Aspects of Figurative Language

Metaphors, Idioms and Proverbs in Foreign Language Teaching

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

43 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Survey
2.1. Metaphors
2.1.1 Mapping of Metaphors
2.1.2 Metaphors as Experiences
2.1.3 Creation of Similarities
2.1.4 Metaphors vs. Similes
2.1.5 Novel vs. Conventional Metaphors
2.1.6 Dead vs. Alive Metaphors
2.1.7 Emotive Function
2.1.8 Expressing Humour
2.2. Idioms
2.2.1 Simply Phrasal Metaphors?
2.2.2 Types of Idioms
2.2.3 Functions of Idioms
2.2.4 Frozenness
2.2.5 Defining Idioms
2.3. Proverbs
2.3.1 Didactic Content
2.3.2 Fixedness

3. Why Teach Figurative Language?
3.1 Ortony’s Theses
3.2 Politeness
3.3 Social Competence
3.4. Didactic Content
3.4.1 Cultural Values
3.4.2 Understanding Literature
3.5 Near-native Speech

4. How to Teach Figurative Language
4.1. Background Information
4.1.1 Storage
4.1.2 Comprehension Process
4.1.3 Prerequisites
4.1.4 What to Teach
4.2. Teaching Strategies
4.2.1 Metaphors
4.2.2 Idioms
4.2.3 Proverbs

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Time is running out. It’ s raining cats and dogs. An apple a day keeps the doctor away.1 Those three statements are examples of figurative language of different types. Figurative expressions can be analogies, metonymies, metaphors, idioms or proverbs for example. But the distinction is not very clearly cut: an idiom is in most cases metaphorical, a metaphor can manifest into an idiom and proverbs are often classified as subcategories of idioms.

For learners of English as a foreign language (hereafter: EFL) it is harder to grasp the meaning of non-literal speech than it is for native speakers. One could claim that it is not important to learn how to use and understand figurative language as long as basic communication is possible. I will refute this argument and give evidence for the opposite claim that in fact figurative language is essential in communication and that it therefore needs to be given more attention in foreign language teaching.

In order to achieve this goal, I will give an overview of the concepts of metaphor, idiom and proverb in chapter two. I will analyse the different characteristics of metaphors by referring to, amongst others, important linguistics scholars like Lakoff and Johnson (1980), who describe metaphors as being concepts we live by and Black (1993), who claims that dead metaphors should not be called metaphors anymore. In the course of the description of idioms I will include a list of idioms as classified by Makkai (1972) and base the distinction between metonymically and metaphorically originating idioms on Ortony et al. (1978). The analysis of the most important characteristics of proverbs will be based on Norrick (1985).

In chapter three I will give reasons for the importance of teaching figurative language in language classes, which will include the analysis of Ortony’s (1975) compactness, inexpressibility and vividness theses, as well as Burke’s (1998) reasoning for teaching slang and idioms. Here, reasons like politeness, social competence, didactic content and near-native speech will be discussed.

Chapter four is dedicated to giving important information on how to teach idioms, metaphors and proverbs in EFL classes. In the first half of this chapter, important background information will be given by examining the prerequisites the students have to fulfill before being ready to be taught figurative language. It will also be determined which aspects of figurative language are important to be taught. In the second half of this chapter, hands-on tasks for teaching metaphors, idioms and proverbs, based on Holme (2004), Dong (2004), Liu (2008) and Chu (2003) will be presented and evaluated. Finally, in chapter five I will sum up my findings.

The general structure of this paper will be to discuss metaphors first, then idioms and finally proverbs. The reason for this is that metaphors often are the basis for idioms and proverbs, and that proverbs can be classified as subcategories of idioms (Makkai 1972).

2. Survey

(1) Time is running out.
(2) It ’ s raining cats and dogs.
(3) An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

These three examples seem easily distinguished. Most native speakers will instantly recognise (3) as a proverb. This is a correct evaluation as the saying consists of a whole sentence which does not have an infinitive and therefore cannot be modified in any way while maintaining its proverbial character:

(4) * 2 By not eating an apple a day you did not keep the doctor away.

(5) * I eat an apple a day and that keeps the doctor away.

These are still grammatically correct sentences but nobody would use them in this fashion as they are not clearly identifiable as proverbs anymore.

Example (2) is an idiom. What distinguishes it from a proverb? The infinitive of that statement is (to) rain cats and dogs. Therefore other sentence constructions are possible, without the saying being deprived of its idiomatic character:

(6) It was raining cats and dogs the other day.

(7) I felt sick the other day when it was raining cats and dogs.

As can be seen in these examples, the verb (to) rain can be conjugated (in this construction to some extent - more on this in 2.2.4) and the sentence can be extended without losing its figurative meaning, even though the verbal part cannot be separated from the noun phrase part of the idiom (cats and dogs).

Sentence (1) is probably the hardest expression to determine since most people will not even notice the metaphorical character when using an expression like this. When looking more closely at the construction one should notice that (to) run is a verb describing movement, which is used to denote a temporal process here. Therefore, in (1) running is a metaphorical expression, whereas in (8) below it is used literally as it describes the actual movement.

(8) Thomas is running faster than Julie.

When only considering examples (1) to (3), it seems obvious to draw the conclusion that whole fixed sentences are proverbs, partly fixed expressions are idioms and expressions that use the concept of one domain for referring to a different domain are metaphors. In its simplicity, this is a correct assessment, but still a much too undifferentiated categorisation. Therefore, the three different concepts will be looked at closely in the subsequent parts of the paper.

2.1. Metaphors

2.1.1 Mapping of Metaphors

What exactly is a metaphor? Trask gives the definition that a metaphor is the “nonliteral use of a linguistic form, designed to draw attention to a perceived resemblance” (2007: 169), like in examples (9) and (10) below the perceived resemblance between Tom and a bear in metaphor and simile form, which will be referred to again in 2.1.4:

(9) Tom is a bear.

(10) Tom is like a bear.

Since cognitive linguists have started examining figurative language, they have defined the concept even further by using the term of the conceptual metaphor. “A [...] conceptual metaphor is thus seen as a mental mapping between two domains: a source domain of familiar meanings and a target domain of the new meaning in focus.” (Trask 2007: 169) An example of a conceptual metaphor is for instance TIME IS MOVEMENT, which is evident in (1) as well as in a lot of other metaphorical expressions concerning time, like:

(11) Time is flying by / passing / ticking away.

Different scholars use the term metaphor in various ways. Lakoff (1993) for example uses the term metaphor to refer to the conceptual metaphor. For reasons of simplicity, in this paper the term metaphor will be used to denote metaphorical linguistic expressions like examples (9) - (11). Conceptual metaphors on the other hand will be explicitly referred to by calling them conceptual metaphor and by writing them in capital letters.

2.1.2 Metaphors as Experiences

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) explained the concept of metaphor as putting experiences of everyday life into words. They were, however, not the first linguists to discover this connection. Ortony also elaborated on the human continuation of perceiving experiences (1975: 45f). In other words, he pointed out that humans never stop experiencing and that therefore the expression of experiences in metaphors keeps changing. This is based on the fact that “words do not have distinct, sharply delineated meanings” and therefore “have to be sufficiently flexible to cover the range of possible applications” (Ortony 1975: 46). By expressing this view, Ortony claimed that words could not describe every aspect of experience and that metaphors are used to bridge that gap (1975: 46). By the way, this expression also is a figurative way of phrasing that the impossibility of expressing every proposition by means of different words is experienced as a deficiency, a metaphorical gap, which can be eliminated by a metaphorical bridge, the metaphor. As will be evident in subsequent parts of this paper, metaphors are often used to phrase experiences which cannot be expressed in literal ways.

Lakoff and Johnson further expand on how they view metaphors as concepts we live by. They give the example of the ARGUMENT IS WAR conceptual metaphor, from which they claim that “it structures the actions we perform in arguing” (1980: 4). In this case, I disagree with their claim. It is correct that an argument can be described in a similar way as a war, but I dare say that this is not the reason for how an argument is structured. Instead, an argument has the same characteristics as a war by chance and when people (sub-/consciously) noticed this, they began comparing the two concepts by means of metaphors. Thereby similarities were compared or even created, and since then argument and war have been linked concepts. Here, it is important to note that, like in most cases, the mapping works only one way, as the expression WAR IS ARGUMENT is not proven to be a conceptual metaphor. Gentner et al. explain the one-way-mapping by claiming that the more informative term is preferred by speaker and listener in the base position (2001: 238). This explanation raises the question of how to determine which term is more informative. Is the term war more informative than the term argument ? It could be seen that way, as a war always includes some kind of argument, whereas an argument hardly ever includes a war. This leads me to the assumption that the broader term is more likely to be the base term. Phrased differently, this means that hyponymy leaves its mark in figurative language by setting up the (implicit) rule that it is usually the hypernym which is the base term and therefore mapped onto the hyponym and not the other way around. When teaching students about metaphors it is therefore important to make them understand that most metaphors are not reversible, and even if they are, that reversing them usually creates a different sense relationship.

2.1.3 Creation of Similarities

An argument opposing Lakoff’s thesis “that metaphors do not draw on existing similarities, but rather create similarities” (qtd. in Gentner et al. 2001: 206) is that a target can have several source domains and therefore multiple conceptual metaphors. Gentner et al. give the examples of LOVE IS A JOURNEY, LOVE IS A DISEASE and LOVE IS A FIRE (2001: 207). If the source domains of those conceptual metaphors influenced the concept of love, then it would have to change every time that a new conceptual metaphor is established. This would also imply that conceptual metaphors are created arbitrarily instead of by reason, logic or some sort of semblance between source and target domain. The subsequent question to ask is: How is it possible to determine whether the similarities we perceive between source and target domain have been there before the connection was established, or whether they came up through the invention of the metaphor? It is not possible to prove either of the claims, but as indicated in 2.1.2 with the example of the ARGUMENT IS WAR conceptual metaphor, I disagree with the claim that metaphors create meaning. It seems more likely that people notice more or less obvious similarities between domains and therefore link them by metaphor, rather than linking them randomly and creating the similarities by doing so. In the cases where metaphors developed through similes this question is more easily answered, as similes are defined as comparing existing similarities.

2.1.4 Metaphors vs. Similes

According to conventional definitions, there is a difference between a metaphor and a simile. Israel et al. state that a simile is “a kind of comparison” whereas “metaphors selectively project conceptual structure directly from one domain onto another” and thereby “create similarities rather than reflecting them” (2004: 124). This can be seen in examples (9) (Tom is a bear) and (10) (Tom is like a bear). Statement (9) is the metaphor and (10) is the simile. The simile compares Tom with a bear, therefore one could say that Tom is big, hairy, strong and scary or whatever attribute of a bear one wants to allocate Tom according to the specific context the simile is used in. The metaphor on the other hand expresses Tom = bear. Because this is a metaphor, it obviously does not mean that Tom is an animal but that there must be similarities between him and a bear. Instead of comparing Tom to a bear, which the simile does, the metaphor establishes a link between the two and creates the similarities. The explanation so far sounds as if the differences between simile and metaphor on the semantic level were nebulous, at least in cases like examples (9) and (10), and that the main difference here can be found on the syntactic level. Syntactically speaking, the distinction can easily be marked by saying that a metaphor expresses A is B whereas the simile has the mode of A is like B. Nevertheless, there are also metaphors which cannot be expressed as similes and vice versa (Israel et al. 2004: 128). Look at the following examples:

(12) His mind was somehow clouded.

(13) The flute sounded like a boiling water kettle the first time she tried to play it.

The metaphor in example (12) cannot be expressed in simile form and still convey the same meaning (* His mind was like clouds), whereas the simile in (13) cannot be expressed in the A is B form without losing either its grammaticality or its meaning (* The flute is a boiling water kettle).

The feature that is deemed most important in the difference between simile and metaphor, is that “similes tend to highlight a single salient property in two domains”, whereas “a single conceptual metaphor may feature numerous cross-domain correspondences” (Israel et al. 2004: 132). By knowing this, we can now, after all, distinguish between the two statements in (9) (Tom is a bear) and (10) (Tom is like a bear). The simile form would most likely be used in a case where Tom resembles a bear in one feature, for instance strength. Example (10) would therefore be used in a situation where Tom’s strength is obvious, for example if he was carrying a fridge all by himself. If on the other hand Tom was out camping with his friends and looked hairy and strong while catching fish with his bare hands, then statement (9) would more likely be used, as Tom would resemble a bear in more than one way.

For proving that figurative language should be taught in language classes, the distinction between metaphor and simile is not vitally important. Thus, in this paper the simile will be regarded as a sub-type of metaphor, in the same way as Aristotle has already classified it (qtd. in Israel et al. 2004: 123). Even though Israel et al. claim that similes should be distinguished from metaphors, they also admit that “[t]he simile is, in effect, a comparison built on top of a metaphor” (2004: 131). Therefore, this paper will treat similes as a variety of metaphor from this point on, except where the distinction is important or needs to be further elaborated on.3

One case where the distinction between simile and metaphor does have an effect, is in the creation of novel metaphors, where research has shown that these are preferred in simile form rather than in metaphor form as they are more easily processed as similes (Gentner et al. 2001: 231). This will be further elaborated on in the following section.

2.1.5 Novel vs. Conventional Metaphors

As the name suggests, novel metaphors are those that are (newly) produced during discourse, whereas conventional metaphors are so frequently used that they are hardly recognised as being metaphorical, like example (1) (Time is running out). Novel metaphors can follow the “you are my X pattern” (Frath 2004: 152), for example you are my sunlight, and some novel metaphors, especially ordinary ones, become conventional after a while, like the computer mouse (Frath 2004: 150ff). In contrast, conventional metaphors are those that are hardly recognised as metaphors, unless one looks out for them. They are the ones that are based on (traditional) conceptual metaphors, as explained in 2.1.1. Conventional metaphors are also the ones that we live by (see 2.1.2), according to Lakoff and Johnson (1980).

Gentner et al. tested the conception of novel figurative statements and they found out that these were rated “more metaphorical than conventional metaphors.” Also, “people considered similes more metaphorical than metaphors overall” (2001: 231). In general, people preferred statements in the A is like B form over the A is B form. As an explanation, Gentner et al. offer that novel figurative statements are more easily processed in simile form and for conventional metaphors that “similes invite a fresh alignment between literal senses” (2001: 231). These outcomes are reasonable as it is easier for the perceiver of a metaphorical statement to focus on a single feature that two domains have in common as is the case when similes are used. Because metaphors are said to create similarities, it is harder to agree with them than with similes. Even though I do not agree with the theory that metaphors create similarities, it nevertheless makes sense to me that similes are preferred over metaphors in novel constructions. Those novel constructions align senses in a way they have not been aligned before and are therefore more easily processed in the direct comparison form A is like B. This should become obvious in the following two examples:

(14) This shed is my home.

(15) This shed is like my home.

Example (14) will confuse the perceiver because he will have to wonder whether it is meant literally or figuratively, whereas statement (15) leaves no doubt that the shed is to the person who utters this expression a place where he feels at home and does not actually live. For teaching, these findings imply that it is easier to introduce learners to the concept of metaphor by using similes, before leading over to using ‘real’ metaphors.

2.1.6 Dead vs. Alive Metaphors

In general terms, the distinction between ‘live’ and ‘dead’ metaphors is a psychological one. Live metaphors are those that people are aware of, whereas dead metaphors are so conventional that they are not obviously recognised as metaphors anymore. (Müller 2008: 179) Some scholars, for example Black, claim that dead metaphors should not be regarded as metaphors at all (1993:25). As it would be difficult to determine whether a metaphor is really dead or not, fulfilling this demand is nearly impossible.

One might ask what the difference between dead and live metaphors and novel and conventional metaphors is. Lakoff and Johnson define the distinction between dead and live metaphors a little differently than Müller does, which makes it easier to see the difference. They determine isolated expressions “like the foot of the mountain” to be dead as they do not “interact with other metaphors” and “play no particularly interesting role in our conceptual system” (1980: 55). On the other hand, they regard conventional metaphors like temporal or spatial ones as being alive and thereby claim that conventional metaphors are not necessarily dead (1980: 54). It is not easy to distinguish between live and dead metaphors as different scholars define the terms differently. In my opinion, dead metaphors should still be classified as metaphors, as long as their etymology can be traced back to a source domain. When nobody can remember whether a particular term has derived from a metaphorical relationship or was coined as the term itself, it should not be called a metaphor anymore. Most likely, this has already happened to a lot of terms in today’s language, some of which might have been metaphorical centuries ago.

Summing up, conventional metaphors are the ones that are based on conceptual metaphors. These are considered dead when their once novel meaning has become so conventionalised, that it is not recognised as being metaphorical anymore. Alive conventional metaphors on the other hand are based on conceptual metaphors but can still be identified as being metaphorical. Novel metaphors are usually not based on traditional conceptual metaphors and cannot be dead, as their metaphorical meaning will usually be detected as being metaphorical. When teaching metaphors, the focus is usually on teaching novel metaphors, as they are the ones that are not as easily understood as conventional ones. This makes sense, but for a full understanding of the concept of metaphor, the teacher should at least draw the student’s attention to the fact that there are many more metaphors around than the obvious ones.

2.1.7 Emotive Function

Why do people use metaphors at all? Could they not simply say what they want to say in literal terms? Ortony’s inexpressibility thesis, which will be discussed further in 3.1.2, claims that they cannot (1975: 49f). Expressing propositions that cannot be expressed other than by using metaphors would be a reason for using them. However, people also use metaphors at times when they could literally express what they mean. Consider the following two examples:

(16) Gina looked miserable.

(17) Gina looked like a picture of misery.

As indicated before, idioms are most of the time metaphoric and metaphors can be idiomatic. Therefore, expression (17) is an idiom in metaphor form.4 From those two examples the metaphoric statement (17) evokes a stronger emotional reaction than the literal one in (16). If someone wanted to express his5 sympathy with Gina, he would most certainly prefer statement (17) over (16). For the listener, hearing (16) would not evoke an image in his head to the same extent. Also, the word miserable has a negative connotation which would make the listener not only think of Gina as looking miserable, but also imply that one does not feel sympathy towards her.6 Statement (17) implies other reactions. The listener will picture Gina looking miserable and will be more likely to feel the compassion the speaker feels. Of course, everyone’s image of looking like a picture of misery is different, but the main point is that the expression conveys the meaning that someone looks really bad with the connotation being that of a compassionate feeling. This brings us back to the assumption that people use metaphors in order to express propositions which they cannot phrase otherwise. Having shown that statement (16) and (17) convey different meanings, be the difference ever so slight, then obviously the exact same meaning that is expressed by means of metaphor cannot be expressed literally. As a reason for this I suggest the abstract concept of emotions. Everybody knows about emotions, but nobody can explain what exactly they are and how they work. They are abstract and can vary in force significantly, which makes it hard to express them with words. Adjectives like happy, sad, angry, scared, surprised, shocked or relieved only convey the basis of all feelings and cannot transmit an actual emotion. Consider the following examples:

(18) I am happy.

(19) I feel like I have won the lottery.

Since a metaphor invites the listener to think about how he would feel in a certain situation simply by putting an image in his head, the emotions transmitted are a lot stronger. Someone who hears statement (19) will automatically imagine how he would feel after having won the lottery, whereas example (18) does not automatically evoke an emotional reaction in the listener. Therefore, metaphors have the power to express nuances of emotions that cannot be expressed in any other linguistic way.

2.1.8 Expressing Humour

Metaphors are not only used to express emotions that can otherwise not be transmitted, but are also used for humorous reasons. Consider the following two examples for expressing criticism about a friend’s haircut:

(20) Helen has a scary new haircut.

(21) Helen ’ s “ haircut is a prop for a horror movie ” (Dynel 2009: 35).

Example (20) tends to express criticism whereas expression (21) is humorous and therefore weakens the force of the criticism conveyed. This implies that another reason for using metaphors is to express humour and thereby reduce the explicitness of a proposition.

How does a metaphor become humorous though? There are several factors that can contribute to a metaphor being humorous. The three most important factors seem to be the distance between source and target domain, a certain ambiguity and the phenomenon of mixed metaphors (Dynel 2009). Dynel (2009) elaborates on the fact that a metaphor is most humorous when the similarity between source and target domain is on the one hand not too obvious but on the other hand still detectable if looked out for. She also points out that metaphors which can be interpreted in many different ways also appear humorous, as is the case when the distance between source and target domain is wide enough. Mixed Metaphors are the most obvious kind of humorous metaphors. Not only two combined idioms are called mixed metaphors, but also the occurrence of two distinct conceptual metaphors in the same context or simply “the use of two metaphors one after another in a single textual chunk, leading to a stylistic clash” (Dynel 2009). In general, mixed metaphors are regarded as a mistake that can be humorous, as shown in the following example:

(22) Tina is a lioness in protecting what is hers, but she only barks and never bites.


1 All figurative examples given in this paper are either commonly known or made up by the author, unless indicated differently.

2 In this paper the asterisk will be used to denote expressions which are grammatically correct but deviate from the commonly intended figurative meaning.

3 Even though there is no room in this paper for further elaboration on the distinction between metaphors and similes, it is a very interesting topic, which has been discussed in detail by Israel et al. and can be followed up in their paper On Simile (2004).

4 Just as a quick reminder: it is a simile, but this distinction is not important here.

5 For simplicity reasons I will exclusively use male pronouns to refer to fictitious characters in this paper. I explicitly stress that this is not done in order to discriminate against women.

6 Of course, intonation is a very important element in conveying meaning and could alter the perception of any statement. The analyses are based on the presupposition, that the intonation matches the form of the statements.

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Aspects of Figurative Language
Metaphors, Idioms and Proverbs in Foreign Language Teaching
University of Hannover  (Englisches Seminar)
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aspects, figurative, language, metaphors, idioms, proverbs, foreign, teaching
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Lisa Jensen (Author), 2010, Aspects of Figurative Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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