Understanding Metaphors

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

22 Pages, Grade: 3,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Metaphors

3. Processing nonliteral language
3.1. Standard pragmatic model: Sequential processing
3.2. The direct Access view: Context-Dependent-Hypothesis
3.3. Graded salience hypothesis
3.4. Testing traditional hypotheses

4. The role of hemispheres
4.1.  Questioning the special role of the right hemisphere
4.2.  Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
4.3. Visual Half-Field Priming
4.4. Neuroimaging

5. Recent research

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography


“Metaphor has a long and controversial history, going back at least to the views of Aristotle, who spoke both of metaphor’s brilliance and dangers. However, discussions of metaphor continued to be the realm of philosophers and poets until the birth of disciplines of linguistics and verbal learning.” [Mey: 1676]

As time went by, more and more researchers showed their interest in the mysterious topic of metaphor and started to carry on researches. While Aristotle limited metaphors to four types, which are (1) genus for species (e.g. “my ship stands here”), (2) species for genus (e.g. “ten thousand noble deeds has Odysseus accomplished”), (3) species to species (“drawing off the life with bonze” & “cutting with slender-edges bronze”) and (4) analogy (‘b’ to ‘a’ as ‘d’ is to ‘c’: e.g. “the day’s old age” & “life’s sunset”) [comp. Pramling], subsequent researchers came up with several new theories and undertook many studies to support their ideas concerning the question of how human beings are able to understand metaphors and which areas of the brain are involved in processing metaphorical data. The publication of Lakoff and Johnson’s work in 1980 changed the research concerning metaphors significantly and shifted it to a search for general cognitive principles. The new idea was that „metaphor is largely a matter of thought“. [Hadl: 27]

There has been a dispute between different camps since then, which has not completely been solved yet, although metaphors belong to humans’ everyday language. “It would not surprise many people to learn that much of what is said in everyday conversation has metaphorical roots. Ask people about some aspects of their lives, and a metaphor will inevitable burst forth, sometimes dominating the narrative.” [Raymond: 120]. Everyone is familiar with metaphors. One knows that the sentence “Sam is a pig” is not meant in a literally way, saying that Sam is pink, has a curled tail, a pig’s nose and makes ‘oink, oink’-sounds. The sentence is meant metaphorical, saying but that he acts like a pig.

Hence, a sentence which is wrong on a literal view might still be considered to be true on a metaphorical view. Most people use metaphors without even noticing. Metaphors can be found everywhere; in songs, such as Ronan Keating’s ‘Life is a Rollercoaster’or Pat Benatar’s ‘Love is a battlefield’, as well as in poetry e.g. Robert Burn: ‘My luve’s like a red red rose’. None of these phrases are to be understood literally. But sometimes the literally meaning is possible: e.g. Eifel 65’s song ‘I’m blue’, the title awakes the idea of somebody being sad, but listening to the whole song, one figures out that what is meant by being ‘blue’ actually is the color blue. In other words, one is confronted with metaphors or a possible metaphorical interpretation of phrases every day in many situations, and humans do understand them, with more or less problems. But the question is how. And do people really know what exactly a specific metaphor states? As motioned above, everybody knows how to understand the sentence ‘Sam is a pig’, but what about other, more complex metaphors? Asking several students how they would understand the sentence “Our love is a voyage to the bottom of the sea”, researchers came to surprising results. In the end, twelve different interpretations were given by the students, varying from “Our relationship is not going to work – it’s going to kill us both” over “We don’t know where our love is headed” to  “Through our love, our deepest emotional natures have been revealed and understood”.  [comp. Mey: 1547]  These findings show how difficult it seem to be to just understand metaphors. This is why it has been taken researcher so long to find out how metaphors are processed and why researchers are still working on it. „Psycholinguistic employ a variety of experimental tasks to assess the sequence of unconscious mental events used in the ordinary processing of figurative language.” [Raymond: 84] The question is what they have found out so far. And what exactly is a metaphor at all?

In this paper I will introduce some of those experimental tasks and highlight three theories of figurative understanding. Furthermore, I am going summarize what is understood by the term ‘metaphor’ and then concentrate on the relation of the human brain and metaphors, elaborating what regions of the brain are involved in the process. By doing do I will discuss the thesis that the right hemisphere has a special role in understanding metaphors. Finally, I will have a look on recent researches to allow possible prospects.


Idioms such as ‘kicked the bucket’ are metaphors, which are a kind of figurative language. The word metaphor stems from the Greek word “metaphero”, meaning to transfer.

“According to traditional, commonsense, view of metaphor, it is (1) a linguistic phenomenon, (2) based on similarities  between two given entities, (3) used deliberatively, typically for (a) rhetorical or (b) poetical purposes, (4) thus, not a necessary, but rather ornamental, different form of language from the ordinary, that is, strictly put, unnecessary.” [Pramling: 49]

Lakoff and Johnson challenged those views by presenting their ‘cognitive linguistic view’, arguing that metaphors are

“(1) conceptual not linguistic in nature, (2) within the primary purpose of creating understanding, (3) not necessarily based on any previously existing similarities between separate entities, (4) an everyday phenonom for people in general, and (5) inevitable, even fundamental, for human thinking and reasoning.” [Pramling: 49]

A metaphor is a symbol. The Oxford dictionary today defines metaphors as “figurative speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable” According to Sandra Handl, however, people are often confused when they are asked to define the term ‘metaphor’, since the definition has changed in many different ways.  In fact, it is difficult to find an exact definition of the term ‘metaphor’. „The definition of metaphors thus depends on the notion of conventionalized or dead. “ As motioned in the introduction, metaphors are established in language of everyday life and are usually not even noticed if used by anyone. Many so called ‘conventionalized’ metaphors are no longer seen as metaphors at all, although their origin was metaphorical. Today, the term covers a wide variety of figurative language and it is not clearly defined what kind of figurative speech counts as metaphor and which does not.”You still haven’t given me any idea of what you mean”, this sentence does seem literal but has a metaphoric origin. Since the phrase has been established in everyday language, this example describes a so called dead metaphor. [copm. Trim: 10] Additionally, the example of love shows how much metaphors are spread in human’s speech. Why do we not say right away what we think? Because Love is so abstract, that we “cannot help using terms from other domains of experience” [Handl: 27]. One borrows words from one familiar domain (source domain), in case of love it often is the domain of journey, and transfers it to another domain (target domain), to help to ease complexity (Cross-domain-mapping). “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” [Handl:  27]. Since love seems to be a journey, the phrase ‘Look how far we’ve come’ is, although not meant literally, understood by every cohabitant or marriage partner. The same technique is used by creating the sentence “The surgeon is a butcher”. Here, two input spaces, the one of surgery and the one of butchery, are mixing up to create a new “Blend space”: ‘conceptual blending of metaphors’ [comp. Handl: 44/45]. But metaphors differ in the degree of understandability: a guy sitting in a diner and claiming “I’m the ‘currywurst’” clearly states that he is the one who ordered a ‘currywurst’, while somebody who states “Our love is a voyage to the bottom of the sea” does not clearly state its meaning. Hence, the main problem of defining metaphors is the degree of distinction: e.g. “Newmark (…) makes the distinction between dead, cliché, stock, recent and original metaphors”. [Handl: 11] Lackoff and Johnson additionally distinguish between creative, conventional, dead, literal metaphors. Others distinguish between metaphors and metonymy, while some do not see a line between those terms and invented the term ‘metaphtonymy’ [Trim: 12]. Anyway, no matter how one defines metaphors, for sure is that their main function is an explanatory one and the question of interest is, how people understand them.


Excerpt out of 22 pages


Understanding Metaphors
University of Freiburg
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Melissa Grönebaum (Author), 2012, Understanding Metaphors, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/268372


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