metaphors in Basque - Universidad de Zaragoza

(Under review) In A. Idström, E. Piirainen, K. Willson (eds.) Endangered metaphors.
Ámsterdam/Philadephia: John Benjamins.
The importance of unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language: The
case of Basque*
Iraide Ibarretxe-Antuñano
Universidad de Zaragoza
[email protected]
Gure hitzak,
Esan berriz esan
Ez daitezela ahaztu
Ez daitezela gal,
Elur gainean
Txori hanka arinek
Utzitako arrasto sail
ederra bezalaxe
Mikel Laboa (Basque singer, Gure Hitzak)1
This paper studies some (external and internal) body-part related conceptual metaphors in Basque, a
language isolate spoken on the Western Pyrenees, and discusses the importance and relevance of such a
study for endangered languages in general and Basque in particular. The goal of this paper is twofold:
(1) to show that culture plays a fundamental role in the analysis of conceptual metaphors, since all
metaphors are not ‘universal’ despite the claim that they share a common embodied grounding, and (2)
to prove that conceptual metaphor is a critical tool in the study of endangered languages, Basque in this
case, because it unveils certain conceptualisations that are deeply entrenched in the language and that
are sometimes overshadowed by a globalised and enthnocentric viewpoint.
Keywords: Basque, body-parts, metaphor, culture
Research supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, Grant FFI2010-14903. I would like to
thank the editors for their invitation to participate in this volume and for their patience.
Our words, let’s say it again and again, they cannot be forgotten, they cannot be lost like the graceful traces that
birds’ quick feet leave on the snow.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
This paper studies some (external and internal) body-part related conceptual
metaphors in Basque, a language isolate spoken on the Western Pyrenees, and
discusses the importance and relevance of such a study for endangered languages in
general and Basque in particular. The goal of this paper is twofold: (1) to show that
culture plays a fundamental role in the analysis of conceptual metaphors, since all
metaphors are not ‘universal’ despite the claim that they share a common embodied
grounding, and (2) to prove that conceptual metaphor is a critical tool in the study of
conceptualisations that are deeply entrenched in the language and that are sometimes
overshadowed by a globalised and enthnocentric viewpoint.
The first section offers a brief overview of the basic tenets in conceptual metaphor
theory, especially those related to the concepts of embodiment, universality, and
culture. Section two describes some of the metaphorical conceptualisations underlying
body parts in Basque such as buru ‘head’, begi ‘eye’, oin ‘foot’, gibel ‘liver’, bihotz
‘heart’ as well as culture specific concepts such as gogo. The aim here is to highlight
those cases that seem to be particular to Basque and to pinpoint those that are also
found in some other languages. The final section aims at shedding some light on how
exploring the conceptual metaphors underlying some linguistic expressions may help
describe the lexico-semantic system of a given language--versus more traditional
methods, such as listing the words in semantic fields. It is therefore argued that
conceptual metaphor should be a ‘must’ in the study of semantics and in language
description and documentation.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
1. Conceptual metaphor in language, thought and culture
Conceptual metaphor in Cognitive Linguistics is traditionally defined as a mapping
between two conceptual domains, where properties from one domain (the source) are
transferred onto another domain (the target). Classical and well-known examples of a
as instantiated in expressions such as to leave
the past behind and to see what a person means, respectively. In the former, the
source domain SPACE offers certain characteristics that are transferred or mapped onto
the target domain,
more concretely, this is an example of the subcase ego-
moving metaphor, here past time is understood as a physical that we pass by and
therefore, leave behind us. In the latter, the target domain
selects characteristics from the domain of VISUAL PERCEPTION. Here, properties of the
visual perceptual experience and its immediate result into quick, direct and
trustworthy information may explain why this sense is mapped onto the domain of
cognition. Consequently, as Lakoff and Johnson (1980: 5) point out in their seminal
book Metaphors We Live By, one of the main functions of conceptual metaphor is that
it helps us “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another”.
The conceptual associations between source and target have been often considered
universal since they are said to be grounded on an experiential bodily basis shared by
all human beings, and therefore, these mappings are also understood as motivated and
embodied. In fact, universality, motivation, and embodiment2 are three key notions in
Embodiment in Cognitive Linguistics is interpreted in several ways (Geeraerts and Grondelaers 1995, Rohrer
2001). This paper follows Johnson’s (1987) definition of embodiment, see below. For more information about the
different interpretations of embodiment in the literature, see Chrisley and Ziemke 2002, Violi 2004, 2008, Wilson
2002, Ziemke 2003, inter alia.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
this model; key concepts that, as discussed below, unite in themselves the ‘good’ and
the ‘bad’ sides of the conceptual metaphor theory.
On the one hand, one of the good points is that this view of metaphor as a largely
automatic and motivated correspondence between experiential domains has been
paramount to the field of semantics, more concretely, to the study of polysemy (see
Croft and Cruse 2004: ch. 5, Evans and Green 2006: ch. 10, Geeraerts and Cuyckens
2007: ch. 6, Nerlich et al. 2003 for a general overview). A linguistic unit is generally
said to be polysemous when it exhibits several different meanings. However, these
semantic extensions are not whimsical or chosen at random; they are motivated by our
experience and understanding of the world, and structured by means of metaphor (as
well as other conceptual mechanisms such as metonymy).
On the other hand, one of the main problems of conceptual metaphor theory is that a
loose interpretation of the concept of embodiment3 has led some authors to ‘forget’
about the role that culture plays in the choice and interpretation of conceptual
domains and the mappings within. Consequently, claims about the presumptive
universality of some conceptual metaphors are widespread in the literature. A case in
point is the metaphor
Authors such as Lakoff
and Johnson (1980, 1999) and Sweetser (1990) have argued in favour of the universal
character of this metaphor, but research in non-Western cultures (e.g. Australian
aborigines, Evans and Wilkins 2000) has quite strongly demonstrated that this
metaphor is far from universal; the choice of source domain depends on culture, and it
Another criticism to the use of embodiment as the main explanation for conceptual mappings is that many of
these studies are based on linguistic data resulting into a ‘circularity of reasoning’. As Valenzuela (2009: 240)
explains: “A common methodology in metaphor theory has been to group together a given number of linguistic
expressions, which are found to share certain common characteristics, and then use these expressions to propose a
given conceptual metaphor; this conceptual metaphor is in turn used to explain why there is such as numerous
group of these linguistic expressions”. Psycholinguistic studies are now successfully avoiding this circularity of
reasoning (see Santiago, Román and Oullet in press, and Valenzuela 2009, for a review).
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
is by no means restricted to vision, but open to other perceptual modalities such as
hearing, touch, and even smell (see Ibarretxe-Antuñano 2008a for a review).
This does not mean that conceptual metaphors are then necessarily different in every
single language. In fact, this is another good point in this theory: the ability to
highlight shared conceptualisations of the world. Languages might have different
linguistic means to codify these metaphors (what is known as ‘the metaphorical
expression’), but the underlying mappings between different domains of experience
are the same. In the case of vision metaphors, cross-linguistic studies have shown that
the link between vision and intellect is indeed very pervasive not only in languages
such as English (Alm-Arvius 1993, Baker 1999, Danesi 1990), but also in other IndoEuropean and non-Indo-European languages (Ibarretxe-Antuñano 1999, 2002a,
Sweetser 1990, Viberg 2008). Since all of us have the same physiological and
psychological apparatus for visual perception, it is only natural to argue that all
human beings perceive and experience the sense of vision in the same way. This is
why commonalities in embodied experience are related to similarities in sense
perception conceptual metaphors across languages.
Vision arguably plays a salient role in our conceptualisation of the intellect, but this
saliency is neither shared by all cultures nor present in older stages in the IndoEuropean culture (Ong 1990, Tyler 1984). As a consequence, the motivation and
grounding of a conceptual metaphor cannot be solely explained by means of a
common body-basis, it has to be validated by the culture sieve in order to be
understood correctly. According to Caballero and Ibarretxe-Antuñano (in press), this
culture sieve plays “an instrumental role in the way our physical, sensory-motor
grounding universal experiences pass through the complex and socially acquired
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
particular beliefs, knowledge and worldwiew(s) intrinsic to belonging to one or
several communities—i.e. C/cultures”.
In fact, the cultural component in the notion of embodiment is not new; if we revise
Johnson’s original definition for embodiment, he says:
[…] meaning and value are grounded in the nature of our bodies and brains, as
they develop through ongoing interactions with various environments that
have physical, social, and cultural dimensions. The nature of our embodied
experience motivates and constrains how things are meaningful to us.
(Johnson 1997: 154)
In his definition, both the physical configuration and the socio-cultural background
are central to the notion of embodiment. However, it is not until recently, that the
relationship between culture and conceptual metaphors has started to receive the
attention it deserves (see Dobrovol’skij and Piirainen 2005, Kövecses 2005, Sharifian
2003, Sharifian and Palmer 2007, Sharifian et al. 2008, Yu 2009, inter alia).4
This paper is yet another contribution to the role of metaphor in culture and to the role
of culture in metaphor. It addresses this issue on the basis of Basque body-part data.
Basque is a minority language spoken on both sides of the Western Pyrenees in three
regions: Euskadi and Navarre in Spain and the Département des Pyrénées Atlantiques
in France. Basque is a language isolate with extreme dialectal variation and
typologically characterised by (1) its relatively simple phonology, (2) its
This does not mean that before these recent dates there was no interest in culture in cognitive linguistics; since
the seminal work of Holland and Quinn (1987) on cultural models, culture was part of the research in this model.
The main problem was, nevertheless, that many metaphor studies did not actually discuss the role that this culture
sieve play in the grounding and conceptualization of the bodily-based metaphors they proposed; they took for
granted the cultural component and assumed that many of these metaphors were just universal.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
agglutinating, suffixing, and mainly ergative morphology, (3) its accusative syntax
with basic SOV word order, dependent-marking, and extended pro-drop, and (4) its
rich lexicon for spatial nouns and ideophones, among other features (see Hualde and
Ortiz de Urbina 2003, de Rijk 2008, Trask 1997 for an overview). The number of
speakers is estimated around 1.000.000. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s
Languages in Danger (Moseley 2010) classifies Basque as vulnerable, i.e., but it notes
that it is severely endangered on the French side with less than 80.000 speakers.
2. Body parts in Basque
Body parts are rich polysemous words in every language; they develop metaphorical
and metonymical semantic extensions of all sorts. Some of these extensions seem to
be cross-linguistic. For example, body parts are very frequently the source of spatial
terms (Heine 1989, Kahr 1975, Meillet 1912). Svorou (1993: 70-73), based on data
from 55 languages, presents the following cross-linguistic mappings between spatial
terms and body parts:
Front-region terms
Eye, face, forehead, mouth, head, breast,
Back-region terms
Back, buttocks, anus, loins
Top-region terms
Head, back
Bottom-region terms Æ
Side-region terms
Edge-location terms Æ
Buttocks, hips
Flank, ribs, abdomen, heart, ear
Mouth, forehead
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
Interior terms
Medial-region terms Æ
Heart, stomach, blood, mouth, neck
Chest, waist
Emotional and mental activities are also related to body-part terminology in several
languages. According to Sharifian, Dirven, Yu, and Niemeier (2008: 6), three are the
main body regions that are considered the locus of the mind: the abdomen region, the
heart region and the head (brain) region. These authors argue that ‘abdominocentrism’
is characteristic of Southern Asian and Polynesian cultures. For example, the liver in
Indonesian and Malay, and the belly in the Australian language Kuuk Thaayorre are
both related to emotions. ‘Cardiocentrism’ is the predominant approach in China,
Japan, and Korea, whereas ‘cerebrocentrism’ is found in Greek-based West Asian,
European and North African cultures, where there is a separation between intellect,
which is located in the head (brain), and emotion, which is found in the heart.
As we can see from these examples, body-parts, as a source domain, give rise to the
same target domains, namely, space, emotions, and intellect. However, the internal
mappings within these general domains are not necessarily the same, they vary across
cultures. In what follows, some of the main metaphorical extensions in these
abovementioned domains underlying internal and external body-parts in Basque are
described. For this purpose, the body-parts buru ‘head’, begi ‘eye’, oin ‘foot’, gibel
‘liver’, bihotz ‘heart’ and the culture specific concept gogo are selected. These items
have been chosen for two main reasons: (1) most of them are typical body-parts,
frequently found in polysemy studies, therefore, one can contrast the results in Basque
with other languages, (2) they offer a wide array of meanings,5 some will be common
In this paper, only a few meanings are picked up from the wide range of semantic extensions these words show.
All data are drawn from several previous polysemy analyses on these words, which in turn are collected from
different Basque corpora ( and several dictionaries. The interested reader may consult
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
in other languages, whereas some other will either be different or be based on a
different conceptual grounding. Therefore, stemming from these data, I will show not
only that metaphor is culturally constrained, but also that metaphor is a very useful
tool to uncover cultural information.
2.1. Space and External body-parts: buru ‘head’, begi ‘eye’, and oin ‘foot’
As shown in (1) above, the head is frequently associated with space, more concretely
with the front and top regions. These two possible associations are also found in
Basque. Buru can metonymically stand for the front part of the head as in expressions
such as buru-z go-ra (head-INST high-all) ‘upside up’ and buru-z buru (head-INST
head) ‘face to face’ and it can also represent the top part in a sentence like (2):
‘We climbed to the top of the mountain’
However, this interpretation—that buru means ‘front’ and ‘top’—is quite simplistic
and hides the complexity underneath these conceptual mappings. Let us uncover some
of these nuances.
The semantic extension of a body-part like buru ‘head’ into ‘top part’ is only natural
if we apply an anthropomorphic model that takes the human body as the basis for the
spatial configuration. Human heads are at the top of our bodies, vertically oriented.
This is what happens in example (2). Mountains do not have heads, but if one applies
the following references for a whole detailed description: Ibarretxe-Antuñano 2002b, 2008b, in prep., and
Ibarretxe-Antuñano and Garai 2004.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
the anthropomorphic orientation, the top part of the mountain is metaphorically
understood as the head of the mountain. If fact, this top orientation is also the origin
of very common orientational conceptual metaphors such
that can be illustrated in English with the word head
in an example such as the head of the department. However, spatial orientation in
body-parts, and in buru in particular, is not so simple.
First of all, the spatial interpretation of the head can be also grounded on a
zoomorphic orientation; therefore, the head is not the top part but one of the ends on a
horizontal axis. A typical case of this zoomorphic orientation is the English
expression a head-on collision between two freight trains. Here, the head represents
one of the ends of the train, usually the front part, where the machine and the engineer
travel. This zoomorphic basis is also present in Basque expressions such as ez bururik ez buztan-ik (no head-PART no tail-PART) ‘incomprehensible’.
However, as I have argued before (Ibarretxe-Antuñano 2002b), there are expressions
in Basque where it is difficult to decide whether the head refers to the top, the front or
the back. In most cases, this specific vertical or horizontal orientation does not depend
on the head, but on the co-occurring elements. If the word buru goes with mendi
‘mountain’ as in (2), its interpretation is ‘top’, if it co-occurs with hitz ‘word’, it
means ‘beginning’, and if it appears with aste ‘week’ or hil ‘month’6 its meaning is
‘end’. In other words, buru seems to lexicalise only the meaning ‘extreme, end’, and it
is the neighbouring words and contexts that allow buru to have more fine-grained
interpretations.7 In fact, there are expressions in Basque such as buru-z buru (headINST
head) ‘from head to tail, from head to toe’ and buru bate-tik beste-ra (head one-
Buruil (lit. head+month) means ‘September’ in some Eastern dialects. The reason why September is called ‘the
final month’ seems to be cultural too. It is the last month of the harvesting season (Mitxelena 1997-2005: 814).
This is what I have called elsewhere “compositional polysemy”, i.e. the different semantic extensions of a given
lexeme are obtained through the interaction of the semantic content of both the lexical item itself and its cooccurring elements in different degrees of interaction. (see Ibarretxe-Antuñano 1999).
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
other-ALL) ‘from one end to the other’, where one cannot tell but that it is just an
extreme. What is more, there are cases like the expression buru buru-ko (head headADN)
that have different diatopic meanings: ‘first’ for Northern dialects (Labourdin,
Low Navarrese and Zuberoan) and ‘final’ for the rest.
Apart from the ‘extreme’ spatial meaning, Basque buru develops another one; in some
contexts, buru also means ‘centre’ as illustrated in (3).
Azaburu (cabbage.head) ‘heart of the cabbage’
Bideburu (road.head) ‘crossroads’
Kipulaburu (onion.head) ‘the heart of the onion’
Artaburu (corn.head) ‘ear of corn’
What is interesting about this ‘centre’ meaning is that it gives way to another
conceptual metaphor
In many languages, this metaphor exists
too (e.g. the core argument); but, as discussed above, the head, understood as the top
part, seems to be related to the metaphor
instead. However, Basque
presents an interesting case in point; this language has the same source domain, head,
but it is a different interpretation of head what seems to trigger this metaphor. There
are numerous examples that prove that the head is centre and that this is considered
the most important, but I will mention just two cases since they can show us that
cultural information is a ‘must’ in this type of studies.
One example is the word etxeburu (house.head). Here again, one could think that this
could be the upper part of the house, but in Basque, this is interpreted as ‘the most
important part of the house façade’; in fact, as shown in (4), this is the place where the
coat of arms is located.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
‘There is a coat of arms at the ‘head’ of the house façade’
But where exactly is the coat of arms located? In traditional Basque houses, they were
located just at the centre of the house façade, right in the middle as can be seen in
Figure 1.
Figure 1: Buru and IMPORTANT IS CENTRE.
Another example is the word buruzagi ‘leader, chief’,8 as illustrated in (5).
sartu aitzin, Praga-ko
This is the most common usage nowadays, and one of the oldest as well (first documented in 1167, see Mitxelena
1987-2005: 850, and Michelena 1990: 47, Zaldua Etxabe 2006: 54), but it should be taken into account that this
word has other translations too such as ‘foreman, main ranger, shepherd, boss, owner’. In all of them, nevertheless,
the common characteristic is that it refers to somebody or something (hiri buruzagi ‘capital city’) of importance.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
enter before praga-ADN
nagusi-etarik zen
‘Before he was imprisoned, he was one of the main leaders of the
Communist Party in Prague’
Without anthropological information, one could presume that buruzagi is grounded on
exactly the same orientational vertical scale as English head of …, and thus, that the
underlying metaphor is IMPORTANT IS UP. However, one should take into account that
in ancient Basque culture, clan members seem to be represented in small stone circles.
Each stone represented one member and one duty, and the chieftain was represented
with another stone at the centre of the circle (Frank p.c., see also Ott 1993, Zaldua
Etxabe 2006). In other words, the hierarchical structure was not pyramidal, and
therefore, the head was not situated at the top of the pyramid but at the centre.
The body-part begi ‘eye’ is another rich polysemous word in Basque. Begi ‘eye’
develops interesting metaphorical and metonymical meanings such as ‘hole’ in
erlategiren begia ‘hive entrance’, ogibegi ‘holes in bread’, gaztabegi ‘holes in cheese’
and ‘hook’ in orratzaren begia ‘eye of a needle’, aitzurbegi ‘hoe hole’. It is important
to notice that, despite its similarities with English eye (especially if one looks at the
translation), these two begis are conceptualised differently. While the former,
erlategiren begia, ogibegi and gaztabegi, focus on the hole conceptualisation
(rounded empty cavity where the eye lies), the latter do not just emphasise the hole in
these gadgets, but their function; that is, it is not just a question of entering and
exiting, but of doing so and staying put there. What begi implies in these latter
expressions (orratzaren begia, aitzurbegi) is that these cavities are not only to be
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
crossed through but also to keep the entity that passes through there. It is easy to
prove that these two meanings are conceptualised separately. There is one test to
prove it so: the word aho ‘mouth’. This body-part can also be used with the meaning
‘hole’, and therefore, one can say erlategiaren begia or erlategiaren ahoa ‘hive
entrance’, but this interchangeability is not allowed in the latter group; orratzaren
ahoa, for example, means the poiting end of needle not the eye of the needle. There
are other metaphors related to begi ‘eye’ such as SMALL QUANTITY IS AN EYE as in (6),
where begi almost functions as a quantifier:
Handi begia (big eye.ABS) ‘biggish’
ardao emon
(one) wine
‘They gave me a little bit of wine’
But there is one metaphorical case that I would like to focus on because, once again, it
shows that the conceptualisation of eye in Basque does not necessarily correspond to
the conceptualisation of this body-part in other languages. The word begi develops a
case of the DIRECTION IS ORIENTATION metaphor as illustrated in (7):
Itsaspegi (sea.eye) ‘looking/facing towards the sea’
Eguzki begi(-an) (sun-eye(-LOC)) ‘looking/facing towards the sun’
As Garai (2002) argues, the orientation of the face/eyes is related to ‘attention’ and
‘intention’. Our eyes can move freely to any direction (cf. direct one’s eyes), and this
capacity is reflected in examples in (7). However, what is interesting about this
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
metaphor comes from its relation to buru ‘head’. Basque buru ‘head’ and begi ‘eye’
can be considered opposite body-parts (similarly to ‘head and tail’, or ‘head and foot’
in some languages). The word buru ‘head’ in Basque also develops the meaning ‘in
the direction of’ as illustrated in example (8):
mountain-DAT head-INST
‘We went towards the mountain’
One could argue that begi ‘eye’ and buru ‘head’ could be synonyms here, that they
develop the same semantic extensions. However, this is not true because the entities
that play a role as figure and ground in these situations are not the same.
Figure 2: Figure and gound in begi ‘eye’ and buru ‘head’
In the case of buru ‘head’, the ‘mountain’ plays the role of the ground and ‘we’ are
the figure that moves towards that direction. In the case of begi ‘eye’, on the other
hand, there is a figure-ground reversal, the ‘mountain’ is the figure and ‘we’ the
ground. These different conceptualisations are schematised in Figure 2.
The other external body-part that I will touch upon in this section is oin ‘foot’. This
body-part, on the basis of an anthropomorphic model, is usually related to lower
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
spatial location as in English at the foot of the mountain. Once again, a similar
interpretation could be applied to Basque oin ‘foot’ as in (9):
mendi-aren oin-ak (mountain-GEN foot-ABS.PL) ‘the feet of the
However, the link between foot and bottom does not seem to be very strong in
Basque; instead, this type of expressions activate the notion of ‘support’ rather than
‘lower-part’ and (9) can be therefore paraphrase as ‘the area that supports or functions
as the basis for the whole mountain’. This reading gives rise to the metaphor
as illustrated in (11):
Oinarri-z-ko teoria (foot.stone-INST-ADN theory) ‘Basic theory’
Ekonomia-ren oinarri-ak (economy-GEN foot.stone-ABS.PL) ‘the basis
of economy’
And also to the metaphor
(Grady 1997) as shown in
‘He wanted to keep his arrogance’
2.2. Emotions and Internal body-parts: gibel ‘liver’, and bihotz ‘heart’
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
In the previous section, I have examined a few external body-parts, buru ‘head’, begi
‘eye’ and oin ‘foot’, and its metaphorical extensions into the domain of space. In this
section, I would like to draw our attention to a couple of internal body-parts, gibel
‘liver’ and bihotz ‘heart’, and its metaphorical extensions into the domain of
emotions. This does not mean that both gibel ‘liver’ and bihotz ‘heart’ do not develop
spatial meanings; they do indeed. Gibel ‘liver’ can convey the meaning ‘back side,
rear side’ as in (12) and bihotz ‘heart’ can be used in the sense of ‘core, inside part of
something’ as in (13):
Etxe-aren gibel-ean (house-GEN liver-LOC) ‘at the rear part of the
Gibel egin (liver make.PFV) ‘move backwards’
Hezurr-aren bihotz-a (bone-GEN heart-ABS) ‘bone marrow’
Sagarr-aren bihotz-a (apple-GEN heart-abs) ‘apple’s core’
These spatial meanings give rise to further metaphorical developments as well. Gibel
‘liver’ can be interpreted as time reference following the metaphor TIME IS SPACE. It is
always related to ‘delay, be late’ as in gibel-du (liver-verbal suffix) ‘be late’.
Interestingly enough, gibel ‘liver’ seems to always be related to negative values as in
the word gibelondo (liver.near) ‘(bad) result consequence’, and it can be considered
the opposite to begi ‘eye’ in contexts where the meaning is ‘neglect’ as in gibel eman
(liver give.PFV) ‘turn one’s back to sb’. The ‘core, internal’ meaning of bihotz ‘heart’
is the basis for the metaphor CENTRAL IS IMPORTANT as in hiri-aren bihotz-a (city-GEN
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
heart-ABS) which refers to the most important part of the city, but with the connotation
that it is the place where everything happens.
As far as emotions are concerned, the body-part bihotz ‘heart’ shows a wide and rich
array of different types of emotions, both positive and negative. Bihotz ‘heart’ is
usually associated with:
positive feelings in general as in bihotz-ak egin (heart-ERG make.PFV) ‘be
love as in bihotz-bihotz-ez (heart-heart-INST) ‘with all my love’,
encouragement as in bihotz-ari egin (heart-DAT make.PFV) ‘encourage’,
generosity as in bihotz-zabal (heart-wide) ‘generous’,
mercy as in bihotz-biguin (heart-soft) ‘tender, compasionate’,
braveness as in bihoztun (heart.possessor) ‘brave, bolt, gallant’.
Most of these meanings are well-attested in Western culture, probably due to a
common religious and/or classical cultural background (see Garai 2001, 2002, Malina
1993). Bihotz ‘heart’ is also linked to negative feelings such as:
cruelty as in bihozgogor (heart.hard) ‘hard-hearted’,
cowardice as in bihotz-urri (heart-scarce) ‘coward’,
sadness as in biotzil (heart.die) ‘sadness’,
anguish as in bihozmin (heart.pain) ‘grief’,
remorse as in bihotz zimiko (heart pinch) ‘remorse, regret’,
discourage as in bihozkatu ‘lose courage’,
anger as in bihotzerra ( ‘anger’.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
However, it is important to bear in mind that in most of these cases, the negative
reading is triggered not by bihotz ‘heart’ itself, but by a negative word that denotes the
lack of heart as in bihozgabe (heart.without) ‘cruel’ or a negative quality itself as in
bihotz-apal (heart-weak) ‘coward’.
The body-part gibel ‘liver’, on the other hand, is always related to negative emotions:
listlessness as in gibelhandi (liver.big) ‘slow, sluggish, carefree’,
mistrust as in gibel-etik ibili (liver-ABL walk.PFV) ‘act surreptitiously’,
disdain as in gibelondo (liver.side) ‘scorn’,
aversion as in gibelgogo ‘antagonism, hostility’,
withdrawn character as in gibelkoi ‘shy, bashful’,
bitterness, rancour as in gibelmin (liver.pain) ‘spite’.
Although more research should be carried out in this respect, it is possible to argue
that these negative emotions in gibel ‘liver’ may be grounded on different conceptual
bases. Emotions such as listlessness, mistrust, disdain, aversion, and introverted
character may arise from the conceptualization of gibel as ‘back’. Human beings rely
on their eyes much more than on any other sense (cf. Classen 1993, Howes 1991,
Sekuler and Blake 1994). The eyes provide the most reliable information and give us
the highest degree of security. This is why we do not trust things that we do not see,
and why we have expressions such as seeing is believing (cf. Danesi 1990, Sweetser
1990). Consequently, anything that falls outside the scope of our eyes is generally
considered negative, or at least, untrustworthy. All of the emotions mentioned above
reflect the unreliable and treacherous character of the ‘back’, understood as the area
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
hidden from the eyes. Emotions such as bitterness, rancour, and spite may arise from
the conceptualisation of gibel as ‘bile’ instead. This is, of course, related to the ancient
physiological-psychological theory of the four humours where an abundance of
yellow bile results in a choleric temperament (see Geeraerts and Grondelaers 1995,
Hoskin 1962, Jones 1979, Loudon 1997).
2.3. Intellect, emotions and body-parts: buru ‘head’, bihotz ‘heart’, and the cultural
word gogo
In this final section, I would like to concentrate on one of the most common
dichotomies in Western culture, the separation between intellect and emotion, as it is
reflected in well-known pairs such as ‘body and soul’, ‘heart and mind’, etc. In
Western philosophy, especially in Cartesian dualism, there is a clear-cut division
between the mind, that is, the locus for rational thinking, consciousness, intelligence,
and common sense,9 and the heart, the place for the physical, irrational passions and
desires. This connection between head and mind, and heart and emotion is also found
in Basque in the words already analysed in this paper. As shown above, bihotz ‘heart’
is related to different kinds of emotions but it is also understood as the seat of positive
general feelings. Buru ‘head’ is linked to the mind as illustrated in (14):
Buruargi (head.light) ‘intelligent, clever’
Burugabe (head.without) ‘idiot’
Buru-ra etorri (head-ALL come.PFV) ‘to occur, to remember’
Buru-an izan (head-LOC be.PFV) ‘to have in mind’
The relationship between head and mind can also be understood as a metonymy-based metaphor (see Barcelona
1997, Pascual-Aransáez 1998-1999).
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
Buru-an sartu (head-LOC enter.PFV) ‘to understand’
Buru-tik bota (head-ABL throw.PFV) ‘to forget’
However, this dualism is challenged in other cultures. Authors such as Yu (2008)
have shown that in Chinese both faculties are actually embodied in one single concept
xin ‘heart’, and others such as Siahaan (2008) have argued that different body-parts
such Indonesian hati ‘liver’ represent in themselves what Western culture knows as
heart and mind (see also papers within Sharifian et al. 2008). In other words, there are
many cultures in which this well-known dichotomy does not hold.
Judging from what has been discussed about, Basque is among those languages in
which emotion is associated with the heart and intellect with the head. In other words,
Basque also conceptualizes the rational and irrational sides of the body as two
separate entities. However, this is not the whole story. Basque has a special word,
gogo, that contradicts this Cartesian duality, and might be compared to other cases (cf.
xin and hati) where both sides, emotion and mind, are united under the same organ or
Gogo (goga- in some compounds) is considered a word deeply entrenched in the
language (Agud and Tovar 1992) and a peculiar concept in Basque mentality
(Goenaga 1971). Although several proposals have been put forward about its
etymological origin (see Agud and Tovar 1992), it is generally agreed that it is a
native Basque word and possibly the result of a(n) (expressive) reduplication (Trask
2008: 207). Gogo is a perfect example of what cultural words are meant to be, that is,
specific conceptualisations of the world which are peculiar to a given cultural
community and comprise all lexical items grounded in one specific culture. Cultural
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
words are language vehicles to discover deep conceptualisations in culture and
It is important to bear in mind that Basque is a language that has always been in
contact with other languages and cultures. However, until the twentieth century, its
transmission was almost exclusively oral. Its written tradition is relatively young
compared to that of other European languages. Moreover, the earlier pretwentiethcentury texts were almost always composed explicitly for religious purposes
(Oyharçabal 2001). For this reason it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish
between conceptualizations that are native to the Basque language and its culture
(prior to contact, say, with Christianity), and those conceptualizations that have been
acquired through contact with other languages and cultures. There are, nevertheless,
some expressions and usages that now and then reveal and corroborate that Basque
used to have its own conceptualizations and unique worldview. These words are
usually ubiquitous, very much entrenched in culture and thus, very difficult to explain
and translate into other languages. I would like to argue that gogo is one of such
What is interesting about gogo for the discussion on Cartesian dichotomies is that
gogo does not separate the rational from the irrational; quite on the contrary, in gogo
these two apparent opposites are ‘melted’ or ‘blended’. Gogo is used to describe
emotions such as those in (15), but also to convey characteristics and processes
associated with the mind such as those in (16).
Gogoalai (gogo.happy) ‘jovial, cheerful’
Gogo-a argitu (gogo-ABS clear) ‘cheer up’
Gogo-a berotu (gogo-ABS heat.PFV) ‘encourage’
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
Gogo-a urritu (gogo-ABS dwindle.PFV) ‘become disheartened,
Gogobero ( ‘zeal, fervor, enthusiasm’
Gogo bete (gogo full) ‘disgust, satiation’
Gogomin (gogo.pain) ‘ardent desire, passion, yearning’
Gogo-ak izan (gogo-ABS.PL have.PFV) ‘feel like’
Gogohandi (gogo.big) ‘magnanimous, generous’
Gogo argi (gogo light) ‘bright mind’
Gogonahasi (gogo.mix) ‘scatterbrain’
Gogamen ‘intelligence’
Gogoeta ‘thought’
Gogo aldatu (gogo change.PFV) ‘change one’s mind’
Gogoratu (gogo.ALL.PFV) ‘remember’, ‘occur to, think of’
Gogo-an izan (gogo-LOC be.PFV) ‘remember’
Gogo-ra ekarri (gogo-ALL bring.PFV) ‘recall, remember bring to
Gogo-ari eman (gogo-DAT give.PFV) ‘imagine’, ‘think’, ‘decide’
These examples show that gogo harmoniously unites these two apparent contrary
concepts in one; in a way, gogo is a kind of primitive thought or rational soul, where
there is an intellectual reasoning process, but one based on intuition and emotion; or
to put it in another way, an intellectual reasoning process prior to any distinctions
between feelings and thought – which, in fact, implies that reason and feelings are not
differentiated at all.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
The word gogo in some of the expressions in (15) and (16) can be substituted by
bihotz ‘heart’ and buru ‘head’. Just to name a couple of pairs: gogoa galdu and bihotz
galdu ‘become discouraged’, gogohandi and bihotzhandi ‘magnanimous, generous’,
gogoratu and bururatu ‘remember, think of’, gogoargi and buruargi ‘intelligent’…
However, despite this interchangeability, the connotations are not the same, gogo goes
beyond the simple intellectual or emotional process, because it is both at the same
time. Goenaga (1971, 1972, 1973), one of the authors that has studied the use of this
word by classical traditional Basque writers, describes this word as:
The act of faith carried out by gogo is not just the result of intelligence, but
also an act in which all sorts of emotional influence take place, from
affectivity to intelligence with the intervention of will (Goenaga 1971b: 28,
my translation)
Even if the heart represents the affective side, gogo includes not only thought
but also all the impulsive side of personality which is precisely what drives
human beings and the way they are. Besides, in all Basque literature, the pair
gogo-bihotz do not seem to be two different members but two members in
which gogo points to the whole and bihotz to the part (Goenaga 1973a: 204,
my translation)
Gogo is not a physical organ like xin or hati, but it is something internal to the self,
something so basic and so deeply human, that represents all what is important to
humans, their body and soul.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
3. Conclusions: Reasons why conceptual metaphors should be studied
In this paper, I have examined some of the main metaphorical extensions related to
the domains of space, intellect and emotions in the Basque body-parts: buru ‘head’,
begi ‘eye’, oin ‘foot’, bihotz ‘heart’, and gibel ‘liver’. This analysis has shown that
some of these Basque body-parts present similar conceptualisations to those bodyparts in other languages. For example, bihotz is related to feelings and buru is linked
to top and front regions. However, there are important differences among these
conceptualisations too. One of the main differences is that some body-parts have
different meanings, for example, gibel is associated to the back region and buru is not
only related to the top and front regions, it also means central. Another difference is
that some apparently similar metaphorical expressions are not grounded on the same
concepts. The relationship between top region and important, the
metaphor, does not hold in Basque. Buru can sometimes mean ‘top’ depending on the
context, but, contrary to what happens in many languages, this contextually dependent
meaning of ‘top’ does not give rise to this metaphor in Basque. This language prefers
the central meaning of buru as the conceptual basis for the metaphor
Yet another difference is that although some body-parts might convey
similar meanings, these meanings can be richer in connotations in some languages
than others. This is the case of oin ‘foot’, which is not only linked to the ‘bottom’ area
but also the notion of ‘support’. Finally, it has been shown that, even in languages
such as Basque that have been in contact with other languages and cultures, there are
always certain special cultural words such as Basque gogo that reveal deeply
entrenched metaphors that teach us a little bit more about ancient native worldviews.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
These cases are all very important, not only because they show differences within the
conceptualisation of body-parts in Basque with respect to other languages, but also
because they clearly warn us against any kind of “linguacentrism”, as Palmer (2003)
would call it. If we aim at discovering the grounding of conceptual metaphors, the
cultural background in which these metaphors are embedded needs to be dug out;
otherwise, all we will have is a distorted picture of what really happens in a language.
This is why metaphor theory needs culture. However, this need is mutual. Culture also
needs metaphor, because it is a systematic way to unveil certain pieces of cultural
information and to compare them with other cultures and languages. The relationship
between body-parts and space, intellect, and emotion is universal, but the
metaphorical connections between and within these domains are not necessarily the
same. Finally, the last question I would like to touch upon is the need to incorporate
metaphor in the study of endangered languages. We all, as linguists, know that the
most endangered ‘species’ in the world nowadays are not the fish, the plants, the birds
or the mammal, but the languages (Sutherland 2003). Languages are living creatures,
and of course, death is part of their natural cycle of life. However, the accelerating
extinction of languages is much faster than that of any other species, and it is
happening on a global scale. Linguists always preoccupied about the disappearance of
languages have been engaged in collecting and describing the grammars of dying
languages in an attempt to preserve some of the rich linguistic diversity of the world.
As Dixon (2010) recommends in his first volume of Basic Linguistic Theory, when
talking about the best methodology for any linguist interested in describing and
analysing languages, linguists should describe the abstract systems of phonology and
grammar [morphology and syntax].
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
However, when a language dies it is not only its sounds, its morphemes, its complex
structures and its lexemes that die, what disappears is a whole unique worldview. If a
language like Basque dies, we do not only loose a list of words for body-parts but all
the metaphorical conceptualisations within these words. Therefore, researchers on
endangered languages should consider metaphors as part of their data collection list.
The reasons are clear. As Harrison (2007: 7, 17, 19) puts it (see also Evans 2010,
Harrison 2010):
Language disappearance is an erosion or extinction of ideas, of ways of
knowing, and ways of talking about the world and human experience […] We
stand to lose the accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of
people about the natural world, plants, animals, weather, soil, and so on […]
The loss of even one language may forever close the door to a full
understanding of human cognitive capacity.
All of this knowledge, all of this wisdom about the world around us, and all of this
understanding about human cognition is reflected in metaphors, and this is why
metaphors should be a must for any piece of linguistic work that attempts to unveil
what a language is, how a language works, and why a language is needed for.
Unveiling conceptual metaphors in a minority language
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