Metaphor in Language and Culture

In David Crystal’s language memoir Just a Phrase I’m Going Through: My Life in Language (2009), he suggests a range of metaphors to describe language: a tool; an instrument; a mouthful of air; an art; a symphony; a game; a social force; the autobiography of the human mind; the house of being.

Metaphor is fundamental to how language systems develop over time and the way they are structured. Sylvia Plath wrote a poem entitled ‘Metaphors’ that is structured with 9 syllables in each line, 9 lines, and 9 metaphors. The poem draws on many different images of pregnancy and starts with these lines:

‘I’m a riddle in nine syllables,

An elephant, a ponderous house,

A melon strolling on two tendrils’.

Metaphors make our thoughts more interesting, but they also structure our perceptions and understanding. In a recent visit to an East London school a class of 12 – 13 year olds were studying extended metaphor and at the end of the lesson one of the girls showed her understanding of the current political climate. She came up with this metaphor:

Education is a tree which at some point in its life will be cut.

Researchers have argued that everyday language is rich in metaphor. Lynne Cameron (1999) in a chapter on operationalising ‘metaphor’ for applied linguistic research looks into applied linguistic metaphor theory.

Metaphor is viewed in terms of ‘language in use’ and there is a focus on how language is interconnected with thought and action. In this type of metaphor research, the language users become an important part of the overall picture and interpretation.

A useful text to refer back to is Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). The authors give the example of a conceptual metaphor such as ‘argument is war’ and give examples from everyday language such as ‘he shot down all of my arguments’. They then imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance and all the different imagery that this would produce.

Metaphor is a rich area of study in language and culture and the work of applied linguists.


About Vicky Obied

My name is Dr. Vicky Obied. I am an English lecturer in charge of the PGCE Secondary English programme educating future teachers of English at Goldsmiths, University of London. I co-ordinate the Professional Studies module across the PGCE Secondary programme on ‘Language, power, identity and the plurilingual learner’. I also work on the Masters in Education: Culture, Language and Identity on modules in the area of bi- and multi- lingualism and children’s literature. I have MPhil/PhD students researching in the area of second language acquistion, culture and multilingualism. I also teach on the BA in Education, Culture and Society on a module about education and empowerment. I am a committee member of the Centre for Language, Culture and Learning at Goldsmiths. Also, I am a co-opted executive member for the National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDIC) and I’m on the publishing committee for NALDIC. I am a co-opted member for Initial Teacher Education National Association for the Teaching of English (ITE NATE).

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