Metaphor is not the sole preserve of literary scholarship, but forms the basis of human thought and communication. An ambitious study undertaken by researchers at Glasgow University aims to map the use of metaphor across the history of English language, making use of some 4m pieces of lexical data to create an online Metaphor Map, which contains more than 14,000 metaphorical connections to uncover revealing linguistic clusters.

The trends demonstrate a ubiquitous nuance within the English language, as the study highlights the tendency to describe social structures in terms of textiles, for example. We talk about the ‘fabric’ of society, whilst social networks are ‘woven’ or ‘spun’. Textiles even influence the way we describe imagination: we ‘spin a yarn’, or ‘embroider our thoughts’.

And yet, metaphor can take on subtler forms. Describing a ‘healthy economy’ or a ‘clear argument’ are both examples of mapping concepts from a comparatively concrete domain, such as medicine, onto a more abstract domain, such as the strength of an argument.

The study provides food for thought in various fields. Whilst an English student could reflect upon the purpose of metaphor in expression, and an HSPS student could explore the role of language as a reflection of culture, a Languages student may note that these phenomena are in some cases limited to English: the Spanish refer simply to ‘la estructura social’ rather than the ‘fabric of society’. . Linguistics students, however, may even explore questions beyond the study: although it may be useful to identify such trends, perhaps it is more important to ask how they come about? Whatever the reflection, it is clear that big data brings with it insights beyond our current scope of knowledge. 

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