Jan. 2007, Volume 5, No.1 (Serial No.40) US-China Foreign Language, ISSN1539-8080, USA
The Role of Culture in Metaphor
(Faculty of Foreign Languages, Ningbo University, Ningbo, Zhejiang 315211, China)
Abstract: The primary objective of this essay is to examine some important points in both fields of metaphor
and culture. The main questions that will be discussed are: what is the role of culture in metaphor? What is the
cross-cultural variation in metaphor? Are the results the same for other languages such as Chinese? The essay will
begin with reviewing some important concepts in conceptual metaphor theory, looking into the nature of metaphor.
Then culture and cultural models will be defined and discussed. In the following sections, the author will examine
the role of culture in metaphor by illustrating cross-cultural variation and evidence of Chinese metaphorical
concepts and expressions.
Key words: conceptual metaphor; culture; cross-cultural variation
The research on metaphor can be traced back to the time of ancient Greece. More than two thousand years
ago, Aristotle wrote down the first definition of metaphor in his works, which opened formal studies of metaphor.
He believed that the function of the metaphor was primarily decorative and ornamental. In the traditional view,
metaphor is a matter of special language, which is called a figure of speech. As a result, for hundreds of years,
most metaphor studies focused on a rhetorical perspective. However, the 20th century has witnessed a great boom
of the study in metaphor: the view of metaphor changed from purely figurative device to a matter of thought itself.
Lakoff (1986) points out that metaphor is not just a way of naming, but also a way of thinking and it is a figure of
thought”. Nowadays, the interest and study in metaphor have expanded to cover a broad range of areas, including
metaphor’s structure, mechanism, function, effect, and cognitive nature, which are associated with the fields of
linguistics, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, education, sciences, as well as literary criticism and rhetoric.
As language is a part of culture, the cross-cultural study of metaphor is one of the most interesting fields to
linguistic researchers. Culture is an abstract concept, according to one of the most classic definitions of culture
provided by Edward Burnett Tylor in his Primitive Culture, “Culture... is that complex whole which includes
knowledge, belief, art morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of
society” (Smith, 2001: 3). Culture covers a huge range of areas and many fields still need to be explored,
including metaphor. On the other hand, as a significant part in foreign language teaching and learning, metaphor
has attracted the interest of a number of applied linguists. They have explored pedagogical aspects of metaphor
awareness and figurative expressions for language learners. Low (1988) argues that metaphoric competence
should be developed in language learners. Deignan also (1997) considers that metaphoric competence consists of
metaphor awareness, and strategies for comprehending and creating metaphors.
SHENG Ying(1981- ), female, teaching assistant of Faculty of Foreign Languages, Ningbo University; research field: English
The Role of Culture in Metaphor
Although scholars have done a large amount of research studies in both fields of metaphor and culture, most
of these studies drew their conclusions only based on English data. Whether the results are the same for other
languages remains unknown. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out more research work focused on cross-cultural
aspects of metaphor. The primary objective of this essay is to examine some important points in both fields of
metaphor and culture. The main questions that will be discussed in the essay are: what is the role of culture in
metaphor? What is the cross-cultural variation in metaphor? Are the results the same for other languages such as
Chinese? With respect to metaphor, the focus will be on conceptual metaphor, because it provides a good
approach to discuss different metaphorical expressions based on human concepts and experience. On the other
hand, in the cross-linguistic comparison I will compare two languages, English and Chinese, to show the evidence
of cross-cultural variation. It is hoped that the result will be significant, for these two languages belong to two
different language groups and are likely to involve different cultural ideas and assumptions.
2. Conceptual Metaphor Theory
Conceptual metaphor theory was first provided in detail by Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By
(1980). This theory has questioned and challenged the traditional linguistic views which were held by
philosophers such as Aristotle. Traditionally, metaphor is viewed as a matter of words rather than thought or
action. In literary contexts, metaphor is regarded as used for effect or for ornament and contrasts with literal
language. For most people, metaphor is above the everyday ordinary language. They believe that the function of
the metaphor is only a device of the poetic imagination and “rhetorical flourish” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).
Conceptual metaphor theory indicates that metaphor can be essential and pervasive in language and thought.
Metaphor is not only “a matter of words”, but also “a matter of thought” (Lakoff & Turner, 1989). Human thought
processes are largely metaphorical, and the human conceptual system is structured and defined in a metaphorical
way. According to this view, metaphor plays a major role in people’s everyday language using and thinking.
There are two levels of metaphor: the conceptual and the linguistic (ibid). At the conceptual level, a metaphor
is a relationship between two concepts, one of which functions as the source and the other as the target. The
relationship is in the form of “target domain is/as source domain”. For example, argument is war (Lakoff &
Johnson, 1980). The particular relation between source and target domains is based on the basic conceptual
correspondences between two domains. The other level, the linguistic, is motivated by conceptual metaphor, and
represents the realization on words. It appears in the forms of everyday written and spoken languages. Thus, for
example, a variety of metaphorical expressions are developed from the conceptual metaphor “Argument is war”,
such as “Your claims are indefensible”, “He attacked every weak point in my argument”, and “I demolished his
Conceptual metaphors can be divided into different groups in the eyes of different researchers. Boers (2003)
suggest that there are two broad categories: primary and complex metaphors. According to primary theory, basic
conceptual associations are predictors of how and whether linguistic data may be interpreted, and most metaphors
are most clearly grounded in aspects of our abstract experience, such as up-down and in-out. For instance, “Happy
is up” and “Sad is down” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Complex metaphors develop from primary metaphors.
Consider the complex metaphor “Death is a thief” (Turner, 1991). There is no close relationship between thieves
and death, but a metaphor along the lines of “valued aspects of experience are precious possessions” lies behind
The Role of Culture in Metaphor
the conceptualization of death as a thief (Grady, 1999).
3. Culture and Cultural Models
It is really a difficult task to make a definition for culture; as Williams (1976) indicates that culture is one of
the most complicated words in the English language and it has come to be used for important concepts in several
distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct systems of thought. Over the years, there have been
numerous definitions of culture provided by a number of people from various perspectives. Kroeber and
Kluckhohn (1963) collected an astonishing number of definitions of culture from popular and academic sources.
As in the record of The New Encyclopaedia Britannica (1985: 16, 925), the 164 definitions of culture include
“learned behavior”, “ideas in the mind”, “a logical construct”, “a statistical fiction”, “a psychic defense
mechanism”. In recent years, the definition of culture that is preferred by many anthropologists is that culture is
“an abstraction from behavior” (ibid). Generally, culture consists of a variety of things, including language, ideas,
beliefs, customs, codes, institutions, tools, techniques and works of art.
Cultural models are a great variety of human institutions that are the projections of conventional
understandings of reality set in time and space, for all to experience as artifacts of a community’s life (Shore,
1996). For example, public models may be created to describe palpable entities, such as houses, pottery, tools,
paintings, songs, dances and types of clothing which are all in the category of “material culture” in the world. On
the other hand, some impalpable cultural models, like conventional styles of movement and speech, exist in the
minds of people. In that case, culture can be defined as an extensive collection of different models that exist both
as public artifacts in the world, and as cognitive constructs in the mind of members of a community (ibid).
With respect to the field of metaphor, those cultural models in the minds of people need to be emphasized.
According to conceptual metaphor theory, metaphor has a tight relationship with thought and the human
conceptual system. Consider conventional models, they are stocked in our minds and shared with members in the
same community. For example, the custom of removing a hat when say hello in western countries. These models
exist in a certain social environment, as opposed to personal models, which is named “idiosyncratic models” (ibid).
As an important part of culture, most conventional models are passed on over time through the generations. In
addition, image schemas that relate to culture are used widely in conceptual metaphor. Image schemas are
schematic images, such as trajectories or long, thin shapes, or containers (Lakoff, 1987). Johnson (1987) considers
them as “structures for organizing our experience and comprehension”. Most image schemas are derived from
somatic experience, such as up-down schemas, center-periphery schemas and container schemas.
4. The Role of Culture in Metaphor
As a start, the focus will be on the discussion of the question: what role culture plays in metaphor? In order to
make it clear, two kinds of metaphors which are structural metaphors and orientational metaphors will be
examined respectively. In structural metaphors, one concept can structure another concept, while in orientational
metaphors a whole system of concepts is used to build another concept (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).
Many researchers hold the opinion that culture plays a major role in metaphor. As Lakoff & Johnson (1980)
claim, most metaphors, including structural metaphors and orientational metaphors, are grounded in systematic
correlations within our daily experience. Human experience consists of a large range of conventional models.
The Role of Culture in Metaphor
These models are essential elements, which construct a conceptual system in the human minds. According to
conceptual theory, metaphors are able to reflect the ideas in a human conceptual system; so various cultural
models are shown in a great number of metaphors.
In the conceptual metaphor “Argument is war”, war is the source domain and knowledge is the target domain.
What is the mapping or correspondence between these two different domains? According to most people’s basic
experience, the general concepts of war and argument might include: war is physical fighting with a purpose to
win, and argument refers to verbal fighting about different ideas. In that case, the knowledge of fighting might be
the connection of mapping between two domains. In fact, a certain cultural model decides this kind of knowledge.
In other words, in a culture where an argument is never viewed as a war, the conceptual metaphor “Argument is
war” may never exist.
The situation of orientational metaphors is much more complicated and distinctive than structural metaphors.
For instance, virtue is up (ibid) is a complex metaphor, which is based on basic metaphor “Good is up”. Social
views, such as a social moral standard, might be the basis of this conceptual metaphor. Imagine in a culture that
virtue is considered as something wicked and evil, this conceptual metaphor might turn into another version
“Virtue is down”.
With respect to metaphorical expressions, the literal meanings of words and expressions differ widely in their
contexts. For example, in the west, dog is a faithful animal associated with many positive qualities. However, in
certain contexts, the figurative use of the word “dog” does not reflect these qualities, and it may be used to
describe negative items in China. Thus, it seems that metaphorical expressions not always correspond with
5. Cross-cultural Variations
The area of cross-cultural variation in metaphor has raised great interest among metaphor researchers. A
number of studies are based on the comparison of different metaphorical concepts and expressions in cultures, as
well as in different languages. Boers (2003) indicates that there are three types of cross-cultural variation in
(1) Differences with regard to the particular source-target mappings that have become conventional in the given
(2) Differences with regard to value judgments associated with the source or target domains shared mappings;
(3) Differences with regard to the degree of pervasiveness of metaphor as such, as compared with other (rhetorical)
Of three types, the first type of variation is the most obvious and common one in metaphors. The research
findings suggest that in different cultures, metaphor may have different source domains that map onto a same
target domain. Many complex conceptual metaphors reflect the various cultural models in that way. For example,
life is a journey. Many metaphorical expressions derived from this conceptual metaphor involve different types of
vehicles, such as trains, ships, cars and so on (Boers, 2003). In different cultures, different transport vehicles play
different roles in people’s lives and minds. For instance, ships and coaches are important vehicles in western
countries, especially in the last few centuries. As a result, it is obvious that a large number of metaphorical
expressions relate to the ship and coach in western languages. In China, however, since cart is the most common
The Role of Culture in Metaphor
vehicle in everyday life, one would expect to find more metaphors related to the cart.
The second group of variation refers to “connotations” and “institution” in a certain culture. These aspects
are particularly important for foreign language learners, because they lack the knowledge of particular cultural
backgrounds. Foreign language learners may find it difficulty to understand the implied meanings underlying
special metaphors, and need further explanations. The best example is the study of metaphorical idioms and
proverbs in a foreign language. Different value systems may account for this variation, because metaphorical
concepts can be coherent with fundamental values of the culture (Su, 2000).
In the third type of cross-cultural variation, Boers (2003) argues that in different languages there are different
preferences of using different figures of speech, such as metonymy. The supporting evidence is found in the
comparative study of Malay and English by Charteris-Black (2003). The result shows that compared with English,
Malay tends to use more metonymic expressions about speaking.
6. Evidence of Chinese Metaphorical Concepts and Expressions
The image schemas of animals are used widely in metaphors. In people’s minds, these image schemas are
used to show what animals are like in terms of the understanding of human characteristics. Here are some
examples provided by Lakoff and Turner (1989: 194):
(1) Pigs are dirty, messy, and rude.
(2) Lions are courageous and noble.
(3) Foxes are clever.
(4) Dogs are loyal, dependable, and dependent.
(5) Wolves are cruel and murderous.
Let us focus on “lion”, as in the classic example: “Achilles is a lion” in western literature. It is clear that in
this metaphorical expression the characteristic of courage is the link between Achilles and a lion. In fact, this
metaphor is based on “a conventional understanding of a certain behavior of a lion in terms of the courageous
behavior of a human” (Lakoff & Turner, 1989). The connection lies in the presumed similarity of the characteristic
shared by humans and animals.
What about the situation in Chinese? In fact, most Chinese people can understand and use similar metaphors,
since people in China and western countries have a similar image schema and a similar general idea about a lion.
In that case, English and Chinese could be said to share the same metaphorical concepts. However, this classic
metaphor is not richly manifested in Chinese. In other words, although the sentence “Achilles is a lion” is
acceptable to most Chinese people, it is not a typical expression in Chinese. According to traditional Chinese
culture, the image schema of a tiger is much better to symbolize the characteristic of courage compared with a lion.
This can be demonstrated by the fact that there are numerous metaphorical expressions about tigers in Chinese.
For example, “Hu da long wei”, which means the gall-bladder (which means courage) of a tiger and the honor of a
dragon. This understanding is rooted in the conventional model in Chinese culture. This example falls into the first
type of the cross-cultural variation. The image domains, which are used to make mappings between animals and
humans, differ with respect to particular cultures. To be more specific, it shows different preferences of selecting
domains in conceptual metaphors under different cultures.
Another example of animal metaphor is the schemas of dragon and phoenix. In Chinese culture, dragon and
The Role of Culture in Metaphor
phoenix are two royal animals, which symbolize king and queen. The images of dragon and phoenix are deeply
rooted in many aspects of Chinese culture, although two sorts of animals do not exist in the real world. Even
nowadays, many parents in China hope that their sons will become dragons, and their daughters will become
phoenixes in the future, and the equivalent common metaphorical expression is “Wang zi cheng long, wang nv
cheng feng”. However, in western culture, a dragon is an image of a monster. In traditional western culture, a
dragon is a large fierce imaginary animal with wings and a long tail, and fire comes out of its mouth. A phoenix is
also an imaginary bird that sets fire to itself every 500 years and was born again, rising from its ashes. Thus, such
Chinese metaphorical expressions about dragons and phoenixes would be unacceptable to western culture. This
difference reflects the different value systems in Chinese culture and western culture. This example can be seen as
evidence of the second type of cross-cultural variation.
In addition, research into emotion metaphors also shows cross-cultural variation in metaphor. The results of
the research reveal that many human emotions, such as anger, happiness, and love, are expressed through
conceptual metaphors. Conceptual metaphors also help the conceptualization of human emotions (Kovecses, 1986;
Lakoff, 1987; Ungerer & Schmid, 1996).
Consider ANGER and its metaphors as an example. Anger is one of the basic human emotions. Generally,
when someone feels angry, various bodily symptoms will appear. With the typical physiological effects like
increased body heat, people have a feeling of heat. Lakoff and Kovecses (1987) find that “heat” emphasized “in
the folk theory of physiological effects” becomes the basis of the general conceptual metaphor: Anger is heat.
They also find that Americans have other general conceptual metaphors in their conceptual systems, such as “The
body is a container for the emotion”. Their research discovers there are possibly two versions of “Anger is a
heated substance” metaphor. The first version “Anger is a heated fluid in a container” is applied to fluid; as
regards solid, the version turns into “Anger is fire”. These two metaphors can be recognized as central conceptual
metaphors developing many metaphorical expressions. According to conceptual metaphor theory, “A heated fluid
in a container” is the source domain and “Anger” is the target domain. As a structural metaphor, there are basic
correspondences or mappings between the source and target domains. Two types of correspondences, ontological
and epistemic, connect the source and target domain. “Ontological correspondences” deal with the entities in the
source domain and target domain; “Epistemic correspondences” are related to the knowledge of the two domains
(Lakoff, 1987). These central conceptual metaphors are reflected in the everyday language in English in the forms
of a great number of various expressions, such as “You make my blood boil”, “He was bursting with anger”, and
“He is just blowing off steam” (ibid). All involve entailments, which are additional mappings. With knowledge
and experience of source domain and target domain, entailment develops the central conceptual metaphor into
YU (1995) made a comparative study of metaphorical expression of anger in English and Chinese. His
conclusion was that English and Chinese share exactly the same general conceptual metaphors: Anger is heat and
The body is a container for the emotion. For the first version of “Anger is a heated substance” metaphor, “Anger is
fire” exists in both English and Chinese. However, in the case of the second version, the situation is interesting:
“Anger is a heated fluid in a container” is common in English, while “Anger is a hot gas in a container” is in
Chinese. For example, “Ta pi qi hen da” (He has got big gas in spleen/He is hot-tempered), “Ta xin zhong you qi”
(He has gas in his heart), “Ta bie le yi du zi qi” (He holds back a belly of gas). He illustrated the theories of
The Role of Culture in Metaphor
Yin-yang and the five elements of traditional Chinese medicine, as a suggestion for the explanation of the
particular conceptual metaphors. Another descriptive difference observed throughout the study is that Chinese
tends to use more body parts, especially internal organs, and it also may relate to the ideas from traditional
This example also supports the claim that source domains may differ from culture to culture. Generally,
people share the same basic experience, especially the physical experience. The basic experience becomes the
foundation of basic conceptual metaphors. In this example, the same basic conceptual metaphor “Anger is heat” is
found in both languages. However, when the metaphorical concepts are more specific, the variation of conceptual
metaphors appears clearly. Also in this example, the theories of yin-yang and five elements of Chinese medicine
are the epitome of the traditional Chinese culture. These traditional theories have influenced Chinese language,
and metaphorical expressions are reflected the influence of Chinese culture.
In this essay, the focus is on the cultural aspects of metaphor. According to the theories of conceptual
metaphor, metaphors are closely related to thoughts in the human conceptual system. Thousands of metaphorical
expressions are developed from limited metaphorical concepts. The process of mapping connects different
domains in conceptual metaphors. With respect to culture, it consists of a number of elements in the human
society, including languages, ideas and customs.
Three questions have been discussed: What is the role of culture in metaphor? What is the cross-cultural
variation in metaphor? Are the results same for other languages such as Chinese? For the first question, it has been
suggested that culture should play a crucial important role in metaphor, because most people’s concepts are based
on the experience in a culture, and might be reflected by metaphors. However, in the linguistic level, some
metaphorical expressions may not show the conventional metaphorical concepts.
For the second question, it seems that cross-cultural variation in metaphor exists in different languages. Three
types of variation have been outlined and illustrated. The most common one is the differences with regard to
domains and mappings in conceptual metaphors, especially source domains. The second type is about the different
value-judgment systems, and the third one relates to the different preference of rhetorical figures selection. These
different types of cross-cultural variation are supported by a large amount of evidence of metaphors in different
For the third question, people in China and western countries have some similar image schemas, and they can
understand and use some basic conceptual metaphors in their languages. However, some metaphorical expressions
vary with different cultures, and traditional theories may result in this situation.
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