Metaphorically Speaking

Though we may seldom think about it, metaphors play a huge role in the way we speak and the way we think. English expressions such as “thinking outside the box” or “dodging the bullet” are obvious examples of common metaphors that we use, but perhaps more interesting are metaphors that are so ingrained in our thought process that we don’t recognize them as such.

Given that we developed language as a way of communicating with others about the world around us it makes sense that language would make use of spatial metaphors. For example, in the English language the metaphor of height is used to express value judgments. If something is good or ambitious it is “high.” If it is bad or common it is “low.” Examples are “high art” versus “low art,” being “at the peak of one’s career” versus “wallowing in a valley of despair,” and being “at the top of one’s game” versus the “bottom of the ladder.”

Other spatial metaphors include size, as in “he was a bigger man and didn’t retaliate” or “he was a small man and his jealousy got the better of him,” distance such as “the road was long, but we reached our goal” or “we’re so close to understanding it,” and texture such as “she can be a bit prickly,” or “she’s a smooth talker.”

The metaphors we use are an important element of what defines us culturally. A former Navajo employee at Falmouth Institute was helping the CEO of the organization examine his broken down car. She asked him to open the hood so they could take a look at the “heart,” a beautiful and descriptive metaphor for the engine that also offered insight into her cultural background.

Each language has its own metaphors. These metaphors both reflect what is salient to the culture employing the language and influence the way that language speakers think. This is one of the many reasons that language preservation is such an important issue to many tribes. For more information on the way metaphors shape our thought the book Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is recommended.

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