“Turn alligator”

Image: Nout Gons


Figurative language is not synonymous with literature

In the recent and commented interview with Jornal Nacional, re-election candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PL) defended himself against the accusation of having been disrespectful in his statement that, due to the effect of the vaccine, people could “become an alligator”. According to the representative, he used a figure of speech and, in his words, “this is part of Portuguese literature” – which would legitimize the rhetorical choice.

This direct association between figurative language and literary language is, however, a common misconception, including among those who suggest – honestly or not – giving prestige to literary art. Therefore, in the name of truth, it is convenient to distinguish the two things.


Metaphors of everyday life

In the already distant year of 1980, the linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published the celebrated Metaphors we live by (or “Metáforas da vida quotidian”, as published in Portuguese). In general terms, the work addresses how the very development of language is due to the human capacity to create metaphors.

Adopting a cognitive perspective, scholars show that metaphor is not only in linguistic expression, but in our own conception of the world. For the authors, we use metaphors to, through our concrete experience, make more abstract notions tangible.

This is what happens, for example, with our way of conceptualizing the idea of ​​a love relationship. According to the authors, when it is said that two people in love decided to “walk the road of life together”, or that “their paths crossed”, or that, after a disappointment, “each one took their own path”, it is taken as reference an element of our concrete experience (moving along a path) to conceptualize a more abstract notion (a couple's love relationship).

In this way, the refined linguistic theory of Lakoff and Johnson requires recognizing that metaphors (as well as other figurative relations) are not limited to the literary text, which does not mean to say that they cannot be part of it. In this sense, what would differentiate a literary metaphor from another, ordinary one?


Jakobson and the poetic function

With his gaze focused on the poetic function of language, the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson (1896 – 1982) helps us understand that figures of speech are not synonymous with literature. in your essay linguistics and poetics, Jakobson, in addition to establishing a bold systematization of language functions, also proposes that we do not ignore existing overlaps between them.

Among other examples, he analyzes the political slogan “I like Ike”, which was part of the campaign for the election of Eisenhower – 34th US president (1953-1961). For Jakobson, it is undeniable that the utterance makes use of expressive resources (such as assonance and alliteration), which are indeed elements associated with the poetic function. However, this does not make the advertising text, in which the appealing function of language predominates, integrate literary genres. Rather, what we see is a statement with clear persuasive functions (in this case, electing a candidate) appropriating rhetorical strategies associated with literature.


Figurative language and persuasion: the value of expressiveness

It is not for merely aesthetic purposes that political discourse makes use of figurative language. Non-literal expressions can serve to make the understanding of more abstract ideas accessible to the public (which occurs when comparing the formation of a ministry to the composition of a football team, for example), or even to produce a high impact on the audience, attributing thus greater relevance to the content served. The statement that the vaccinated individual could turn into an “alligator” seems to be included in both criteria.

In this way, using an expressive resource, the president was able to highlight the thesis that vaccines could cause unpredictable, undesirable, extreme and irreversible side effects - just as would happen to someone who turned into a reptile considered dangerous. The use of figurative language, in this case, was a powerful weapon not only to discourage vaccination, but also to promote denialism and conspiracy theories. It is difficult, therefore, to conclude that this is “Portuguese literature”. Even less good literature.

*Henrique Santos Braga He holds a PhD in Philology and Portuguese Language from USP.

*Marcelo Modolo is professor of philology at the University of São Paulo (USP).

A first version of this article was published in Journal of USP .


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