Mapping Metaphor

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by Dr Ellen Bramwell (Research Assistant on the Mapping Metaphor project)

When most people think of metaphor, they cast their minds back to school and remember examples from poetry and drama, such as Shakespeare’s “Juliet is the sun”. This is unsurprising; metaphor is usually described as a literary phenomenon used to create arresting images in the mind of the reader.  However, linguists would argue that metaphor is far more pervasive within our language and indeed within thought itself.

Metaphor is fundamental to the ways in which we conceptualise and articulate even seemingly basic concepts. We talk about the mind as if it were a container for ideas, which can be placed in there or taken out and passed to others. We talk about our lives as if they were journeys with milestones, obstacles and end points. In fact it is difficult to talk about abstract ideas at all without using vocabulary from another area. This theory of conceptual metaphor was popularised by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) in the book Metaphors We Live By and has been hugely influential ever since. What is missing from this field though is an overall picture of metaphor within a language.

This is exactly what Mapping Metaphor with the Historical Thesaurus intends to achieve. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and we work within the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow. Using the data behind the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, we can ‘map’ areas of meaning which share vocabulary and use this to discover where metaphorical connections exist in English. The finished resource will give an overview of conceptual metaphor over the course of the last 1300 years of English, from the Anglo-Saxons to the present day. Visualisations, showing these mappings in an interactive and accessible way, will be available to everyone as part of our online resource, to be launched at the end of the project. As well as informing research in the area, this could be used by creative writers, teachers, historians and anyone else with an interest in the English language.

A possible 'Mapping Metaphor' visualisation, showing connections with 'The Earth'.
A possible ‘Mapping Metaphor’ visualisation, showing connections with ‘The Earth’.

Want to know more? Check out our project blog and website. Have ideas about using the resource outside academia? We would love to hear from you – get in touch through email or via Twitter.

Post Author: Nicole Cassie

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