Conceptual metaphor

CONCEPTUAL METAPHOR is one of the most important terms in cognitive linguistics, which refers to the process of establishing cognitive links, or mappings, between several concepts (conceptual structures), pertaining to different domains. Metaphor is “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” [Lakoff, Jonson 1980:5].

Unlike the traditional linguistic approach to metaphor, conceptual metaphor, as G. Lakoff sees it, represents a universal quality of thinking. Conceptual metaphor does not belong to the language only, it can be expressed both by verbal (e.g. She has come to a crossroads in her life) and non-verbal means –  arts, music, gestures, etc. Thus, in terms of the Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT), metaphor is a cognitive process that is reflected in language structures.

According to Lakoff and Johnson’s Theory, conceptual metaphor represents interaction of two cognitive structures (or domains): the source domain and the target domain. The target domain is structured similarly to the source domain, i.e. metaphorical correspondences or, in other words, metaphorical mappings are established between them. For instance, in the metaphor LIFE is JOURNEY the target domain (what is actually described), i.e. life, is assimilated to the source domain, i.e. journey [Cruse 2006:31]. Thus, according to this CMT we can build the following schema of the target and source domain interaction:



The beginning of the journey Birth
The end of the journey Death
To reach destination To achieve a goal
Crossroads Dilemma, the necessity of choice
Obstacle Difficulties
Fellow-travelers Friends, partners


According to CMT, the conceptual metaphor LIFE is JOURNEY belongs to a number of universal basic metaphors, which could be traced in many languages. For example, the expression “He is beginning his life’s journey” is formulated similarly in German and Russian: Er beginnt sein Lebensweg; Он тольконачинает свой жизненный путь. Some other metaphors belonging to this group are Knowing is Seeing, Time is Motion, More is Up, Less is Down, Affection is Warmth, etc. [Lakoff, Jonson 1999].

An alternative view on the process of metaphorization was introduced by M. Turner and G. Fauconnier in their Conceptual Blending Theory. The researchers argue that, metaphorization represents not an interaction between two different domains, but “fusion” (blending) of mental spaces.

Suggested Reading

Gibbs, R. (Ed.) Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought. — NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Lakoff G., Johnson М.Metaphors We Live By. — Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980 (2008).

Lakoff G. The contemporary theory of metaphor. In A.Ortony (Ed.) Metaphor and Thought. — Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lakoff G., Johnson M. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. — NY: Basic Books, 1999.

Kövecses Z. Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. — Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

E. Subbotina

Translated by Alexandra Koreshkova