Conceptual Metaphor Theory in the Beatles Lyrics. Metaphors as Cognitive Phenomena

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

27 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Approaches to Metaphor
2.1 Conceptual Metaphor Theory
2.1.1 Metaphors as Cognitive Phenomena
2.1.2 The Systematicity of Metaphorical Concepts
2.1.3 Highlighting and Hiding
2.2 Non-Cognitive Approaches

3 Orientational and Ontological Metaphors
3.1 Orientational Metaphors
3.2 Ontological Metaphors
3.2.1 Entity Metaphors
3.2.2 Container
3.2.3 Personification

4 Analysing Conceptual Metaphors in the Beatles’ Lyrics
4.1 Metaphors and Time
4.2 Metaphors and Communication
4.3 Metaphors and Emotions

5 Metaphors in the Beatles’ Lyrics and Their Cultural Coherence
5.1 Values Deeply Embedded in Our Culture
5.2 Embedding as Part of the Beatles’ Widespread Success

6 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Most people consider metaphors to be merely linguistic devises that are used for poetic purposes. A standard dictionary definition of metaphor is quite similar. The Oxford Dictionary defines metaphor as “a word or phrase used to describe sb/sth else […]” (2005). This definition falls in line with a layman’s notion of metaphors being purely linguistic with the sole purpose of functioning as decorative features. However, metaphors go much deeper than that. Metaphors are in fact fundamental components of human cognition that are not just linguistic but conceptual in nature. Through metaphors, patterns of thought in a society are encoded and shared.

So in order to show that metaphors share patterns of thought in a society, songs of the Beatles shall be examined, seeing as the Beatles are one the most popular and successful bands of our time with fans from all around the world. The metaphors used in the Beatles’ songs are not merely figures of speech or stylistic devises, but cognitive phenomena that share patterns of thought in a society. The Beatles songs are a great medium to help prove that conceptual systems play a paramount role in establishing our everyday realities because of they are so widely popular. This paper seeks to show that Lakoff’s and Johnson’s notion of metaphors representing a way of thinking, as made popular in their Conceptual Metaphor Theory, also holds true for metaphors in the Beatles’ songs.

Drawing upon Lakoff’s and Johnson’s Conceptual Metaphor Theory, this paper also attempts to illuminate how the Beatles success is, at least partly, due to the systematicity of metaphorical concepts. Even though most people are not normally aware of conceptual systems present in our society, most of these conceptual systems are indeed metaphorical in nature and determine to a large extent our perception of the world. The metaphorical concepts present in the Beatles lyrics are very much coherent with the metaphorical structuring of certain experiences in our society, which is why so many people can relate to the Beatles’ songs because the concepts expressed therein are compatible with their conceptualisation of how they perceive the world.

2 Approaches to Metaphor

In order to fully appreciate how metaphors are in fact cognitive phenomena rather than mere linguistic instruments, it is imperative to delve into George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s conceptual metaphor theory.

2.1 Conceptual Metaphor Theory

Metaphors, as seen by Lakoff and Johnson, are not just a stylistically pleasant means of expressing ideas through language, but in fact a way of thinking about about things.

2.1.1 Metaphors as Cognitive Phenomena

Lakoff and Johnson postulate that metaphors are not merely a matter of language but a matter of thought (1980: 3). The basic premise of this approach is that metaphors are not just a linguistic phenomenon but a cognitive one. For example, in the song I’m a Loser (1964) The Beatles sing “I'm a loser […] of all the love I have won or have lost”. Many theories of metaphor might consider such a conventional expression to be just a dead metaphor that has lost its metaphorical quality and consequently only consists of the regular meanings of the words involved, namely the singer may have had rather bad experiences with regards to his love life. However, conceptual metaphor theory maintains that this conventionalised way of talking about one cognitive domain or model (in this example love) in terms of another (here a gamling game) is of particular interest, as they represent implied yet not explicitly stated patterns of thought used by members of a speech community (Schmid 2012, 386). In the example used here, love is considered a gambling game that can be won or lost. Conceptual metaphor theory maintains that the human mind maps elements from a concrete source concept or domain (here gambling game) onto a more abstract target concept (here love) ( Dirven 1973: 27). (. As illustrated in figure 1, these mappings project knowledge about a more well-known source concept, often common-place experiences such as gambling, money or war onto the target concept, which is usually more abstract and less tangible, for example emotions such as love, happiness or anger. Generally speaking, conceptual metaphor theory revolves around the idea that metaphors are conceptual structures, and while they are realised linguistically, they are not merely linguistic in nature.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Basic components of metaphorical mapping

Source: Adapted from Ungerer; Schmid 2006: 119)

Metaphors are pervasive in everyday life and their underlying principles of conceptual systems influence how people perceive the world. This is why Lakoff said about metaphors that they are not just a matter of language but rather of thought and reason, with the language being secondary and the mapping primary (1993, S. 208). In the aforementioned example, “the love I have […] lost” is just a single metaphor of the whole concept of love as a gambling game. Language is secondary because the concept that creates the basis for a particular metaphor remains the same, while the various metaphors oftentimes are manifold. In this example, love as a gambling game is the concept, which might express itself in different metaphors, such as take your chance with me, if I play my cards right, she might fall for me, or the odds are against us. So while the concept remains the same, the metaphors are all linguistically expressed differently, which is why language is secondary, as it is one single concept expressing itself in various forms. Lakoff and Johnson consider language more of a source of evidence for conceptual systems, since communications is established in the same conceptual system that is used for thinking and acting (1980: 3).

2.1.2 The Systematicity of Metaphorical Concepts

Most of the time people are not even aware of these metaphorical concepts. To illustrate this point, another widely used metaphorical concept shall be examined.

(1) “If I had some more time to spend then I guess I’d be with you my friend”

(The Beatles If I Needed Someone 1965)

In example (1) the speaker spends time, so the target concept time is actually conceptualised via the source concept money and can thus be spent. The underlying metaphorical concept is time is money. Time, just like money, can be spent, saved, wasted, budgeted or invested. It is metaphorical because society’s everyday experiences with money are used to conceptualise time. This is not surprising of course, seeing as in our culture time is a valuable commodity, as it is used to accomplish goals or get work done. In our Western culture, work is commonly associated with the time it takes and time is accurately quantified. As a result of our society treating time as if it were a valuable commodity, it is conceived of in that way. Hence, time is understood and experienced as a limited resource that can be spent, saved, or budgeted. Our society speaks of time that way because it conceives of time that way. It must be added, though, that concepts may be culture-specific. Concepts prevalent in one society or culture are not necessarily bound to be of the same importance in another society and vice versa. So in this example, using money as the source domain to conceptualise the target domain time is very much tied to our Western culture and not an imperative way for all cultures to regard time.

2.1.3 Highlighting and Hiding

Conceptualising the target domain via the source domain supports comprehension of one aspect of a concept in terms of another. However, while this systematicity does facilitate the comprehension of one aspect it will consequently hide other aspects of the concept. For instance, by permitting the listener to concentrate on one aspect of a concept (e.g. the saving aspect of time as money) a metaphorical concept may keep the listener from concentrating on other aspects of the concept, which might be less compatible with that metaphor. For example, by focusing on the aspect of time being money, somebody might therefore always feel the need to constantly invest their time in constructive activites rather than appreciate the aspect of time being a limited resource and thus cherishing the time on this earth by doing more enjoyable things. Focusing solely on one aspect of a concept, it is easy for other aspects to become concealed.

A less profound case of how a metaphorical concept can obscure an aspect of our experience can be seen in Michael Reddy’s “conduit metaphor”. Elaborating on conceptual metaphor theory in terms of its cognitive aspects would be incomplete without mentioning Reddy, as he already accentuated the metaphorical way in which people talk about communication, and most importantly, the repercussions these frameworks as he calls them have on people’s thought processes (1979: 288). It is notable to mention that Reddy published his paper “The Conduit Metaphor. A Case of Frame Conflict in our Language about Language” in 1979, while Lakoff’s and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By was published one year later in 1980. Reddy observes that language about language revolves around the following complex metaphor, which is comprised of three parts: Ideas or meanings are objects, linguistic expressions are containers and communication is sending. So the speaker puts ideas, which are objects, into words, which are containers, and sends them (along a conduit) to the hearer who takes the idea (objects) out of the word (container) (Lakoff, Johnson 1980: 10).

A descriptive example of this is can be found in the Beatles’ song Getting Better (1967).

(2) “You gave me the word, I finally heard”

Here (2), the speaker puts meaning (object) into a “word” (container) and sends it (“gave”) to the hearer (“me”) who takes the meaning (object) out of the word (container) and thus “finally heard”. In this seemingly conventional pattern of speech it may be difficult at first to fathom that there is anything hidden by the metaphor or to even recognise a metaphor at all. Nevertheless, the aspect of the conduit metaphor linguistic expressions are containers for meanings encompasses that words and phrases have meanings of themselves, separate from any context or speaker. The metaphor’s meanings are objects part, for instance, encompasses that meanings have an existence separate of people or context, because they themselves are objects. And lastly, the aspect of the metaphor that states linguistic expressions are containers for meaning encompasses, once more, that words have meanings independent of speakers or contexts. If the context is clear to all participants of a conversation, then these metaphors are not an issue. However, in sentences that have no meaning without context, it is quite possible for a single sentence to mean different things to different people. For instance, the following example (3) from the Beatles song Tomorrow Never Knows (1966) might not mean the same thing to every listener. Thus the meanings are objects aspect, which entails that meanings have an existence independent of context does not apply here:


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Conceptual Metaphor Theory in the Beatles Lyrics. Metaphors as Cognitive Phenomena
University of Augsburg
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Linguistics, Advanced, Metaphors, Lakoff, Johnson, The Beatles, Conceptual Metaphor Theory, term paper
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Dominik Doeppert (Author), 2015, Conceptual Metaphor Theory in the Beatles Lyrics. Metaphors as Cognitive Phenomena, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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