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“Metaphors We Live By” by Mark Johnson

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    Since its introduction in 1980, the publication “Metaphors We Live By” by Mark Johnson and George Lackoff has successfully persuaded the readers to see all metaphors in a new light. The 1980 classic maintains that metaphorical expressions are not idiosyncratic but rather systematically reflect conceptual metaphors in our mental reasoning. As we think, we talk and we act, whether intentionally and unconsciously, we all rely on a large number of conceptual metaphors. The objective of this study is to compare the conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY in English and Vietnamese using the theory of conceptual metaphor as theoretical framework. The rationale behind this is that LIFE is a basic but rather complicated concept for every man and every culture. Through comparison and by contrast, I hope to find out major similarities and significant differences in the way English and Vietnamese use this metaphorical concept in everyday language; thus, have better understanding of English and Vietnamese language, culture, and patterns of thinking before being able to draw some practical conclusions in the field of English teaching.

    Last month, my American Literature class discussed a poem that intensively employs metaphors: “Well, son, I’ll tell you:
    Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
    It’s had tacks in it,
    And splinters,
    And boards torn up,
    And places with no carpet on the floorBare ….”
    The excerpt above is from a famous poem named “Mother to Son” by Langston
    Hughes. Obviously in the poem, Langston makes creative use of metaphors by describing LIFE through the image of a STAIRCASE with no crystal glamour. Every one of us has no difficulty realizing this point. However, when being asked to define metaphor, we were in complete silence until one student cited a definition from Cambridge dictionary: “metaphor is an expression which describes a person or object in a literary way by referring to something that is considered to have similar characteristics to the person or object you are trying to describe”. For most of us, metaphor is artistic language used to describe a thing by referring to another one. It has been always said to be a powerful device which are often at the great communicators’ disposal, like Shakespeare. The well-known Aristotle once emphasized that mastering metaphor “is the mark of genius”.

    With the above assumption in mind, it is widely thought that we can live, think and communicate without metaphor (Lackoff & Johnson, 1980). As a result, language learners, even after reaching advanced level in language skills, still have restricted competence of metaphorical language (Dong, 2004).

    At the end of the twentieth century, a groundbreaking study in the field of cognitive linguistics emerged, questioning all our long-standing assumptions and attitudes towards metaphor. It is the revolutionary theory developed by Lackoff and Johnson in the 1980 publication: Metaphor We Live By. The two linguists have proved that our system of concepts is already metaphorical; and language is just the manifestation of that nature. Instead of being a matter of extraordinary, expressions using metaphor should be quite normal and abundant in our daily language. Indeed, metaphor is of great significance that we cannot do without in communication and researches into this prove valuable to many fields, especially in linguistics and pedagogy. 4

    Under the assumption that “metaphorical expressions in our language are tied to metaphorical concepts in a systematic way” (Lackoff & Johnson, 1980), this paper aims to compare and contrast the conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY in English and Vietnamese with the hope having better insights into their language and cultural values. Moreover, with the increasing body of work supporting the statement that LIFE IS A JOURNEY is a universal metaphor, I also hope that the paper will serve as another evidence for this hypothesis.

    When Teresa arrived, the party warmed up
    Their parents gave us a very frosty reception.
    I really appreciate their warm welcome.
    Suddenly, he stormed into the classroom.
    I’m a bit hazy about what to do next.
    I’m bit under the weather so I don’t want to go out.

    All of the six sentences above, which can be heard with high frequency in our everyday language, utilize metaphors. Some metaphors (like “be under the weather”, “frosty reception”) may be communicated consciously, that is we are well aware they are figurative speech when we use them ; while some like “warm up” and “warm welcome” are not normally called metaphors. Carefully consider the series of examples, the language used to describe the WEATHER is borrowed to talk about the MOOD. It seems logical to conclude that a long time ago, the English speakers started to employ the concept of WEATHER, which are more vivid, to think about and describe the more abstract concept of MOOD. Similar phenomena are abundant in English language as well as others; and cognitive linguists refer to those as conceptual metaphors.

    1. Definition
    According to Lackoff and Johnson (1980), “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing or experience in terms of another. Similarly, in the view of cognitive linguistics, conceptual metaphor is defined as the understanding of one abstract concept by thinking of another more concrete concept (KÖvecses, 2002). According to this definition, we use the knowledge of a familiar notion (e.g. weather) to make sense of a different abstract notion (e.g. mood), otherwise the meaning of the latter could be complicated to grasp.

    2. Conceptual metaphor vs. metaphorical linguistic expressions 5

    The term “conceptual metaphor” can be easily confused with the phrase “metaphorical linguistic expression”. The former is manifested by the formula CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN (A) IS CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN (B). It reflects our mental operations (Hurford, Heasley, & Smith, 2007), but does not occur in language as such( Kovecses, 2002). The latter are words and linguistics expressions that display the underlying conceptual metaphor. For instance, MOOD ARE WEATHER is conceptual metaphor, being capitalized to suggest its existence only in our mind not in language. On the other hand, such phrase as “storm into” in “he stormed into the room” is a metaphorical linguistics expression which comes from the domain WEATHER and is the manifestation of the concept MOOD ARE WEATHER.

    3. The basic structure of a conceptual metaphor (Domain hypothesis). The formula CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN (A) IS CONCEPTUAL DOMAIN (B) conveys the basic structure of a conceptual metaphor. In other words, a conceptual metaphor always consists of two domains: A and B, which are called target domain and source domain respectively. In his book “Metaphor: A practical introduction”, Kovecses (2002) explains: – Source domain is the domain from which we draw metaphorical expressions to understand another conceptual domain.

    – Target domain is the domain that we try to understand using the source domain. Therefore, in the metaphor IDEA ARE PLANTS: idea is the target domain and plants is the source domain

    4. The principle of unidirectionality
    One important principle emerges from conceptual metaphors is unidirectionality. This states that we understand a more abstract notion by means of a more concrete, familiar and physical notion and not the opposite. To put it in another way, conceptual metaphors can borrow weather, plants and war as source domain to make sense of the concept of mood, idea, and argument as target domain. If we reverse this order, how could we make those abstract concepts more understandable? For instance, PLANTS ARE IDEA instead of IDEAS ARE PLANTS.

    5. The notion of “mapping”.
    Let us take a look at the metaphorical linguistic expressions of the conceptual metaphor IDEAS PEOPLE:
    “My working experience in rural areas has given birth to my further inventions.” In 1980, our company was still in its infancy.
    Her contributions live on forever and ever.
    Celie has buried the idea of retaliation.

    These sentences present three stages of development of an idea: its origin, its development, and its disappearance, all of which are equated systematically with three stages of a human’s growth: infancy, existence and death. Here, there is a set of systematic correspondences, according to which entities in the domain of IDEA (A) parallel in a systematic way with entities in the domain of PEOPLE (B) (Lackoff & Johnson, 1980). In mathematics, these conceptual correspondences are called mappings. Therefore, a metaphor can also be defined as a systematic set of mappings between constituents of the source and those of the target domains.

    6. Highlighting and hiding
    It may sound logical to assume that all of the constituent elements of domain A corresponds systematically to all of the constituent elements of domain B. Nonetheless, it is not the case. This can be backed up by the terms metaphorical highlighting, metaphorical hiding. Metaphorical highlighting means that the source domain only focuses on a single aspect of the concept in a conceptual metaphor (Kovecses, 2002). For instance, the metaphor LOVE IS MAGIC only highlights the inexplicable features of love; the metaphor LOVE IS PATIENT only concentrates on the issue of maintaining a lasting relationship. Since only one aspect is highlighted, the others must be hidden. In order word, one conceptual metaphor can only give insights into one angle of a concept. This implies that the mappings between the source and the target domains can only be partial.

    Another striking property of metaphorical mappings is that only some aspects of a source domain are utilized to talk about the target domain. For
    example, in the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING, we use construction, structure and strength of a building to describe an argument, but not the room, the corridor, the elevator or the staircase (Kovecses, 2002). This is what we called metaphorical utilization.

    7. Universal and Cultural-specific.
    A conceptual metaphor may be universal like the case of ANGER IS PRESSURIZED CONTAINER (Kovecses, 2002), which means it exists in quite a large number of languages and cultures.

    In addition to universality, many conceptual metaphors are cultural-specific. According to Kovecses (2002), cultural variation in metaphor falls into two categories. The first type is “variation in the range of conceptual metaphors available for a given target”. The second includes those metaphors that exist in two languages, but the ways each language elaborates them are not the same. Take, for example, the conceptual metaphor ANGER IS A HOT FLUID IN A CONTAINER, which can be found in both in English and in Zulu. However, the equivalence of the expression “He’s just blowing off steam” in English is absent in Zulu as well as in other languages (Kovecses, 2002).


    It seems that in English as well as in Vietnamese culture, LIFE is a fundamental but rather obscure concept. LIFE has been understood through a wide range of familiar domains including BUILDING, GAMBLING, SPORT GAME, FIRE, CONTAINER, and JOURNEY. Due to limited conditions, this paper only focuses on comparing LIFE IS A JOURNEY in English and Vietnamese language.

    In English, the language used to depict a JOURNEY intensively shapes the way the native to talk about LIFE and events in LIFE. LIFE, in their mind, is a long JOURNEY, in which there are other shorter journeys representing stages of a human’s development. The first stop is the birth of a person and the final destination is an unknown place i.e. the afterlife. From the comparison above, it is obvious that in order to fully comprehend how the concept of JOURNEY lends itself to the conceptualization of LIFE, we need to categorize expressions according to corresponding stages of LIFE and of JOURNEY. That is, in this section, possible mappings of the general mapping LIFE IS A JOURNEY will be listed out as the basic unit for the later contrastive analysis.

    In Western culture, during his stay in his mother’s womb, a baby is considered to be on a trip to LIFE and his mother is expecting him. When the baby enters his life, he is described to have arrived at his first destination:

    With a baby on the way, Dirk also has big summer expectations for Mavericks.

    Polk County’s first baby of the New Year arrived just a few minutes after midnight.

    John told me that Anna is expecting a baby.

    The second mapping in metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY is conceptualizing challenges and hardships in LIFE as physical or psychological impediments throughout a JOURNEY. A JOURNEY is not much different from LIFE, which also contains in it many kinds of difficulties. Therefore, in this mapping, several more specific mappings can be observed. 1) DIFFICULTIES IN LIFE ARE ROUGH ROADS

    Oliver was stuck in a rut and decided to look for a new job.

    An effort to improve security was sidetracked by budget problems. 8

    Life has many twists and turns and sometimes what looks like a very bad day can just be clearing the way for good things to come.

    I wonder why our decisions always get derailed and how we can stick to the plan.

    There’s no prospect of promotion. I’m in a dead-end job.

    It’s going to be a bumpy road to get to happiness.


    People living or doing things without hopes or purposes are like a traveler being lost in the journey: 

    He’s without direction in life.

    For several month, the government controlled inflation in a roundabout way.

    Parents should be there for their children in case they get lost in their life.

    In the conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY, the image of a traveler is used to describe the physical and psychological state of a person as he leads an eventful life. 1) ATTITUDE IS THE ENERGY WHILE TRAVELING

    Census data shows that more renters burdened by higher costs this year.

    Barca finally ran out of steam against Chelsea in the last season’s Champions League semifinals.


    A further extension of the mapping HUMAN IS A TRAVELER is the mapping PROGRESS IN LIFE IS HOW FAR THE TRAVELER HAS GONE. The further a traveler can go, the more successful in life he can be. However, there are times when he tries hard and does not know if he has made any improvement in LIFE or not.

    Andre’s so in love he doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going.

    I’m where I want to be in my life now, so I don’t have to feel worry.

    Effort to find a peaceful end to the nuclear stand-off with North Korea is going nowhere fast

    The court ruled that the police went too far when they handcuffed Rooney to a chair.

    As LIFE becomes more complicated, there are lots of decisions to be made and choices to be picked up. However, making the right decision or selecting a good option is just as difficult as 9

    selecting which path and direction to take in the middle of journey. Noticeably, “it seems impossible to describe this aspect of life devoid of any LIFE IS A JOURNEY reference” (Cristina, 2007) 

    I’m seem to be at a crossroad in my present job

    I don’t know which path to take

    Once you’ve mad decision, you are realizing there’s no turning back, aren’t you?

    President Bush takes a wrong turn in debate over children’s health care.

    LIFE in the mind of Western people can be separated into stages which correspond with established goals. Gaining an achievement is compared to reaching the destination in each stage of LIFE:

    When he saw his name painted on the door he knew he’s arrived

    After five month working vigorously in the school lab, Kathy finally sees some light at the end of the tunnel

    Inevitably, any journey will come to and end and any life will be stopped by death. Western culture mentions the death as one compulsory destination all human must arrive at. However, according to Western belief, death is not the final destination, but rather a departure to eternal peace. 

    Jack’s wife’s gone to heaven today

    After three years struggling with HIV, she finally passed away yesterday.

    He departed to God on November 25th

    The same sets of mappings of the metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY in English language are utilized to search for equivalence in Vietnamese.
    In Vietnamese language, we have one way to metaphorically describe the birth of a child that reflects the metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY:

    Đó là em bé đầu tiên ra đời “từ ống nghiệm” tại Viện Bảo vệ bà mẹ và trẻ sơ sinh ( to enter life) In this culture, the birth of a child is the beginning of the journey. “Ra đời” means the child steps out of his mother’s womb to enter life and comes into being since then.


    In the Vietnamese’s pattern of thinking, challenges in LIFE also parallel with obstacles along a JOURNEY. There are also three corresponding sub-mappings:

    Bạn cần làm gì để tránh đi vào con đường mòn của sự nghiệp? (to be in a rut)

    Đường đến thành công luôn có những khúc ngoằn nghèo và không hề đơn giản ( twists and turns)

    Mỹ đang đi trật đường rày và cần người vực lịa đúng đường. ( to get derailed)

    Hôm qua, ngày 6/4, cuộc đàm thoại hạt nhân giữa các cường quốc và Iran đi vào ngõ cụt ( deadend)

    Con đường đi tới hạnh phúc còn gồ ghề lắm. ( bumpy road) 2) LIVING WITHOUT

    Chính ánh sáng cách mạng đã làm bừng lên cuộc sống vô định tăm tối của người thanh niên ấy ( without direction)

    Nhiều người không có được sổ đỏ vì cách giải quyết lòng vòng của chính quyền địa phương ( in a roundabout way)

    Cuộc đời và tấm gương ngời sáng của Bác đã đưa biết bao người lạc lối trở về ( to get lost)

    Also in the following three mappings, there seems to be no dissimilarity between English and Vietnamese in term of metaphorical linguistic expressions:

    Họ lo cho gia đình mình chưa hết còn hơi sức đâu mà lo cho dân ( to run out of steam)

    Đi khắp thế gian không ai tốt bằng mẹ, gánh nặng cuộc đời không ai khổ bằng cha ( burnden of life)


    Không ai biết chắc được những nỗ lực chống biến đổi khí hậu của các cường quốc đang tiến hay lùi. ( to be coming or going)

    Mái tóc trông như một cô thủ thư sẽ khiến sự nghiệp của Kloss không tiến xa được ( to be going nowhere fast)

    Chính học vấn và tri thức đã giúp con người tiến xa hơn trong nấc thang tiến hóa tránh xa hơn với lối sống động vật, cuộc sống của con người ngày một được cải thiện hơn. ( to go far)


    Nhiều nhà đâu tư đang đứng giữa ngã ba đường trong cơn nóng lạnh chứng khoán và cơn sốt nhà đất ( at a crossroad)

    Sinh viên mới tốt nghiệp thường chưa biết nên chọn con đường nào để vào đời. ( which path to take)

    Hãy suy nghĩ cẩn thận , vì một khi anh đã chọn, anh sẽ không thể quay đâu lại! ( to turn back)

    Sau mấy năm học đại học, nhiều sinh viên mới thực sự nhận ra mình đã đi nhầm đường. ( to make a wrong turn)


    Khi được nhận được lời mời phỏng vấn từ VTV, anh biết là anh đã cán đích. ( to arrive)

    Hoạt động của các hãng hàng không thế giới đang phục hồi mạnh mẽ đến mức đáng ngạc nhiên và dường như đã thấy ánh sáng ở cuối đường hầm. ( a light at the end of the tunnel)


    Má nhìn thấy anh hai là má an tâm về với tổ tiên rồi. ( return to the ancestor)

    Hàng trăm nghệ sĩ đã đến tiễn đưa “trưởng thôn” Văn Hiệp về nơi chín suối ( go to a place with nine streams where the dead live)

    Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh trước lúc đi xa đã tặng lại cho nhân loại, cho dân tộc ViệtNam di sản vô cùng quý báu ( pass away)
    It can clearly be seen that people who died are also considered to embark on a new journey to the final destination.


    As shown in the description part, there is a considerable number of similarities in the way the English and Vietnamese utilize the conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY. Firstly, the range1 of mappings that exists in the metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY in English is also present in Vietnamese. These mapping are:

    (1) BEING BORN

     (is)




    (3) HUMAN




    (5) DYING


    Secondly, in most mappings (namely mapping (2), (3) and (4)), there are equivalent words or phrases in Vietnamese that can maintain both literal and metaphorical meaning of the expressions in English.

    As regard to mapping (1), while the expressions “arrive”, “expect” and “on the way” are often used to talk about the birth of the baby in English, there seems to be no accurate equivalence in Vietnamese that can mirror the literal meaning, but still reflect the metaphorical one. As mentioned before in the theory, this difference suggests that there are variations in the way English and Vietnamese elaborate the mapping BEING BORN IS REACHING THE FIRST DESTINATION. In mapping (4), death is described in both languages as a starting point of another journey to the afterlife. The subtle difference here, nevertheless, lies in the finishing point of that journey. For the English, reaching the death is arriving at the “gateway” to heaven; whereas Vietnamese take death as the start of a return to the ancestors. This can be explained by referring to the predominant religion in each culture.

    Western people are conditioned by the concept of Judeo-Christian culture and hold the belief that heaven is their destiny. Thus, reaching the death is not the end of everything, but is entering a place where human can live happily ever after. On the other hand, worship of ancestors is deeply ingrained in Vietnamese’s thoughts and actions. Vietnamese trust in the dead, who can give guidance and good fortune if they meet their ancestors’ needs. Ancestors are thought to continue to live in another world, in which there are nine golden streams. After death, people have to reunite 1

    see part 7 of the literature review


    with their descendants. There, they can be reprimanded or praised on the
    basis of the behavior in life. Thus, in Vietnam, to pass away means to turn back to their ancestors.


    English vs. Vietnamese


    Exists in both languages


    Exists in both languages


    Exists in both languages


    Exists in both languages


    Exists in both languages

    Variation in elaboration

    Different in elaboration

    In conclusion, both Vietnamese and English people strongly connect the concept of JOURNEY to the abstract idea of LIFE. It means that in the English and Vietnamese mindsets, when stepping into LIFE, people is expected to pass over ups and downs like a traveler having to face obstacles and to live with goals like a traveler heading towards the destination, etc. On the contrary, it seems that the conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY is employed more intensively in everyday language of the English than in Vietnamese language. Further researches are needed to account for this.

    Moreover, the influence of religious belief has led to a slight distinction in the final destination of the life journey in each culture, with the English going to heaven and the Vietnamese going to see their ancestor after death.

    Finally, as mentioned in the introduction, my study strengthens the assumption that “LIFE IS A JOURNEY is present cross culturally”.


    The crucial role of metaphor in effective communication has long led scholars to attach considerable importance to metaphor teaching. Nevertheless, students still find metaphor unpredictable, unfamiliar and overwhelming due to the vast amount of what seems to be unrelated metaphorical expressions. In light of the theory of conceptual metaphor, these problems can be in a number of ways.

    First of all, many linguists show that explicit teaching of metaphor and figurative meanings can develop student’s awareness of the phenomenon, increase vocabulary retention and improve reading skill. For instance, teacher directs student attention toward a particular metaphor or set of expressions provides explanations, models and assists students to practice. Along with incorporating metaphor learning as part of a syllabus, students should be made aware of the idea and basic structure of conceptual metaphor
    (Bailey, 2003). The main reason for this is that many students have negative attitude or even fear toward metaphor and assume that they can live and communicate fluently without them. They, indeed, can enjoy learning about the ubiquity the beauty and importance of metaphor through the notion of conceptual metaphor. Thirdly, while many students find it hard to memorize collocations of words or metaphorical expressions, teacher can give explanations using conceptual metaphor to help students search for connection (Sun, 2010). For example, when students have difficulties internalizing such expressions as “a dead-end job” or “doing something in a roundabout way”, they should be encouraged to engage in a discussion to find out that the language used to talk about LIFE may be borrowed from the language for JOURNEY. When understanding why “dead-end” goes with “job” and “roundabout” goes with “way”, students can find the logic in collocations, retain them for a longer period and even expand on their vocabulary by employing words for JOURNEY to talk about LIFE.

    According to Lackoff and Johnson (1980) and Denis (2013), another reason why metaphor is challenging to most EFL learners lies in the fact that it “relies heavily on culture for its meaning”. According to Lackoff and Johnson (1980), the reason why metaphor is challenging to most EFL learners lie in the fact that they “relies heavily on culture for its meaning”. Therefore, cultural education should be incorporated into metaphor teaching. For example, in the mapping DYING IS DEPARTING of the metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY in English and Vietnamese, differences in religious belief leads to distinction in metaphorical expressions. By doing this, teachers motivate students to acquire culturally different expressions in L2 more easily and avoid errors when transferring L1 into L2 and vice versa.

    Two other promising classroom activities employing strategies mentioned above are “cross-cultural comparisons” of “metaphorical language and theme-based approach”. In the former activity, teachers create tasks that require learners to compare and contrast metaphorical expressions in one conceptual metaphor or, on a smaller scale, in one mapping. This method activates students’ knowledge in their native language, makes them aware of similarities 15

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    “Metaphors We Live By” by Mark Johnson. (2016, May 19). Retrieved from

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