Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Research project

Winged Words

The prehistory of communication metaphors

2023 - 2025
Lucien van Beek
LUF Praesidium Libertatis Grant

Since the advent of Conceptual Metaphor Theory, we know that metaphors are not primarily figures of style, but characteristic of everyday speech and thought. We conceptualise abstract ideas like time, communication and emotions in terms of what is more directly accessible – for instance, the movement or manipulation of concrete objects. In English, a sentence like This thought cannot be grasped in words illustrates the conceptual metaphor words are containers. Within a single language, the same conceptual metaphor usually occurs in several different phrases or expressions. Thus, hollow phrase and a nicely packed idea presuppose roughly the same conceptualisation of words as containers. 

Picture of a vase with Odysseus as an archer on it
Odysseus as an archer, a skill considered akin to rhetoric by the Ancient Greeks (picture: Wikimedia Commons)

Conceptual metaphors have been described for a variety of languages. Some metaphors appear to be widespread across languages (e.g., knowing is seeing, more is up), but the specific form of a metaphor often varies per culture or language, and it may also change across time. Thus, the so-called conduit metaphor for verbal communication (communication takes place via a physical channel) is omnipresent, but it has various instantiations. Thus, words are containers may seem commonplace to us, but from a historical perspective it is not: it appears that Homeric Greek, while utilizing other forms of the conduit metaphor, does not use words are containers as a specific instantiation of this metaphor. 

This project analyses and compares remarkable communication metaphors in the texts and lexicon of the oldest Indo-European languages (including Ancient Greek, Latin, Vedic Sanskrit), for instance cheating is tripping someone, or words are arrows. Such metaphors are relevant for several reasons. A thorough knowledge of how metaphors work may help us to find and judge etymologies of words, and to reconstruct the prehistoric meanings of words. For another thing, ancient metaphors may show conceptualisations that are no longer current in present-day Europe. Thus, they may challenge theoretical generalisations about metaphors that are often based on modern European languages. And, last but not least: a reconstruction of how linguistic metaphors for communication have developed and changed through time yields fascinating glimpses into the conceptual world of Eurasia’s Late Neolithic, which may have differed from our own.

This website uses cookies.  More information.