As promised, this is the last of my three part series on metaphors (sorry for the delay, Amy). I’m going to discuss why metaphors are becoming one of the most provocative new topics in the field of cognitive science—the study of thought and intelligence. You’ll recall in this series’ initial post that I discussed dead metaphors like fishing for a compliment or planting seeds of doubt. After all, there is nothing inherently seed-like about doubt, nor does seeking a compliment resemble the sport of fishing. Yet these terms became parts of our daily language because at some point in the past some group of speakers related seeds and fishing to doubt and seeking compliments. But, as the saying goes, this is just semantics. Or is it?
Metaphors operate at much deeper level in human language than just leaving behind dead metaphors. In fact, research on metaphors is changing the way language scholars envision how our minds process language. Take, for example, the concept of cognitive metaphors, originally developed by George Lakoff and Mark Turner. The theory behind cognitive metaphors proposes that instead of thinking of language as a massive dictionary of words and meanings contained in our brains, human language actually relates quite closely to the way our minds situate our bodies in time and space.
For example, think about what you’re doing right now. Likely sitting in a chair, reading this post from a computer screen. Your mind has a 3-D model of the room you are situated in; you know approximately how far you are from the walls and ceiling; you know where the room is in relation to the rest of the building; you know that if you pick up a pen from the desk, lift it over your head, and drop it, that the pen will fall; you also likely know about the weather outside and how that will affect your plans later in the day. You’re not aware that your brain is doing this, but as you read this paragraph it probably conjured a few mental images—called image schemas.
Whether or not you’re aware of it, your mind is constantly creating image schemas that orient you as you do something seemingly simple, like looking across the room, or something seemingly complex, like skating backwards. Cognitive linguists like Lakoff and Turner argue that this process of image schemas is also fundamental to human language. They argue that perception of space and time has built a model of time and space into language as well, and not just English, every language.
But we’ll stick to English. Take the following example from Metaphors We Live By: “Things are looking up. We hit a peak last year, but it’s been downhill ever since. Things are at an all-time low. He does high–quality work.” According to cognitive linguists, these metaphors all contain an inherent cognitive metaphor: GOOD IS UP; BAD IS DOWN. Similarly, this cognitive metaphor explains phrases like on top of the world, down and out, top notch, and under the weather. These phrases all use words of spatial orientation, called prepositions, to connect concepts and emotions to space and time.
Metaphors have always been considered frilly language, just decoration to bring extra attention to a message—as I mentioned in my previous post on metaphors in marketing. But as it turns out, there is something much deeper and fundamental about metaphors:rather than decorating the meaning of a message, metaphors are required for language to exist in the first place. As a developing language scholar, I find this possibility quite exciting.