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A guest post from Amy - metaphor in political discourse

Amy Jolley | 17th February 2015

Amy, like many of the Conversis team, has a particular interest in languages and the way they work

Metaphor, deriving from the Greek ‘metapherein’ meaning ‘to transfer’, is something we encounter on a daily basis. We’re accustomed to its use, whether in literature, during everyday communications or formal political speeches. It is interesting to note that particularly in politics, patterns across metaphor construction can also be observed.   With the General Election looming this year, we start to think about how we will be voting. Though it may seem surprising, it’s the language employed by the candidates during their campaign trail that may actually affect and influence our decisions, a little more than we think

What are metaphors?

A metaphor is a linguistic tool or method used to describe one thing as something else, often unrelated or to which one would not usually draw similarities. We may not take much time to ponder the use of metaphor in everyday language as  it  comes so naturally  to us,  but  the  effect  of  a metaphor,  particularly in  political discourse, can be more subliminal than we might initially think. Listen to any MP in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s questions, and no doubt you’ll hear a few, such as one asking the opposition to “fall on his sword”. So, how similar are these political parties who are looking for our votes and is it possible to identify similarities based on their metaphor usage? Do we know what effect the metaphor may have on us when we’re deciding who to vote in as the next Prime Minister?

Can we see linguistic patterns across political parties?

Political discourse is an area of language, whereby the use of metaphor comes to the forefront as a powerful linguistic  tool  –  whether  to  entice  an  audience  subliminally  by  lulling  them  into  a  familiar,  secure environment or by simply using metaphor as a tool to personify the complexities of politics, by making politics more approachable and user-friendly.

Even though the political parties may feel they represent near or polar opposites of each other, they may be more alike than they would like to think and this becomes particularly visible when observing the subject matter of metaphor used in political discourse.

Metaphor and translation

If we approach the  science of metaphor from a cognitive or conceptual approach as per George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (see Metaphors We Live By, 1980), we see that  the understanding of metaphor derives from a shared background knowledge and shared life experiences. There are added complexities to this theory if we should need to consider the sharing of experiences cross-culturally. We may need to ask if a metaphor is in fact translatable, or if the metaphor in question may become redundant  or hold little  value in  the  target  audience once translated.  Would it  therefore  lose  its original intended effect and maybe not hold such a subliminal persuasive technique for a political observer in another country?

And did you know….?

The Union Jack flag flown at the Houses of Parliament during the summer months is the size of a tennis court!!

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