LinguaMania episode 4: How do metaphors shape our world?


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Welcome to the LinguaMania podcast. Produced by researchers from Oxford University-led Creative Multilingualism, the series explores some fascinating perspectives on languages and language learning, asking: Do we really need human translators? Why do we use metaphors and what do they teach us about other languages and cultures? How much of an unfamiliar language can we understand? Would creative language teaching make the subject more popular? Can languages help protect the natural environment? And so much more, so stop what you’re doing and start exploring the wonderful world of multilingualism!

Episode 4: How do metaphors shape our world?

Summary: We tend to think of metaphors as poetic language, but we actually use them all the time in our everyday speech. But how do metaphors in different languages work? And can the metaphors we use affect our behaviour? In this episode of LinguaMania, we explore how we use metaphors across the world, looking at our different ways of representing abstract concepts such as emotion and time through idioms and metaphors. 

Listen and download the podcast on Apple Podcasts or University of Oxford podcasts.

Podcast transcript


(00:00 – 00:58) 

Rajinder Dudrah: Welcome to the LinguaMania Podcast presented by the Creative Multilingualism team. We are a group of people who love languages. We think languages are an essential part of being human, they’re part of our identity and part of our culture.  And we think they should be celebrated at every possible opportunity! So our podcasts shine a light on some fascinating aspects of languages and language learning which you might not have come across before.

I’m Professor Rajinder Dudrah from Birmingham City University. I’m also a researcher at Creative Multilingualism. We’re exploring the links between languages and creativity.

(00:59 – 01:31)

Metaphor as a Creative Resource

Rajinder Dudrah: When we say “head office”, or “that’s a real pain in the neck”, we’re not conscious of using metaphors. That’s because these expressions involving body parts are so embedded in our everyday language that we use them without thinking when we express concepts or feelings, but in certain situations, we can suddenly become aware of their literal meaning. Professor Katrin Kohl of the University of Oxford experienced this when she unexpectedly hit the ground running…

(01:32 – 04:29)

Katrin Kohl: So, I was at a conference in Pittsburgh, which was about naming birds in different languages, and the final treat was a visit to an aviary. Unwisely, I ran to the excursion bus, tripped over an uneven paving stone and went flying – straight onto my chin! Fortunately, I didn’t realise that I’d fractured a bone in my jaw, and I still made it to the aviary. I was able to have a good old chin-wag about birds with my colleague Andy and learned some jaw-dropping facts about bird-song before flying back to the UK, having avoided paying an arm and a leg for medical treatment in the US.

You probably noticed that I packed that account with metaphors. We tend to think of metaphors as typical of poetic language, but we use them all the time in our everyday speech and, in fact, our ordinary language is a positive treasure trove of metaphors. Expressions like “take it on the chin” or “I hit the ground running” are often considered ‘dead metaphors’ because they’re part of conventional language and neither creative nor original. But my accident made me aware of how quickly body part metaphors like that can come to life if their literal meaning is activated by a special situation. What this tells us is that such metaphors are not in fact ‘dead’ at all. We might instead, perhaps, consider them ‘dormant’, ready to be awakened and used creatively for individual expressive needs.

Metaphors are, in fact, an infinitely rich resource that is constantly at work in our vocabulary.

Take the word ‘fly’. Literally it refers to the motion of a bird using its wings to move through the air. Invention of the aeroplane brought transferred uses – “the plane flies”, “the pilot flies the plane”, or “I flew to the UK”. But we also use it to make abstract concepts seem concrete and real, for example in the saying “Time flies”, which in fact goes back to Roman times.

Metaphors are not just decorative ‘figures of speech’. They’re fundamental to our cognition, and to our ability to convey feelings and ideas to other people. In using metaphor, we’re drawing on a lifetime of experiencing our bodies in their physical environment and experiencing the things and processes in the world we inhabit. Metaphor, then, enables us to make sense of the world and, indeed, metaphor is as important for the sciences as it is for the humanities. Just think of the “Big Bang”. Metaphor gives shape to our experiences and ideas, and it enables us to communicate them to our fellow human beings.

Metaphor & Linguistic and Cultural Diversity

(04:30 – 05:02)

Rajinder Dudrah: Now that sounds as if metaphor is the same the world over. But we all use it creatively – and this means that different cultural groups come up with intriguingly different ways of conceptualising the world. And every language has its own rich repertoire of metaphors.

We can see this in the ways people talk about emotions. Cognitive linguists Professor Jeannette Littlemore from Birmingham and Professor Zoltán Kövecses from Budapest have been conducting research into the differences.

(05:03 – 06:18)

Jeannette Littlemore: Colours have various associations with emotions around the world, but there is a substantial amount of variation in terms of what kind of emotions people associate with which colours. So, for example, you’ve got pretty sort of general ones which are quite sort of bodily based in a way, which are things like anger is red. And you can sort of see what motivates that because you go angry, you become red, and so there’s kind of like a physical explanation for that. Whereas other associations are a bit harder to explain, more culturally based ones. So things like, in English we have envy is green or jealousy is green. It’s difficult to work out where on earth the bodily motivation for that would be because you don’t go green when you’re jealous.

So we’re interested in looking at how people from different nationalities associate emotions with colours and looking at the possible reasons why they make those associations. We’re also interested in looking at whether the universality of a particular association is related to the extent to which it’s bodily based. So is it the case, for example, that things like anger is red are more universal because they’ve got a bodily basis, whereas things like jealousy is green are less likely to be universal?

(06:19 – 08:59)

Zoltán Kövecses: English basically doesn’t really distinguish between body parts and does not really distinguish where anger shows up in the body. English, more or less, assumes the body s a whole and it regards the body as container for anger and the emotions in general. As opposed to English, Hungarian is very much concerned with the head. And so, we have a large number of especially informal expressions that have to do with the human head as the container for anger. So, for example in Hungarian, you can say that the “pump went up in my head”, which could be rendered by a much more general English expression like “I was bursting with anger”. In Hungarian, the “pump in your head goes up”. So, there is this interesting body-specificity in Hungarian, not to mention many other languages like Chinese, where the liver, the heart, the gall [bladder], you know, all of them can participate in the conceptualisation of anger.

In English, especially in the domain of emotions, embodiment is seen as the major determinant of our conceptualisation of emotions, including anger. In other societies, that’s not necessarily the case. For example, the Zulu are thinking of their anger in terms of a major natural force. So, the angry behaviour of a person is conceptualised as a natural force, like a major storm. So, in Zulu you can say things like “he was blowing a gale”. And it turns out that the Zulus see their own anger, not completely, of course, but to a large extent, through this particular metaphor. And because they see it through this metaphor, they find it completely legitimate that the angry person in Zulu culture legitimately tries to seek revenge on not only the person who offended you or who caused or did some wrong-doing to you but everyone that comes in their way is like a storm.

Metaphor, Time, and the Moon

(09:00 – 09:38)

Rajinder Dudrah: With metaphors for emotions, we’re inclined to look for connections with the body, because we know that our emotional state affects it. But how do people use metaphor when think about something that has no tangible relationship with our bodies – time?

Dr Sally Zacharias from Glasgow has investigated the variations in people’s conceptions of time when they talk about the moon. Professor Lera Boroditsky from San Diego conducts research on the huge diversity of ways in which people from different cultures think and talk about time – and how the languages we speak shape the ways we think.

(09:39 – 11:51)

Sally Zacharias: I’ve explored how people’s conceptions of time, when talking about the moon, vary in interesting and subtle ways depending on their age, the stories they know, their cultural backgrounds, and the languages they speak. I’ve found that many experience time as having a circular quality to it when talking about the moon. This was especially prominent amongst the Chinese speakers I interviewed. One Mandarin speaker told me how the image of the moon above water has come to metaphorically represent renewal and reincarnation for some Chinese, with the moon symbolising permanency and eternity, and water symbolising the flow of time. The speaker traced this back to a famous poem called “The Spring Night on the Moonlight River”, that he learned at school.

This link between the circular nature of time and the moon is probably due to the fact that, in many cultures, the moon was one of the first timekeepers or clocks. The abstract concept of time was experienced by observing the repeated phases of the moon. Evidence of this can still be seen today in the language we use. Take the well-known idiom “many moons ago”, which is a kind of metaphor we use when we want to say something happened a long time ago. The phases of the moon can also assign certain behaviours, such as fasting during religious festivals. One of my interviewees from Saudi Arabia used the metaphorical expression “the moon tells us when to start fasting” or “it tells us when to pray”. Here we can see how the metaphor moon-as-a-timekeeper is structuring her thinking when she talks about the moon and Ramadan.

I also found that for parents with young children, the moon has become a sort of metaphorical timekeeper for putting children to bed, as it features in so many bedtime stories. As one Polish mom put it, “the moon is for sleeping. When the moon is up, it’s night-time. It shows you [that] you have to be safely at home, tucked up in your bed”.

(11:52 – 14:11)

Lera Boroditsky: One thing that has been fascinating for me in studying time is how much linguistic diversity there is in metaphors that people use, and also in how people conceive of time. So, when I started out working on time, I thought there is one representation of time, but instead, it appears that time can go in just about any which way. And the more you look across languages, the more you look across cultures, the more impressed you have to be with the incredible flexibility and ingenuity of the human mind. We’ve invented not one way to think about time, and lay out time, but all of these different ways, in different coordinate frames, in different directions, not in a straight line. It’s such an incredibly richness that exists. Of course, most of us only think about time in the ways that our languages and cultures lead us to—we’re kind of set in the groves that our languages set for us. But it’s really fun to see how other people do it and see all the possibilities that are out there.

English very heavily uses horizontal metaphors to talk about time. So, we say that “the best is ahead of us, the worst is behind us”. We also lay out time horizontally in the left-to-right axis. In Mandarin, both of those are also available but, in addition, there is a strong vertical metaphor, where you say that “the past is up, the future is down”. So, the up month is the last month and the down month is next month. And when you do experiments to test how Mandarin speakers think about time, you find a strong association between earlier events and points up in space, and later events and points down in space. And this is a strong association that you don’t see in English speakers. And the strength of this association depends on how proficient you are in Mandarin—so, if you look at bilinguals the stronger your Mandarin, the more likely you are to make this association.

And also, we can create this association in English speakers by teaching them to use vertical metaphors. So, if I bring an English speaker into the lab and say “we’re going to talk about time in a new way. We’re going to say Monday is above Tuesday and Tuesday is above Wednesday”, you can learn this new way of talking very quickly. And within a few minutes, if I now put you in an experiment where I test how you non-linguistically think about time, you start showing this vertical timeline in your mind.

Metaphors, Community, and Collective Experience

(14:12 – 16:01)

Katrin Kohl: As Sally’s and Lera’s research makes clear, human beings conceptualise time in response to their physical environment. The very practical purposes of talking about time thereby become interwoven with the concepts, myths, and narratives that structure people’s daily life and give it meaning. While this process is evidently a human-universal, every social group implements it in culturally specific ways. The metaphors used in the fabulously diverse languages spoken by human beings give us many different windows onto the rich interfaces between bodily experience and perception, thought, and language.

The metaphors are continually on the move. For, just as a personal, physical accident may make us suddenly aware of the live metaphorical dimension of everyday body-part idioms embedded in our language, so too physical events befalling a whole society may prompt new metaphors—and also a suddenly-sharpened awareness of the literal meaning of metaphorical expressions.

After many years in which of use ‘virus’ and ‘viral’ has been above all metaphorical, in the context of electronic data and social media, both words suddenly took on frightening physical reality across the globe with the outbreak of the coronavirus. Communities respond to such developments with new metaphors, opening up new fields of research for the future.

(16:02 – 16:55)

Rajinder Dudrah: Thanks for listening to our LinguaMania podcast. The series is produced by Creative Multilingualism, a research programme led by the University of Oxford and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Our aim is to make languages more visible, valued and vibrant!

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, have a listen to the rest of the series. And you can find out more about Creative Multilingualism at or follow us on Twitter @creativelangs and you’ll find all this information on our website.

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