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Metaphors We Live By

This is a book review by David Overton of Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (University Of Chicago Press - April 15, 1980). David Overton teaches general and company classes in the center and north of Madrid (he lives in Sanchinarro).

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Teaches English classes in companies and in his own private home.

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I’m going to be discussing the book, Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and I must say it’s certainly given me food for thought, though I should warn you that it’s meaty: this is not light reading, though the fact that abundant examples are given throughout keeps things from getting stodgy.

By the way, I’ve just said the ideas in the book are “food for thought”, “meaty” and not “stodgy”. This is an example of the conceptual metaphor, IDEAS ARE FOOD. Ideas, of course, aren’t really food, but we use our concept of food to structure our concept of ideas. Food is something concrete that we experience directly, so we can use this physical concept to structure an abstract concept, in this case, “ideas”. This structuring is systematic, thus we can speak of “half baked ideas”, “digesting the facts”, you can “stew over something”, or say, “I can’t swallow that claim”.

The main point of this book is that metaphors are much more than just a matter of language: they shape and structure our concepts and influence how we live our lives. In fact, if Lakoff and Johnson are right, most of our concepts are formed by metaphors. This has huge implications in many different fields. This book is actually categorized as philosophy / linguistics because it does challenge basic philosophical beliefs such as meaning is something disembodied and “out there”, independent of human understanding. The authors’ view is that meaning is dependent on human interpretation, which by the way is always partial and incomplete, but I’ll come to that in a minute.

Let’s look at another example of a conceptual metaphor, of how a concrete phenomenon structures a less concrete one, in this case, how our concept of war shapes our concept of argument: this is the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor. We can “win and lose” an argument, view the person you’re arguing with as your “opponent” or “enemy”, you “attack” their “position” and “defend” your own, you can “shoot down” arguments, and say that claims are “indefensible”.

The book says, “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another”. In this case, we view an argument in the same way we view a war. It’s important to notice that metaphor here is not merely a literary phrase but an essential part of how we define our everyday reality. It’s true that there can be cultural variations of complex metaphor. There may be cultures that view arguments totally differently, perhaps without the competitive win-lose viewpoint. They may view arguments as two rivers flowing into one creating mutual harmony and understanding.

Perhaps now is a good time to point out the practical implications of this for working English teachers. It’s true this book wasn’t written specifically for us, but it obviously has major implication for English teachers. Sometimes in class we speak of the “logic” of a language. That logic is basically the metaphor system. The key word here is “system”. For example, in the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor, there is a group of expressions that link war with argument; it would be logical when one comes up in class to teach a few more collocations of this type.

Another example of this is LOVE IS A CONTAINER, which is an ontological metaphor. This type of metaphor turns our experiences into objects or substances. So in English we can say we’re “in love”, which suggests we’re in a container called “love”. What’s more, we can have a “falling out”, when we fall out of the container metaphorically speaking. Even friends can have a falling out, so RELATIONSHIPS ARE CONTAINERS as well. You can also “split up” or “break up” which means your relationship container is broken.

It can be fascinating illustrating these concepts to your students this way. I sometimes ask them to compare the English metaphor with the Spanish one with interesting results. (By the way, you have to be careful when doing Spanish-English contrastive analysis unless you want to have a translation class.) Anyway, my students told me that one way in Spanish to say “I’m in love with her” is “Estoy colado por ella”. “Colado” means caught in the “coladero”, that is in the “colander”, the strainer. So in Spanish love can be viewed as being “trapped” in her charms or personality, which suggests it’s not voluntary.

Actually there are sometimes many metaphors to view the same concept. For example, for love there is LOVE IS A JOURNEY as in “I don’t think our relationship is going anywhere” or “We went out separate ways”, LOVE IS A PHYSICAL FORCE as in “I could feel the electricity” or “There were sparks flying”, or LOVE IS MADNESS as in “I’m crazy about her”.

This is positive because metaphors only give an incomplete, partial view of reality:
they highlight some things and hide others. For example, in the well-known metaphor TIME IS MONEY, you can spend time or spend money, waste time or money, run out of time or run out of money, and you can budget your time. The physical concept of money is used to structure the more abstract concept of time. This may be useful in the workplace, but perhaps not so much at the weekend or on holiday when, if we live by this metaphor, leisure time may become something like work.

By the way, the title is Metaphors We Live By because that’s literally what we do; these metaphors shape our concept of the world and the way we live our lives. There are other possible metaphors we could use for time like TIME IS A FLOWING RIVER. We could say things like “I flowed through the weekend”. If we lived by this metaphor, we’d probably lead a different sort of lifestyle, undoubtedly one with less pressure and stress.

Another example of how metaphors hide and highlight certain aspects is the LABOUR IS A RESOURCE metaphor. This is how many corporations view their staff, as coal or oil, a physical resource. This encourages staff to be treated as things. “Let’s transfer staff here, let’s reduce staff there, let’s relocate to the third world country where there’s abundant cheap labour that aren’t fussy about low wages and no benefits.” This hides the fact that labour is people with families, mortgages, and mouths to feed. Metaphors have the power to shape the way we view the world, for better of for worse: in this case it can be dehumanising.

In fact, “metaphors can kill”. That’s the first line of an article I found on the internet by George Lakoff. Metaphors are powerful tools used by politicians and public relation people to frame the debate. The WAR metaphor is a good example of this, for example, THE WAR ON DRUGS they speak of battles, victories, defeats, tactical manoeuvres, enemies, allies. But the point is that it’s hard to get outside a metaphor and view it from another perspective. It’s important to note that WAR ON DRUGS is not the only metaphor available. It could have been framed as MASSIVE SUPPORT FOR DRUG USERS SO THEY WON’T NEED DRUGS IN THE FIRST PLACE, or maybe both metaphors at once. When there’s only one metaphor pushed by politicians and the media, it limits the debate and shapes it to their liking. A much more current version of the WAR metaphor is, of course, the WAR ON TERROR. In this case, however, this has been used to justify actual invasions and wars. Again, it could have been framed very differently and with different results.

The authors mention there are conventional conceptual metaphors, all of the ones that I’ve mentioned so far, and original, creative ones. Let’s look at one more conventional metaphor for a moment, and then we’ll see how we can have fun with it. The metaphor is THEORIES (AND ARGUMENTS) ARE BUILDINGS. You can speak of the “foundation” of an argument, you can “construct” an argument and “support” it with facts, and argument can “fall apart” or even “collapse”. It’s possible to be original and creative with this sort of metaphor, in fact writers often are, for example, “your argument is made of cheap stucco”, or maybe “your argument has cheap plumbing and is backing up”.

This illustrates once again the partial, incomplete nature of metaphors. In this case we see that only certain aspects of buildings are used to structure our concept of theories. In fact, this partial nature gives rise to the creative element. If building and theories were exactly the same, they would no longer be metaphors: they would be the same thing. As a matter of fact, it’s easy not to see the metaphorical nature of concepts.

Maybe now is a good point to introduce some of the jargon used in this book, because you do have to deal with that and I have been avoiding it so far. The authors speak of the source domain of a metaphor: in the THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS metaphor, that would be the buildings, and the target domain, which would be theories. Basically the source domain structures the target domain via “mappings”, which are the correspondences between the two, for example, the foundation of a building and the foundation of a theory.

Getting back to creative new metaphors, this sound like something we could easily make into a classroom activity. In fact, the book illustrates how this can be done in the chapter called New Meaning (chapter 21). The authors invent a metaphor about love: LOVE IS A COLLABORATIVE WORK OF ART. More jargon here: all metaphors have “entailments”, which is what the metaphor suggests or implies. They have thought of 25 entailments for this one, a few of which are Love is work, Love is active, Love requires cooperation, Love demands sacrifice, Love involves creativity, Love creates a reality. Having students write entailments for new (and conventional) metaphors sounds like time well spent involving both creativity and raising awareness of the importance of conceptual metaphors.

There are three types of metaphors: structural, for example, THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS, ontological, for example, LOVE IS A CONTAINER and orientational, which we haven’t seen yet. These metaphors are normally grounded in the movement of our body in space, for example, up and down, in and out, front and back. They give our concepts a spatial orientation, for example, HAPPY IS UP and SAD IS DOWN. So we say, “I’m feeling up”, “I’m feeling down”, “I fell into a depression”, “My spirits soared”. Another very common orientational metaphor is MORE IS UP and LESS IS DOWN, for example, “Prices are going up”, “The stock market fell”, “Turn up the volume”, “Turn down the volume”, and hundreds more.

I mentioned earlier that most people don’t recognize conceptual metaphors as metaphors: I’d say that’s especially the case with orientational metaphors. That’s probably true because it’s such conventional, everyday language. Again, most people think of metaphors as merely linguistic creativity in literature.

Another example of an orientational metaphor is UP IS UNKNOWN, DOWN IS KNOWN, for example, “It’s up in the air”, “the matter is settled”, “What’s up?”. The authors point out that, generally speaking, in English rising intonation indicates a question, that is, asking about the unknown, whereas falling intonation indicates a statement, that is, saying what’s known. So it may well be that English intonation is grounded in an orientation metaphor.

The exception to the rule appears to be Wh- questions, which end in falling intonation. The authors suggest that in this type of question the speaker knows most of the information and just needs a bit more, so this may explain why the intonation goes down.

In the chapter called Truth, the authors defend an experiential account of truth as opposed to an objective or subjective view. This means that through interaction with the world, people develop expectations of the world and of language. These expectations are constantly being tested by ongoing successful functioning in the culture. This helps explain how languages are learnt, what’s more, I see a connection with the Lexical Approach, which is an exposure approach to language, that is, we learn language by interacting with it; and with Lexical Priming, which is a theory of language which says that we develop expectations of how words and grammar combine. This is one of the more philosophical elements in the book, and very interesting to deepen our understanding of how languages work.

This book was written in 1980, which was obviously a while ago, but it contains an Afterword written in 2003. These 31 pages try to bring us up to speed on some of the developments in those 23 years. For example, the book is about complex metaphors, which as we’ve seen are basic physical concepts structuring more abstract ones. Now the importance of primary metaphors is also being stressed. These are basic concepts learnt in childhood such as AFFECTION IS WARMTH. When we receive affection as children it’s physically warm, so we associate the two. Another is KNOWING IS SEEING because as young children if we “know” something it’s because we see it. We all have hundreds of primary concepts which are stable and independent of language. Don’t forget, conceptual metaphors are based on concepts, they aren’t just a matter of words. The primary metaphors are the basis for more complex ones.

Another significant change is the bringing together of Metaphor Theory with the Neural Theory of Language. Earlier I was speaking of mapping from the source domain to the target domain. Now this is mapped onto the cerebral cortex and is given a physical reality. By the way, they call this a metaphor of metaphor: it’s a way to structure our view of metaphorical concepts. This came about to help explain how we make connections from one domain to another, that is, how we can creatively take concepts from one field and apply them to another. This is important because of the partial nature on metaphors, that is, when we use building to structure our concept of arguments, we don’t take all the aspects of buildings and apply them to arguments, only certain ones. How can we connect only a part of one concept to another? The answer is through neural connections. This is interesting because it basically explains the process of creativity, which is making connections, linking different concepts, and again, making neural connections.

In the Afterword, the authors also mention the different applications of their metaphor theory. It’s been applied to Literary Analysis, Politics, Law, Social Issues, Psychology, Mathematics (that’s metaphorical too!), Philosophy and Cognitive Linguistics. Applied Linguistics and language teaching aren’t mentioned but obviously the way we view language changes the way we teach it. That’s why theory is interesting.

This book is not fast food but a high protein diet; you may have to work to take it in, but it’s well worth it. A healthy diet of thought-provoking ideas will help you grow as a person and as a teacher. I highly recommend this book.

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