Metaphors have been there in English for at least 1,300 years!


A fascinating new project entailing the first ever compiled ‘Metaphor Map’ has given some incredible insights into the evolution of English language and its assortment of metaphors that have seemingly changed over time. Created by a group of experts from the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, this map (based on the wealth of information in the Historical Thesaurus of English) is touted to utilize over four million pieces of data – that translates into a myriad metaphors that were grouped under a whopping 415 categories. Furthermore, the ambit for now has over 14,000 metaphorical connections between different categories of words, and some of them even date back to 700 AD.

Interestingly, many of the common modern metaphors had their old counterparts with the similar context. One good example would be the association of sheep to timidity. On the other hand, many old literal phrases have evolved into unrecognizable metaphors over time – like the simple example of ‘comprehend’, which in Latin means to “to physically grasp an object.” However, in spite of such detailed analysis, the researchers have still not on been able to determine the oldest metaphor in English, on account of its structure being derived from earlier languages (namely Germanic).

In any case, some of the ‘broader strokes’ that encompass many a metaphor can be found in the popular dichotomy of Light and Darkness. As Dr Wendy Anderson, the principle investigator on the this project, made it clear –

We use metaphors of Light to talk about Intelligence. For example, people are described as ‘bright’ or ‘brilliant’. We also talk about someone being enlightened and even have the Enlightenment as an intellectual movement. On the flip side of this metaphor, Darkness is represented as a lack of intelligence or knowledge – a person can be ‘dim’ or even ‘unilluminated’.

In other words, the so-called Metaphor Map is not only limited to a linguistic scope. These figures of speech and their progression over a long period of history also pertains to how we perceive/perceived the world around, and then denote ‘mental structures’ to these parcels of information (extending to morality and even philosophy).


Source: University of Glasgow / Via: HistoryExtra

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