Style and Patterns of Blending

Posted: 3 Nov 2008

See all articles by Eve Sweetser

Eve Sweetser

University of California, Berkeley

Date Written: October 19, 2008


When Robert Frost says, "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . I took the one less traveled," he never specifies that the poem is really about life-decisions, not about physical road-intersections. But he doesn't have to; the metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY is so entrenched that most English speakers can do the mapping for him at no cost, and the resulting reading is pretty much what it would have been if he had stated the mapping overtly. On the other hand, some clearly metaphoric utterances gain much of their power from failing to specify mappings which are not so obvious. When Emily Dickinson talks about wanting to climb a wall to pick strawberries, and not daring to do so lest she stain her apron and make God angry - precisely what prohibited activity is she talking about, if we assume the poem to be metaphoric? And how is this language powerful? Or how do proverbs like "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink" manage to convey context-specific messages something like "Chris, you can read all the medical blogs and suggest all the best doctors, but in the end, Lee will make his own health decisions" or "Sandy, you can provide a college education for your children, but you can't make them care about their college work or choose the major you want them to choose."

This paper will suggest that one major stylistic difference between writers is their strategy for metaphoric blending. Dickinson, like many Japanese haiku writers, shares with proverbs the flexibility and generality which come from mapping a clear source-domain input onto a relatively unspecified target-domain space. Such writing has sometimes been called "minimalist," meaning in part that it leaves a great deal underdetermined, and hence open for the reader's interpretation. Shakespeare's tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech in Macbeth, on the other hand, keeps flooding out new metaphors for life and death, playing out the disastrous entailments of each mapping, until we are convinced that indeed Macbeth has no way out but death. You could perhaps call this maximalist, in that Shakespeare overdetermines the relevant metaphoric mappings. Examining several such contrasting approaches, we will begin to develop a typology of blending strategies, which turn out to be relevant to pragmatics and constructional semantics as well as to literary analysis.

Keywords: conceptual integration, blending, Shakespeare, Frost, Dickinson, literary analysis, metaphor

Suggested Citation

Sweetser, Eve, Style and Patterns of Blending (October 19, 2008). 9th Conference on Conceptual Structure, Discourse, and Language (CSDL9). Available at SSRN:

Eve Sweetser (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

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