Eating your Words: 'Oral' Metaphors of Auditory Perception in Roman Culture

William M. Short


In this paper, I analyze a series of oral metaphors of auditory perception in Latin texts from a cognitive linguistic perspective. Literary and linguistic evidence suggests that metaphors of 'eating' in particular provided a coherent conceptual structure for understanding and speaking about aspects of aural experience in Roman culture: 'devouring' expresses the concept of hearing with enthusiasm, while 'tasting' gives that of determining someone’s disposition by means of their speech, and 'flavor' that of literary or oratorical style. This metaphor may find its motivation in universal experiences of human physical embodiment; however, the close conceptual linkage between the mouth and ears as the organs primarily responsible for linguistic communication appears to have been particularly salient in Roman thought, as reflected at the linguistic level by the use of the prefixes e-/ex- 'out' and pro- 'forth' with verbs of speech, as well as by expressions such as auribus percipere, in which hearing is imagined as the an act of 'seizing' something with the ears, and at the cultural level by beliefs in the weasel — an animal believed to conceive through the ears and give birth through the mouth — as a symbol of communication. Moreover, I argue that as part of Roman culture’s 'signifying order', the metaphor EATING IS HEARING underlies the form of the convivium (dinner party), where guests would be entertained, as they ate, by readings of prose or poetry, suggesting that Roman social practice maintained at the level of behavior the same conceptual association that we see in the language.

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