhaps the difference between a list of 2000 words on the simplified Basic English list and the way native speakers speak is the stories, images, emotions, connotations, and analogies we pack into short groupings of words. Perhaps English is a bit like a language of metaphors.  Without knowing our stories, you can’t fully appreciate what we convey with a few words.

Take for example, ‘Merry Men’.  It immediately brings to mind the story of Robin Hood.

See a headline “Apple takes on Google” and we native English speakers think of a boxing match, a competition between two rivals.  ‘Take on’ implies a story.

What is the difference between a metaphor and an idiom?  I’ve heard it described like this.  A metaphor is a comparison between two things. “Our spirit is an unsinkable ship” is a metaphor. An idiom is a phrase that that means something different than what the words are saying, like “kick the bucket” means to die, not to actually kick a bucket.  The Star Trek aliens would simply say “Titanic”, the specific name of a so-called unsinkable ship, when they were trying to express the concept of determined spirit. (Read more about Idioms and Metaphors here.)

Language is all about the stories.

Hence, when I started to learn Korean, I wanted to hear their stories.  I was frustrated by subtitles on Korean dramas that took a lovely idiom in Korean and rephrased it to an English equivalent.  I was tickled every time a subtitle didn’t rephrase the idiom but instead gave me a straight translation.  (Painting stripes on the watermelon).  I want to learn Korean language so that I can hear those stories in their original format. (Ex.  “I love Lee Tea-ri 아이러브 이태리 kept referring to a man as Dung-Fly, which made more sense when I finally got there is a saying that someone is as annoying as a dung-fly.)

The stories embedded in a language give it flavor.  The folk sayings become a part of how we think and express ourselves.  The spread of these sayings across different cultures is also interesting.  The two countries thousands of miles apart can have sayings that express a similar concept is intriguing.


My lovely friend Lynn often started sentences with “We have a saying in German …”  I almost always knew this saying already, perhaps because German had such a profound influence on America.

New England Yankees certainly have many of our own sayings.

Part of my highly erratic self study of Korean language and culture has included collecting Korean proverbs and sayings.

“An empty cart rattles loudly” might describe the Hanguk Babble blog 🙂 She who knows the least talks the most.

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