Metaphorical Framing, the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis and how language shapes our thoughts

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

17 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1 Introduction

2 Metaphor and the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis
2.1 Traditional views on metaphor
2.2 Conceptual Metaphor
2.3 Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis

3 Metaphorical Framing
3.1 What is Metaphorical Framing?
3.2 How does Metaphorical Framing work?
3.3 Positive and negative sides of Metaphorical Framing

4 Conclusion

5 Works cited

1 Introduction

“The way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor” (Lakoff 1980) .

Throughout time the metaphor has always been an object of interest and one of the reasons might be, that our mind “is a connecting organ, it works only by connecting and it can connect any two things in an indefinitely large number of different ways” (Charteris-Black 2014: 160). So, as Lakoff and Johnson argue, metaphors are eminent in our brains, the way our conceptual system and therefore our mind works, how we think, argue, and reason (Lakoff 1980: 3). And exactly because of that, our brain can also be manipulated by metaphor. It is not only a linguistic concept, but an important influence on how we think and behave.

Headlines like “Why won’t the world tackle the refugee crisis?” or “Two summits this week will try to address the 65 million displaced and 20 million in danger. But they are under fire before talks have even begun” (McVeigh and Townsend), seem to be ‘normal’ to us, when indeed they are heavily loaded with negative connotations and war metaphors. This use of metaphors to influence people’s way of thinking is called metaphorical framing. In this paper I will first explain what the term Metaphor means and highlight the claim, that it is not only a poetic device, but that conceptual metaphors are pervasive in our everyday life (Lakoff 1980) and have a brief look at the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis. In the second part I will explain in detail what Metaphorical Framing is, how it works and what the pros and cons of Metaphorical Framing are. To that end I am going to include two series of experiments concerning metaphorical framing of crime and climate change from Thibodeau and Boroditsky and Wolsko et al. giving a short overview about their findings.

2 Metaphor and the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis

2.1 Traditional views on metaphor

Aristotle stated that “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else” (Thibodeau and Boroditsky 2011: 170). So the basic idea was the connection of two things that are normally not related. Coming from the Greek word metapherein, meaning ‘to transfer’, the OED gives the definition of metaphor as:

A figure of 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; an instance of this, a metaphorical expression (OED s.v. metaphor, n.)

The Encyclopaedia Britannica gives the following definition of metaphor:

Metaphor, figure of speech that implies comparison between two unlike entities, as distinguished from simile, an explicit comparison signalled by the words like or as. The distinction is not simple. A metaphor makes a qualitative leap from a reasonable, perhaps prosaic, comparison to an identification or fusion of two objects, the intention being to create one new entity that partakes of the characteristics of both. Many critics regard the making of metaphors as a system of thought antedating or bypassing logic. (Encyclopædia Britannica).

So the “concept of metaphor relies on the idea of words having more than one sense “ (Thibodeau and Boroditsky 2011: 170). “A word’s meaning can only be understood with reference to a structured background of experience, beliefs, or practices, constituting a kind of conceptual prerequisite [or system] for understanding the meaning” (Fillmore and Atkins 1992: 76–77).

Another crucial feature of metaphors is: there are only two elements required, plus exchange or interaction between them. Which means, metaphors enable us to limitless different ways of thinking (Thibodeau and Boroditsky 2011).

For a long time metaphor was merely seen as a device of poetic imagination and rhetorical flourish. It was used by writers, poets and playwrights to embellish their literary work and to evoke images and emotions (cf. Ungerer 1996: 114–115).

And then came Lakoff and Johnson and with them the idea that “our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (Lakoff 1980: 3). This is also the reason why metaphors work in arousing emotions.

Lakoff and Johnson differentiate between linguistic metaphors and conceptual metaphors. Linguistic metaphors can be categorized into two categories? Direct metaphors are mostly used in novels or poetic texts and are actively processed in short-term memory, whereas indirect metaphors are conventionalized and familiar to a broad audience. The latter are therefore systematically present in long-term memory.

2.2 Conceptual Metaphor

According to Zoltán Kövecses “metaphor is defined as understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another conceptual domain” (Kövecses 2002: 4)

The main idea is that “we organize our knowledge by means of structures called idealized cognitive models” (Lakoff 1987: 68) and that these ICMs are not always in congruence with reality but rather based on a conceptualized system built by experience.

We use conceptual metaphors to help us understand complex concepts in terms of another, easier concept. Therefore they “allow us to do much more than just orient concepts, refer to them, quantify them, etc. […], they allow us, in addition, to use one highly structured and clearly delineated concept to structure another (Lakoff 1980: 62)

This ‘transfer’ of meaning from one concept onto another is, what Lakoff calls “metaphoric mapping” and is one of the four principles we use to structure our ICMs and therefore our conceptual system (cf. Lakoff 1987: 68).

The very systematicity that allows us to comprehend one aspect of a concept in terms of another (e.g., comprehending an aspect of arguing in terms of battle) will necessarily hide other aspects of the concept (Lakoff 1980: 10).

In other words, metaphors can be used to highlight or hide specific characteristics through mapping, e.g. the concept PEOPLE ARE MACHINES is being used to highlight characteristics like efficiency and resilience, or to hide aspects like social skills.

With every new metaphor, there is an important shifting point, from which on a concept is referred to with a word known from a very different context. Two completely different concepts are connected with each other because of a perceived similarity, either functional or subjective – a new ‘innovative’ metaphor is born. This process is also called ‘domain mapping’. Through association and transfer this new metaphor is adopted and a metaphorical shift happens. The best known example for metaphorical shift is the word mouse, for the grey, small, animal with a tail and through domain mapping the grey, small, computer mouse, with a tail. (cf. Blank 2001: 74)

According to Lakoff and Johnson “our conceptual system is largely metaphorical” and “ the way we think, what we experience and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor” (Lakoff 1980: 3). Metaphors help people in structuring their everyday life and the way they perceive and think about the world, which is what makes them so ubiquitous and “pervasive in everyday life” (Lakoff 1980: 3). This means that our conceptual system also works with metaphors and concepts. One of their most controversially discussed statements is: “metaphors are possible exactly because there are metaphors in a person’s conceptual system” (Lakoff 1980: 6). The metaphorical structure of our conceptual systems also takes effect on the linguistic level through metaphoric expressions like Easter is approaching. Because we think in metaphors, “new” metaphors are understood and conventionalized very easily. Since we already have metaphors in our conceptual system about time, movement and spatial concepts and since the word approaching is already stored in our concept as movement and as something coming closer, we know that the time of Easter is coming closer (another metaphor), moving nearer towards us and even though neither time nor Easter actually move, we know through conventionalized concepts of time, space, and movement that this means there is less time until the day we call Easter. We do not have to actually think this through, the process is automated. This enables us to understand even metaphors we have never heard before in seconds and without any effort of thinking – provided they fit the conventions of our society and culture of course. If there was no existing conventionalized concept of time in connection with movement, understanding the metaphor Easter is approaching would not be easy at all and of course without the concept of Easter the metaphor would not work either.

Lakoff and Johnson argue that our conceptual systems are structured through metaphors, because they allow us to use one (easy) concept to structure other, often more complex concepts:

Because so many of the concepts that are important to us are either abstract or not clearly delineated in our experience (the emotions, ideas, time, etc.), we need to get a grasp on them by means of other concepts that we understand in clearer terms (spatial orientations, objects, etc.). This need leads to the metaphorical definition in our conceptual system (Lakoff 1980: 115).

Since we cannot conceptualize abstract domains “in their own terms, as it were, [they] must always be accessed through metaphor. Metaphor, therefore is not just a way of speaking, it is intrinsic to abstract thought" (Taylor 2002: 491).

As mentioned before ‘mapping’ is an important term to the theory of Lakoff and Johnson and means the transfer of a perceived similarity, which is the necessary prerequisite, between two different domains, or rather between two aspects of these domains (cf. Lakoff 1980: 246–248). For example, the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR (Lakoff 1980: 4–6) ‘maps’ a perceived similarity between war and argument, on to the very complex concept ARGUMENT. There are always two domains involved in the creation of a metaphor, a source domain (e.g. war) and a target domain (e.g. argument) (Kövecses 2002: 4).

The conceptual domain from which we draw metaphorical expressions to understand another conceptual domain is called source domain, while the conceptual domain that is understood this way is the target domain. Thus, life, arguments, love, theories, ideas, social organizations, and others are target domains, while journeys, wars, buildings, food, plants, and others are source domains. The target domain is the domain that we try to understand through the use of the source domain (Kövecses 2002: 4).

If we look at the conceptual metaphor of ARGUMENT IS WAR, argument is the target concept and war the source concept. And since we have conceptual metaphors like ARGUMENT IS WAR in our conceptual system, we do not only talk about arguments using war-terminology – we also see the people we argue with as opponents, whose positions we try to attack, while we defend our own, and we use tactics and strategies in order to win and defeat the opponent. Lakoff and Johnson point out that even “[…] though there is no physical battle there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument – attack, defense, counterattack, etc. – reflects this” (Lakoff 1980: 4). There are numerous other examples for conceptual metaphors used in everyday life like: LOVE IS A JOURNEY; PEOPLE ARE MACHINES; GOOD IS UP; LIVE IS A DAY; TIME IS MONEY etc. (cf. Lakoff 1980: 46–52).

TIME IS MONEY for example, is a special metaphorical concept: We perceive time in terms of money, since money in our society is perceived as being a “valuable commodity” (Lakoff 1980: 8) and since time is very valuable too, we map the aspects of the source domain money onto the target domain time. Therefore time can also be “spent, wasted, budgeted, invested wisely or poorly, saved or squandered” (Lakoff 1980: 8):

You’re wasting my time.

This gadget will save you hours.

That flat tire cost me an hour.

I’ve invested a lot of time in her.

He’s living on borrowed time.

I lost a lot of time when I got sick. (Lakoff 1980: 8)

Since money is a limited resource and all limited resources are valuable commodities, the subcategories for time would then be: TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE and TIME IS A VALUABLE COMMODITY. Because TIME IS MONEY is the most specific of these concepts it is the one we use to characterize the whole system (cf. Lakoff 1980: 8–9).

2.3 Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis

Sapir and his student Whorf both concerned themselves with the relations between language and thought. Their hypothesis of linguistic determinism can be seen as reaction to the popular belief of objectivism that “the existence and nature of things in the world are independent of their being perceived or thought about” (Encyclopædia Britannica).

The main assumption of Sapir-Whorf’s theory is that we structure our world through mental representations and linguistic concepts.

Contrary to the believe that we live in an objective world where words have a fixed meaning that is independent from the people living in it, Sapir was of the opinion that language powerfully conditions all our thinking about social problems and processes. Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society (Sapir 1929: 209)

According to Whorf

we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. […] From this fact proceeds what I have called the ‘linguistic relativity principle,’ which means, in informal terms, that users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence are not equivalent as observers, but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world (Whorf 1984: 213–214).

A somewhat stronger version of the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis of linguistic relativity that language has a strong influence on our thinking and perception is the linguistic determinism that assumes that language even controls and determines both our thinking and perception: “The grammatical and linguistic features of a language embody a specific world view and guide our habitual thinking” (Gibbs 1994: 438).

This means that the way our language works is also how we built our view on the world and the way we think. Since there is such an overflow of information in our daily life we need to simplify the information we take in and make assumptions about it. These basic strategies are essential and necessary for the proper functioning of our brain. It cannot operate without these strategies, but of course they also lead to imperfect representations (cf. Lamb 2000: 175).

So linguistic determinism, like metaphor, are crucial elements to metaphorical framing and one of the reasons why it is so powerful.

3 Metaphorical Framing

3.1 What is Metaphorical Framing?

When we talk about framing we mean shaping the way of perceiving the world. There is not just one definition, but various researchers have defined it in many different ways. They all agree on one thing though: the cognitive processes that are activated by metaphors are “real and potentially powerful” (Ritchie 2013: 115) and they can be achieved through literal or metaphorical language (Thibodeau and Boroditsky 2011).

Framing can be done by just one word or several sentences – therefore it is a tool that is very easy to put to use. It is also very powerful in conceptualizing social matters like political attitudes, moral and causal reasoning. Results of studies in cognitive science and cognitive linguistics have shown that language affects our perception of people, situations and events (Thibodeau and Boroditsky 2011). The concept domains that are most heavily influenced by metaphorical framing are time perception, social cognition, memory, moral and causal reasoning, problem solving and political attitudes.

Metaphorical framing works through the activation of the target audience’s accessible cognitive schemes. These often originate in personal experience, but they are influenced and shaped by media content. In order to make ourselves aware of this influence we need to ask ourselves: what kind of a story is this? What background knowledge is relevant or necessary to understand the matter and do I have access to further stories to make sure I am not being manipulated? (cf. Thibodeau and Boroditsky 2011)


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Metaphorical Framing, the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis and how language shapes our thoughts
LMU Munich  (Anglistik)
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Nadja Niyaz (Author), 2017, Metaphorical Framing, the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis and how language shapes our thoughts, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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