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Cognitive Literary Science

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Review of  Endangered Metaphors

Reviewer: Megan Schildmier Stone
Book Title: Endangered Metaphors
Book Author: Anna Idström Elisabeth Piirainen Tiber F.M. Falzett
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Cognitive Science
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.5181

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As editors Anna Idström and Elisabeth Piirainen suggest in the volume's introduction, the title ''Endangered Metaphors'' weds two distinct areas of linguistic interest in a single concept: the term 'endangered' is borrowed from the study of endangered languages; and 'metaphor' is a blanket term for the different kinds of non-literal language discussed in the book, ranging from conceptual metaphors and metonymies to idioms and figures of speech. Altogether, the term 'endangered metaphors' is not meant to refer exclusively to metaphors in endangered languages, but rather to metaphors that are themselves endangered, due either to language endangerment or to radical changes in the linguistic environment of the host language. The purpose of the book, as stated by Idström and Piirainen, is ''to explore in what ways these metaphors and other kinds of figurative language may encode culturally specific cognitive systems which will be lost when these languages cease to exist or will be abandoned when they change under pressure'' (p. 16). The editors strongly encourage the documentation of figurative language in minority languages, concluding that metaphors ''start to vanish at the very beginning of a language becoming endangered'' (p. 18). Toward that end, the contributions in this book provide novel data representing languages from all six inhabited continents and ten distinct language families. All fourteen papers are united by the central theme of 'endangered metaphors'.

In the prologue, which precedes the introduction, Peter Mühlhäusler provides background on the two central concepts of the book: metaphor and language endangerment. He begins by discussing what metaphors are and how we can recognize them, noting importantly that conceptual metaphors take different shapes in different cultures. Mühlhäusler then shifts his focus to language endangerment and why we should care about language loss. Finally, he discusses the importance of the study of metaphor to preserving endangered languages, arguing that metaphors provide a crucial link to understanding the cultural underpinnings that provide hope for a language's future.

Sally Rice opens the volume with her contribution, '''Our language is very literal': Figurative expression in Dene Sųłiné [Athapaskan]''. Given the tendency for Athapaskan languages to resist borrowing in favor of reusing a small set of core stems in novel ways, Rice provides an extensive survey of the figurative lexicalization patterns in Dene Sųłiné that are based on metaphor or metonymy. She argues that, although other Athapaskan languages may use different stems to lexicalize the same concepts, these lexicalizations tend to share the same underlying conceptual metaphors. Finally, Rice claims that there is a pedagogical benefit to understanding figurative expressions in underrepresented languages, namely the ability to teach native speakers authentic word-building strategies.

Next is Carolina Pasamonik's contribution, '''My heart falls out': Conceptualizations of body parts and emotion expressions in Beaver Athabascan''. Pasamonik explores the use of body part terms to express abstract emotions and personality traits in Beaver Athabascan, arguing that these expressions follow patterns established by systematic metaphors and metonymies. She ultimately claims that these expressions give us insight, not just into the Beaver way of using language, but also into its speakers’ conceptualization of the world.

In ''Walking like a porcupine, talking a like a raven: Figurative language in Upper Tanana Athabascan'', Olga Lovick discusses two classes of animal idioms used to describe human behavior: iconic idioms directly compare the behavior of humans with the observed behavior of animals; and symbolic idioms compare human behavior to traits that are associated with mythological conceptualizations of animals. Lovick examines other Athabascan languages and concludes that these types of expressions are not unique to Upper Tanana; however, these idioms are falling out of use with younger generations of speakers and are in danger of being lost as populations decline and shifts in language usage occur.

The next contribution, ''Are Nahuatl riddles endangered conceptualizations?'', by Mercedes Montes de Oca Vega, explores the conceptual structure underlying riddles in two corpora of Nahuatl: one from the 16th century (Sahagún 1969 [1577]); and another from the 20th century (Amith 1997). Using Blending Theory (Fauconnier & Turner 2002), Montes de Oca Vega compares riddles with the same referent from the two corpora. She concludes that classical riddles reveal historic, mythic, biological, and sociocultural information that is not present in contemporary riddles and suggests that classical Nahuatl riddles express ''endangered ways of thinking and conceptualizing'' (p. 142).

Elena Mihas, in her contribution ''Bodily-based conceptual metaphors in Ashéninka Perené myths and folk stories'', discusses three bodily-based metaphors that underlie the mythology of demonology in Ashéninka Perené. Mihas uses the conceptual frameworks of animism and perspectivism (Viveiros 1998) to highlight the ways in which these metaphors reflect the underlying cultural conceptualizations of the Ashéninka Perené.

''The use of a conceptual metaphor in the Siroi language of Papua New Guinea: Narrative is climbing a mountain'' is the next contribution, by Sjaak van Kleef and Jacqueline van Kleef. In this paper, the authors claim that NARRATIVE IS CLIMBING A MOUNTAIN is an extended conceptual metaphor that characterizes much of the discourse in the language. As evidence for this claim, the authors argue that the choice of aspectual morphemes and conjunctions in discourse is dictated by this and related metaphors, such as ASCEND IS GOING TO THE UNKNOWN and DESCEND IS GOING TO THE KNOWN. Because the morphemes under discussion are all optional, van Kleef and van Kleef conclude that narrative concerns -- rather than syntactic ones -- must drive the selection of the appropriate morpheme.

In the next contribution, ''Kewa figures of speech: Understanding the code'', Karl J. Franklin describes many varieties of figurative language in Kewa. Many of these figures of speech are embedded in 'saa agaa', a form of veiled speech in which speakers use not only idioms and metaphors but also maxims that serve as coded warnings. As Franklin states, ''the overall purpose and role of disguised speech is to leave the hearer with a certain amount of bewilderment'' (p. 192), rendering this form of speech intentionally opaque. Franklin argues that it is impossible to understand the complexity of Kewa coded speech without adopting an emic viewpoint (Pike 1967, 1982) sympathetic to the native culture.

Monali Longmailai and Lakshminath Rabha have the next contribution, ''Metaphors in Dimasa and Rabha -- A comparative study''. This paper explores metaphors from several semantic domains in two related endangered languages, Dimasa and Rabha. Metaphors in these languages share similar morphological processes within metaphors, as well as similar conceptual domains, such as pride, leading the authors to conclude that the two groups of people historically ''follow the same socio-cultural beliefs'' (p. 216). Longmailai and Rabha end by discussing the loss of metaphor in the two languages, claiming that metaphors in Dimasa are being replaced, whereas metaphors in Rabha are simply being lost.

Next is Gillian F. Hansford's contribution, ''Numbers that Chumburung people count on'', which explores the figurative and symbolic uses of numerals in Chumburung. Hansford begins by reviewing some features of this base ten numeral system. She then discusses the numerals one through nine, as well as a few select larger numbers, highlighting the symbolic and figurative uses of each. She concludes that elicitation and documentation of numeral systems, including their symbolic uses, are essential to the preservation of this important aspect of language.

''The importance of unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language: The case of Basque'', by Iraide Ibarretxe-Antuñano, is the next contribution. Ibarretxe-Antuñano argues against the universality of conceptual metaphors (as claimed for metaphors of perceptual modality by, for example, Lakoff and Johnson 1980), claiming that culture plays a significant role in the interpretation of metaphor. Ibarretxe-Antuñano presents a range of conceptual metaphors based on body parts in Basque, discussing the similarities and differences in the way these body parts are conceptualized in Basque and more familiar languages like English. She claims that culture and metaphor exist in a sort of symbiotic relationship, where metaphor can only be understood in terms of its cultural background, but culture likewise needs metaphor to provide a way of framing cultural beliefs and knowledge. For this reason, she concludes, the documentation and study of metaphor are essential to the preservation of endangered languages.

The next contribution in the volume is Anna Idström's paper ''Antlers as a metaphor of pride: What idioms reveal about the relationship between human and animal in Inari Saami conceptual system''. Idström argues against the assumption of Cognitive Metaphor Theory (Lakoff and Johnson 1980), which states that conceptual metaphors rely on a cognitive mapping that allows one to understand one experience in terms of another. Instead, she claims that Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986) better accounts for the patterns of metaphor found in Inari Saami. According to Relevance Theory, repeated exposure to environmental factors causes the formation of an image schema in the speaker's mind; activation of this shared image schema allows speakers to use and understand metaphors grounded in common experience. After presenting animal metaphors from many different semantic domains, Idström concludes -- like many of the other authors in this volume -- that these metaphors reveal a lot about the culture of the people who use them.

Kimmo Granqvist's contribution ''Metaphors of the Finnish Roma in Finnish and Romani'' is next. Granqvist compares the conceptualizations underlying metaphors in Romani and the Finnish lects spoken by the Roma people. He argues that the Roma's sociocultural ''division of the human body into a ritually pure upper part and a ritually unclean lower part'' (p. 295) characterizes not just Romani body-based metaphors, but also Finnish metaphors used by the Roma. Granqvist concludes by presenting the results of a survey, which show that Romani adolescents are, by and large, much less competent with the metaphors of their language than Romani elders, which is a symptom of a larger language attrition issue.

The penultimate contribution in the volume is '''Bhio' tu dìreach ga ithe, bha e cho math = You would just eat it, it was so good': Music, metaphor and food for thought on Scottish Gaelic aesthetics'', by Tiber F. M. Falzett. This paper explores metaphorical uses of food terms in Scottish Gaelic, providing evidence for two conceptual metaphors: MUSIC AND SPEECH ARE FOOD and ACCURATE PERFORMANCE IS TASTE. Falzett argues that several lexical items in Scottish Gaelic with literal meanings related to food (e.g. ith 'eat' and blas 'taste') have figurative meanings related to performance. For Falzett, the study of metaphor in endangered languages is essential to understanding the cultures and worldviews of those communities.

Rounding out the volume is Elizabeth Piirainen's contribution, ''Metaphors of an endangered Low Saxon basis dialect -- exemplified by idioms of STUPIDITY and DEATH'' (small caps are used in place of all caps in the original chapter title). Piirainen discusses idioms from two semantic fields, stupidity and death, arguing that these idioms ''are clearly motivated to [native] speakers'' (p. 342) in the sense that there is a culture-specific metaphorical link available between the idiom's literal and figurative interpretations. Piirainen concludes by noting that the underlying imagery in these idioms is distinct from the imagery found in the figurative speech of similar semantic domains in standard European languages.


The empirical coverage of this volume is quite impressive, bringing together novel data on metaphors in a wide range of endangered and minority languages. On this basis alone, the book is to be commended; documentation of the figurative usages of language is often overlooked, and -- as pointed out by the editors in the volume's introduction -- figurative language is particularly vulnerable during the initial stages of language decline.

One common undercurrent among the contributions to this volume is the notion that conceptual metaphors are not universal but rather shaped by the sociocultural worldviews of native speakers. This line of thinking runs contrary to earlier work within Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT; Lakoff & Johnson 1980, Lakoff 1993, i.a.), which held that, because conceptual mappings are based on embodied experience, and because we all share the same physiology, conceptual mappings for embodied metaphors should be universal. However, as Granqvist points out in this volume, that work was based primarily on English. As researchers started applying CMT to a more diverse set of languages, it became clear that even embodied metaphors were not universal, but rather constrained by cultural conceptions of the human body. This volume represents promising advancements in this line of research.

In spite of the overall cohesion presented by the Cognitive Linguistics approach to non-literal language, some of the contributions seem to fit less well in this volume than others. For instance, Montes de Oca Vega's paper on Nahuatl riddles deals with figuration in a specific type of performance, rather than figurative language used in everyday speech. Similarly, Franklin's contribution on Kewa figures of speech details many types of metaphor and figurative language, but these are predominately couched within a specific speech style, outside of more standard usage. Nonetheless, nearly every paper in the volume references CMT, either directly or by citing the seminal work of Lakoff and Johnson (1980), thus drawing a unifying thread even through more loosely related content.

The majority of contributions in this volume are focused on a single language, sometimes offering cursory comparisons to closely related languages (the notable exceptions being Longmailai and Rabha's paper presenting a comparative study of metaphors in Dimasa and Rabha and Granqvist's offering on Finnish and Romani). Now that data is available on metaphor in minority languages, a logical next step is to look at the data from a broader perspective and see what comparisons can be made across languages and language families. The field of non-literal language is also a great area for future experimental work, where native speakers are available, which would give us a better understanding of how metaphors and idioms are processed in minority languages.

While the book has many merits, some of the contributions lack cohesive argumentation, leaving the volume feeling a bit uneven. For instance, Longmailai and Rabha suggest in their introduction that they will ''reconstruct the proto-forms'' (p. 206) of metaphors found in both Dimasa and Rabha; instead, they make some general statements about commonalities between metaphors in the two languages without positing any specific proto-forms, and conclude that the metaphors under discussion ''must have been as old as the culture and the language'' (p. 216). This type of internal inconsistency, while not common, can occasionally be found in this volume.

Reading this book was also made difficult by many formatting inconsistencies and typographical errors. The volume seems to lack guidelines for glosses, so glossing varies widely from one paper to the next. Some papers contain full morpheme-by-morpheme glosses (e.g. van Kleef and van Kleef), while others have only free translations (e.g. Falzett). Some papers do not contain literal interpretations alongside the figurative ones assigned to idioms or metaphors, which can obscure the point the authors are trying to make (e.g. Longmailai and Rabha, Ibarretxe-Antuñano). In almost every case the glossing conventions are not discussed, so the reader is left guessing what certain abbreviations mean (e.g. Idström). In addition, typographical errors occur in almost every contribution, which occasionally cause frustration for the reader, as in example (5) on page 133, where the word ''black'' appears in the morpheme-by-morpheme gloss but seems to be missing from the free translation. There even appears to be a typographical error in the title of the final contribution, Piirainen's ''Metaphors of an endangered Low Saxon basis dialect'', which she refers to as a 'basic' dialect through the remainder of paper.

Nonetheless, this volume represents a commendable empirical contribution to data both on minority languages and on metaphor. The comprehensive background provided in the prologue makes this work accessible reading for anyone interested in the study of underrepresented languages or metaphor, or in cognitive linguistics more generally.


Amith, Jonathan. 1997. Tan ancha como tu abuela: Adivinanzas en náhuatl de Guerrero central. Tlalocan 12. 141-219.

Fauconnier, Gilles & Mark Turner. 2002. The way we think: Conceptual blending and the mind's hidden complexities. New York: Basic Books.

Lakoff, George. 1993. The contemporary theory of metaphor. In Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and thought, 202-251. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Pike, Kenneth L. 1967. Language in relation to a unified theory of the structure of human behavior. The Hague: Mouton & Co.

Pike, Kenneth L. 1982. Linguistic concepts: An introduction to tagmemics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Sahagún, Bernardino. 1969 [1577]. Florentine Codex: General history of the thing of New Spain. Santa Fe, NM: The School of American Research and the University of Utah.

Sperber, Dan & Deirdre Wilson. 1986. Relevance: Communication and cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Viveiros, Eduardo de Castro. 1998. Cosmological deixis and Amerindian perspectivism. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4(3). 469-488.
Megan Schildmier Stone is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona. She is currently a Visiting Student at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests are in morphology, syntax, and semantics, particularly as they pertain to idioms and other noncompositional uses of language. She is in the process of writing her dissertation, which uses both traditional and experimental methods to investigate what idioms can tell us about the limits of human language.