Metaphor and Space: The Cognitive Approach to Spatially Structured Concepts

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

27 Pages, Grade: very good


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Lakoff’s Study on over

3. Metaphorical Concepts and Image Schemata involved in Lakoff’s Study
3.1. The Verticality Schema
3.2. The Path Schema
3.3. The Container Schema

4. The Nature of Image Schemata

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Most of our fundamental concepts are organized in terms of one or more spatializa-tion metaphors”: this very elementary conclusion is drawn by George Lakoff and Mark John-son (1980: 17) after having analysed what they call orientational metaphors. Traditionally, metaphors have been regarded as being merely a poetic device of figurative speech. In op-position to this classical point of view, Lakoff, Johnson, and other cognitive linguists believe this group of metaphors, among others, to be deeply embedded in the human conceptualisa-tion system and to provide a means of reasoning about and structuring of entire, mostly ab-stract, domains in terms of other, more concrete, domains. Based on a limited amount of underlying image schemata, which are projected onto these domains, metaphors are em-ployed in order to be able to understand large parts of the world surrounding us.

A large amount, perhaps the majority, of these image schemata are spatial. By projecting them onto abstract, non-spatial domains, we structure these domains spatially and talk and reason about, for example, hierarchy in terms of being on the highest level or under somebody else’s control. Since spatial experiences are among the earliest, most frequently and constantly experiences we make, it should not be surprising that we refer to them very often. As it will be seen later, another not less fundamental, but more abstract experience -time - is structured in our cognitive system in terms of a spatial metaphor.

“Research done by cognitive linguists over the last fifteen years has shown that natu-ral language is not just a system consisting of arbitrary signs as most linguists since the time of de Saussure have assumed it to be” (Radden 1992: 513). Instead, cognitive linguistics asks for the motivation and functional explanation of linguistic expressions. Beyond merely linguistic aspects, the cognitive approach is aiming high, since its targets are, among others, a new theory of categorisation (Lakoff 1987), Imagination (Johnson 1987: 139ff.), and, what would be a fundamental change in Western philosophy, meaning by the approach entitled as Michael Treichler Metaphor and Space cognitive semantics (Johnson 1987: 173ff., Lakoff 1987: 269ff.) In most of these and other disciplines of cognitive sciences, metaphor is one of the chief means by which these targets are tried to be accomplished. In linguistics, metaphor is an explanation for many expressions which were, on the traditional Objectivist account, viewed as being arbitrary. As it will be seen below, it is not arbitrary or by accident that hierarchy and quantity are both expressed as being measured along a vertical scale.

The general principle by which cognitive linguists explain thess expressions is as fol-lows: Fundamental spatial and physical experiences yield certain image schemata. These schemata are mapped by means of metaphorical projection onto abstract concepts, which human beings would otherwise not be able to grasp. By metaphorical mapping, these con-cepts are understood, structured and given meaning. Therefore, metaphor is, on the cogni-tive account of meaning, far more than just a stylistic device: it is rather a way by which we understand our environment. Furthermore, metaphor is used, as accounted for by the cogni-tive approach, neither consciously nor intentionally. Contrary to the traditional account in which the speaker or the poet uses metaphorical expressions by intention, these are re-garded as merely linguistic reflections of underlying means of understanding which are, for many abstract concepts, the only means available to us by which we can understand these concepts.

This paper will start with a summary focussed on the aspect of metaphorical projec-tion of a case study by George Lakoff on the wide range of meaning of over, which contains a large amount of essential spatial metaphors and their underlying image schemata. On the basis of this summary, a discussion of three of these very fundamental spatial image sche-mata will follow, which will examine them in more detail and present some results of linguistic research on them. Finally, this paper will end with a discussion on the very nature of image schemata, in which it will be tried to highlight both their linguistic and philosophical back-ground as well as, in a brief discussion, the problem about their universality or their culture-dependence respectively.

2. Lakoff’s Study on over

In his case study, Lakoff (1987: 416 - 461) analyses the various meanings of over, describes the links by which these senses are related to each other and, what this summary will be focussed on, presents some metaphorical extensions by which the underlying sche-mata of these senses are mapped onto other domains. With his case study, Lakoff tries to demonstrate how, according to his theory of categorisation, the various senses of over con-stitute what he calls a radially structured category. Such a type of category is defined by La-koff as a category with a central member and peripheral members linked by metaphorical mapping and other means. Lakoff avoids to label the central sense of over as the prototypical member of the category although he claimed in his earlier work that each category is struc-tured in terms of a prototype (1980: 177). In his definition of prototypical effects in various types of categories, Lakoff (1987: 288f.) also regards radial categories like over as having a best example or prototypical member. Since it is much harder to define a prototype for a function word like over than for a category like birds or chairs, it is discussible if it would be appropriate to regard one sense of over as being prototypical. However, Lakoff chooses what he calls central sense as the central member of the category because this sense comprises the meanings of all other senses. Concerning family resemblance to the prototype, in terms of which membership of the category is defined, he maintains his terminology.

Lakoff regards the central sense of over as combining elements of both above and across and depicts this meaning in a schema, which will be the centre of the chain formed by the peripheral senses. This schema consists of a landmark (LM) and a trajector (TR) that moves along a path. The path of the TR is located above the LM and across its external boundaries on both sides. Concerning contact or no contact between TR and LM, the schema has to be understood as being neutral. It is split up again by distinguishing between horizontal and vertical extension of the LM and a situation of contact or of no contact be-tween LM and TR. These criteria can be combined in six different ways, which are the in-stances of the central schema. The schemata with an vertically extended LM can have a dif-ferent meaning when over is used with the focus on the end point as in to be over the bridge, in contrast to the counterpart without end-point focus in to drive over the bridge. With an end-point focus, the meaning of over is identical with on the other side of. In addition to the cen-tral sense, Lakoff describes several other meanings of over like the above sense, the cover-ing sense or the reflexive schema and others, which again can have various instances. These senses and their underlying schemas will be mentioned when they function as the basis of a metaphorical meaning extension.

Since Lakoff regards the excess schema as consisting of an image schema plus a metaphor, it needs to be explained in detail. The excess schema is the schema of over used as a prefix in verbs like to overflow, to overeat or, more general, to overdo something. It also occurs in adjectives like overdressed or overqualified. The starting point of the chain which leads from the central sense to this schema is the instance of the central sense with a verti-cally extended LM and no contact between LM and TR; for example the meaning of over in the bird flies over the wall. The next element is a schema with a modification of the path, which changes its form from a straight line parallel to the ground to a parabola with both its beginning and end on the ground and the peak above the LM; for example in the sentence the dog jumps over the fence. Lakoff argues that one instance of this schema is the basis of over in to overflow because the path of the fluid follows the same parabola while the vertical sides of the container function as LM and the level of the fluid as TR. Furthermore, he be-lieves overflow to provide the link to the excess schema because it semantically involves excess. The height of the LM defines the maximum content of the container; when the fluid rises above this level, the result is an exceeding of the norm.

The regular experience of filling fluids into a container for purposes like drinking, cooking, or washing and the frequently occurring overflowing of these fluids, combined with the mess in which it results, constitutes the basis for the metaphorical meaning extension, which is the last step towards the excess schema. The metaphor involved is not specialised to the excess schema, but of a more general character: AN ACTIVITY IS A CONTAINER for the effort (or energy) put into it. In the metaphorical meaning of overdoing something, the height of the LM is the normal or maximum amount of effort required to achieve a certain goal. If too much effort is put into the activity, this results in wasted energy or, in Lakoff’s words, a social mess.

The second schema that Lakoff regards as generated by metaphorical mapping is the repetition schema, which is used in expressions like to do it over. The basis for the applica-tion of two metaphors is the instance of the central sense with an horizontally, but not verti-cally, extended LM and contact between LM and TR; for example in to walk over the bridge. Similar to the excess schema, the path is again understood as the course of the performance of the activity. This mapping is based on the AN ACTIVITY IS A JOURNEY metaphor, which is, according to Lakoff, again a very general metaphor. But in this context, the metaphor under-goes a minor adaptation because the LM does not represent, as it would be presumed, the present performance of the activity, but a previously completed performance of it. The meta-phorical representation of this former performance by the LM is regarded by Lakoff as a sec-ond metaphor.

After having completed the analysis of the different schemas, Lakoff describes some metaphorical meaning extensions, in which image schemata of over are used as their source domains. The first mentioned metaphorical expression is to have power over somebody. This meaning is based on a schema in which over has nearly the same meaning as above. The TR is located above the LM, has no contact with it and is static or not moving along any path; an example for this simple schema is the painting hangs over the chair. For the creation of the metaphorical meaning, this schema is mapped onto social relations via another very common metaphor: CONTROL IS UP; LACK OF CONTROL IS DOWN. With this meaning as a background, over serves the purpose of indicating a distribution of power between two persons, groups of persons, or institutions.

The same metaphor is also involved in the next sense analysed by Lakoff, the mean-ing of over in to be passed over. This metaphor is responsible for the situation in which one person, the TR, is in control of another person, the LM, and by virtue of this constellation able to pass over him or her. The schema, on which the metaphorical mapping is based on, is the central schema itself, but with an explicit situation of no contact between TR and LM. On the basis of this constraint, the second metaphor, CHOOSING IS TOUCHING, can be applied. Ac-cording to Lakoff, this metaphor underlies such sentences as he was tapped for service and the boss handpicked his successor. But since there is no contact between TR and LM in the image schema involved here, it is entailed that the LM is not chosen or passed over.

As his next task, Lakoff examines the difference in meaning between to overlook, to oversee, and to look over, which is based on the application of different metaphors and, in one case, also metonymy on different image schemata. The image schema which to over- look in based on is an instance of the schema that also constitutes the basis for to have power over somebody. The constraint that makes it in instant of the schema with nearly the same meaning as above is the definition of the TR as being one-dimensional; Lakoff gives the example sentence the power line stretches over the yard. The first step towards the metaphorically generated meaning is the SEEING IS TOUCHING metaphor, by which seeing is understood as the movement towards, and the touching of, the regarded object by the gaze, whose corresponding element in the image schema is the path of the one-dimensional TR. Since there is no contact between the LM and the TR, the gaze does not touch the object and, thus, does not see it. But since to overlook has a more abstract meaning than just not to see something, there is one more metaphor involved in order to move on from the physical sense to a meaning that is understood as being a mental process. This happens with the help of the MIND-AS-BODY metaphor and its aspect which is labelled by Lakoff as LOOKING AT SOMETHING IS TAKING IT INTO CONSIDERATION. This metaphor is responsible for taking a look at something to entail considering something. By this metaphorical mapping, to overlook re-ceives its final meaning.

The similarity which, at least at the first glance, connects to overlook with to oversee is reflected in the very close relation of the underlying image schemata, since to oversee is based on the general schema with the static TR above the LM and no contact between them, whose instance with the one-dimensional TR constitutes the basis of to overlook. On this schema, the CONTROL IS UP metaphor is applied to generate a situation in which the over seeing person has a certain power over the person or the persons that are overseen. Furthermore, in order to change the meaning of to oversee from a simple question of power and control to an activity that is orientated towards the achievement of a certain goal, the metonymy SEEING SOMETHING DONE STANDS FOR MAKING SURE THAT IT IS DONE is involved. Lakoff gives the example see that he gets his money with the meaning of make sure that he gets his money to illustrate this metonymy. By this metonymy, to oversee receives its meaning, which combines to be in control and to make sure that something is done.

The image schema which to look over is based on has not been explained yet. Lakoff defines it as one instance of the covering sense, for which he lists a total number of seven instances. In the basic schema, there is a at least two-dimensional TR, which extends across the boundaries of the LM and is either in contact with it or not; for example lay the carpet over the stain. As a variation of this schema, Lakoff introduces what he calls a multiplex TR to explain a certain meaning that over receives when it is combined with a mass quantifier to yield such expressions as all over, over most of, or over the entire. In this schema, the TR covers not the entire LM but parts of it. The difference between the general covering schema and this instance is the difference between a mass and a multiplex entity, like the difference between cattle and cows. The schema that underlies the sense of to look over differs only slightly from the multiplex schema since the multiplex TR is not simply spread over the LM but following a path; for example in to walk all over the hill. On this schema, again the SEEING IS TOUCHING is applied to imagine the gaze follow a path over a text, as in, for example, to look over a text, and to look at several parts of it. Like in to overlook, this metaphor is com-bined with the LOOKING AT SOMETHING IS TAKING IT INTO CONSIDERATION metaphor to give this expression the meaning of not only looking at something but rather considering it.

The next metaphorical meaning described by Lakoff is to get over something in the meaning of recovering from unpleasant events in life like in to get over the divorce. This meaning is based on the instance of the central schema with a vertically and horizontally extended LM and contact between TR and LM; an example for this schema is to walk over a hill. With this schema as the background, obstacles are understood as vertical landmarks, independent of their horizontal extension, which is the first metaphor involved in this meaning extension. The second metaphor applied on this schema is the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor. These two metaphorical mappings in combination create an image with the subject of this expression travelling along a way, which is his life, and being confronted with obstacles over which he has to climb in order to move on.

A very similar metaphorical mapping is responsible for the expression to be over the hill. The background schema for this meaning is the instance of the previous schema with an end-point focus, like to liver over the hill in comparison with to walk over the hill. In to be over the hill, a career is understood as a walk over a hill that rises, reaches its peak and then goes down again where the subject has reached the end and will never again own the high status he had had before.

For the analysis of the next metaphors, it is necessary to explain the schema that La-koff defines as being reflexive. Since its TR moves above and across the LM, it is a closely related to the central sense. The characteristic element if this schema is the reflexive TR, which means that one part of the LM is its own TR. This can be illustrated by Lakoff’s exam-ple roll the log over: roughly one half of the log moves above and across the other half of it. Thus, one half of the log is the LM while the other half functions as the TR. This schema is the basis for the metaphorical meaning of over in sentences like he turned the question over in mind. The metaphor involved here is an instance of the MIND-AS-BODY metaphor in which THINKING ABOUT SOMETHING IS EXAMINING IT. According to Lakoff’s argumentation, reasoning about a question or a problem is metaphorically understood as turning it over in mind and examining all sides of it.

The next metaphorical meaning of over uses an instance of the reflexive schema. While in the basic reflexive schema one half of the TR follows the entire path, it is the entire TR who follows only the last half of the path in this variation. This schema underlies the meaning of over in the expression the fence fell over and is the source for the metaphorical mapping in the sentence the rebels overthrew the government. The metaphor behind this mapping is the CONTROL IS UP metaphor: First, the government was in control or up, then it fell over like a fence because it was overthrown by the rebels, who are now in control.

The last metaphorically generated sense of over that Lakoff mentions is the play is over. The underlying image schema is the instance of the central sense with an horizontally extended LM, contact between TR and LM, and end-point focus like in to live over the bridge. Lakoff argues that activities with a prescribed structure are metaphorically understood as extended landmarks, and performing these activities is seen as travelling along a path over that landmark. Therefore, when the activity has come to its end, it is over.


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Metaphor and Space: The Cognitive Approach to Spatially Structured Concepts
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg  (Seminar for Anglistics)
Hauptseminar "Metaphor and Metonymy"
very good
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Metaphor, Space, Cognitive, Approach, Spatially, Structured, Concepts, Hauptseminar, Metaphor, Metonymy
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Michael Treichler (Author), 2003, Metaphor and Space: The Cognitive Approach to Spatially Structured Concepts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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