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Are we able to see the etymological traces of metaphors?

Language develops and changes constantly, and traces of earlier expressions are often found in later formulations. However, as time goes by these connections may become obscure and blurred to the everyday speaker – or even get lost altogether.

While I have been looking at metaphors related to education, I have come across one such example expression in Finnish. As Kaisa Häkkinen (2013: 1307) writes in her etymological dictionary, the most commonly accepted explanation for the verb tietää ‘to know’ claims that the verb is etymologically derived from the word tie ‘a way, road’. Originally, it was supposed to have meant ‘to know one’s way, find one’s way’, and possibly also ‘to follow the track marked by traces in the ground’, which could easily conceived of developing into a more general meaning about knowing a certain procedure or learning about something.

If this explanation holds true, the verb tietää could be thought of as metaphorical in itself, and the claim is backed up by etymological evidence. However, I very much doubt that an ordinary native speaker today would be able to make use of this metaphorical connection, even unconsciously – although the word tietää clearly contains the syllable tie, which the native speaker in various other contexts would recognize as referring to a way/road.

So, although we linguists might like to defend the view that the verb tietää is by nature metaphorical, it is another question how metaphorically the verb is conceptualized by an ordinary speaker. Of course, at this point the question remains open. A possible answer could be provided by further research, and this is one way in which we in MetNet Scandinavia can prove ourselves to be useful.

At the beginning of another school year, the words for knowing and knowledge become relevant for new generations. The UEF Teacher Training school in Länsikatu provides tuition for primary grades.

The next writer to contribute to this blog chain is the co-chair of the MetNet Scandinavia network, Marlene Johansson Falck.


Häkkinen, Kaisa 2013. Nykysuomen etymologinen sanakirja [The etymological dictionary of modern Finnish]. Helsinki: Sanoma Pro.

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Thanks, this was really interesting. A well-explained example from Finnish showing how a word that is metaphorical in origin is not necessarily metaphorical in contemporary use!

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