JULY 2006 IN

Walking is More Than a Metaphor

Walking is probably the most important cultural metaphor in the world. The walking metaphor is so common that it is easy to stop noticing it, so pervasive that it is easy to forget that it is only a metaphor. At the same time, of course, walking is more than a metaphor. It is one of the most natural and useful things for a person to do. You can’t understand the human condition without understanding the experience of walking.

Walking and Talking

The easiest way to discover the walking metaphor is by looking at patterns of language. The walking metaphor is present in varying degrees in most of the languages of the world. In the Indo-European languages spoken by half the people in the world, walking is so prevalent that it could be said to be the dominant metaphor of the language.

You can see how widespread the walking metaphor by looking at a few examples of the areas where walking turns up:

Many words originated in metaphors, but the walking metaphor applies regardless of the specific words you choose. Whether you say “stop,” “wait,” “hold up,” or “chill out for a sec,” it implies the same combination of meanings.

It helps to be aware of the metaphors in language so that you aren’t limited by them. At the same time, it is fascinating to imagine a past in which walking was such an essential part of life that it became a central part of language. Perhaps staying together while walking was so important that a language was developed just for that. Or perhaps in some societies, walking was the one activity that reliably gave people time to talk to each other.

A Walking Beat

The walking metaphor is easy to find in language, but you’ll find it in even more compelling form in music. The steady four-count beat that gets so much emphasis in rock music is also found in virtually every musical tradition in the world. It is the rhythm of walking. In a less obvious way, the shuffle rhythm popular in blues and jazz is also based on a kind of walking. Most of the music you have ever heard has its roots in walking.

Some music is too slow or too fast for walking, but even then you understand it in reference to walking. The tempo of music is described according to walking paces. A moderate tempo is the same speed as a comfortable walking pace for an average adult. Similarly, music is called fast if it matches a fast walking speed or slow if it goes at a slow walking speed. Very slow music may become ponderous and heavy if you imagine the slower walk of a very large animal.

If the beat of music is based on walking, that may partly be because drumming started out as an imitation of walking. In the oldest tradition of drumming, a drummer plays a drum with both hands but strikes the drum with one hand at a time. The hands alternate in the same way that feet do when walking.

Built to Walk

You don’t have to look at language or music to appreciate the importance of walking. Anatomists see walking as the one distinctive innovation of the human body. Human feet, ankles, hips, ribs, and shoulders are dramatically different from other primates, they say, precisely to support the novel bipedal style of upright walking that humans employ.

If walking has this much importance as an idea and is also a key to understanding what it means to be human, then it’s fair to guess that walking also has some importance as an activity. Industrial societies have gone to impressive lengths to eliminate most walking from daily life, but perhaps walking is actually important for human health and happiness, and it might be time to start adding some of that walking back into our daily routines.

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