6 October – Anke Beger

Forms and functions of deliberate metaphors in US-American college lectures across four different subjects: Differences and similarities between psychology, philosophy, biology, and chemistry

In my doctoral research, I investigate how professors communicate knowledge in their lectures. Since communicating knowledge on college level primarily involves teaching abstract concepts, and since metaphors, by definition (e.g., Lakoff & Johnson 1980), involve understanding a more abstract domain in terms of a more concrete one, I focus on the professors’ use of metaphors in my analysis. For this end, I collected a corpus consisting of 23 US-American college lectures that I videotaped and (partially) transcribed.

For the past 35 years, metaphor scholars have mainly been interested in analyzing conventional (conceptual) metaphors, as these (conceptual) metaphors presumably reflect how people actually think about the respective topics (i.e. the target domains of the metaphors) – in the sense of both general underlying conceptual structures and online comprehension (Lakoff & Johnson 1980; Lakoff 1993; also see Gibbs 1994). However, more recent psycholinguistic research has casted serious doubts on the claim that encountering a linguistic metaphor necessarily activates an underlying, metaphorical structure in the listener’s or reader’s mind. Instead, only a subset of linguistic metaphors seems to be able to activate cross-domain mappings during online comprehension (cf. Bowdle & Gentner 2005). These findings have led Steen (2008) to propose a new, three-dimensional, model of metaphor. While, according to this model, all metaphors are realized in language in varying forms (linguistic dimension) and reflect underlying conceptual structures (conceptual dimension), not all metaphors have the ability to set up a cross-domain mapping during online processing (cf. Steen 2008: 237). In the communicative dimension of a metaphor, Steen differentiates the metaphors that activate a cross-domain mapping during online comprehension from those which do not, calling the former deliberate metaphors and the latter non-deliberate metaphors (cf. Steen 2008, 2010, 2015).

Rather than merely activating students’ pre-existing, underlying conceptual structures between two distinct domains, communication of knowledge in college lectures often involves urging the students to adopt a new perspective on a particular topic, thereby transforming or extending their lay concept of the respective topic into a more expert one. Hence, deliberate metaphors rather than non-deliberate metaphors seem to be a promising tool for professors to communicate knowledge, since, according to Steen (2010: 58), deliberate metaphors force the addressee to consider the current topic from the point of view provided by the metaphor’s source domain. Therefore, one of the main foci of my doctoral research is the professors’ use of deliberate metaphors in their lectures.

My analysis of deliberate metaphor use in 23 college lectures confirms this assumption. Across all four subjects (psychology, philosophy, biology and chemistry), professors use metaphors deliberately in order to communicate abstract concepts to the students (albeit with different frequency, particularly between the natural and the social sciences). However, my analysis also shows that even though all deliberate metaphors are (also) used to communicate knowledge, their particular functions still differ. While most deliberate metaphors are directly connected to communicating knowledge by either introducing and explaining new subject matter (explanatory function) or summarizing an abstract topic (summative function), some deliberate metaphors primary function is entertaining or persuasive. Indirectly, though, at least entertaining deliberate metaphors aid the communication of knowledge. Apart from their distinct functions in college lectures, deliberate metaphors also greatly vary in their linguistic realization, or form. The linguistic forms of deliberate metaphors range from simple compounds or short comparisons featuring one or two direct metaphors to lengthy accumulations of indirect metaphors or even mini-scenarios with a number of direct metaphors.

In my presentation, I will provide several examples of deliberate uses of metaphors in different college lectures from my data. I will analyze various linguistic realizations of deliberate metaphors and discuss their distinct functions in communicating knowledge to college students.


Bowdle, Brian & Dedre Gentner. 2005. “The career of metaphor”, in: Psychological Review 112 (1): 193-216.

Gibbs, Raymond W. 1994. The Poetics of Mind: Figurative thought, language, and understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jäkel, Olaf. 2003. Wie Metaphern Wissen schaffen: Die kognitive Metapherntheorie und ihre Anwendung in Modell-Analysen der Diskursbereiche Geistestätigkeit, Wirtschaft, Wissenschaft und Religion (Philologia: Sprachwissenschaftliche Forschungsergebnisse 59). Hamburg: Dr. Kovac.

Lakoff, George &. Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George. 1993. “The contemporary theory of metaphor”, in: Ortony, Andrew (ed.) Metaphor and Thought (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 202-251.

Ortony, Andrew. 19932. Metaphor and Thought (2nd edition with substantial changes). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Steen, Gerard J. 2008. “The paradox of metaphor: Why we need a three-dimensional model of metaphor”, in: Metaphor and Symbol 23: 213-241.

Steen, Gerard J. 2010. “When is metaphor deliberate?”, in: Alm-Arvius, Christina, Nils-Lennart Johannesson & David C. Minugh (eds.) Selected Papers from the 2008 Stockholm Metaphor Festival. Stockholm: University of Stockholm: 43-65.

Steen, Gerard J. 2015. “Developing, testing and interpreting Deliberate Metaphor Theory”, in: Journal of Pragmatics (in press).