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How do artifacts help us think and talk about abstract concepts?

Updated: Mar 27

Author: Marlene Johansson Falck


People often think and talk about abstract concepts such as TIME, LOVE and ANGER as if they were real world concrete entities that we can interact with in different ways. In English, we say that time is here, or that time has passed as if TIME was MOTION, and in Swedish people kokar av ilska (En. ‘boil with anger’) as if ANGER was HEAT. Metaphorical mappings such as these fill an important cognitive function. They help us structure our thinking and extend our language. But how does this really work? What aspects of the world around us are in focus in these processes, and why do they have the focus that they do?


In my research I focus on how people´s experiences of real world artifacts such as paths, roads, ways, and bridges are used to describe other concepts in metaphorical ways. It shows that what is salient to us in our interactions with these specific artifacts, is what is typically in focus in metaphorical language that includes terms that refer to these artifacts. When we see a real world path, road, or way, we see an artifact that affords motion from one place to another along the artifact, and when we talk about metaphorical paths, roads, or ways, we similarly focus on motion along, and not across, the artifact. Roads, however, afford somewhat faster motion than do paths, and this difference is reflected in speakers´ metaphorical uses of the terms path and road. Metaphorical roads, for instance, are used in reference to purposeful activities, and metaphorical paths in talk about our lives. Similarly, when we see a bridge, we see an artifact with which we may bridge other entities, and when we talk about metaphorical bridges we again focus on their bridging function rather than on some other quality of the artifact.


Interestingly, metaphorical and non-metaphorical language differ in this respect. The focus on salient features is not nearly as strong in non-metaphorical language that includes terms that refer to artifacts. One possible reason for this difference is that non-metaphorical language is used for describing anything that we can possibly observe in the world around us, whereas metaphorical language reflects our conception of what the world is like. It is thus bound to be more homogeneous, and more closely connected with what is salient to us.


I now pass another metaphorically understood artifact – the blog baton – over to the organizer of the next conference of the Association for Researching and Applying Metaphor (RaAM), Susan Nacey, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences.

I look forward to seeing her and other metaphor scholars there in June 2020!


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