Metaphor and Culture

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 27 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of content


1.A cross-cultural study of animal metaphors: when owls are not wise

2.Causes of Variation in Metaphor: Differential Experience
2.1.Awareness of context
2.2.Physical environment
2.3.Social Context
2.4.Cultural context
2.5.Communicative situation
2.6.Differential memory and the role of history
2.7.Differential concerns and interests


The first question that arises is in the context of „Metaphor and Culture“ is what metaphor actually has to do with culture. This question can be answered in the way that metaphor and culture are related in many ways. Metaphor can be viewed as the ornamental use of language, and a lot about metaphor and culture arises from what we have heard or learned in school about it, such as for instance creative writers or poets who use metaphors. Since literature is a significant part of our culture, metaphor can be regarded as intimately linked to our socio-cultural field. So a possible way of relation between metaphor and culture would be literature, an exemplary manifestation of culture. However, there are in fact much more fundamental relations between metaphor and culture, which become clear when we look at some currrent thinking in anthropology, which leads us to the fact that we can view culture as a set of shared understandings that characterize smaller or larger groups of people (cf. Shore 1996, Strauss & Quinn 1997). It has to be noted that this is obviously not an exhaustive view or definition of culture, considering the fact that it leaves out real artifacts, real objects, practices, institutions, actions and so on, which people participate in and use in various cultures. However, it integrates a large part of it, namely the shared understanding that human beings have in connection with all of these „things“.

To think of culture in this way leads us directly to the cognitive linguistic framework of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson´s (1980) work „Metaphors We Live By“, whereas one of their main points was that metaphor does not mainly occur in language but in thought. So we actually understand the world with metaphors and do not just use the in our language. The connection between metaphor and culture emerges in a straightforward manner within Lakoff & Johnson´s cognitive linguistic framework. The shared understandings suggested by anthropologists as a great part of the definition of culture can often be metaphorical understandings. They can be metaphorical when the focus of understanding is on some intangible entity, such as for instance our inner life, time, emotions, mental processes, abstract qualities, social or political institutions or moral values. The metaphors we use to comprehend these intangibles may become crucially important in such cases in the way we actually experience the intangibles in a culture. In other words, on this view of metaphor, metaphor constitute a crucial and inherent part of culture.

The main questions that arise given this way of thinking about the connection between metaphor and culture are on the one hand „To what extent do people share their metaphors?“, which at first seemingly trivial becomes much more significant and interesting if we ourselves „To what extent do people around the world share their understandings of images and aspects of the world they live in?“. These questions are of particular interest to me, and were decisive for me regarding the selection of the topic of this paper. In fact, the field of „Metaphor and Culture“ comprises many subtopics, such as for instance „Universality in Metaphorical Conceptualization“, „Cross-Cultural and Within-Cultural Variation in Metaphor“, „Conceptual Metaphors and Their Linguistic Expression in Different Languages“, „Metaphor and Cultural Models“, or „The Causes of Metaphor Variation“. Since I did not want to be too general in this paper, and also wanted to give insight into some practical aspects of the topic, I decided to concentrate on a two specific „subtopics“, and deal with them in greater detail. In the first part, the paper will shed light on a study by Talebinejad & Dastjerdi´s (2005), who chose animal metaphors for the comparison in two typologically different languages, namely English and Persian. The second part of this paper will address the “Causes of Variation in Metaphor”, whereas the focus lies exclusively on the field of “Differential Experience”.

1. A cross-cultural study of animal metaphors- when owls are not wise

The fact that animal metaphors are ubiquitous in world languages, and according to Kovecses (2002) a great part of human behaviour seems to be metaphorically understood in terms of animal behaviour, leads to the fact that the conceptual metaphor „People are animals“ exists. People themselves are described as some sort of animals themselves sometimes.

Many linguists, philosophers and also anthropologists were struggling with the concern why and how animal-related word became to acquire the meaning they have now, and throughout time various studies and investigations were conducted. However, the recent interest in the field of metaphor studies, especially the field of cognitive linguistics, stems from the concern about the relation between language and culture.

Basso (1976) considered metaphor an essential concept in comprehending this connection:

„For it is in metaphor- perhaps more than in any other form of symbolic expression- that language and culture come together and display their fundamental inseparability. A theory of one that excludes the other will inevitably do damage to both“ (93).

Gibbs (1999) argued that metaphor is as much „a species of perceptually guided adaptive action in a particular cultural situation as it is a specific language device or some internally represented structure in the mind[s] of individuals“ (162). Emanatian (1999) on the other hand claims that „the relation of metaphor to cultural models varies and that no simple statement about its priority, centrality, or epiphenomenality will suffice“ (205). A view which somehow seems to complement Shore´s (1996) argument that

„Cultural models are constructed as mental representations in the same way as any mental models with the important exception that the internalization of cultural models is based on more socially constrained experiences that is the case for idiosyncratic models“ (190).

Throughout time, researchers wanted to find out whether conceptual metaphors were universal or not. Views as the ones mentioned have raised important questions in cognitive linguistics, and the question whether conceptual metaphors are to be found in all cultures and languages proves to be a difficult question to answer, especially when we consider the amount of different languages spoken around the globe and the great variety of cultures they are embedded in. The collection of data is not always helpful, regarding the fact that for instance in many aboriginal languages the concepts are so specific that no kind of universal pattern could ever be sought out. However, as in any other area of linguistic studies, also in this field one needs to look for evidence to prove or disprove the universality of specific metaphors, and one way to do that is by means of data collection on conceptual metaphors in one language, and the comparison of the results with other languages. Finding patterns, whether of difference or similarity, can shed light on the nature of human language, especially through the workings of metaphorical expressions (cf. Talebinejad & Dastjerdi 2005).

Aim of Talebinejad & Dastjerdi´s (2005) study was an investigation of nature by means of a cross-cultural comparison of metaphor in two typologically different languages, namely English and Persian, whereas animal metaphors were taken for comparison for this purpose. As a framework in comparing various aspects of animal metaphors as interpreted by native speakers of the two languages the „Great chain of being“ metaphor (Lakoff & Turner, 1989), and the principle of metaphorical highlighting (Kovecses, 2002) were being used.

Talebinejad & Dastjerdi chose animal metaphors for the comparison in two typologically distinct languages, namely English and Persian. One of the rationals behind their investigation was the fact that even though a great extent of research has been done on metaphor across culture, the area of animal metaphors has not been studied extensively enough so far, whereas they have mostly been conducted within the domain literary investigations or the domain of anthropology. This holds to be true especially in the Persian language, in which very little research has been done on animal metaphors so far, and hardly any cross-linguistically reasearch has been conducted (cf. Talebinejad & Dastjerdi 2005). Some researchers have made a distintion between animals, fish, insects, and birds, whereas in Talebinejad & Dastjerdi´s study the general classification of animals was used irrespective of the type, which helps the interpretation of the figurative uses of generic taxa simpler with the construct of the „Great chain of being“ metaphor (Lakoff & Turner 1989). This metaphor allows us to view general human character traits in terms of nonhuman attributes, and in addition to that lets us comprehend certain nonhuman characteristics in terms of human attributes.

Talebinejad & Dastjerdi first set the theoretical basis of their work by discussing the framework of the „Great Chain of Being“ metaphor proposed by Lakoff & Turner (1989), whereas they also made reference to generic of folk taxa in ethnobiological categorization of animals across various cultures. In their attempt to explain the „Great chain of being“ metaphor, they describe it as „folk theory“, which gives insight on how things are related to each other in the world. This hierarchy includes

a) Humans (Higher-order attributes and behaviour, e.g. character and thought)
b) Animals (Instinctual attributes and behaviour)
c) Plants (Biological attributes and behaviour)
d) Complex objects (Structural attributes and functional behaviour), and
d) Natural physical things (Natural physical attributes and natural physical behaviour).

They further elucidate that the „Great Chain of Being“ metaphor is a conceptual construct that boasts four components, namely

a) The implicit cultural model of the „Great Chain of Being“
b) A generic-level metaphor
c) A commonsense theory of the Nature of Things
d) The communicative principle of the Maxim of Quantity (cf. Lakoff & Turner 1989: 172).

The „Great Chain of Being“ metaphor appears to accomodate two kinds of conceptual mappings, on the one hand the mapping of animal traits onto humans, whereas this mapping allows to view the chain as a top-down hierarchy, in which higher-level human characteristics and behaviour are perceived as nonhuman attributesd and characteristics of animals, plants, complex objects and natural physical things, and on the other hand the mapping of human traits onto animals.

With respect to the connection of humans to other parts in the hierarchy of „The Great chain of Being“, it can plausibly be argued that human characteristics and behaviour are frequently understood metaphorically via behaviour and attributes of animals or plants and inanimate objects.

Underlying the comprehension of human behaviour and attributes through animal characteristics is according to Kovesces (1997) the highly conceptual metaphor „Humans are animals“, as well as a number of submetaphors that are related to it.

Talebinejad & Dastjerdi (2005) gave a reasonable number of examples from English and Persian:


„It is going to be a bitch to replace him.“ Where bitch is the image used to express the difficult nature of the thing at hand (Cited in: Deignana, 1995).

„This tune is pig to play.“ Where pig is a difficult animal to handle (Cited in: Procter, 1995).

„Don´t be a chicken!“ Where cowardly people are chickens (Cited in: Sinclair, 1990).

„Achilles is a lion.“ Where courageous people are lions (Cited in: Lakoff & Turner, 1989).

„I don`t want to have a pig in the house.“ Pig being the image fo gluttonours people here (Cited in: Taylor, 1995)

„Stop hogging the biscuits and pass them around.“ The point of similarity being inconsiderate and selfish, like a hog. (Cited in: Cowie, 1990)



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metaphor culture



Title: Metaphor and Culture