A Matter of Metaphor

In their influential book, Metaphors We Live By (Links to an external site.) (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that metaphor isn’t simply a poetic or rhetorical device, used by someone to embellish a poem, story, essay, or speech. It is, rather, fundamental to the ways we think and act. “The concepts [metaphors] that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect,” Lakoff and Johnson observe. “They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities”—including our linguistic capacity and our everyday language use (p. 3).

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve considered several metaphors for language use, including language is a kitchen table, language is a tool, language is a gift, and language is a commodity. As we’ve discussed, each of these concepts casts a different light on the purposes and practices of language, shaping the ways we think about and use the system. This weeks Disseminate It discussion invites you to offer up other metaphors for language, drawing ideas in particular from Morrison’s Nobel Lecture.

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How to proceed
Step 1
Forage Morrison’s Nobel Lecture for a metaphor that could be applied to language. While there are places where she makes these comparisons herself—saying something akin to “Language is [this thing or that act]”—look also for the less overt comparisons. Like, for instance, when she says that “oppressive language [….] drinks blood.” The metaphor here is, of course, that oppressive language is a parasite (or vampire). It‘ll take some work and imagination to tease out a metaphor, but I’m confident you can do it.

Step 2
In a micro-essay (of 250–300 words), share your metaphor, and elaborate on its function by considering the following questions:

What characteristics does the comparison bring to language?
What do you see as the concept’s strengths and weaknesses?
How does the concept enhance and/or limit your understanding and use language?

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