“Doesn't time fly?” – A brief look at Conceptual Metaphors


“Conceptual metaphors have been found in virtually every language examined thus far, both in contemporary spoken and signed languages, as well as throughout history going back to the hieroglyphics in Egypt, ancient Chinese, and early Greek and Roman writings” (Gibbs, 2011, p. 533). However, since the publication of Lakoff and Johnson's seminal work on conceptual metaphor, Metaphors We Live By (1980), there has been a rapid increase of interest in metaphor studies in the fields of linguistics and cognitive science. Unlike the scholars who preceded them, Lakoff and Johnson systematically laid down evidence to support the claim that metaphors can transcend their roles as figures of speech and shape our cognition.

Lakoff and Johnson’s findings are often debated by critics who claim that their methodology and assumptions were flawed. However, a bigger debate is in place - does our language influence or shape our cognition? This idea of Linguistic Relativity is often attributed to Benjamin Lee Whorf and even today, it remains as a highly contested concept. In this short paper, I will explore this idea through the study of the conceptual metaphor, specifically focusing on its implications on biculturals and bilinguals.

The Conceptual Metaphor

“Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p. 454). Often in language, abstract concepts such as time, love etc. are described metaphorically. This allows us to map over attributes from a well-defined domain (source), such as motion, to a less well-defined one (target) such as time. A simple example of such a conceptual metaphor would be LOVE AS A NATURAL FORCE (Gibbs, 2011, p. 531), as exhibited in the following expressions:

  1. “She swept me off my feet.”
  2. Waves of passion overcame him.”
  3. “We were engulfed by love.”
  4. “She was deeply immersed in love.”

The fact that we in part conceptualize love in this manner, influences the way we talk about love and how we experience it. In fact, the same target domain can be described using conceptual metaphors from a different source domain:

  1. “This relationship is a dead-end street.”
  2. “It's been a long, bumpy road.”
  3. “We're at a crossroads.”
  4. “I don't think this relationship is going anywhere.”
  5. “We are spinning our wheels.”

Here we see the same concept, love being described as a journey and the relationship as the vehicle carrying the two people. The problems faced in the relationship are described as problems one faces in a journey.

Influence on Cognition

A case for linguistic relativity can be made based on conceptual metaphors potentially influencing the speakers’ cognition of a particular domain. In Boroditsky’s words, “Language can be a powerful tool for shaping abstract thought. When sensory information is scarce or inconclusive, languages may play the most important role in shaping how their speakers think” (2011, p. 20).

Along the same lines, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) claim that the use of metaphors greatly influences our basis of thinking. They present this using their classical example of the metaphor – ARGUMENT IS WAR:

  1. Your claims are indefensible.
  2. He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  3. His criticisms were right on target.
  4. He shot down all my arguments

According to Lakoff and Johnson (1980, p. 455), this conceptualization of arguments as war leads us to see the person we are arguing with as an opponent, his arguments as attacks and ours as defensive strategies. In our culture, many actions involved during argumentation are partially structured by the concept of war. Hence to a large extent, conceptual metaphors influence our cognition. In a culture where argumentation is not described as a battle but as a means of knowledge acquisition which benefits both the participants, such an attack-defense interpretation of argumentation would almost certainly not be accepted.

Another remarkable observation which suggests that humans’ comprehension of the world is metaphorical is that the linguistic analyses of the origin of many polysemous words show that many of them were derived from conceptual metaphors (Gibbs, 2011, p. 532). For example, the meaning of “seeing” referring to knowing or understanding can be traced back to the metaphor UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING.

Although widely-accepted, Lakoff and Johnson’s claims about conceptual metaphors influencing cognition have not gone uncontested. Glucksberg & McGlone (1999) and McGlone (2007) criticize the assumptions of their arguments and contest it due to its lack of empirical support. Others such as Zoltan Kövecses (2008 p. 168) criticize the methodology used to study conceptual metaphors. But perhaps the most notable contestation to the importance of conceptual metaphors in linguistic relativity comes from Vervaeke & Kennedy (1996).

In their article titled “Metaphors in Language and Thought: Falsification and Multiple Meanings”, Vervaeke & Kennedy directly challenge the impact of implicit metaphors on our cognition. They propose the following example (p. 279):

  1. “Don't go off half-cocked.”
  2. “I have you in my sights.”
  3. “Bill shot his mouth off again.”
  4. “Mary is a real pistol.”
  5. “Fred has a hair-trigger temper.”
  6. “Mark is very explosive.”
  7. “He is deadly.”
  8. “She is a real killer.”

They claim that a theorist supporting the theory of conceptual metaphors would probably conclude that these expressions should be explained by the implicit metaphor - PEOPLE ARE WEAPONS (p. 279). However, this claim is insufficient to jump to the conclusion that this conceptual metaphor about people being weapons influences our comprehension of people. It is entirely possible that this is just a product of several independent common metaphors.

Furthermore, Vervaeke & Kennedy argue that (p. 280) one term can have different senses in different contexts. For example, the word, “attack” is synonymous to both “assault” and “criticize” and yet the two words are not synonymous. Hence, the same word, “attack” now has two different senses which are domain specific. For example -

  1. We attacked the castle.
  2. We assaulted their castle.
  3. We charged the castle.
  1. He attacked my argument.
  2. He assaulted my argument.
  3. He charged my argument.

(failure to use synonymous terms from the military domain to describe argumentation)

We observe that the transfer of one term from one domain to another is not successful because they both have different senses in their respective domains. This indicates that “attack” is not used metaphorically when used in the context of argumentation. There we use “attack” in a very nonmilitary sense. In fact, this creation of this new nonmilitary sense of the word “attack” has granted the term a very abstract meaning such that one can use “attack” without thinking metaphorically. “One simply uses this new sense with its own relevance” (Vervaeke & Kennedy, p. 282). Hence, conceptual metaphors may not influence cognition as we thought earlier.

Emperical Studies

This dispute about conceptual metaphors and their impact cognition is a complicated one. Vervaeke & Kennedy’s criticism of the theory saw a reply from Ritchie (2003) who claims that they had considered only a narrow range of reasonable extensions and interpretations of their examples (p.126). The relationship between conceptual metaphors and cognition however, still remains unclear. But, cognitive science and psycholinguistic studies provide some interesting insights on the issue.

One developmental idea is that people create embodied simulations (partial or complete) of the speakers’ metaphorical messages to decode the implications of the used conceptual metaphors (Gibbs, 2011, p. 550). This can even be observed for abstract language such as “grasping the concept” when the idea cannot be physically realized. Various experimental studies provide evidence to support this idea. Gibbs, Gould and Andric (2006) observed that performing or imagining an action (for example the act of grasping in the case of “grasping the concept”) enhanced comprehension or mental imagery for metaphorical action phrases. Richardson & Matlock (2007) conducted an experiment to observe how eye-movement patterns (while looking at a static image) were affected by figurative language. They concluded that the use of a metaphorical prompts such as “The road runs through the valley” influenced the eye movements of participants significantly more than literal prompts such as “The road is in the valley”.

Both these experiments suggest the involvement of simulations to make sense of the conceptual metaphor. In fact, this also implies that people do not just access pre-encoded conceptual metaphors from memory but create interpretations for it during the moment of comprehension itself. Hence, conceptual metaphors can indeed be seen to have an impact on our cognition.

Implications on Bilinguals and Biculturals

So, it can be seen that many studies suggest that conceptual metaphor is indeed germane to linguistic relativity. But what is not known in detail is how do these conceptual metaphors impact biculturals and bilinguals. Depending on the similarities between the languages and the proficiency of the speaker in these languages, we can generally classify this impact of conceptual metaphors into two broad categories – affirmation and contradiction.


Affirmation occurs when the metaphorical representations of an idea in two different languages lead to a similar conceptualization. A simple example of this would be the metaphor, MIND IS A BODY. The following expressions can be observed in English and Chinese:

  1. Thinking is moving:

    1. English: My mind was racing
    2. Chinese: si-lu (thinking road/path)
  2. Thinking is perceiving/seeing:

    1. English: I can see what you are saying
    2. Chinese: kan-fa (see-method)
  3. Thinking is moving objects:

    1. Let’s toss around some ideas
    2. sixiang jiaoliu (thought exchange)

We see that both Chinese and English metaphors ascribe similar attributes to thinking. For a bilingual proficient in Chinese in English, this similarity will affirm his conception of thinking regardless of his proficiency and frequency of use of the languages. Furthermore, this is likely to concretize his use of conceptual metaphors of thought in both the languages.


Contradiction simply occurs when the metaphorical representations of the same concept differ in two languages. This can have varying influences on a bicultural/bilingual’s cognition and use of language depending on his proficiency, frequency of use and cultural inclinations. These influences in turn can be broadly classified as – overriding and overloading.


When the metaphorical representations of the same concepts contradict in two languages, bilinguals often reject (consciously or otherwise) the less dominant one and only retain the representation from the language that they either learnt earlier in their life or use more frequently. If equally proficient in both, a bilingual might also reject a representation because of his cultural inclinations. To examine this, I conducted a simple experiment. Several Hindi-English bicultural-bilinguals from different states in India were asked the following:

“If a meeting scheduled for Wednesday is pushed back two days, what day will it fall on?”

The vast majority of the participants who use Hindi as their primary means of communication hesitated and many asked for clarifications. Participants responded with “Monday and “Friday” about the same number of times. One might assume that this is because the conceptual understanding of time differs in Hindi and English. However, in both Hindi and English, conceptual metaphors describe time it to be linear:

  1. English: “Move forward in time” or “Go back to the past”
  2. Hindi: समय आगे बढ़ता है (Time moves forward)

The contradicting issue is hence not the linearity of time but the concept of pushing an event which does not appear in Hindi. Instead in Hindi, changing the date or time of an event is described as plucking an event from a point in time and putting it in another point. When the question was changed to “pushed two days” instead of “pushed back two days”, more participants were able to answer correctly because despite the fact that “pushing an event” seems bizarre to a Hindi speaker, most of them interpreted pushing as moving something in the forward direction and since metaphorically, future is described to be forward in Hindi, the participants inferred that pushing meant moving the event in the future and pulling probably meant moving the event earlier.

Here we observe that despite being regularly exposed to English through conversations, entertainment and the social media, many Hindi-English bilinguals’ conception of pushing an event in has been overridden by a more dominant representation offered by Hindi.


Bilinguals and biculturals can also deal with contradiction of metaphorical representations by retaining both the conceptualizations and deploying one according to the language and the cultural setting of a conversation. In Hindi, some commonly used conceptual metaphors are LIGHT SOURCES (SUCH AS BULBS) ARE FLAMES and ELECTRICITY IS A PERSON. We can observe the same from the following examples:

  1. बिजली चली गई (Electricity has left/gone)

  2. बिजली आ गई (Electricity has come back)

  3. बल्ब जला दो (Ignite the bulb)

  4. बल्ब बुझा दो (Blow off the bulb)

Most Hindi-English bilinguals however are aware that mapping of attributes from a flame to a bulb does not exist in English, and hence when speaking in English, they would most likely use the terms “switch on” and “switch off”. However, it is interesting to note that even when speaking English, if the audience mostly consists of Hindi-English bilinguals, some conceptual metaphors can be brought over by the speaker from Hindi into English. It is not uncommon to hear phrases like “Electricity has gone again for two days” spoken by Hindi-English bilinguals because of mutual understanding of the metaphor between the audience and the speaker.


The theoretical and empirical studies about conceptual metaphor and its relevance to linguistic relativity will continue to be debated upon. Despite that, viewing our cognition as a metaphorical one allows us to understand and answer some important questions about our reality and why different cultures views certain ideas and concepts as they do. And although the theory of conceptual metaphors does not account for all occurrences of metaphors in language, it lays a firm foundation for future studies in linguistics and cognitive science to help us understand human cognition better.


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Published on 10 November 2016