How American is German Politics?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

48 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. Metaphor-an Overview
2.1. The Ancient Definition
2.2. The Conceptual Approach

3. Metaphors in use
3.1. Science
3.2. Law
3.3. Religion
3.4. Politics

4. Why Metaphors in Politics

5. Metaphors in German Politics

6. Conclusion

7. References

8. Appendix


This paper will discuss conceptual metaphors in politics. Different approaches to the phenomenon of metaphor will be explained firstly. Then different areas of metaphors will be presented. Furthermore, the moral and sportive character of politics will be discussed. For the practical part serves a political German TV-debate. The analysis will provide evidence for the discussion of the usability of the moral and sportive approach. It will become clear that the results generally seem to fit the moral approach but they are not fully convincing.

1. Introduction

Throughout our lives spoken language accompanies us wherever we find are. We are surrounded by spoken language right from the beginning of our live in the womb to the famous last words before death. Even in dreams language occurs. Thus, spoken language is not only a phenomenon of real life but also of the unconscious state of mind. Although it is still not provable what dreams are, scientists try to identify the nature of human thinking by studying human dreams. This is also done by interpreting dream images and their metaphorical meaning. In this case metaphors are used to trace back the cognitive structures. Not only in psycholinguistics metaphors are an object of study but in cognitive linguistic itself metaphors play a big role. Chomsky as one of the main representatives of cognitive scientists has started his revolutionary work on syntax trying to define the universal grammar. Though his success is notable, something his generative grammar approach does not explain is the origin of metaphors. Why do metaphors exist in literature and spoken language? This will not be answered in this paper but one way to find out more about the nature of metaphor is to reveal different types of it in the whole spectrum of all day language. In 1980 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published Metaphors we live by opening a field of study that until then has been seen mostly from a literary point of view. Although the ancient Greeks and afterwards many other philosophers have speculated about metaphors, Lakoff and Johnson’s book gives the first hints about how important metaphorical thinking is for language.

Since politicians should talk about the most important matters of society it would be interesting to see how they convince electorate. In Moral Politics Lakoff (1996) tries to show the metaphor usage of conservatives and liberals in relation to family concepts in the U.S. His findings seem to fit into the political two-opponent-system of the US, but how does his schemes correspond to European politics? In this paper I will first present a spectrum of definitions of metaphor. This is followed by a chapter which gives an overview on where metaphors occur mainly. Further down the metaphor in political discourse is examined. The practical part of this paper will be the examination of the Berlin speech of Roman Herzog in 1997. The final part is about to find out if the theoretical American basis of Lakoff can be applied on European political discourse.

2. Metaphor - an overview

2.1 The Ancient Definition

When the ancient Greek developed a high political culture the culture of metaphors seems to start. Aristotle defined metaphor as an event where a word is substituted by another one; today this approach has been titled the substitution theory[1]. By Aristotle’s definition the substituting word is actually not really fitting the position of the substituted word. The metaphor is seen out of context but still bound to the literal word by similarity or analogy. This view on metaphor has been seen as the traditional one. It dominates the definition until today. However, traditions have to be challenged and even more when logical mistakes rule the principal of such an approach. A main mistake is to see metaphor out of any context. To decide whether a word is meant literally or metaphorically one has to be aware that these are not properties of words but properties of utterances. Utterances can be made in different places at different times with different intentions and therefore will have different meanings. It is obvious that the traditional view is problematic but a more recent approach seems to be promising.

2.2 The Conceptual Approach

Metaphors we live by by Lakoff and Johnson is a response to the Chomskyan generative grammar approach which lacks an explanation for metaphors. The two authors claim that metaphors are not exclusively a matter of literature. The daily use of metaphor does not come from the literary function but the other way around.

According to them, metaphors are a product of the structure of our conceptual system. They believe that “most concepts are partially understood in terms of other concepts.”[2] We are able to conceptualize abstract words only because we use a metaphorical way of describing them.

Kövecses describes “metaphor as understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another conceptual domain.”[3] Such domains are based on experience. The conceptual domain people try to understand in metaphors are called target domains. The conceptual domain people use to understand is called the source domain. The process of understanding the target domain by the application of the source domain is called mapping. Kövecses gives an example concerning the concept of LOVE[4]:

They built a strong marriage .”

Here the concept of building is mapped onto the concept of LOVE in order to make it understand more easily. Kövecses explains that “…conceptual metaphors are unidirectional.”[5]

This assumption is based on the fact that conceptual metaphors go from concrete to abstract domains. So, one function of metaphor is to serve to understand concepts which are difficult to understand. The function of metaphor behind the human thinking is called cognitive function. Conceptual metaphors can be classified according to cognitive functions they perform. Three kinds of conceptual metaphor exist:

First, the structural metaphor of which the source domain provides a vast knowledge about the target concept.

Second, the ontological metaphor which serves to assign an ontological status to general categories of abstract target concepts.

Third the orientational metaphor, which are based on basic human spatial orientations. This kind of metaphor serves to render a set of target concepts more coherent in our conceptual system.

These three kinds of metaphors are omnipresent in our all-day-language. The spectrum of concepts is mainly influenced by one factor: Our spatial experiences structure our spatial concepts. By interacting with our physical environment we build up an elementary knowledge about our world. From the first day a a human being is confronted with physical laws and somehow it has to deal with them. For surviving the child has to learn the consequences of physical actions. These experiences form the pattern of the spatial concept of human beings. Thus, basic cognitive concepts influence for the creation of metaphors. But where do they actually occur?

3. Metaphors in Use

3.1 Science

We can find metaphors in several communicative areas. They all serve the idea to convey a message that is more easily to comprehend. What would science be without metaphorical thinking and metaphorical language? Complex Processes and states of being are difficult to understand. For example, electricity becomes comprehensible when the metaphorical expression of flow is used. Although a scientist could say that electrons are simply moving, he still uses the concept of liquid substance as the source domain. Again a concrete, touchable issue is mapped on an invisible or abstract matter. Metaphors do no only occur inside teaching and learning but even the structure of science itself includes metaphorical expression. A subcategory of a science is called branch, recalling the conceptual metaphor of social organizations are plants. Even in the abstract word subcategory the prefix sub meaning under could be explained by the spatial orientation approach. Here subcategory is seen as a part of the base for the main category. Thus also the apparently abstract expression has also a metaphorical background. Furthermore in language about scientific issues contains many metaphorical expressions. Lakoff gives the following examples[6]:

“Theories (and Arguments) are buildings”

“Is that the foundation of your theory?”

“The argument collapsed.”

As in science also in law concerns metaphorical language is not only useful but often even necessary. Abstract ideas need to be concretized by metaphors in order to realize them.

3.2 Law

Forensic texts constitute the order of a society and need to be graspable by common man, thus politicians and jurists cannot but revert to metaphor. This most comprehensible way of transmitting important information is necessary, otherwise laws would be difficult to understand. Here we can find the most advantageous context where the principle of unidirectionality is apparent. A very central metaphorical expression is the first article of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights of the Union[7].

German: „Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar.“

Literally: “The dignity of Human is untouchable.”

English: “Human dignity is inviolable.”

Although the English expression includes the conceptual metaphor harm is physical injury[8], the German version gives a somewhat different idea. The German expression reflects the conceptual metaphor emotions are objects[9]. Without this concretization the value of dignity would be inexplicable and therefore it would be of no use in law texts. Since texts of law concern many abstract ideas they contain also many metaphorical expressions. As a rule for every citizen the law is an easily understandable reality.

3.3 Religion

Besides science and law, religion plays a very big role in society. The Christian religion contains plenty of metaphors. In Moral Politics (1996/2002), George Lakoff cites a list of god metaphors[10]. These metaphors are somehow special because they contain two metaphors at a time.

“God is a glassblower; humans are his glass.”

“God is a smith; humans are his metal .”

If God was not an abstract supreme character but a name of a normal person, the first part of the examples above would be metaphorical but difficult to understand. Only in the religious context with human beings the metaphor makes sense. Furthermore, the word human in these cases stands metonymically for human characters. Again, the concept of the abstract, here God, requires the metaphorical representation by the concrete.

3.4 Politics

Maybe not science but surely religion and law are subjects strongly involved in a further field full of metaphorical language, namely politics. From the ancient empires up to industrial nations of today, each of such civilizations has its own tradition in political discourse, but somehow all suffer the same phenomenon. Although France is a prototype state of modern democracy with a firm language policy the politics’ language is famous for its phrasemongering. Even the name for this metaphorically supercharged jargon is a metaphor: langue de bois (tongue of wood). Politics are notorious for talking a lot but saying nothing. This is often achieved throughout metaphors or standard expressions including metaphors. In difference to the other three domains analyzed above, politics seems to have an else wise use of metaphors. As in the case of France, the rhetoric figure in discussion seems sometimes to be misused or even abused.

4. Why Metaphors in Politics?

To understand the sense of metaphors in politics one has to have a proper idea of what politics are. Etymologically the word politics derives from the Greek word politike[11] which means “Art of administrating the state”. A state as such is a very complex construct, which, at least in democracy, is to be governed by the ones who know how to manage the administration. To be elected, one has to demonstrate his competence in showing his understanding of the complexity of a state and its problems. That is where the bravery in metaphorical creativity brings success. Kurz[12] explains that metaphors “evoke affects. Thus they create Attitudes and guide action. The stronger, the more the metaphorical >as if< changes into identification.” He explains that there are mainly three kinds of metaphor present in political rhetoric: One is the ship metaphor, which is used in times of crisis. The classic example is: We are all in the same boat. This kind of metaphor induces order, authority and unity against the danger of sinking. Another kind of metaphor presented is the organism metaphor. Roots and growth are just two of many examples representing this category. Even the word capital derived from Latin head, can be traced back to this field of metaphors. Here political processes and relations are presented as determined, unchangeable natural processes. A further type is the family metaphor which is realized in expressions like father of the constitution. This field of metaphors “has paternalistic implications and demands the faith of the citizen.” The abuse of metaphorical expression found its climax in the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Nazis. They declared Jews as pest, cancer or ulcer of society, accessing to the field of illness metaphors, which is directly connected to the organism metaphors mentioned above. “The Jew should not be compared to cancer but be experienced like cancer. Ruthless the cancer has to be cut out. That means at last crematorium.” Here history teaches how important the responsibility of metaphor use in politics can be. “You can recognize a political culture also and right by its metaphors.”

This is also the case in American political discourse as shown by Nicholas Howe. He studied the use of metaphors in political discourse in the U.S from 1980-1985. His findings were, that political discourse of that time, and probably also today, draws metaphors from the terminology of sports and warfare. Howe states that “politics is typically conceived of as being either a rule-bound contest (sports metaphors) or as an unpredictable exercise of power (war metaphors).”[13] According to his opinion this may have the effect of excluding women from political engagement. The corpus of his study consists of newspaper articles which contain complete statements made in political debate. Important to know is that Howe does not concentrate on statistics but on the discussion of the most frequent metaphors. He divides metaphors in two categories: One kind is used in public for the purpose of persuasion especially during electoral campaign. The other one is used in general political jargon for example for the discussion of political processes. Howe explains that such metaphors can easily be understood in public because they are part of the every-day-speech. They are formulatic or conventional expressions and thus not unique. By using them certain segments are excluded and others are included. War games and sports are typically part of the male childhood and thus these experiences form the basis for the understanding of the metaphors used in politics. Including metaphors from especially male childhood experiences segregate women in politics. Roles as quarterbacks or point men force the audience to regard politics as a male activity. Women who also make use of such metaphors adapt to this view.

Ideally the sport metaphors fit the American two-opponent structured electoral system. For the highly structured imagery of sports politics becomes more comprehensible. Team sports such as Baseball or football serve to involve voters in elections. Again the factor of identification is essential. Furthermore the physical conflict in such sports makes these metaphors in politics still more effective. Boxing is perfect for mapping individual confrontation onto political debates such as television discussions.

Warfare metaphors capture better the sense of ruthlessness. As in the case of team sports also army members are mapped onto political professionals. Quarterbacks and Commanders fulfil the same function of metaphor. Also the military tactics coincide with the sport tactics and thus with political processes and actions. Hence the two metaphorical fields can easily be mixed. It is no wonder that the American Football terminology has overtaken several terms from military language (for example: line of scrimmage, blitz). Both metaphorical fields are inappropriate to characterize certain political aspects such as compromises. But here lies the sense of using both metaphorical fields. They make the citizen believe that in politics compromise and negotiation are forbidden by the rules of conflict. As a consequence politics is seen as a form of contest. The speaker’s cognitive framework is far from reality. The give frames are often inappropriate and inflexible. In politics no 2-minute warning or overtime exists! In politics metaphors are on the edge of easily understandable complexes to simplified, misleading imagery.

In Moral Politics (1996/2002) George Lakoff depicts a different picture of the use of metaphors in politics. On the basis of just the American political discourse of the last century, the author claims that the metaphors in use base o n moral education in family. Moral education is depicted as two models: the strict father model and the nurturant parent model. Both models of moral have direct influence on the language of conservative and liberal politicians. Lakoff traces the metaphorical expressions back to the radical differences of moral education in family. According to him, in both cases family structure is mapped onto different aspects of society in which they seldom agree. His approach lacks a profound research on a broad data base. By discussing several topics, however, Lakoff finds out different political ideas based on very different basic values. “Those family-based moralities are largely constructed from unconscious conceptual metaphors. Understanding political positions requires understanding how they fit family-based moralities.”[14]

In an internet article titled Metaphor and War, again[15], Lakoff stresses the negative effect of metaphors used in foreign policy. The A Nation is A Person metaphor is, according to him, a misleading metaphor. In the case of Gulf War III, Saddam is the declared enemy but not the people which are suffering the bombing. Lakoff is convinced that the Bush Administration takes advantage of the cognitive framing in human mind and explains that, “when the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored.”[16] Although his paper is politically motivated, he rightly points out the strategy of the Bush Administration from a cognitive activist’s point of view.

Since Lakoff himself admitted that the application of his theory is pretty difficult, scientists tried to do more research on this field. In his study (2005) on conceptual metaphors in political discourse Alan Cienki presents the findings on a research (2004) on debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. He searched for metaphors proposed by Lakoff (2002) and found out that they appear rarely in debates. The central point of Cienki’s paper is to explain research methods in particular the pile sort task. Since an individual, in this case the linguist, will be influenced by his knowledge, he will probably err in detecting metaphors. The author proposes to use the pile sort task carried out by many non-linguists in order “to find out what patterns of relatedness they see in give sets of expressions on different topics, if indeed any commonalities arise among the participants’ groupings.”[17] These participants were asked to categorize metaphors into topics. It was found that some of the metaphorical “relations were close to language itself.”[18] Concerning the SF/NP model Cienki raises the question “how well the models would apply in a truly multi-party state.”[19] To answer this question, the next chapter will be about the metaphors in the TV-debate of Angela Merkel and Gerhardt Schröder on 4. September 2005.

5. Metaphor in German politics

The models proposed by Lakoff might work in the American electoral system but the German system is somewhat more multifaceted. Nevertheless, the famous debate of the leader of two biggest parties in Germany could correspond to the model. Merkel representing the conservative CDU should thus use more conservative family-based metaphors and Schröder, the leader of the SPD, should use more liberal metaphors. Their debate will constitute the corpus. It would exceed the limits of my research to have many participants so I will do the research on my own. I first checked the data for metaphors based on Lakoff (1996/2002) and then for metaphors of warfare and sport. The results are presented in the table 1.

Table 1

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Since the number of words of Schröder is almost equal to the number of words of Merkel (Schröder has circa 5% less), conclusions and comparisons about the results can be made promptly. With 15 SF-Metaphors Merkel clearly outranges Schröder proving Lakoff’s idea of family based moral metaphors in politics. One of Merkel’s metaphors is:

Das war der Vater der sozialen Marktwirtschaft: Ludwig Erhard. (Index 20 in the debate)

The result of the NP-Metaphor count is not surprising. Although Merkel still uses more metaphors than Schröder, she does not use them excessively and the number of the NP-Metaphors are still the half the number of SF-Metaphors. The proportion of the SF-NP-Metaphors is almost identical (15/7 vs. 5/3). Schröder generally uses less metaphors but the ratio is almost the same. An example of his metaphors is:

Das zeigt, dass er die wirkliche Beziehung zur Lebenswirklichkeit verloren hat. (Index 53 in the debate)

Although the numbers of metaphors are small, they indicate the political orientation. The metaphors used by both models (NP-SF), however, occur with different frequencies. Whereas the NP-SF-Metaphors constitute almost a third of Merkel’s total “moral metaphors”, Schröder’s NP-SF-Metaphors make up more than two thirds of his total of “moral metaphors”. Probably Merkel tried to represent her party by focussing on SF-Metaphors rather than NP-SF-Metaphors. Schröder obviously tried to be more balanced in his metaphor-use. The NP-SF-Metaphors the candidates used are metaphors which appear in both models so it is hard to distinguish between them. The base for the discrimination of the metaphors was their clear assignability to one of the models. Both politicians used metaphors of their political orientation as twice as much as metaphors of the other orientation. Thus the Lakoff (1996/2002) approach of specific conceptual metaphors for specific family based politic moral concepts seems to be applicable onto German politics. This could be due to the similar political situation in the U.S. The smaller parties in Germany may be more successful in Germany but the conservative right wing vs. liberal left wing constellation is comparable. Since both conservatives and liberals agree on some aspects (see NP-SF-Metaphors), a research on the metaphors use of the smaller parties could reveal interesting facts. One difficulty, however, would be the monothematic ideology of such parties. The “Green Party” (Ecologists) concentrates to much on environmental issues and to less on economical ones to have a representative comparison between them and for example the FDP (Economists). In the debate in discussion the issues are well balanced enough to provide a representative corpus; taxes, unemployment, annuity, family, foreign politics and the attitude towards society are issues which provoke several moral based metaphors.

I counted the warfare and sport metaphors as one group because, first, many metaphors could not be assigned clearly to one of the groups. In some of such cases the metaphor of physical conflict caused literally a conflict in assigning them. One example is the remark of Schröder:

Ich habe doch die Prügel dafür bekommen. (Indices 38 and 39 in the debate)

Here enemy contact in a battle situation or a box fight could be the concept behind the metaphor. Nevertheless, the result seems to agree with Howe’s assumption that women in order to gain political importance they have to adapt to access to metaphors which seem to derive from a male domain. The sport metaphors have not been very concrete towards a kind of sport, though. Maybe the candidates did not want to risk a justification for a misleading metaphor. In other European countries politicians follow different ideas. For example Berlusconi introduced his party and political idea by a strong use of football metaphors. The fact that Italy is the only country in the world with 3 daily sport journals, of which one is the most read daily journal of Italy, invites politicians to draw metaphors from this domain. Berlusconi’s goal was “to turn politics into a spectator sport. Within the politics is football equitation, the position of the ordinary people is not one of distant and cynical observation but one of involved and enthusiastic support for one’s particular side”[20] Sport metaphors in the debate of Merkel vs. Schröder have been so general probably due to idea of convincing the electorate by talking about party issues and not personal characteristics.

6. Conclusion

Although the models of Lakoff and Howe seem to be applicable onto German politics remains the doubt about general difficulties with the models. The high number of NP-SF-Metaphors in this and also many other debates reflects “the messiness of how such models are used in talk and reasoning, with few people consistently exemplifying one model or the other, but rather switching between different models in relation to different issues.”[21] Another problem is that “this rhetorical genre is formulated partly spontaneously and partly on the basis of previous texts and coaching by advisors, and this is likely another reason that neither candidate’s contribution homogeneously reflects one model.”[22] In general, the Lakoff model probably provides an interesting approach to categorize political metaphors but in the end his model is too general for achieving convincing results. Only a general tendency can be found but concrete categorization is seemingly impossible. Cienki (2005) has already provided much evidence for the difficulty with Lakoff’s model and obviously the attempt to try it on a corpus of European politics failed. This model is not wrong itself but too general for applying it with the goal to achieve concrete and satisfying results. Hence, only further research could provide a more concrete model to maybe discover new aspects of conceptual metaphors in politics.


[1] See Kurz. 2004. Page 8.

[2] See Lakoff and Johnson. 2003. Page 56.

[3] See Kövecses. 2002. Page 4.

[4] Ibid. Page 23.

[5] Ibid. Page 25.

[6] See Lakoff and Johnson. 2003. Page 46.

[7] See

[8] See Grady. 1997. Page 295.

[9] Although Grady does not list this as a conceptual metaphor, many examples in daily speech approve the existence of such a metaphor (for example: to put one’s heart and soul in it). However, a necessary condition for harm is physical injury metaphor is the existence of the item to be injured, thus a physical object.

[10] The list was taken from the so said forthcoming title Our Father, our king: What makes a good metaphor for God by Eve Sweetser. This text has not been published yet.

[11] Etymologischer Duden. 2001.

[12] Kurz. 2004. Page 27f.

[13] Howe. 1988.

[14] Lakoff. 2002. Page 384.

[15] Lakoff. 2003. Page 1.

[16] Ibid. Page 3.

[17] Cienki. 2005 a. Page 9.

[18] Ibid. Page 13.

[19] Ibid. Page 14.

[20] Elena Semino and Michela Masci. 1996. Page 251.

[21] Cienki. 2005 b. Page 293.

[22] ibid

Excerpt out of 48 pages


How American is German Politics?
Free University of Berlin  (Deutsche und Niederländische Philologie)
Conceptual Metaphor Theory
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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611 KB
In MORAL POLITICS George Lakoff claims that political orientations are based on family structures and functions. These are expressed by metaphors. This paper discusses the possibility of detecting political metaphors on the base of the Lakoff approach. The German TV discussion of MERKEL and SCHRÖDER in 2006 serve as the corpus. Several fields of metaphors are discussed: WAR, SPORTS, etc. Interesting American approach tested on European corpus. (Der Anhang enthält das TV-Duell aus 2005 zwischen Schröder und Merkel - Anm. d. Red.)
American, German, Politics, Conceptual, Metaphor, Theory
Quote paper
Stephan Vierkant (Author), 2006, How American is German Politics?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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