The secret life of metaphors: what can we learn from studying metaphors in bilingual literature?

Wayuu textiles
Paul McAleer

“Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. We utter about six metaphors a minute. Metaphorical thinking is essential to how we understand ourselves and others, how we communicate, learn, discover and invent. But metaphor is a way of thought before it is a way with words.”

— James Geary, author, I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World

As far as we know, metaphors are a universal aspect of all the languages spoken throughout the world. This is because metaphors are essential tools to convey abstract ideas. Indeed, many linguists argue that all language, even the most prosaic examples, are metaphors. We speak in metaphors all the time, without knowing it, or at least, without giving it a second thought. Such metaphors, if they are to successfully express an idea, also have to be recognisable. We the listener or the reader require an archive of linguistic and social knowledge in order to understand them. But how do metaphors interact across languages in multilingual communities? My research attempts to shed light on this process by studying the bilingual literature of the Wayuu.

The Wayuu are a relatively large indigenous community of Colombia, who reside in La Guajira, a north-eastern region of Colombia and the adjacent Venezuelan territory. Due to centuries of colonialism and neo-colonialism they have been required to learn to speak and use Spanish when interacting with the state. However, unlike many indigenous communities in the Americas, they have been able to resist the decimation of their own language: Wayunaiki. Indeed, many sociolinguistic studies have observed that the majority of the Wayuu community is bilingual.

The Wayuu I know and with whom I have worked are certainly bilingual and they also lead a daily life in which they constantly enter and exit Hispanic, westernised social spheres and more traditional Wayuu ones. There have also been a number of studies on the way in which the bilingual Wayuu translanguage. Translanguaging is a theory of bilingualism that argues that bilingual individuals and communities often treat the two languages they speak as a holistic linguistic source, rather than two separate ones. This relationship leads to a complex and constant dialogic relationship, in which meanings can be interchanged and/or be changed as they are transferred between the two languages. My experience of learning Wayuu and speaking in Spanish and Wayunaiki (though I admit mainly in Spanish) with my Wayuu colleagues led me to wonder about the function of metaphors across these languages. So, I decided to study the function and meaning of metaphors in the work of Wayuu authors, who employ both languages in their short stories and poems.

Photo of kanas
The kanasü (traditional designs) that we used in the workshop in the Institución Educativa Internado Indígena San José

This research revealed that metaphors, at least in the works of the writers I have analysed, do cross over, or perhaps better said, operate in relation to each other across Wayunaiki and Spanish. For example, in the story ‘Ni era vaca ni era caballo’ (It Wasn’t a Cow or a Horse) a ‘camión’ (truck) functions as a metaphor and sometimes a conceit for the protagonist’s loss of identity and the westernisation of Wayuu culture and the resultant fear of acculturation this has produced in Wayuu society (i.e. the loss of Wayuu culture and identity). Moreover, this metaphor intertwines constantly with the word ‘Yolu’ja’, which in Wayunaiki is a malignant spirit that robs individuals of their identity and/or life force (I am simplifying the function of the Yolu’ja here). The Yolu’ja also often functions as a metaphorical explanation for loss, illness and catastrophes in traditional Wayuu culture. Thus these two metaphors, ‘camión’ and ‘Yolu’ja’, create a dialogic relationship, in which different but contingent meanings are constantly produced across Wayunaiki and Spanish.

Another aim of the project was to develop prototype ideas and practices on how this type of bilingual literature could be used in educational contexts, specifically in ethno-educational schools in La Guajira (in schools that promote knowledge of Wayuu culture and Wayunaiki). In order to do this, the team set up a series of workshops in local schools in which Wayuu students and non-Wayuu students interacted with short stories written by Wayuu authors in different ways. The aim of these workshops was to increase the students’ knowledge of Wayuu traditions and to encourage creative learning across the languages and, of course, strengthen the students’ knowledge and communicative abilities in Spanish and Wayunaiki.

We decided to introduce the stories in different ways. Students read some excerpts while Estercilia Pushaina Simanca, the renowned Wayuu author, generously volunteered to read out other sections of the stories. We also attempted to relate the themes of the short stories to traditional Wayuu vessels of knowledge (such as the designs on artisanal Wayuu bags and hammocks). Finally, we asked them to write their own stories based on Wayuu myths covered in the workshops using both Spanish and Wayunaiki.

Photo of students
Wayuu students listening to Wayuu author Estercilia Pushaina Simanca reading her story ‘El encierro de una doncella’

All in all, I was absolutely thrilled with the success of the workshops. The students displayed a heart-warming enthusiasm towards the activities and fully engaged with them. While the effectiveness of the methods we used cannot be ascertained or measured at this point as the workshops were only trial runs, all the individuals involved felt that we had achieved something tangible. The students themselves stated overwhelmingly in the impact feedback sheet that they had learnt about aspects of Wayuu traditions and culture. They also stated that they would now be more likely to seek out a member of the family or the community to learn more about Wayuu myths and stories. We also detected a real pride in the students in relation to the stories that they wrote, which were displayed on the classroom wall.

This experience has led me to believe that creative and bilingual activities have the potential to be effective and important tools to help maintain knowledge and hopefully the practice of Wayuu traditions in the next generation of Wayuu children, who face even more temptation and pressure to turn their back on their own culture.

A big thank you to all who were involved in the project. I look forward to continuing the development of our ideas so that they can have real tangible impact on a greater scale in the future.

Dr Paul McAleer is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Hull with a special interest in the role of bilingualism in Latin American indigenous literatures and education.

Where next?

Performing multilingualism for monolingual audiences

How we worked with children to produce heritage language resources

FILM: Artificial Intelligence in the World of Languages