Tag Archives: metaphor

How do metaphors shape our world?

We’ve touched on metaphor in this blog before, when we featured Marianna Bolognesi’s post ‘Do you have butterflies in your stomach or little deer jumping in your heart?‘, and Sally Zacharias’s post ‘Multilingual Moon Metaphors‘. So we couldn’t be more delighted that our friends at the Creative Multilingualism Research programme have dedicated a whole episode of their podcast series to the subject.

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 thinking? In this episode of LinguaMania, we explore how we use metaphors across the world, looking at the different ways of representing abstract concepts, such as emotion and time, through idioms and metaphors.

The episode features researchers Jeanette Littlemore, Lera Boroditsky, Zoltán Kövecses, Sally Zacharias, and one of our brilliant tutors in German, Katrin Kohl. Thanks for the insight!

Listen to the episode below or on the Oxford University podcasts website.

Multilingual Moon Metaphors

This post was written by Sally Zacahrias, a lecturer in Education at the University of Glasgow, and originally appeared on the Creative Multilingualism blog. Creative Multilingualism is an AHRC-funded project investigating the creative dimension of languages – extending from cognition and production through to performance, texts and translation to language learning.

The year 2019 will be remembered by some as the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings. It has been for Moon enthusiasts the chance not only to reflect on Armstrong’s first steps but also what the Moon means to them on a more personal level. The Moon has been compared to a mirror that reflects our passions and beliefs.

As Philip Morton in ‘The Moon. A history for the future’ wrote:

…what people see when they look at the Moon is indeed, for the most part a reflection of themselves – of their preoccupations and theories, their dreams and fears. It has been used for such reflection, or projection in science and fiction alike (Morton 2019:20).

These Moon celebrations also provided me with an opportunity to explore what the Moon meant to people of different cultural and language backgrounds. The Moon is a powerful lens for understanding and comparing different cultures as, firstly, it features so strongly in all cultures and, secondly, it has come to symbolise many everyday concepts (love, friendship, beauty, time) that are shared between members of different cultural groups.

Culture can be thought of as a set of shared ways to frame concepts that characterise groups of people and often these understandings are reflected in the metaphors used by people belonging to those cultural groups. When linguists talk about metaphors they mean that they describe one thing in terms of another, so ‘The Moon is made of cheese’ is an example of a metaphor. The surface of the Moon (which is strange and a bit abstract) is being compared to a cheese with holes in it. One way to find out what the Moon means to people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds is to look at the various Moon idioms they use, a specific type of metaphorical expression. Here are some examples that I have collected as part of this project:

associated with the

être dans
la lune
Frenchto be in
the Moon
head in the
spadł z
Polishto fall from
the Moon
er lebt
hinter dem Mond
Germanhe lives
behind the Moon
he has no
idea what’s
going on in
the world
I love you to the Moon
and back
English to love
very much
oli mumanzi nka kwezi Rutooro you’re as
brave as the Moon
very bravebravery/
Englisha long time
月有陰晴圓缺 Mandarinthe moon is dark bright
round and
missing a
to say life is uncertain,
not all plain
14 قمر Arabicfull Moon/
Moon of 14

During the summer, I and a team of science and language students from the School of Education at University of Glasgow ran a couple of workshops, ‘Stories and Science of the Moon’, for families as part of the Glasgow Science Festival. One activity involved asking family members what they thought each of these Moon idioms meant. I showed them the idiom in the original language and its literal translation. Interestingly, although the participants said they didn’t know the language about 70% of the answers were correct!

One plausible explanation for this is that many of these idioms are based on what we call ‘embodied’ metaphors. These are when mental images that we have developed through our interaction with the physical world are used to understand more abstract concepts. So, ‘I love you to the Moon and back’ is based on the image of a long distance representing the intensity of a feeling. These embodied metaphors are thought to be understood across almost all languages and cultures. So, when trying to understand an unfamiliar expression, such as an unknown idiom, we use these embodied metaphors as sense-making resources.

During the workshop, we also explored how narratives and images of the Moon from around the world have changed our perspective of how we understand the universe and our place in it. For example, we looked at how Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer-mathematician, wrote about travelling to the Moon in ‘Somnium – the Dream’ in 1609, considered by many to be the first ever piece of science fiction. The story was written in Latin, at a time when people thought that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. However, Kepler believed differently. By telling a story in which a boy and his mother are taken to the Moon by the moon spirit, and by using the Moon as an analogy of the Earth, Kepler was able to change people’s perspectives of what they normally take for granted. Seeing the everyday through a different image, narrative or language can really transform our sense of reality!

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

We also explored how almost every civilisation has used the Moon to govern daily life. Its regular phases and movements have been used for calendrical purposes to mark time in many cultures. Ancient time was both measured by the phases of the Moon but it was also the measure of our activities: certain behaviours were assigned to particular phases of the Moon. This can be still seen today in certain religious and cultural festivals that are orchestrated by the Moon, for example, Easter, Ramadan and the Chinese Moon festival.

To explore how the Moon features in people’s lives today at a more individual level, and to discover what the Moon means to people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, I have interviewed a number of families, all living in Glasgow, over a period of six months. The families spoke either Arabic, Polish, Mandarin or English: some of the languages that make up Glasgow’s vibrant linguistic landscape. I have been looking at how the family members use metaphor to talk about time, and other abstract concepts, in relation to the Moon. We tend to think that time is a universal concept, experienced the same way by everyone. However, my data shows that people’s conceptions of time, when talking about the Moon, vary in interesting and subtle ways depending on their cultural background, the stories and books they’ve read, the languages they speak and their age.

This study shows that although we all share and know the Moon, different cultures and languages have responded to the Moon in contrasting ways. Understanding this diversity allows for a more complete picture of what makes us human, and how we through our different languages relate to our natural world.

A special thank you to all my language enthusiasts who have been part of this project’s creation: Dangeni, Rui He, Nourah Alshalhoub, Heba Elmaraghi, Idris Al Adawi, Agnieszka Uflewska, Aneta Marren, Annette Islei, Colin Reilly, and to the families I interviewed!

Do you have butterflies in your stomach or little deer jumping in your heart?

This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog, and was written by Dr Marianna Bolgonesi. Here, Marianna talks about the issue of metaphors when it comes to learning a foreign language. A long version of this post is available here.

Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows that some words are more difficult to master than others. This seems to be particularly true for words with multiple meanings, and specifically words that can be used metaphorically.

But why? Metaphoric expressions vary greatly across languages, and they are often soaked in cultural habits and beliefs. For example, while English people may have ‘butterflies in their stomach’, Chinese people will have ‘a little deer jumping in their heart’. Moreover, while some of these expressions trigger images that can help the learners understand the metaphorical meaning, others are less clear, and some seem to have no rational explanation: alarms go off when they actually go on, and houses burn up as they burn down!

Image by Schwoaze on Pixabay

The following questions arise:

  1. Is metaphor, a universal phenomenon across languages, a hallmark of human language?
  2. Is it possible to distinguish what is universal and what is language/culture specific in relation to metaphor?
  3. Why is metaphor a problem for foreign learners and how do language learners understand and use metaphor?
  4. Can metaphor be taught? (And if so, how?)

These questions were explored in a discussion chaired by Dr Marianna Bolognesi with Professor Jeannette Littlemore (University of Birmingham) and Dr Linda Fisher (University of Cambridge) at an event in Oxford in February. During the debate it emerged how metaphors in language influence the way we think, and therefore, metaphoric expressions that we use on a daily basis can indeed be quite tricky for learners that have a different mother tongue, because they might think in different ways. If we look at how language shapes our world view, in particular when it comes to metaphoric expressions, we can see that while some expressions translate directly from one language to another, word by word, others do not.

Consider, for example, ‘the statement it’s raining cats and dogs’, a classic idiomatic expression (a specific type of very conventionalised metaphor in language) that we use to say ‘it’s raining a lot’. In other languages the image of cats and dogs is quite different: in Catalan it rains barrels and casks (Està plovent a bots i barrals), in Dutch pipe stems (Het regent pijpestelen), in Irish Gaelic cobblers’ knives (Tá sé ag caitheamh sceana gréasaí) and in Norwegian female trolls (Det regner trollkjerringer). These various ‘entities falling from the sky’ are probably related to cultural traditions and experiences that are typically shared by the communities that speak these languages. These expressions are therefore very different from one another. However, they share an underlying common trait: all of them are quite unpleasant when falling from the sky, as well as unexpected, and heavier than normal (literal) rain. All of these common traits constitute the core, underlying meaning of these metaphoric expressions, which is related to our bodily experiences with heavy rain. These bodily experiences, at the very basic level of perception, are not that different across languages and cultures, because we are all humans and share similar bodies.

Even within the same language, for example English, it is possible to come up with creative variations of conventional metaphoric expressions. Urban Dictionary, for example, has an extensive list of alternatives to ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’, including ‘it’s raining pitchforks’ and ‘it’s raining like a cow peeing on a flat rock’.


In the second half of the debate we focused on the problems that metaphors cause for foreign language learners, and the solutions proposed to overcome these problems. On the one hand, metaphors can indeed be problematic for learners, because learners tend to process linguistic input word by word, and translate word by word what they hear in a foreign language. However, metaphors, as already discussed, do not translate word by word, most of the time. Moreover, learners often do not realise that they have not understood the intended meaning, and this can cause additional problems in the classroom, because they give misleadingly positive feedback to the teacher (‘yes, we understood everything!’). It seems therefore crucial for the teacher to be very careful when using metaphors in the target language and to double check with the students how they have interpreted the metaphor.

Metaphors, on the other hand, can also be a very productive tool when used in the classroom to express beliefs and conceptualisations that students may be more willing to share through metaphors than through literal (and often quite abstract and difficult) language. In this sense, metaphors can help the students to embrace a creative way of thinking and talking, putting aside their fear of making mistakes, and conveying messages in a way that better reflects their personal, cultural and social identity.