Elaboration of Lakoff´s Contemporary Theory on Metaphors and Tsur´s counterthesis Lakoff´s Roads not taken

Academic Paper, 2017

9 Pages



1. Introduction

2. Lakoff´s Contemporary Theory of Metaphors

3. Tsur’s Lakoff’s Road not taken

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Death is the mother of beauty”[1] - Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning

“These famous lines by Stevens are examples of what classical theorists, at least since Aristotle, have referred to as metaphors: instances of novel poetic language in which words like “mother” (…) are not used in their normal every day sense.”[2]. A great number of authors tried to describe the structure and meaning of metaphors as well as the way they work. Most of the writers tried to point out certain characteristics which make them different from other forms of figurative language or laid down rules for metaphors communicative functionality. Apart from this, metaphors are still enriching our languages. They enable us to express difficult topics in written and spoken language. The Oxford dictionary defines metaphor as “a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else.” In other words, as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.”[3] That is why all metaphors to some degree have a certain independent existence and can be easily seen in different ways. However, metaphors can also help us understand complex coherences when there is no appropriate word in our vocabulary. They 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. “[4]

This elaboration attempts to portray the main features of George Lakoff’s Contemporary Theory of Metaphors with a focus on the part of the theory which deals with metaphors within a literary background. This is followed by Reuven Tsur’s critique of Lakoff’s theory regarding poetic metaphors.

2. Lakoff´s Contemporary Theory of Metaphors

Lakoff´s Contemporary Theory of Metaphors attempts to reveal the former opinion that metaphors are only used in a literary or poetic context. Up to that time the classic theory defined metaphors as a figure of speech that refers, for rhetorical effect, to one thing by mentioning another thing. Only a few philosophers like Max Black asked critical questions concerning this former opinion: " Can metaphors be translated into literal expressions? ", "Is metaphor properly regarded as a decoration upon 'plain sense'?” In most cases the terms have one or a few similarities on a conceptual level. A good example for that is “man is a wolf”. Of course, a man is not a wolf and the phrase is literally senseless. However, the word “wolf” has several features, like being a predator or being greedy which can be related to a human being. In contrast to this definition of a metaphor Lakoff points out that metaphors are not merely “a matter of language not thought.”[5]. In his theory metaphors are omnipresent and underlying a certain set of mapping in which the language is secondary and the mapping primary. His common examples for mappings are metaphors which are related to love. One of his best known is “it was a hard and long way”[6] as a description of a complicated relationship.

According to Lakoff, all these metaphors are easy to understand because the interpreter and the “creator” of the metaphor use the same mapping. In that case the name of the mapping would be “love is a journey”. The mapping consists of a target concept, which is “love”, and a source concept which is “journey”. In this example, the loving persons are portrayed in the context of a journey. The means of transportation are connected to their relation. Summing up, ontological knowledge about the concrete and physical experienceable system traveling is related to the abstract system of love and can be described as a mnemonic. (see chart on the next page)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten[7]

Moreover, he brings forward further arguments and states that most of the simplest patterns of thinking are based on less complex mappings. These are the so called “General Metaphors”. A proper example for that is the “container concept”. In this case a structure is metaphorically related to a certain way of thinking in categories.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

If X is in category A and category A is in category B, then X is in category B. “This is true not by virtue of any logical deduction, but by virtue of the topological properties of containers.”[8] The container concept is very simple and can be easily understood by small children or even some animals. They realise that a “container” is still in the other “container” although they do not see it anymore. This way of thinking is a replication of Searle’s classical theory of metaphors in which he assumes that metaphors are only literary and that the every-day language is conventional. “The logical properties of classical categories can be seen as following from the topological properties of containers plus the metaphorical mapping from containers to categories.

As long as the topological properties of containers are preserved by the mapping, this result will be true.”[9]

The “embodied-mind-approach” describes further “General Metaphors” like for example: “More is above”. The imagination of an enlargement is projected to a vertical ascent. Proper examples taken from everyday language are: “prices for oil are rising” or “the trade volume has reached a peak”. “They are experiences with a structure – a correspondence between the conceptual domain of quantity and the conceptual domain of verticality”[10]. Another appropriate example is the “knowing is seeing” metaphor, as in expressions like: “I see what you are saying.”

In relation to the interpretation of literary metaphors Lakoff employs the source/target-domain-structure. In one of his numerous examples he quotes a few lines of an old Indian poem:

Now women-rivers

belted with silver fish

moved unhurried as women in love

at dawn after a night with their lovers[11]

Here the image of the slow, “sinuous walk of an Indian woman”[12] is mapped onto the image of floating water. This is a so called one-shot metaphor as he relates the image of the satisfied women to the image of a river. Here, the source and target-domain-structure is again employed, but with two images, which differs it from the standard mapping. Furthermore, Lakoff found out that metaphors are frequently described as personifications. The best example for that is the death which is often described as a Grim Reaper or a coachman. In that case an event, for example the death of someone, is personified by an action (General Metaphor – Events are Actions) like in “Death is departure”. To create a comprehensible metaphor the action must have the same “form” as the event. In this example, “death” could be not replaced by a randomly selected job. For example, the job of a teacher would be inappropriate because it has a different causality and a different structure.

3. Tsur’s Lakoff’s Road not taken

Tsur mainly criticises Lakoff’s theory in terms of its functionality when it comes to literary or poetical texts. To prove his counter argument, he employs one of the poems which was already used by Lakoff: A poem by Robert Frost.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all difference.[13]

On a literal level, this poem is a description of a rural setting in the mountains and Lakoff criticises that numerous teachers encourage their students to interpret it as a description of nature. “Since Frost’s language often does not overtly signal that the poem is to be taken metaphorically, incompetent English teachers occasionally teach Frost as if he were a nature poet, simply describing scenes. (I have actually had students whose high school teachers taught them that!) Thus, this passage could be read non-metaphorically as being just about a trip on which one encounters a crossroads. There is nothing in the sentence itself that forces one to come to a metaphorical interpretation. But, since it is about travel and encountering crossroads, it evokes a knowledge of journeys.”[14] According to Tsur, this is an example for the mapping “life is a journey” and requires a more complex interpretation. The reason for this is the word “road”. Tsur, however, contradicts him and states that there are too many teachers who teach that the word “road” always alludes to the same metaphor. He points out that the word “road” is not automatically a metaphor for love or life. “Road” can mean just “road”, or it can be metaphoric and allude to something different as love or life. “There is a much larger number of equally incompetent English teachers who teach their students that whenever you encounter travel and crossroads, you have to activate, automatically, the “Life is a journey” conceptual metaphor.”[15] When it comes to Tsur he “would expect a competent English teacher to teach his students, first, that in some contexts crossroads are metaphorical, and in some not; second, that crossroads may have a wide range of metaphorical meanings.”[16]


[1] Stevens, Wallace. "Sunday Morning". Poetry Foundation. Web. 15. Nov. 2017.

[2] Lakoff, George. “The contemporary theory of metaphor .” Metaphor and Thought. Second Edition, edited by Andrew Ortony, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. P.202. print

[3] “Metaphor - Definition of metaphor in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English, Oxford Dictionaries, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/metaphor. Web. Accessed 13 Nov. 2017.

[4] Doeppert, Dominik. Conceptual Metaphor Theory n the Beatles’ Lyrics – Metaphors as Cognitive Phenomena. München: Grin, 2015. P.1 Print.

[5] Lakoff, George, 1993, 202.

[6] Cf. ibid

[7] Lawley, James. “Applying Cross-Domain Thinking.” Cleanlanguage.com. 18 June 2013. www.cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/articles/337/1/Applying-Cross-Domain-Thinking/Page1.html. Web. Accessed 15. Nov. 2017.

[8] Lakoff, George. „Conceptual Metaphor - The contemporary theory of metaphor”. Cognitive Linguistics: Basic readings, edited by Dirk Geeraerts. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Verlag, 2006. P. 197. Print.

[9] [9] Lakoff, George. 2006, 197.

[10] Lakoff, George, 2006, 215.

[11] Masson, M.; Mervin, W.S., The Peacock's Egg: Love Poems from Ancient India. New York: North Point Press, 1981. P. 71. Print.

[12] Lakoff, George, 2006, 215.

[13] Frost, Robert. "The Road Not Taken". Poetry Foundation. Web. 15. Nov. 2017.

[14] Lakoff, George. 1993, 238.

[15] Tsur, Reuven, 1999, 340.

[16] Tsur, Reuven, 1999, 341.

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Elaboration of Lakoff´s Contemporary Theory on Metaphors and Tsur´s counterthesis Lakoff´s Roads not taken
University of Osnabrück  (IfAA)
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Tsur, Lakoff, Road not taken, Metaphor, Contemporary theory
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Sebastian Lammers (Author), 2017, Elaboration of Lakoff´s Contemporary Theory on Metaphors and Tsur´s counterthesis Lakoff´s Roads not taken, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/424485


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