Dr William Short

Research interests

Building on the foundation of Bettinian historical anthropology (in particular its emphasis on language as probably the most immediate index to culture and its seeking to privilege the “native’s” point of view in ethnographic description), my research extends theories of the second-generation (“embodied”) cognitive sciences to anthropological analysis by using patterns of metaphorical expression in Latin to reconstruct the sorts of conceptual models that organize Roman culture at large. My aim overall is to show how Latin speakers’ thought, speech, and behaviour across even seemingly unrelated contexts of social practice were felt to be unified and interconnected – and thus meaningful – within a cohesive worldview marked by its own distinctive metaphorical ‘themes’.

In my research to date, I have tried to develop two strands of this metaphor-based approach to Roman culture. The World through Roman Eyes, co-edited with Maurizio Bettini, showcases the “emic” approach I share with his school of Roman anthropology. With Embodiment in Latin Semantics, I introduced a body of scholarship that illustrates the pervasive role of embodied cognitive processes (especially image-schematic conceptualization) in Latin speakers’ meaning-making, from the level of word sense to that of literary thematics. Article-length publications have instead focused on the metaphorical structuring of individual concepts. For example, “Spatial Metaphors of Time in Roman Culture” (CW, 2016) demonstrated how Latin’s vertical and horizontal linear metaphors of time function as pervasive figurative themes that organize visual representation in spheres of Roman life as diverse as kinship practice, calendarmaking, funerary art, and urban monumentalization. “‘Transmission’ Accomplished?” (AJP, 2013) and “A Roman Folk Model of the Mind” (Arethusa, 2012) showed how systems of metaphor work together to produce mental models for conceptualizing and reasoning about communication and the mind.

My current project focuses on concepts of courage and cowardice in Roman culture. Unlike other studies centred on the concept of courage as 'manliness' (virtus) and its role in in the dynamics of elite social competition or its development as a moral value concept, my interest is in the concept of animus and especially in its metaphorical structuring through images derived from the phenomenology of the so-called 'fight or flight' response. I trace how these embodied metaphors organize different aspects of Roman society's symbolic activity, including in conventionalized linguistic expression, rhetorical formulations, mythic representation and artistic depiction.

Planned future projects will similarly capitalize on this approach. Roman Cultural Semantics is envisioned as a handbook for students wishing to undertake research at the intersection of cognitive semantics, cultural semiotics, and classical philology. I also plan to return to material from my doctoral research for another monograph. In my dissertation, I explained Latin speakers’ characterization of sermo as both “fatherly” (patrius) and “pure” (purus) in terms of a conceptual elision between language and blood (which according to the Romans’ “savage biology” belongs exclusively to the father and must be kept pure). In the book, I will show instead how metaphorical images of “fatherliness” and of “purity” operate as large-scale cultural themes creating whole networks of symbolic association.

My research interests also cover the digital humanities. In this area, I am developing a project that seeks to create an interactive, extensible on-line Latin lexicon that eschews the alphabetic linear ordering of traditional dictionaries to organize the meanings of linguistic expressions according to all-pervasive metaphors – that is, in terms of high-order patterns of figurative meaning that operate in Latin’s semantic system at a level that is supra-lexical to better represent how Latin speakers actually conceptualized concepts. A second project will build on current corpus search tools by integrating semantic and syntactic information so that searches can be executed on the basis of meanings and grammatical configurations.