Conceptual Metaphor Theory and Bilinguals (2017)

Walter Tay Ann Lee

Associate Professor Peter Vail

UHB 2207 – Language, Cognition and Culture

30th September 2017

Conceptual Metaphor Theory and Bilinguals

In this paper, I will consider the arguments put forth by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) for their Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) as well as the critiques of CMT by Vervaeke and Kennedy (1993, 1996, 2004). I will also consider CMT in the context of bilinguals and how it relates to linguistic relativity.



Lakoff and Johnson (1980) begin their argument by distinguishing between:

  • Linguistic Metaphors, and
  • Conceptual Metaphors.

Our commonsensical notion of metaphors tells us that metaphors are a sort of play of words or figure of speech. For example, when we talk about “throwing someone under the bus”, we don’t really mean to physically handle the person and throw him under a bus (although we could mean exactly that in a different context). We are talking about sacrificing someone for selfish reasons. In this sense, metaphors are taken non-literally; As artistic ways of speaking or writing about the same phenomena. The underlying meaning or thoughts behind the words do not change, it is just the words that have changed.

This traditional concept of a metaphor is what we call a Linguistic Metaphor (1), or what Lakoff and Johnson (1980) calls, ‘metaphorical linguistic expressions’. Now, because the underlying meaning does not change, it seems as if metaphors are merely used for rhetorical flourish or special effects. That is, it seems as if we can get along perfectly well in our day-to-day lives without the use of metaphors. More importantly, because metaphors do not affect the meaning we are trying to communicate, they seem rather uninteresting to philosophers and scientists compared to ‘literal language’. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) contests this simplistic view of metaphors and claims that a second type of metaphor exists: Conceptual Metaphors (2).

What are conceptual metaphors? The first example Lakoff and Johnson (1980) gives for conceptual metaphors is “ARGUMENT IS WAR”. In this example, ARGUMENT is the concept that is being metaphorically structured in terms of another concept, WAR. What does it mean to metaphorically structure a concept? Lakoff and Johnson (1980) gives numerous examples of metaphorical structuring using expressions that fall under the “ARGUMENT IS WAR” metaphor such as “Your claims are indefensible” and “He attacked every weak point in my argument”. Here, we can see that we employ vocabulary typically used in the context of war in the way we talk about arguments. However, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war, but that many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by war. That is, we ‘understand’ and act out arguments in a war-like structure. But what does it mean to understand arguments in terms of war? Do we have flashbacks of Vietnam or war movies playing in our heads when we argue or think about arguing?

For Lakoff and Johnson (1980), to understand arguments in terms of war is to map elements in the source domain (WAR) onto elements in the target domain (ARGUMENT). To illustrate this, consider the following diagram:

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that this mapping is not just a characteristic of language, but also of thought. That is, the concept of war structures (partially) the way we think about arguments. They further claim that these mappings are implicit and are deeply engrained in our conceptual system; We were probably not aware of the metaphor “ARGUMENT IS WAR” when uttering expressions such as, “his criticisms were right on target”, and it seems that metaphor exists at a deeper level than linguistic expression. This may be why we don’t have war images playing in our heads when we argue or talk about arguing.

It is important to note that most of the support Lakoff and Johnson (1980) provides for Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) is on the basis of linguistic evidence. They claim that since communication is based on the same conceptual system in terms of which we think and act, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like. However, is their evidence sufficient?



At the heart of the controversy is the claim that conceptual metaphors influence in important ways the basis of our thinking. Vervaeke and Kennedy (1993, 1996, 2004) seem to strongly object to the idea that conceptual metaphors are implicit and structure much of abstract thought without our knowing. To understand this problem, we must first consider Johnson’s (1991) position on grounding for conceptual metaphors.

Recall that conceptual metaphors are mappings of elements from a source domain (such as war), to a target domain (such as argument). Now the question is, what constitutes the source domain? Johnson (1991) argues in favour of embodied experience (source domain) as the basis of meaning. He describes metaphors as being derived from ‘basic experiences’ (or embodied experience), and elements of these experiences are mapped onto abstract concepts in order for us to understand them.

However, Kennedy and Vervaeke (1993) contend that Johnson’s (1991) arguments is riddled with problems. Firstly, they notice that Johnson (1991) changes his description of what was merely a connection between the source domain and the target domain, to what has become a projection without any basis for such a substitution. That is, the leap from embodied experience having commonalities with abstract concepts to being able to structure said concepts seems unjustified. Additionally, they contend that even if we are able to make such a leap, it is unclear what counts as a basic experience or what concepts should be considered indispensable schema (structures).

Johnson (1993) in his reply to Kennedy and Vervaeke (1993) argues that they have misrepresented his position, which he seems to have stated before (Johnson, 1987), is merely a tentative hypothesis concerning the experiential motivations for logic. Johnson (1993) argues that he does not make such a leap and is merely providing a starting point to which we can find the makeup of the source-to-target mapping. Moreover, Johnson (1993) agrees that it is not the case that we have metaphors whenever two domains have commonalities.

In a later paper, Vervaeke and Kennedy (1996) introduce a powerful argument against the idea of conceptual metaphors being implicit (implicit, in the sense that, it structures how people think without them knowing it). They provide linguistic evidence for other conceptual metaphors for ‘ARGUMENT’ such as, ‘ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING’ or ‘ARGUMENT IS A BODY’. They argue, on what basis do we decide which metaphor is the implicit one? That is, how do we know which source domain is structuring the target domain (ARGUMENT)? The problem here is any metaphor about argument that does not fit the ‘WAR’ will be used as evidence for another theme, such as ‘A BUILDING’ or ‘A BODY’. Thus, it seems to Vervaeke and Kennedy (1996) that the idea of implicit metaphors is unfalsifiable.

Now, one might argue along the lines of Ritchie (2003) and say that regardless of what metaphors we use (WAR, BUILDING, or BODY), they all seem to be grounded in embodied experience when we take a closer look. Ritchie (2003) says, “it is likely that our experience of both argument and war are grounded in the common experience of frustrated desires and the consequent conflict of wills”. However, Vervaeke and Kennedy (2004) argue, does this mean that the underlying conceptual metaphor is ‘ARGUMENT IS INTERPERSONAL CONFLICT?’ For them, this conceptual identity claim is no longer a metaphor but a literal class inclusion statement. Vervaeke and Kennedy might not deny that our experience of argument and war are grounded in interpersonal conflict, however, they would deny that this is considered a metaphor, and that this is evidence for the existence of implicit metaphors.

For clarification, my understanding of Vervaeke and Kennedy (1993, 1996, 2004) is that they see conceptual metaphors as a sort of tool for expressing an idea. Their view is that a metaphor is often chosen from a set of alternative metaphors with widely differing implications to express an idea that is literal. In this sense, it is not the conceptual metaphor that is implicitly structuring our abstract concepts, but that we use them to draw out certain elements in an abstract concept. That is, the conceptual metaphor explicitly structures our abstract concepts.



Without getting too deep into the “online-offline” controversy of the different forms of metaphorical understanding, recent studies (Gibbs, 1997; Boroditsky, 2001; Bylund and Athanasopoulos, 2017) seem to show that even when we process highly conventional metaphorical expressions (offline understanding), we still seem to rely on metaphorical mappings which activate the related source domains.

In the experiment by Bylund and Athanasopoulos (2017), they studied the ‘TIME IS DISTANCE/AMOUNT’ metaphor by considering two kinds of primes: a prime for horizontal distance (increasing length of a line) and a prime for amount (increasing fill level of a container). This distinction between the two primes is important because the subjects studied (Swedish-Spanish bilinguals) speak languages which represent time differently; In Swedish, the passing of time is viewed as increasing in distance whereas in Spanish, the passing of time is viewed as increasing in amount. Bylund and Athanasopoulos hypothesized that if the ‘TIME IS DISTANCE/AMOUNT’ metaphor exists in the conceptual systems of the Swedish-Spanish bilinguals, then there should be crosslinguistic differences in time reproduction. Their results showed that switching the language context in the same bilingual individual also transforms the way they estimate duration.

In the context of CMT, this might suggest that bilinguals not only use metaphors to talk about time differently, but when they comprehend metaphorical expressions online, their source domains are clearly activated and interfere differently with their processing of an abstract concept (in this case, the concept of time) depending on which language is in use and what conceptual metaphor is contained in that language.


The phenomena of linguistic relativity can possibly be explained by the mechanism of conceptual metaphors, since, our understanding of abstract concepts seems so deeply rooted in metaphor, and that different languages seem to have different conceptual metaphors for the same abstract concept.


Works Cited

Boroditsky, Lera. “Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers’ Conceptions of Time.” Cognitive Psychology, vol. 43, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1–22., doi:10.1006/cogp.2001.0748.

Bylund, Emanuel, and Panos Athanasopoulos. “The Whorfian Time Warp: Representing Duration through the Language Hourglass.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 146, no. 7, 2017, pp. 911–916., doi:10.1037/xge0000314.

Gibbs, Raymond W., et al. “Metaphor in Idiom Comprehension.” Journal of Memory and Language, vol. 37, no. 2, 1997, pp. 141–154., doi:10.1006/jmla.1996.2506.

JOHNSON, Mark. The Body in the Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Johnson, Mark. “Conceptual Metaphor and Embodied Structures of Meaning: A Reply to Kennedy and Vervaeke.” Philosophical Psychology, vol. 6, no. 4, 1993, pp. 413–422., doi:10.1080/09515089308573101.

Johnson, Mark. “Knowing through the Body.” Philosophical Psychology, vol. 4, no. 1, 1991, pp. 3–18., doi:10.1080/09515089108573009.

Kennedy, John M., and John Vervaeke. “Metaphor and Knowledge Attained via the Body.” Philosophical Psychology, vol. 6, no. 4, 1993, pp. 407–412., doi:10.1080/09515089308573100.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. “Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language.” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 77, no. 8, 1980, p. 453., doi:10.2307/2025464.

Ritchie, David. “‘ARGUMENT IS WAR’-Or Is It a Game of Chess? Multiple Meanings in the Analysis of Implicit Metaphors.” Metaphor and Symbol, vol. 18, no. 2, 2003, pp. 125–146., doi:10.1207/s15327868ms1802_4.

Vervaeke, John, and John M. Kennedy. “Conceptual Metaphor and Abstract Thought.” Metaphor and Symbol, vol. 19, no. 3, 2004, pp. 213–231., doi:10.1207/s15327868ms1903_3.

Vervaeke, John, and John M. Kennedy. “Metaphors in Language and Thought: Falsification and Multiple Meanings.” Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, vol. 11, no. 4, 1996, pp. 273–284., doi:10.1207/s15327868ms1104_3.



Howe, James. “Argument Is Argument: An Essay on Conceptual Metaphor and Verbal Dispute.” Metaphor and Symbol, vol. 23, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1–23., doi:10.1080/10926480701723516.

Kövecses Zoltán, and Benczes Réka. Metaphor: a Practical Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Ortony, Andrew. Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

carlahilpert. “A Course in Cognitive Linguistics: Metaphor.” YouTube, YouTube, 2015,

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