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Children: The Masters of Metaphor


James Geary wrote one of the most accessible books concerning the most beautiful linguistic resource of all: the metaphor.

Children tend to look for categorical clarity, and therefore experience reality in profoundly different ways to adults. This is what makes them great masters of the imagination; their processes enlighten our minds’ mechanisms. One of the most amazing properties in their search for clarity is their understanding and use of abstract language and of rhetoric to make themselves understood. An whole chapter of the entirely fortunate I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the Worldby James Geary, is devoted to studying this.

Before anything else, Geary explores metaphors’ vast power:

Metaphor is most familiar as the literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another, as when the author of the Old Testament Song of Songs describes a lover’s navel as “a round goblet never lacking mixed wine”. […]Yet metaphor is much, much more than this.

Metaphorical thinking — our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another, for equating I with an other — shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent.

Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.

It is no surprise that children are the creators of some of the most persuasive and original metaphors, and, on the other hand, the best receptors of adults’ figurative language. According to Geary, when it comes to live and fertile metaphors, a child’s innate talent is triggered by the same conductive force that moves adult creativity: recognising patterns (combining primitive pieces of information to create something new). The fact that children are not limited to narrow thought and classification conventionalisms allows them to produce remote metaphoric expressions that are effective for that very reason. When children reach an age when they can use their experiences to understand more similarities, then their psychology evolves towards abstraction. Geary quotes an effective example to portray this:

During pretend play, children effortlessly describe objects as other objects and then use them as such. A comb becomes a centipede; cornflakes become freckles; a crust of bread becomes a curb.

Children listened to short stories that ended with either a literal or metaphorical sentence. In a story about a little girl on her way home, for example, the literal ending was “Sally was a girl running to her home;” while the metaphoric ending was “Sally was a bird flying to her nest.”

Researchers asked the children to act out the stories using a doll. Five- to six-year-olds tended to move the Sally doll through the air when the last sentence was “Sally was a bird flying to her nest,” taking the phrase literally. Eight to nine year olds, however, tended to move her quickly across the ground, taking the phrase metaphorically.

Eye test

Children struggle to understand sophisticated metaphors because they have not had the life-experiences needed to acquire storage for related common places. However, their abstraction capacities and their vast representational world have much to teach adults. As Geary points out:

This is one of the marvels of metaphor. Fresh, successful metaphors do not depend on conventional pre-existing associations. Instead, they highlight novel, unexpected similarities, not particularly characteristic of either the source or the target — at least until the metaphor itself points them out.

In short, the book is a great read, destined to expand the semantic world in which we live, thus expanding our experience in the world.

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