Conceptual Metaphor Theory: The ship for all seasons

There are some articles online by Lakoff, that pertain to the Conceptual Metaphor theory and are a must read for anyone intrigued by that figure of speech called Metaphor. For a layman, Metaphor is when a literal reading of a sentence/phrase has to be abandoned and the utterance understood ‘figuratively’. This definition may be more appropriate to the Novel metaphors / image metaphors that rely more on conjuring up image-schemas to make sense. The ‘figure of speech’ or ‘figurative speech’ descriptions may themselves be part of the conventional metaphor “LANGUAGE IS DEPICTION” and are explained by mappings between language: an abstract target domain being mapped to a more concrete source domain of (cave art) symbolic depictions/illustrations. While some concepts would be represented by symbols in the source domain of art representation, others would be not be representational, but based on form of figure would be equivalent to actual physical objects (hieroglyphics). Thus, the very definition of (novel) metaphor is grounded in Conceptual metaphor theory.

Lets us start with an example of metaphorical mapping given by Lakoff: ” LOVE IS A JOURNEY” with the metaphorical mapping deconstructed as (emphasis mine)

-The lovers correspond to travelers.
-The love relationship corresponds to the vehicle.
-The lovers’ common goals correspond to their common destinations on the journey.
-Difficulties in the relationship correspond to impediments to travel.

Although I would have preferred to frame the “LOVE IS A JOURNEY” AS “LOVE IS A VOYAGE (OF DISCOVERY)” so as to remove the burden of having a well defined destination as a goal for the journey by a relatively carefree discovery (about each other) as the destination/goal of Love, yet, in keeping with the “LOVE IS JOURNEY” metaphor it is instructive to note that the VEHICLE (of source domain) is mapped to relationship (of target domain) and the word relationship contains “ship” a popular vehicle for traversing difficult terrains like the sea. More interestingly, many similar associated words like friendship, courtship, companionship too have the word ‘ship’ embedded in them.

To elaborate, while “relationship” to “vehicle” mapping is present in the “LOVE IS JOURNEY” metaphor, the mapping is of superordinates in the sense that the “VEHICLE” itself is abstract and can be a ship, a car, a boat; also while Lakoff doesn’t mention this, the relationship can be substituted by companionship/ friendship in case of some other related metaphors like “FRIENDSHIP IS A JOURNEY”. What Lakoff does discuss is some sort of inheritance hierarchy whereby the structure of a base metaphorical mapping like “PURPOSIVE LIFE IS A JOURNEY” is inherited by a derived metaphors like “LOVE (LIFE OF TWO) IS A JOURNEY” or “CAREER (upward purposive) IS A JOURNEY”.

To have more clarity on the ‘conceptual’ part of the conceptual metaphor theory consider metaphors that we normally use for some concepts like time (already discussed earlier in one of the posts), quantity, quality, category etc.

The first of these semantic concepts is “CLASSICAL CATEGORIES ARE CONTAINERS” metaphor. Here, an item (object) can be either ‘in’ a category (container) or outside of that category( container). Of course a third possibility exists that the item “is and is not” in that category(is on the surface of the container), but this is not discussed by Lakoff.

The other mappings like “QUANTITY” of an object is spatial direction “UP” is based on the 3-D internal representation of Cartesian space and relies on our commonsense concrete observations like a pile grows in upward direction when more quantity is added, or that a fluid in a container rises up when more liquid is poured in. Thus we have statements like ‘the crime graph soared up while the economy dwindled.’

The “QUALITY” of an object (or linear scales measuring it) is a “PATH” metaphor, again uses the underlying structure of path whereby the movement is in front direction (possibly radial direction) direction and is based on the fact that distance in the radial direction is equivalent to more or less of a quality. Thus, statements like ‘in terms of Intelligence he is way ahead of you’. It is interesting to note that PATH metaphors rely on angular geometry concept (with the travelers or subjective origin) always present implicitly in the metaphor.

Another interesting metaphor is the underlying structure mapping time. Hereby, “TIME IS MOTION” (OF AN OBJECT/ OF A SUBJECT THOROUGH A LANDSCAPE).

Of the first of these dual Time metaphors exhibiting duality of object/landscape, time is motion of object assumes that Future Time is (someone/thing personified) coming towards us and past time is receding from us. This leads to expressions like The time will come when… The time has long since gone when … The time for action has arrived. That time is here. In the weeks following next Tuesday…. On the preceding day, … I’m looking ahead to Christmas. Thanksgiving is coming up on us. Let’s put all that behind us. I can’t face the future. Time is flying by. The time has passed when etc

It is instructive to note that Aymara have a reverse metaphor , whereby their backs are towards future. Logically this makes more sense as FUTURE is not visible to us (unless we have good predictive powers ) and so should come from behind us and surprise us, while past is there for us to see till eternity and should be in front of us. Anyway, this metaphor representation too represents the TIME as linear motion. What is more interesting concept is that of time as circular (and thus periodic/ rhythmic) Motion. The interesting metaphor here would be standing close to a merry go round and watching events flow past oneself. Here too differences can arise based on whether one is watching things in counter-clockwise motion or clockwise motion. Interesting to note that many concepts related t time are circular(spherical/ rhythmic) in nature and even concepts of clockwise rely on concept of clock/time.

The other metaphor for time is TIME AS MOTION OVER A LANDSCAPE. This I believe is no different from first one,except in the sense that it relies more heavily on “NO MOTION” . Thus when the passage of time does not lead to any noticeable changes (CHANGE IS MOTION), then one may be apt to treat the time as a location. The examples given corroborate this.

  • He stayed there for ten years.
  • He stayed there a long time.
  • His stay in Russia extended over many years.
  • He passed the time happily.
  • I’ll be there in a minute.

Even the last example illustrates that not much will happen in the ‘minute’ and thus minute is exemplified as a location/container.

A very important metaphorical mapping discussed is of EVENT structure.
The EVENT domain is mapped to basic concrete domains of space, motion and forces.

  1. States are locations (bounded regions in space).
  2. Changes are movements (into or out of bounded regions).
  3. Causes are forces.
  4. Actions are self-propelled movements.
  5. Purposes are destinations.
  6. Means are paths (to destinations).
  7. Difficulties are impediments to motion.
  8. Expected progress is a travel schedule; a schedule is a virtual traveler, who reaches pre-arranged destinations at pre-arranged times.
  9. External events are large, moving objects.
  10. Long term, purposeful activities are journeys

I would like to distribute this in my 8-fold path with the first five of these describe the event in terms of the entities involved. The next 3 in terms of the context or environment in which the event happens.

  1. States are confinements of space.
  2. Changes are movements
  3. Causes attributed are underlying forces amongst the objects/ force field.
  4. Outward Observable Actions are equivalent to self-propelled motion with no observable external cause
  5. Purpose or reason for the event is mapped to there being destinations or goals.
  6. Means used to achieve the event-happening is mapped to there being paths (multiple) for the purported destination and choosing of one path over others.
  7. There are 3 factors affecting outcome when one means(path) is chosen- difficulties mapped to impediments to motion in the path; subjective assessment of progress mapped to scheduled milestones in the path; and unpredictable and outside control other (synchronous) events mapped to external large moving bodies ( that may curve the time space). It also interesting to note that large , moving objects are conceptualized in terms of Things, Fluids and Horses ( in the last of which balance is required to control the motion).
  8. Finally, The events that are meaningful (have purpose and right means etc) and are extended are equated to Journeys or voyages though time-space.

Lakoff also maps this event structure to duality of object-location whereby events may be attributes possessed or happening in a location (space time). Thus, one can either be ‘in trouble’ or ‘have trouble’. In the former case one is conceptualizing the event (trouble) as being confinement in some space-time that is associated with trouble. In the latter, one is conceptualizing trouble as a possession or attribute that one has.
In my view the right framing is one that uses location metaphors as that is more related to paths, journeys etc. rather than object metaphors which necessarily signify events (even related to other persons) as objects of gratification.

While time is sometimes personified while doing CMT, another interesting case is that of DEATH usually personified as a drivers etc. This bodes well with other metaphors like BODY being a VEHICLE/CONTAINER for traversing this sea of life and transcending to other other end. The death personified serves as a driver taking one from life domain to the other transcendental domain. No surprise in MATRIX revolutions, Sati meets NEO while the DEATH driver for the train is coming to take NEO to the underworld (of death).

Before closing would like to add a few notes on poetical metaphor or Novel metaphor (which will deserve their own posting). I believe they involve conjuring of actual images in the mind to work and are slightly different from conventional metaphor. They may in time become entrenched and lead to conventional metaphor.

Before closing I would like to point to one previous post on this blog, whereby just like ” NATION is A SHIP” metaphor , I compare a COMPANY to a RIVER-RAFT.
Also , In my earlier poems I have been heavily using metaphors like COURTSHIP is LIKE FISHING and GROUP OF FRIENDS IS like a SHIP.

Finally, here is a list of some common metaphors outlined by Lakoff.

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