Metaphors of language

Exploring the way we think and talk about 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:

  • The English language is growing every year.
  • English is alive and well.
  • English will probably never die.
  • The birth of English happened many centuries ago.

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:

  • The British took English to most countries in the world.
  • English has moved around the world.
  • English is an enormous language.
  • Some people think that the British own English.

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:

  • Thinking of a language in terms of an object downplays the human aspect of language. English only 'moves' because of the way it is used by its speakers.
  • English hasn't physically moved around the world: it has been brought into all corners of the globe as a result of colonialism, trade, war, the British Empire and technology. 
  • Nobody 'owns' a language. It cannot be 'given to' and 'taken away' from somebody in the same way that a physical object can. Construing language in this way is dangerous because it promotes the idea of 'linguistic imperalism', which is tied up with nationalistic views, and only certain people having rights to access a language.
  • If we think of a language in terms of size, then we usually do so by accessing another metaphor: BIG IS GOOD or SMALL IS BAD. So, to have a 'big' language is usually thought of as a positive attribute. Thus, learning and using a 'large' language such as English is usually thought of as a desirable skill. This can be problematic and harmful for 'smaller' languages which might be endangered.

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:

  • What does each metaphor reveal about the way we think and talk about language?
  • Is English construed in positive or negative ways?
  • How common are these metaphors?
  • How does metaphor choice relate to context of usage? For example, are there any any relations between the genre of the text and the use of metaphor? Do older texts use different metaphors from recent ones?

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:

  • The flow of English is coming quickly.
  • English sprung from a small source and is now an ocean of a language.
  • The change in English is unlikely to dry up anytime soon.

(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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