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Cognitive Semantics: Conceptual Metaphors and Cognition Essay


Cognitive semantics includes the study of individuals’ use of figurative language with a focus on certain cognitive structures. In figurative language, a metaphor is “a figure of speech that connects two seemingly dissimilar referents so that we can understand each one in terms of the other” (Danesi, 2018, p. 73). From this perspective, the choice of metaphors to use in speech is based on an individual’s set of concepts related to his or her cognition (Langacker, 2016).

However, the problem is that the conceptual systems associated with people’s cognition are the product of both thought and individual experience, and thus, these systems cannot be studied directly (Yamaguchi, Tay, & Blount, 2014). The research question to address in this paper is as follows: What is the relationship between conceptual metaphors and human cognition in the context of cognitive semantics and conceptual metaphor theory? The purpose of this research is to describe the key principles of creating conceptual metaphors and to explain the significant relationship between conceptual metaphors and human cognition, focusing on the idea that these metaphors are sets of mappings that have their mental representation in human cognition.

Cognitive Semantics, Conceptual Metaphor Theory, and the Definition of Conceptual Metaphors

Cognitive semantics can be viewed as a key direction for research in the general area of cognitive linguistics. According to Danesi (2018), cognitive semantics is “a system of concepts grounded in figurative language” (p. 72). This area of knowledge is associated with studying specific relationships between a person’s experience and his or her conceptual system as well as the unique semantic structure of the language the individual uses daily.

Thus, one key focus of scholars has been on examining how people conceptualize or generate meanings and what conceptual structures they use for this purpose. As a result, researchers have formulated certain principles of cognitive semantics, such as embodying conceptual structures into language, viewing semantic structures as conceptual in nature, discussing meaning in the context of an encyclopedic aspect, and accentuating conceptualization as the construction of meaning (Kiseleva & Trofimova, 2017).

Accordingly, investigations are paying much attention to understanding the idea of conceptualization with reference to the use of figurative language such as metaphors. Scholars have developed conceptual metaphor theory in the field of cognitive semantics to explain how people use figurative language to represent stable associations between certain unrelated concepts.

It is important to study not only the individual linguistic metaphors that people use but also conceptual metaphors, which can be defined as phenomena representing meanings when one specific conceptual domain is perceived and understood with reference to another domain (Kuźniak, Libura, & Szawerna, 2014). These ideas were formulated by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, the authors of the conceptual metaphor theory in 1980 (Danesi, 2018). The view of the conceptual metaphor directly reflects the first two principles of cognitive semantics in terms of the embodied cognition principle and viewing semantic structures as conceptual (Kuźniak et al., 2014).

In describing a conceptual metaphor, Qian (2016) observed, “The words that are used are often of little interest, what is important is the underlying abstract relationship(s) between two concepts or entities” (p. 131). The researcher went on to provide examples such as “she’s blooming” and “he’s a budding journalist,” which illustrate conceptual metaphors based on the relationship known as “people are plants” (Qian, 2016, p. 131). The theorists have also introduced specific terminology employed in the context of conceptual metaphor theory that is used to explain the concept “people are plants.”

In a discussion of conceptual metaphor theory, key terms to use in analyzing such concepts as “people are plants,” and the associated metaphors are “target domain,” “source domain,” and “mapping.” The target domain is the area of an individual’s experience; thus, it is some object or phenomenon under discussion (Danesi, 2018; Langacker, 2016). In the provided examples, people (“she” and “he”) are the target domains.

The source domain, in its turn, includes certain qualities and features that are used to characterize or describe the target domain (Danesi, 2018). In the examples under consideration here, ideas relating to the concept of plants (“blooming” and “budding”) represent the source domain. The focus on the source and target domains in this context is unconscious and, therefore, is realized with the help of people’s cognition.

The notion of cross-domain mappings helps in explaining the nature of a conceptual metaphor, according to Lakoff and Johnson’s theory. Conceptual metaphor theory views stable associations embodied in the human mind and reflected in language as mappings that become represented in a speech in the form of figurative patterns such as metaphors (Amin, Jeppsson, & Haglund, 2018). These mappings involve conceptual correspondences that connect the target domain with the source domain as a result of identifying similarities in concepts and a speaker’s (and listener’s) embodied experiences regarding this or that phenomenon or situation.

From this perspective, some examples of conceptual metaphors with clearly identified mappings include “swallowing a compromise” (negotiation and the act of swallowing; Madsen, 2015, p. 881), “my friend is a butterfly” (people and animals; Danesi, 2018, p. 74), and “seeing is knowing” (sight and knowledge; Qian, 2016, p. 132). Thus, conceptual metaphors should be viewed in terms of being generated as a result of a unique cognitive mechanism that creates associations between concepts.

The Nature of the Relationship Between Conceptual Metaphors and Cognition

Metaphors, in general, can be studied from both linguistic and cognitive perspectives, but conceptual metaphors can be analyzed only with reference to cognition and the associated processes. This fact accentuates the presence of a strong relationship between a conceptual metaphor and cognition, and the literature widely supports and explains this aspect (Danesi, 2018; Qian, 2016). In the context of this study, it is important to focus on the nature of this relationship and its specifics. Thus, when studying language, people develop certain visions of nature and the world around them in the form of a conceptual structure, and this fact provides a background for the creation of conceptual metaphors.

The relationship between conceptual metaphors and cognition lies in the fact that these metaphors are embodied in human cognition assets of concepts to be used to describe one another in speech. The use of these concepts is usually unconscious and systematic; in fact, it is typical for a range of people to employ these concepts as metaphors or idioms every day. According to Danesi (2018), “Speakers of English utter, on average, an astounding 3,000 metaphors and 7,000 idioms per week” (p. 74).

Thus, people regularly use expressions that are metaphorical in character, and these expressions “are systematic and thus revelatory of an unconscious conceptual-figurative system of thought guiding linguistic choices in ordinary contexts of communication, not exceptional ones” (Danesi, 2018, p. 72). The process of applying these conceptual metaphors seems to come naturally to speakers because certain conceptual paradigms have been formed in their minds as a result of years of observation, perception, and language use.

In the context of specific cultures and languages, speakers are constantly learning different ideas, visions, and wide concepts that come to be collected in their minds as in a container. As a result of a cognitive process, ideas, descriptions, and features associated with certain concepts are compared or connected with other conceptions or domains, leading to the generation of a conceptual metaphor (Amin et al., 2018; Qian, 2016).

From this perspective, much attention should be paid to language or to a cultural context in which certain conceptual structures and systems are formed. According to Yamaguchi et al. (2014), the relationship of conceptual metaphors and cognition can be described with the help of the idea that this type of metaphor reflects a person’s ways of thinking that are shared and understandable in the context of a certain language or culture. Therefore, some metaphors and idiomatic expressions are more typical of some languages than others, depending on cultural specifics.

It is also important to note that the uniqueness of conceptual metaphors as a result of cognition lies in the fact that most metaphors are universal in their conceptual meaning because of the involvement of abstract domains—as in the case of the examples “people are plants” or “people are animals.” According to Madsen (2015), “many abstract concepts—time, love, causality, and the like—are understood in terms of analogies with more direct, physical experiences” (p. 881).

Therefore, people are inclined to use abstract concepts in creating conceptual metaphors because these ideas are conventional and widely recognizable by other speakers. From this perspective, abstract notions can be used to represent both target and source domains. Feldman explained this idea, stating that “once a domain of knowledge becomes well known, it can itself serve as a source domain (basis) for understanding more novel concepts” (as cited in Madsen, 2015, p. 882). As a result, people are inclined to discuss time and light, for example, by applying the characteristics of water: light pours in, or time flows.

The development of these conceptual metaphors is a direct product of people’s cognition because individuals’ first-hand experiences, impressions, and perceptions begin to form a certain conceptual system in mind with the help of abstract notions. This system should be viewed as a structure that exists in the form of connections or a network between certain abstract notions or concepts, providing an individual’s cognitive analogies to explain a new experience (Langacker, 2016; Qian, 2016).

In this conceptual system, the actual words used to describe this or that phenomenon or object according to the scheme “A is B” are not important because the major focus is on the conceptual sets to which the selected words belong (Qian, 2016).

Thus, conceptual metaphors are directly related to cognition in a specific manner because they reflect an individual’s way of thinking as it is presented in the form of abstract notions and ideas. Referring to the fact that in most cases, the observed mappings between domains in these metaphors are conventional, it is possible to state that these figurative expressions are easily understood not only when limited to the context of one cultural and linguistic environment but also on a wider scope.

Critique of Conceptual Metaphor Theory

Despite arguments provided by researchers to support the idea that conceptual metaphors are in a direct relationship with human cognition, the literature on cognitive semantics also presents a critique of the key principles of conceptual metaphor theory. Critics of this theory tend to focus on the fact that proponents of conceptual metaphor theory usually refer to isolated examples of metaphors in the course of providing evidence to support their claims and ideas. It can be problematic to analyze whether these expressions are truly conceptual metaphors by nature as well as what contexts were present when these metaphors were used (Kuźniak et al., 2014).

This critical commentary is associated with another opinion regarding the topic: not all typical examples of conceptual metaphors are used by speakers with a focus on their metaphorical meaning. Nonetheless, the supporters of the theory explain this aspect in terms of maintaining that the use of figurative language in certain situations is unconscious and that this practice is grounded in a person’s conceptual system (Madsen, 2016). Even if people are not aware of using conceptual metaphors, the principle is directly reflected in their cognitive process and choice of words or notions.

One more argument of the theory’s opponents is that even when speakers use figurative language, expressions and phrases should be discussed mainly in linguistic terms rather than as conceptual metaphors involving an individual’s cognition. Thus, the fact that people use metaphors does not necessarily mean that their thinking regarding this or that idea or phenomenon is also invariably metaphorical (Amin et al., 2018).

The proponents of the conceptual metaphor theory address this critique by stating that the focus is on the fact that people maintain certain conceptual systems in their minds (Qian, 2016). As a result, speakers unintentionally select abstract notions from these systems even when they do not realize that they are using figurative language to describe a certain experience. From this perspective, it is possible to identify clear evidence that people are inclined to refer to analogical thinking and reasoning in their speech as represented by the help of conceptual metaphors. Thus, conceptual metaphors should be viewed as a more complex phenomenon in this context, in contrast to linguistic metaphors, because conceptual metaphors are the products of cognition and thought and not only the use of a language.

As a consequence, it is possible to state that scholars have highly criticized the idea of conceptual metaphors and the associated theory in spite of linguists’ interest in studying this area of knowledge. The theory and provided argumentation possess certain weaknesses, but referring to the discourse that exists in the field regarding this topic, it is important to note that conceptual metaphors are related to cognition (Amin et al., 2018; Qian, 2016).

This opinion that the supporters of the theory promote allows the explanation that it is important to take human thought into account while analyzing the language a person uses (Kiseleva & Trofimova, 2017). Thus, it is notable that conceptual metaphors are important when accentuating the role of cognition and conceptualization in using languages or speaking from a psychological perspective in contrast to a traditional linguistic one.


The review of the literature on the relationship between conceptual metaphors and cognition in the context of conceptual metaphor theory and cognitive semantics, in general, leads to the conclusion that some metaphors should be discussed as part of internal thought rather than language. Conceptual metaphors are unique sets of mappings or correspondences that are not only used in language but also have their mental representation in cognition.

From this perspective, these metaphors are directly related to thinking as they reflect the results of certain cognitive processes that scholars have explained in terms of the creation of cross-domain mappings. In spite of certain weaknesses in the reasoning that proponents of conceptual metaphor theory offer, it is still important to refer to this theoretical paradigm in order to understand people’s use of language not only from a linguistic perspective but also from one that is psychological or cognitive. Therefore, many scholars are currently studying cognitive semantics as it relates to the field of cognitive linguistics in an attempt to explain individuals’ use of language.

While focusing on explaining the application of figurative language, it is appropriate to discuss this tendency with reference to the principles and assumptions of conceptual metaphor theory. Scholars’ arguments and discussions regarding the relationship between metaphors and cognition with a focus on conceptual structures and systems are logical and demand public attention. However, the key assumptions and statements of scholars who promote conceptual metaphor theory are hampered by a lack of supporting evidence. In any event, available research studies and evidence on conceptual metaphors in the context of individual cognition make it possible to state that these metaphors are the products of thought; therefore, the relationship studied in this paper can be viewed as direct.


Amin, T. G., Jeppsson, F., & Haglund, J. (Eds.). (2018). Conceptual metaphor and embodied cognition in science learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Danesi, M. (2018). Language, society, and new media: Sociolinguistics today (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kiseleva, S., & Trofimova, N. (2017). Metaphor as a device for understanding cognitive concepts. Revista de Lenguas para Fines Específicos, 23(2), 226-246.

Kuźniak, M., Libura, A., & Szawerna, M. (Eds.). (2014). From conceptual metaphor theory to cognitive ethnolinguistics: Patterns of imagery in language. London, UK: Peter Lang Edition.

Langacker, R. W. (2016). Metaphor in linguistic thought and theory. Cognitive Semantics, 2(1), 3-29.

Madsen, M. W. (2016). Cognitive metaphor theory and the metaphysics of immediacy. Cognitive Science, 40(4), 881-908.

Qian, L. (2016). Metonymic-based metaphor – A case study on the cognitive interpretation of “heart” in English and Chinese. Higher Education Studies, 6(4), 131-137.

Yamaguchi, M., Tay, D., & Blount, B. (Eds.). (2014). Approaches to language, culture, and cognition: The intersection of cognitive linguistics and linguistic anthropology. New York, NY: Springer.

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