Metaphors and Language

>Today in my Language and Culture class, we were learning about metaphors and how we tend to think of things by our language. A conceptual, or cognitive, metaphor is something that refers to the understanding of one idea in terms of another. An example of this is ARGUMENT IS WAR, as noted by linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

We use terms such as “I won the argument”, “He attacked her position”, “Your argument is weak”, and “I am defending what I believe in”. These phrases entrench in us a perception on what an argument is, that we are trying to win the war against the other person.

I had never thought of it that way. But now that I think about it, there are a few abstract ideas that we think of in the same matter. For example, we think of our body defending itself from diseases (“White blood cells are attacked by the HIV virus”, “Our skin heals from an infection”).

In both the argument and body example, there is an element of war or battle involved. Why is that so? In my class we learned that metaphors not only can reflect what culture thinks, but also can reinforce those thoughts. We think of an argument as a battle (having debate teams in school and personalities in the media) where one side over-powers the other.

But in the same way, an argument can be thought of as a time to respect another’s opinion. On the top of my head I cannot think of an example phrase that reflects this, however. This is because I am not accustomed to thinking as an argument in this way.

In the same way I thought of a random phrase that is popular in American culture today: Save the environment.

Among the list of words and phrases I associated with it on the top of my head were: “Save it”, “Protect”, “Conserve”, “Recycle”, “Go green“, “Dirty and being swept away”, “Forests being destroyed” and “Pollution running rampant”. All of these phrases deal with an idea that we need to help save the environment. They are words to get us to do something, probably not words that should keep a person complacent.

But why shouldn’t the idea of the environment keep people complacent? It is, in fact, nature: changeless, long-lasting and beautiful. It is the trees, the grass, the rivers and lakes that we all think of when we picture a scene of nature, a synonym of the environment. But instead of the focus on the environment, much of the focus is on keeping that environment intact. This is understandable as the purpose of bringing attention to the environment by environmentalists is to get the American people to do something about the environment-that is, save it. But this could just as easily be done by making people think of the lush, green pastures of times past; of the verdant forests or the orange and yellows of the fall; of the pristine oceans devoid of plastic bags.

The focus has changed when given the phrase “Save the environment” from what actually constitutes the environment itself to what constitutes the saving practices. This may be because we are accustomed to think a certain way based on the language that is used.

In the logo for’s website, not only is the earth represented, but also arrows signifying recycling or rebirth.

In the case of the Inuit in Alaska, there are words that signify different degrees of snow, such as sugar snow, hard snow, soft snow and others. This is because they are a people who live in the snow and are intimately involved with it. So it is natural that they would have in their language more references to what they see in their environment.

I want to investigate this subject further, because it is very interesting that how we think of a certain thing defines how we talk about it and vice-versa.


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