Literal and Figurative Language

So I have started reading a new neuroscience text to refresh and extend my knowledge of our biological roots, this one by R. Joseph entitled Neuroscience, Neuropsychology, Neuropsychiatry, Brain and Mind, 4th edition. It is a large compendium of clinical and research findings about the functioning of brain structures. Hard to understand how one person could have read and remember/organize all this, but Dr. Joseph has been at this for a long time.

Anyway, early on in the chapters on the left and right hemispheres, Dr. Joseph writes, “As a consequence of the loss of comprehension these patients may display euphoria”. Of course, he is talking soberly and literally about the aphasic effects of brain damage, e.g., from a stroke, in the posterior left hemisphere, Wernicke’s area, that results in a severe deficit in linguistic comprehension of which the patient is unawares. These patients can talk, often fluently, even volubly, but speak a jibberish of disconnected and irrelevant words and while they cannot comprehend what is said to them, they think or act as if they do. “They fail to comprehend that they fail to comprehend.” And of course, given my perverse penchant for injecting irony into a discussion, I read this figuratively. Yes, one could be happier if one did not understand what was going on in the world, like the adage, “Ignorance is bliss,” or the bumper sticker, “if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention”.

Dr. Joseph articulates a clear picture of how the left hemisphere (and please always remember that upper structures depend upon lower ones, so that hemispheric functions involve limbic and brainstem systems) functions to process the syntactic structures of linguistic communication, i.e., the linear semantic word strings, and of how the right hemisphere functions to process the emotional and contextual information in which the syntactic structures are constructed and take their meaning, i.e., the prosody and pragmatics of verbal but also empathic communication. Here we have the great confluence between our symbolic and empathic capabilities. Now somewhere in their interplay lies the beginning of sarcasm, irony and some other types of figurative language.


Consider sarcastic teasing when someone tells a friend who has just mucked it up, “good job,” and so means the opposite of what the words say. Consider satire, such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” or William Thackery’s novel, Vanity Fair, when he says of a very unlikeable character that he died without a friend in the world and that like when someone beloved dies, both will be forgotten, though the unlikeable man will be forgotten “a few weeks sooner.” The meaning of a left sided syntactic structure depends upon its right sided context and modality. We can empathically tell if someone is ‘serious’ or not by their tone of voice (easier if we are their familiar). Someone who speaks with very flat speech, monotonous and without expressiveness or humor, uses their left side without the important connection to right sided functions. Conversely, someone who cannot understand the left sided structures, say of a foreign language, can still understand empathically the emotional tones of that speech, whether angry, sad, or amused and happy. The linguisitic meaning of a satire is thus quite dependent upon the emotional import of the empathic gestalt.

So here are some questions. Presuming that early Homo sapiens’ language usage was literal, how long before such figurative uses came about? Did irony as we moderns know it come about actually as a literary device, an arc on the glyph learning curve discussed in an earlier post? The ancient Greeks certainly used irony; it is also present in the Tao Te Ching.  Much of our humor depends upon the ironic incongruity between our words and the situation. What did Paleolithic humans laugh about? What is the difference in hemispheric integration between literal and figurative language? And though I have not talked about the sort of  figurative language manifested in metaphors and imaginative flights, the questions about lateral differences and integration remain the same.

Finally, consider the word ‘ignorance.’ Certainly ignorance is not really bliss. Knowledge can be an occasion for sadness, e.g., when we learn of a tragic event, but knowledge also is power. Understanding the roots of figurative language in our empathic and symbolic abilities would be delightful indeed. Ignorance is not really loss of comprehension, as I played around above, but something more which prevents understanding.  It is much with us these days as I read the news. This week the holidays are upon us and I will soon read again Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and my heart will stop again when the ghost of Christmas Present reveals mankind’s children clinging for protection under his robe. The ghost says they are “the girl Want and the boy Ignorance. Beware them both but beware the _____ more”. Remember which one goes in the blank? This is one time I maybe take figurative language quite literally. A complicated word, that ‘ignorance’.

I started this blog a year ago and I have learned a great deal in its writing. I thank all of you who read it, follow it, even comment upon it. Travel on.

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