From the Techné of Structure to the Techné of Semantics
In his lecture called “The Hebrew Alphabet as a Divine Name with Respect to Psalm 119,” Dr. Ambrus managed to raise a very important question, namely the view of language as technology (video). He demonstrated how and why a phonetic alphabet, the reflection of basic structural units of each language, can be viewed as a divine name. I would like to push the discussion a little bit further from the structural to semantic level.
While Dr. Ambrus had to go hundreds of years back to the time of Hebrew bible, I will start in the period only 36 years ago when Lakoff and Johnson published the book Metaphors we Live by, a leading text of cognitive linguistics. Its main claim reflects the idea that there is nothing like literal language. Inherent human way of thinking is the understanding of one conceptual domain in terms of another. This principle is most apparent in language because each language is predominantly metaphorical and language of science is no exception. For instance, inflation does not rise literally, biology does not have real branches nor can the idea be literally fruitful. Lakoff and Johnson show that all our talking is based on more or less elaborated conceptual metaphors.
For our purpose it is important that cognitive view of metaphor presents language as a sophisticated interplay of human creativity based on very simple building blocks not only as regards its structure but also as concerns semantics. In other words, human language is a demonstration of our mostly unconscious everyday craft of building and expressing new meanings. It suggests that metaphors, which are ubiquitous in each language, can be viewed as the most useful technical tools of our thinking.
With regard to the Psalm 119, I would like to elaborate Dr. Ambrus’ observation that, instead of telling anything about Torah as such, the psalmist chooses to multiply metaphors. The psalm shows what all theologians already know – the fact that we can talk about God only in metaphors. Nevertheless, cognitive linguistics convincingly presents that this principle does not concern only religious talk, art and humanities, but it is an indispensible feature of each kind of language. Our approach to reality basically resides in metaphorical tension. Multiplying metaphors is thus the best method of reaching a proper expression and understanding of anything.
If we take into account the organization of the psalm according to individual letters of the alphabet as corresponding to multiple use of metaphor, we might find out that the predominant theme of the whole poem is not only the phonemic but also semantic aspect of language. Then the psalm might also be read as a celebration of metaphorical nature of language, which is our best tool to know God, ourselves and the whole universe. May be, in the time when human sensibility was not as disintegrated as in our age, the Hebrew poet was able to reflect the view of language, religion and technology as a one integrated unity.