Metaphor or the war on words – a critical analysis of the theory of conceptual metaphors

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Conceptual metaphors: target & source, mapping and the systematicity of metaphorical concepts

3 Problems in reasoning: Love is a journey

4 Coherence and consistency

5 Problem of multiple metaphors

6 Conclusion and outlook

7 Bibliography

“Had L[akoff] & J[ohnson] left for a while speculations based on English and concerned themselves with the problem of cross-cultural communication and with the kind of lexicography which is needed to build bridges across language and culture boundaries, they would have noticed that linguists can’t always live by metaphors” (Wierzbicka 1986: 308).

1 Introduction

Language is versatile. Language is complex. Language can be a mystery. For example, why do we say chair leg although legs are usually thought of being a part of the human body or an animal? Why do we refer to the ground where a river runs through as a river bed ? Is a bed not usually an object that we use to sleep in? And why is it that we can say I’m surfing the web although surfing typically means to ride one’s board on ocean waves? The news report says, The Iraq democracy is in its infancy. Would we not typically use infancy when we talk about children, or refer to a person’s childhood? If we consider the above examples, we can easily draw the conclusion that these words – besides their original meaning – can be used “outside of their natural environment”. Words and their meaning can be transferred to a different domain. The name for such a transfer is metaphor. Lakoff and Johnson define metaphor as follows:

“The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” (5)

It was not until the publication of the groundbreaking work of Lakoff & Johnson in 1980 that metaphors had widely been thought of as a device for poets and writers who desire to enrich their literary works and evoke rich images in their readership. These devices are known as figures of speech, which were established by antique poets and philosophers such as Aristotle and have been used in poetry ever since. For example, Love is a fragile flower opening to the warmth of spring, is just the kind of expression we would think of when talking about metaphors. It is a very flowery language used to make thoughts more vivid and interesting. We typically find them in novels or, even more likely, in poetry. However, as Lakoff and Johnson point out, one does not have to be a distinguished poet or writer to produce and use such a figure like metaphor. According to Lakoff and Johnson, our everyday language is pervaded by metaphors (cf. Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 1). In addition to the examples above, here are a few more examples, which are very common and used in everyday language: He saw a light at the end of the tunnel; your aunt is a pearl; Peter is running out of money. Such expressions are obviously metaphoric, in that they do not convey a literal meaning. When hearing or uttering such sentences, we are, of course, intuitively aware of the fact that there is no one walking through an actual tunnel, that a person cannot turn into a pearl, and that Peter is not really running out of a huge pile of dollar bills. However, most of the metaphors we use every day are so familiar and conventionalized that we do not usually recognize them as such, but use them subconsciously. Lakoff and Johnson also suggest that much of our thought and perception is based on the fact that “there are metaphors in a person’s conceptual system” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 6). They refer to this phenomenon as metaphorical concepts, according to which metaphor is a conceptual, rather than a mere linguistic construction. Lakoff and Johnson argue that metaphors define our reality, the way we think and what we experience. Indeed, it seems very difficult to think and talk about certain concepts without using a metaphor. Time, for example, can hardly be talked about without referring to expressions relating to space or motion:

a. Christmas is approaching.
b. We’re moving towards Christmas.
c. Christmas is not very far away.[1]
d. Time flies.

This paper will highlight Lakoff’s and Johnson’s major claim that metaphor is not only a poetic device, or simply a (linguistic) matter of spoken words, but that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (Lakoff & Johnson 1980: 3). I shall explain some of the most important devices of their theory, such as target, source, and mapping and briefly elucidate the systematicity that underlies metaphorical conceptualization. The analysis of the conceptual metaphor, love is a journey, will reveal some ambiguities about Lakoff’s and Johnson’s theory. By doing this, I will consider some of the major critiques and analyze whether there is an underlying conceptual metaphoric system in our everyday language.

The revolutionary work of Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, will obviously serve as a main reference to this paper. In order to fully understand the whole extent of their theory, and the critiques that Lakoff and Johnson have had to face ever since their publication, I consider it crucial to clarify in what way their findings “shattered” the understanding of metaphor and its role in language and mind. Thus, I will cite a small excerpt from their “afterword” published later in 2003:

“In spite of the massive and growing evidence for them, our basic claims have nonetheless met resistance for an obvious reason: they are inconsistent with assumptions that many people in the academic world and elsewhere first learned and that shaped the research agendas they still pursue. Many mainstream philosophers, linguists, and psychologists either have vehemently denied these claims or have preferred to ignore them and to go about their ordinary business as if the claims were false. The reason is clear – our claims strike at the heart of centuries-old assumptions about the nature of meaning, thought, and language. If the new empirical results are taken seriously, then people throughout our culture have to rethink some of their most cherished beliefs about what science and philosophy are and reconsider their values from a new perspective” (Lakoff & Johnson 1980: 273).

It seems comprehensible why people might have difficulties agreeing with these still relatively new findings. Lakoff and Johnson and many other (cognitive) linguists believe, however, that the basic concept, namely the way we think and talk, is grounded in conceptual metaphors.

I must admit – and this is part of the reason why I chose to write about it in this paper – that I was not fully aware of the metaphorical dimension omnipresent in the way we think and conceptualize. The fact that much of our thought, language and action may be conceptualized and governed by metaphors raised my interest in this subject matter and seemed to be an exciting hypothesis to myself.

2 Conceptual metaphors: target & source, mapping and the systematicity of metaphorical concepts

Subsequent to Metaphors We Live By, a series of books by Lakoff and others were published which underline the crucial role of metaphor in everyday language and thought. Lakoff and Johnson differentiate between linguistic metaphor and conceptual metaphor. According to Lakoff and Johnson, metaphor is the result of a cognitive process that is understood as a conceptual instrument (cf. Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 3f.). In other words, “human thought processes are largely metaphorical” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 6). It helps people structure their everyday perception and action, which is why metaphors are ubiquitous in everyday language. One of Lakoff’s ad Johnson’s most controversial findings is their claim that “metaphors as linguistic expressions are possible precisely because there are metaphors in a person’s conceptual system”. (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 6) That is the metaphorical transfer takes place on the conceptual level and then takes effect on the linguistic level in conventionalized metaphoric expressions such as Christmas is approaching.

One of the most important features of their approach is the so called “mapping”, a set of correspondences between two different domains, or, to be more precise, between two elements in two domains. Whereas the target domain is being described, the source domain represents the realm in terms of which the target domain is described. In a more cognitive linguistic terminology one could portray the source domain corresponding to the traditional notion of the metaphor vehicle and the target domain being the equivalent to the traditional metaphor tenor (cf. Taylor 2002: 488). A simple but clear example will illustrate this. The concept argument and the conceptual metaphor argument is war[2] are mirrored in a great many expressions in our everyday language. The domain argument is the source and war the target. Consider the following conceptual metaphor:

Argument is war[3]

a. Your claims are indefensible.
b. He attacked every weak point in my argument.
c. His criticisms were right on target.
d. I demolished his argument.
e. I’ve never won an argument with him.
f. You disagree? Okay, shoot !
g. If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
h. He shot down all of my arguments.

There are many different ways of describing an argument in terms of war. What Lakoff and Johnson point out in these examples is the fact that we do not only use the war-terminology to talk about arguments. What is much more important than that is that we also perceive our dialog partner in an argument as our opponent, whose position we try to attack while defending our own. The result could be that we lose the argument, even though, we think that we have the right tactic and use the best strategies we know to win. Lakoff and Johnson argue that “[…] though there is no physical battle there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument – attack, defense, counterattack, etc. – reflects this” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 4). Lakoff and Johnson provide many other common examples for conceptual metaphors we use every day, such as time is money, love is a journey, love is war, ideas are plants, significant is big, live is a gambling game, physical and emotional states are entities within a person, to name but a few (cf. Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 46ff.).[4]

Another crucial aspect of Lakoff’s and Johnson’s findings is the systematicity that underlies those metaphorical concepts. In their example time is money Lakoff and Johnson elucidate what significance the metaphorical concept time is money has in modern Western culture[5] and in what way it is structured and conceptualized. We perceive time in terms of money because in our culture time is conceived of being a valuable commodity. Sentences like the following exemplify that in our understanding and experience time is something […] “that can be spent, wasted, budgeted, invested wisely or poorly, saved or squandered” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 8).

a. You’re wasting my time.
b. I don’t have the time to give you.
c. You need to budget your time.
d. That flat tire cost me an hour.
e. Put aside some time for Ping Pong.
f. I lost a lot of time when I got sick.[6]


[1] Examples adopted from Evans & Green (2006: 290).

[2] “In the literature of the field, small capitals like love is a journey are used as mnemonics to name mappings. Thus, when [Lakoff and Johnson] refer to the love is a journey metaphor, [they] are referring to [a] set of correspondences […]. The English sentence love is a journey, on the other hand, is a metaphorical expression that is understood via the set of correspondences” (Lakoff 2006: 192).

[3] Examples adopted from Lakoff and Johnson (1980: 4).

[4] For a detailed list of conceptual metaphors see the following homepage:

[5] Since metaphorical concepts are based on our everyday experience, our culture, philosophy and psychology are integral parts of our perception of the world and influence the way we think about certain concepts. Lakoff and Johnson point out that the conceptual metaphor time is money is tied to our culture and modern industrialized societies. Thus, there are cultures where time is not perceived as any of these things and where time might therefore be structured in a totally different manner (cf. Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 9).

[6] Examples adopted from Lakoff and Johnson (1980: 8).

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Metaphor or the war on words – a critical analysis of the theory of conceptual metaphors
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar )
Hauptseminar Cognitive Linguistics
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Metaphor, Hauptseminar, Cognitive, Linguistics
Quote paper
Markus Bulgrin (Author), 2007, Metaphor or the war on words – a critical analysis of the theory of conceptual metaphors, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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