Visualising Metaphor in English

Mapping Metaphor with the Historical Thesaurus is a linguistics and digital humanities collaboration which provides a data-driven picture of the extent and development of metaphor across the history of English. It uses a combination of database techniques and expert linguistic analysis to provide full details of the metaphorical links which speakers of English have used to understand the world around them for the past thousand years.

One of the project’s main outcomes is a database of tens of thousands of links between conceptual categories, such as imagination and biology (father, conceive, fertile) or beauty and light (shine, radiant, lustre), alongside date information and sample words. While there are a range of other outputs arising from this data, the online resource for exploring the links database – called the Metaphor Map – is a key output of the project. In addition to providing search and browse pathways through the data, there is also a need to provide a high-level visual overview for users. However, while such data is of huge relevance to scholars in a range of fields, including the study of language, literature, culture, and psychology, the size and complexity of the database provides a significant challenge with regard to displaying these connections to users in a way which makes their relevance clear.

This paper therefore discusses the means through which the Metaphor Map has been visualized by the team, including radial arc techniques, network diagrams, and treemap structures. We will demonstrate the importance of such visualisations to guide research on the database, and provide information from our feedback sessions on the understandability of such complex data. In so doing, we also aim to demonstrate the widespread, systematic and far-reaching impact of metaphor on English.