Thinking Literally

Thinking literally

After reading the article “Thinking literally’, I was tempted to look back at my own experiences to search for occasions when metaphors affected my way of thinking. For an instance, the Korean metaphor for ‘heading towards the wrong direction’ is ‘dropping into Sam-Chun estuary’ (삼천포로 빠진다) and English metaphor for that is “off the track”. Once when my essay strayed from the topic, my English teacher told me that I was going off the track. This implied certain possibility of my essay ‘coming back to the track’ again which encouraged me to edit it a few more times. However, when I told this to my mother, the reply was: “See, your essay is dropping into Sam-Chun estuary.”For a car which went off the track, it’s easier for it to change the direction and go on the track again; however if the car was to drop into the estuary, it seems hardly possible to get out again. Hence, I felt more depressed by what my mother have told me even though it meant the same thing as what my teacher had suggested.

Also, the metaphorical relation of mood and senses intrigued me. I’ve once heard that several coffee and ice cream franchises like Starbucks and Coldstone intentionally make their shop’s temperature a degree or two lower and place hard, wooden chairs in order to make customers leave faster. Also, Ivy League school’s study room like Brown University has hard, wooden furniture in order to keep students awake.

There are lots of similarities between various languages’ metaphors: in general, ‘warmth’ means friendliness and ‘coldness’ means rigidity.  However, the minute difference of their expression changes the degree of meaning and creates difference in understanding. At North Korea  where  famine is prevalent, the proverb for considerate action is ‘Eat your crab with its legs off, even if it’s cooked(구운 게도 다리를
떼고 먹으라),’ whereas the proverb for relatively wealthy South Korea is ‘Tap the bridge before passing even if it’s made of rock(돌다리도 두드려보고 건너라).’ The language we use is same, but the way we express it varies according to the surrounding condition.

Therefore, I believe that the languages doesn’t necessarily change our way of thinking, but rather that different environment affects the linguistic expressions and creates difference in understanding.

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5 comments to Thinking Literally

  • David

    I agree with the environment shaping expression and understanding, not thought.
    For instance my mother got “attacked” by a seagull in Devon. It crashed into her head and stole her ice cream. She’d retell it with a palm to her head. My family would, because of this, recognize what she’s talking about by the expression a way away.

    I know this isn’t spoken language, but it’s exclusive to a portion of people and acts as a mini-example I guess.

  • Angel

    The part about the off track thing is funny. It’s really literal too. Off track and dropping into an estuary is very different.
    I was wondering about the part where you said Brown kept hard chairs to keep their students awake. Is it ever counterproductive I wonder and keep students away from the study room just like Starbucks keeps there customers flowing in and out instead of staying there. At Stanford, they had comfortable soft sofa chairs in every room including the lecture halls, individual study rooms and libraries. I think, maybe it was more welcoming and warm so students will be more willing to study in there. But if the temperature is kept lower then people will be able to stay awake possibly?

  • Averil

    I agree with Jennifer that languages doesn’t necessarily change our way of thinking, and that different environments can affect how we interprete linguistic expressions and creates differences in understanding. This is also probably why there are different expressions in different languages and in different parts of the world. It is true that one gets a warm feeling when one has frineds, and it’s a feeling rather than a method of comparison. This might be why it transends most languages. Also, I agree with Angel that having hard chairs to keep the students awake may very well be counterproductive. While it does keep students awake, it may make them so uncomfortable that they are unable to concentrate or study happily. This would then be a major drawback from the intended effect.

  • Anita :)

    Yup, language doesn’t always change our way of thinking… About your different metaphors in different languages… I’m not really sure about what you think, but I think that yes, there are similar metaphors in different languages.

    In your first example you said that the Korean way of expressing the same thing was more harsh, where-as the English version gave you hope. I think that although the metaphors might be related in this case, that actually have different levels of meanings. The English version might be softer and the Korean might be harder on you from the start, and this might be the way that they are designed. And possibly that your mother wanted to be expressing it in a harsher way from the start, thus I think you can’t really compare these 2 things that easily. I just think that things like ‘warm/cold’, or ‘high/low’ are much easier, as there seems to be more direct translations of the words in various languages.

  • Jun

    I agree with you!!!!!!!Your second example 돌다리도 두드려보고 건너라 supports my theory(?!) This stone bridge we talking about is different in korean culture and english culture.
    In korea we think 돌다리 as but in english culture we think stone bridge like
    ㅣ ㅣ
    ㅣㅇ ㅇ ㅇ ㅇ ㅇ ㅇ ㅇㅣ lㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡㅡl
    ㅣ ㅣ l l
    so i agree with you that it varies according tothe surrounding conditions

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