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Falling in love with metaphor or How metaphor is reflected in grammars of languages

Since our school-days we’ve been aware that rhetorical tropes, and metaphor in particular, give wonderful expressiveness to our speech. Figurative language has been regarded traditionally as situated outside the realm of grammar. However, with the advent of Cognitive Linguistics, metaphor is now recognized as being a fundamental figure of thought that shape, to a considerable extent, the conceptual structure of languages. So, how do metaphors interact between each other and with grammatical means of languages? To answer this question we should get acquainted with the meaning of metaphor first. It is mapping from a source domain to a target domain. In other words, whenever a person takes a concept that has been formed in one domain and tries to implement it in another, a metaphor has occurred. The domain in which most human knowledge is formed is that of a human body in physical space, which usually serves as the source domain for metaphor. Common target domains are time, emotions, and states of being.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) identify three basic types of metaphor:

Orientational metaphor is the extension of orientations such as IN/OUT, UP/DOWN, FRONT/BACK to non-spatial domains;

Ontological metaphor is the conceptualization of non-things (emotions, abstract ideas, ambient phenomena) as if they were things (usually entities, substances, or places), as in We are working toward peace (where peace is conceived of as an object or place), or His emotional health has deteriorated recently (where emotional health is an object subject to deterioration).

Structural metaphors take an item with rich structure in bodily experience as the source domain for understanding something else. For example, the structural metaphor PEOPLE ARE PLANTS underlies many metaphorical expressions, enabling us to refer to the growth of children as sprouting up, youth as a blossom, old age as a time of withering and fading.

The three types of metaphor are not entirely discrete and often collaborate in a given expression. Falling in love, for example, uses all three types: an orientational metaphor extending the use of in, an ontological metaphor identifying love as a place, and a structural metaphor that maps our understanding of physical falling onto our understanding of an initial encounter with love. Languages make use of all three types of metaphor in their grammars. Orientational metaphors are quite routine (often involving cases, prepositions, and prefixes), and they typically collaborate with ontological metaphors (as in getting things done in time, running out of time, where time is a container or a substance). Grammatical case uses a structural metaphor mapping our experience of physical relationships to understand the abstract relationships among referents in a sentence.

So, that’s the way metaphors are implied into grammatical means of languages. There’s an opinion that not only metaphor leaves its imprints on grammatical structures of languages, but so does metonymy. But this is already another story, which we’ll talk about next time.

Source: Laura A. Janda Mental Spaces and Mapping: Metaphor//International Journal of Cognitive Linguistics. – 2010. – V1, I1. – p.16-18


One thought on “Falling in love with metaphor or How metaphor is reflected in grammars of languages

  1. Does it mean that knowing the metaphor behind a grammar phenomenon will allow us to use it correctly, even in a foregn language? I’m not that sure. The choice of a metaphor is often accidental (in March, but on Tuesday), tradition fixes it, and people use it without thinking. There’s a lot of illogical and inexplicable in the language. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t strive to find the logic…

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