Metaphors of language

This project asks students to explore metaphors of the English language. If you need a quick refresher, it might be useful to revisit some of the introductory pages on metaphor here before completing the project work.

Metaphor is a highly pervasive feature of any language, not only reflecting the way that we understand the world, but constituting and shaping it. In linguistics, we use the X IS Y formula to indicate a metaphor - for example:

ENGLISH IS A LIVING ENTITY

In this metaphor, we understand 'ENGLISH' in terms of it being a 'LIVING ENTITY'. This metaphor can yield expressions such as:

What do you think of this metaphor? Does it accurately reflect what language is? Perhaps - it seems to acknowledge that a language does not remain static, and is constantly changing, much like a living thing. It also acknowledges that a language has a starting point, and for some languages, an end point.

There are many other ways of talking about a language through metaphor. For example:

ENGLISH IS A PHYSICAL OBJECT

In this metaphor, we understand 'ENGLISH' in terms of it being a 'PHYSICAL OBJECT'. This metaphor can yield expressions such as:

But of course, a language is not an object. What then, does the use of this metaphor suggest about how we think and talk about language? We might take a more critical view of this metaphor, arguing that:

Before continuing, can you think of other metaphors used to talk about language? Use the ENGLISH IS A... formula and discuss the meaning of each metaphor. How does the use of such metaphors affect the way you think about what a language is?

Next are two projects that you might like to try. If you require them as a handout, they are attached as a pdf at the bottom of this page. 

Project idea (1)

In this project, go on a 'metaphor hunt', looking for the ways in which English (and other languages too, if you like) is talked about. Use Google to help you here - try searching for "English is a..." or "Language is a..."

Once you have collected the metaphors and expressions, analyse the usage of each one, as above. You could do this by exploring the following questions:

Project idea (2)

Using the list below, consider what each metaphor might mean in relation to the way the language has changed and adapted. What ‘kind’ of English is construed in each one? Which metaphor do you think best reflects English, and why? What expressions might fall under that metaphor? Finally, can you think of other metaphors to describe English? Some suggestions have been made for the first one.

(1) ENGLISH IS A FAST FLOWING RIVER

This metaphor reflects the idea that English has a strong Germanic or Romance identity (the main river), but exists in a network of connections or ‘tributaries’. For example, English has been enriched by vocabulary from Scandinavian languages, Norman French, Latin, Greek and others. You might also think of these tributaries as the various regional and global varieties of English. Change has happened quickly and steadily, much like the way water moves in a rapidly flowing river. There may be rapids or waterfalls, reflecting high density of change in certain periods such as the Industrial Revolution. There are no dry parts of the river, reflecting the constant change that English has undergone. The river reaching the sea could reflect the global status and size of English, with other oceans representing other global languages such as Spanish and Arabic. The river can destroy things that lie in its path, reflecting the way that English has 'killed off' other minority languages. Expressions that fall under this metaphor would be things such as:

(2) ENGLISH IS A CONTAINER

(3) ENGLISH IS A SPONGE

(4) ENGLISH IS A PLANT

(5) ENGLISH IS A WEAPON

(6) ENGLISH IS A LUMP OF CLAY

(7) ENGLISH IS A FOREST FIRE

(8) ENGLISH IS A GOVERNMENT

(9) ENGLISH IS A PICKPOCKET

 

Further reading

Goatly, A. (2011). The Language of Metaphors. London: Routledge.

Kövescses, Z. (2010). Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Saraceni, M. (2015). World Englishes: A Critical Analysis. Bloomsbury.

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