Metaphor and Culture

How culture might figure in the conceptual domain-to-domain mappings that characterize METAPHOR has gone largely unaddressed. On the one hand, this is because anthropologists who study metaphor, and who belong to the interpretivist school and its offshoots, take the position that culture resides in metaphors, as it does in other symbols -- and not in the use and sense people make of these. These scholars draw on literary criticism, semiotics, structuralism, and the like to interpret metaphors and other tropes (Linger 1994).

On the other hand, the role of culture in the production and comprehension of metaphor tends to be crowded out of systematic consideration by linguists, many of whom, perhaps understandably, have treated the metaphors occurring in language as direct reflections of deeper conceptual structures. On grounds of the ubiquity and automaticity of metaphor in speech, Lakoff and his colleagues (e.g., Lakoff and Johnson 1980) have made broad claims for the indispensable role of what they call "conceptual metaphors" in comprehension. In a characteristic assertion of this position, Lakoff and Turner (1989, xi) propose that "metaphor allows us to understand our selves and our world in ways that no other modes of thought can." One challenge to this view, from COGNITIVE ANTHROPOLOGY (Quinn 1991; 1997), holds that the metaphors expressed in language are underlain by cultural understandings, which cannot be read directly from linguistic metaphors but must be investigated independently.

Cultural understandings govern metaphor use in two ways. Sometimes a given domain of experience is understood by analogy to another domain. Such an analogy and the extensive metaphorical language it provides may be culturally and historically quite distinctive. Yet the analogy may be so well established that it is naturalized in thinking, and the metaphors it provides have become standard parts of language, making it, not impossible, but difficult, for those who have learned to conceptualize the world in this way to think and talk in any other terms (Reddy 1979). Perhaps the most famous case is that of the "conduit" metaphor (Reddy 1979) for talking in English about meanings as transmitted in words -- as in "Did I get my point across?" Various authors have pointed to the force of the conduit model and its metaphorical language, arguing that it has seriously constrained mathematical information theory (Reddy 1979); led the aforementioned interpretive anthropologists to mistakenly locate culture in symbols (Linger 1994); and bedeviled linguists themselves (Langacker 1991), possibly including those who study metaphor.

Cultural understandings enter the use of metaphors in a second way, one that depends on their intentional selection. Metaphors are commonly employed in ordinary speech to clarify to their audiences points that speakers are trying to convey. This communication task depends on knowledge that the audience can be counted on to share intersubjectively with the speaker. Cultural knowledge is reliably so shared. A common misconception has been that metaphoric target domains are less well understood, perhaps because they are abstract or intangible or unseen or unfamiliar, and that metaphoric source domains are better understood (e.g., Lakoff and Turner 1989), perhaps because they are physical in nature or otherwise concretely experienced. Rather, metaphors intended for clarification are typically selected from among cultural exemplars of that feature of the target domain under discussion (Glucksberg 1991; Quinn 1997). Indeed, this is how metaphors do their work of clarifying, by introducing an outstanding and unambiguous instance of the point being made.

Thus marriage, in the following example, is no more concrete, tangible, knowable, familiar, or well understood to the speaker than baseball. In a newspaper story on his retirement, Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett was quoted as saying, "I compare it to a marriage. We've had our problems, but overall, we have had a good relationship. I never, ever want to put on another uniform" (USA Today, Wednesday, May 5, 1993). What is the case is that marriage is exemplary, for Brett and his American audience, of a relationship that is meant to endure and that does so (when it does so) because it is rewarding despite its difficulties. This is why his metaphor gives readers a surer sense of the complex idea Brett wants to convey about his relationship with the Royals.

When metaphors serve in this way to clarify what we mean to say, the cultural understandings that underlie what we mean may lend considerable regularity to the metaphors chosen. Thus, for example, in Americans' DISCOURSE, metaphors for marriage all fall into eight classes that reflect an underlying cultural model of marriage. For instance, marriage is seen as an ongoing journey ("Once the marriage was formalized it was an unalterable course"), a durable material ("You really have to start out with something strong if it's going to last"), and a firmly held possession ("I think we got it!"). Each metaphor exemplifies a different kind of lasting thing, and all convey the expectation that marriage is lasting -- a key piece of Americans' model of it. That different metaphors are used to capture the same shared understanding is strong evidence that a speaker must have had this point already in mind and selected the metaphor to match it. Indeed, speakers will occasionally concatenate two or three different metaphors to emphasize a point and also readily convey the same understanding nonmetaphorically. Far from following the entailments of a chosen metaphor, reasoning in discourse on marriage commonly follows the idealized cultural model of marriage, and employs different metaphors or no metaphor at all, or at times switches from one metaphor to another in midstream to reach the conclusion being reasoned to (Quinn 1991).

Cultural exemplars such as being married in the Brett quote, or ongoing journeys, durable materials, and firmly held possessions in the examples from discourse about marriage, can usefully be viewed as COGNITIVE ARTIFACTS, though wholly internalized ones. That is to say, they mediate performance of a commonplace cognitive task -- in this case, the task of communicating accurately and efficiently. The psychological processing required for this task lends itself to a straightforward connectionist interpretation. Connections built up from experience between properties of the world and their known exemplars permit rapid, automatic identification of apposite metaphors. Of course, for metaphors to do their work of clarification, members of a speech community must, and do, share a large stock of such cultural exemplars. Knowledge of these is accumulated from a variety of experience, both first- and secondhand. Crucial is the ongoing experience of hearing and using metaphors in speech, not only because it presents individuals with many more exemplars than could possibly be encountered otherwise, but also because it weeds out more idiosyncratic choices that would be ill understood by audiences, in favor of more widely agreed upon cultural exemplars that communicate well. Through their repeated use as metaphors, these more readily understood examplars gain even wider acceptance, sometimes becoming wholly conventional.

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-- Naomi Quinn


Glucksberg, S. (1991). Beyond literal meanings: The psychology of allusion. Psychological Science 2:146-152.

Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., and M. Turner. (1989). More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Langacker, R. W. (1991). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar. Vol. 2, Descriptive Application. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Linger, D. T. (1994). Has culture theory lost its minds? Ethos 22:284-315.

Quinn, N. (1991). The cultural basis of metaphor. In J. W. Fernandez, Ed., Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Quinn, N. (1997). Research on shared task solutions. In C. Strauss and N. Quinn, Eds., A Cognitive Theory of Cultural Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reddy, M. J. (1979). The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony, Ed., Meta phor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.