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Identifying Metaphor

Researchers need a consistent method to identify the occurrence of cross-domain mappings from a source to a target. For this, several identification frameworks have been proposed. Perhaps the best known is the Metaphor Identification Procedure (MIP), developed through a collaboration of prominent metaphor scholars (Pragglejaz Group, 2007). Despite a number of theoretical and practical complexities (discussed below), this procedure—along with its updated version, the MIPVU, named thus as it was developed atVU University, Amsterdam (Steen et al., 2010)—has become widely used and is often the starting point for any discussion related to identifying metaphor in text and discourse. The steps involved have been reproduced below:

  • 3. (a) For each lexical unit in the text, establish its meaning in context, that is, how it applies to an entity, relation or attribute in the situation evoked by the text (contextual meaning). Take into account what comes before and after the lexical unit.
  • (b) For each lexical unit, determine if it has a more basic contemporary meaning in other contexts than the one in the given context. For our purposes, basic meanings tend to be:
  • (i) More concrete; what they evoke is easier to imagine, see, hear, feel, smell, and taste
  • (ii) Related to bodily action
  • (iii) More precise (as opposed to vague)
  • (iv) Historically older.

Basic meanings are not necessarily the most frequent meanings of the lexical unit.

  • (c) If the lexical unit has a more basic current—contemporary meaning in other contexts than the given context, decide whether the contextual meaning contrasts with the basic meaning but can be understood in comparison with it.
  • (Pragglejaz Group, 2007, p. 3)

To provide an example of how MIP is applied to an authentic sample of religious language, consider the following extract from The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle (2004), a highly eclectic and popular spiritual teacher.The metaphorical lexical units have been underlined.

If your overall situation is unsatisfactory or unpleasant, separate out this instant and surrender to what is. That’s the flashlight cutting through the fog.

(Tolle, 2004, p. 209, emphasis in original)

“Separate out” is a phrasal verb, so here it is treated as a single lexical item. It can be classified as metaphorical since it has a basic sense that refers to separating physical entities from a larger group of entities—a meaning that contrasts with its sense in the text, where “separate out” refers to concentrating on a conscious feeling while ignoring other potential targets of attention. “Surrender”, in its more basic sense, involves the domain of war, so its use in the text, where it refers to paying attention to unpleasant contents of conscious experience, is clearly metaphorical. While easily overlooked, the lexical items “what” and “that’s” are also metaphorical since both are anaphoric devices referring to an earlier referent (i.e., the unpleasant feelings of the present moment). In other words, they are metaphorical since they refer to a frame containing “conquering” and “surrendering” entities. Steen et al. (2010) refer to examples such as this that involve lexico- grammatical substitution as “implicit metaphor” (p. 26). Because the excerpt consistently refers to psychological processes, both “flashlight” and “fog” stand out as clearly metaphorical. “Flashlight”, used here to refer to attention, is an innovative metaphor but is readily understood based on familiar conceptual metaphors such


involves a more conventional mapping from weather conditions to psychological states. “Cutting through”, as a phrasal verb, is treated here as a single lexical item. Since fog and the hazy mental states which fog refers to are incompatible with the basic meaning of cut through and since the meaning of cut through in the text is derived from this more basic meaning, this phrasal verb should also be classified as metaphor. A key point in the usage-based approach, as presented here, is that metaphors are identified by noting both a difference and a similarity between the meaning of the lexical item in the text and a more basic meaning. The basic meaning, as a key sense deeply entrenched in language usage, should, according to Steen et al. (2010), invariably appear in a contemporary users’ dictionary (p. 35).

Analysis using the MIP faces several challenges that are not specific to religious texts. For projects adopting quantitative, statistical approaches, the procedure is quite time-consuming, limiting researchers’ ability to classify many lexical items while ensuring that judgments remain valid and reliable. Another challenge is that metaphor identification is inherently subjective (Geeraerts, 2010), and in many cases the boundary between literal and metaphorical meaning proves to be “fuzzy” (Semino et al., 2004, p. 1277). In addition, MIP presents several issues that are particularly relevant to the analysis of religious texts. A key issue stems from the gap between authorial intentions and readers’ reception, a gap that can be especially wide in the case of ancient texts created in historical contexts that are no longer familiar to readers.

Another challenge for metaphor researchers is that religious language often seeks to create a third category, the metaphysical, that lies somewhere above the physical. This third category is perceived to contain elements of ultimate reality that may be intended as literal or real, but not physical in the regular sense of the term and not necessarily metaphorical. It must be noted here that it is irrelevant whether the researcher accepts the validity of this category or not. The key point for MIP is that the context of a lexical unit needs to be established to identify whether there is a relevant contrast.

Metaphysical references are not necessarily static and can evolve into figurative language over time. Religious references to fire can provide a good illustration of such evolution: systematic descriptions of metaphysical fire can develop into abstracted frames of meaning, which can then emerge as metaphorical uses of fire. This happens with fire references in the Old Testament, beginning with instances such as the pillar of fire that led the Israelites in the wilderness during the night (Exodus 13:21-22). Charteris-Black (2017) argues that such references developed into a divine display is fire frame, which then formed the basis for metaphorical usages such as in Isaiah 10:13: “The Light of Israel will become a fire, their Holy One a flame” (pp. 76-77).

This third category of the metaphysical is repeatedly encountered in samples of religious language, and it is therefore necessary for researchers to refine their application of MU' to take this into account. Consider the example below from an Evangelical testimonial:

I began to ask questions like,“Is this really the life that God wants me to be living?” I also thought, “If I die tomorrow, where would I go?” I was scared that I might be on my way to hell, not heaven.

(Boswell, 2010)

The use of “go” here is problematic for MIP because it can clearly be contrasted with the basic, physical meaning of^o. The movement is not initially embodied (the traditional Evangelical belief is that the bodily resurrection comes later, after the Day of Judgment), it is not visible, and it is not spatial in the sense of movement from physical location A to physical location 13. However, most Evangelicals believe that the truly important part of a person (their soul, and eventually their body in a new incorrupt form) is being literally relocated. Considering the context, this occurrence of “go” appears to be perceived as metaphysical and not metaphorical. However, the later occurrence of “way” should be marked as metaphorical given that there is no literal path to the metaphysical locations of heaven and hell.

Some religious concepts can also resist clear MIP classification due to their inherently hybrid nature. Hell-fire is a good example. Some Christians might argue that the fires of hell are literally fire. At the same time, hell-fire exhibits some features that appear to come from the domain of divine anger, and thus some might argue that it exhibits features of metaphor. In the end, conceptual metaphor theory may not be the best theoretical tool for explaining terms like hell- fire, which seems to be better analyzed using conceptual blending, a topic that is discussed in Chapter 7.

The points discussed thus far concern specific applications of MIP. A broader issue concerns the need to maintain a distinction between academic and folk- theoretic conceptions. In popular discourse, the term metaphor, like the term myth, often elicits suspicion.The well-researched god is father metaphorical mapping provides a good example. Many Christians reject the notion that father, as used in this context, is a metaphor. In an extract from a testimony posted on Tabletalk, an Evangelical magazine, a Christian writes:

All kinds of images are used in Scripture to draw out some attribute of God: a rock, a potter, a shepherd, a physician, and so on. Should Father join these ranks? ... Is the word Father used in the Bible for God in order to draw from the best fatherly characteristics found in humanity and teach us something about the divine? |... J Scripture gives us a number of similes and metaphors for thinking about God’s qualities, but we must recognize that it clearly and directly speaks of God as Father.

(Smith, 2018)

There are two considerations for cognitive linguists responding to such assertions: first, metaphorical language, just like nonfigurative language, can be used to express statements that are true or false (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).To say that something is metaphorical is not to deny its veracity. Second, as Sweetser and DesCamp (2014) point out, asserting that God is Father in a non-metaphorical sense is only possible if God is literally construed as a human being, which no traditional Christian would wish to do. Therefore, what remains is a metaphor derived from family relationships. As Barcelona (1999) explains:

The human notion of family is projected onto the notion of the Holy Trinity. The human notion of fatherhood is a source domain to gain some understanding about the nature of the First Person of the Holy Trinity, and about His relationship to the Second Person.

(p. 198)

In this particular case, the researcher is in the unusual position of disagreeing with the intuitions of what some theologians are saying about their own language. However, even after allowing for some variation in theological positions, the analyst cannot ignore the sharp divide between the biological human father-son relationship and a perceived relationship between an infinite, omnipresent divine entity and itself, or the relationship between this divine father and all human beings. Using language to literally describe a being that is perceived to be infinite and incomprehensible is understandably difficult. Therefore, to conceptualize and make sense of the god domain, believers have no choice but to draw on more concrete domains (Boeve & Feyaerts, 1999).

Another challenge for metaphor identification is the variation that can be found in how different believers understand certain words describing their experience. Some common examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American English illustrate this point:

  • 1. God is with me at every moment of life’s drama.
  • 2. How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence.
  • 3. I felt God speaking to me and drawing me back to Him.

The use of “with”, “presence”, and “speaking” present an unusual challenge to metaphor researchers because Christians hold diverse views on how these words should be understood. The varied meanings attached to these terms might be viewed as occurring along a continuum. At one end are Christians who use these words in a very abstract sense to express a vague feeling or intuition. In contrast, at the other end are believers who emphasize the perception of a physical or metaphysical dimension when using words like presence and with, and other Christians who even describe hearing a physical voice when God speaks to them. This is of course problematic for identifying metaphorical language. A vague, abstract conception of God speaking to someone fits more closely with a figurative usage than someone who is convinced they are physically hearing a voice, as appears to be the case, for example, in Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:4.

Researchers must do what they can to analyze the context in such instances in order to establish how literally and concretely the believer is conceptualizing the experience. One possible marker that lexical units are being used in a metaphorical sense rather than a literal sense is the level of conventionality and signs of formulaic language (as in examples 1 and 2 above). If, for example, a believer closes a conversation with words like May the Lord be with you, this statement is probably being used in the sense of abstract reassurance. Conventional statements like the deoil is on my back to mark a difficult spiritual period are also more likely to be conceptualized in metaphorical terms. The use of qualifying words before the target lexical unit may also suggest a figurative conception. In the case of example 3 above, the use of “felt” suggests that “speaking” is not being used in its regular sense.

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