Metaphors: The evolutionary journey from bidirectionality to unidirectionality

David Gil*, Yeshayahu Shen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Metaphors, a ubiquitous feature of human language, reflect mappings from one conceptual domain onto another. Although founded on bidirectional relations of similarity, their linguistic expression is typically unidirectional, governed by conceptual hierarchies pertaining to abstractness, animacy and prototypicality. The unidirectional nature of metaphors is a product of various asymmetries characteristic of grammatical structure, in particular, those related to thematic role assignment. This paper argues that contemporary metaphor unidirectionality is the outcome of an evolutionary journey whose origin lies in an earlier bidirectionality. Invoking the Complexity Covariance Hypothesis governing the correlation of linguistic and socio-political complexity, the Evolutionary Inference Principle suggests that simpler linguistic structures are evolutionarily prior to more complex ones, and accordingly that bidirectional metaphors evolved at an earlier stage than unidirectional ones. This paper presents the results of an experiment comparing the degree of metaphor unidirectionality in two languages: Hebrew and Abui (spoken by some 16 000 people on the island of Alor in Indonesia). The results of the experiment show that metaphor unidirectionality is significantly higher in Hebrew than in Abui. Whereas Hebrew is a national language, Abui is a regional language of relatively low socio-political complexity. In accordance with the Evolutionary Inference Principle, the lower degree of metaphor unidirectionality of Abui may accordingly be reconstructed to an earlier stage in the evolution of language. The evolutionary journey from bidirectionality to unidirectionality in metaphors argued for here may be viewed as part of a larger package, whereby the development of grammatical complexity in various domains is driven by the incremental increases in socio-political complexity that characterize the course of human prehistory. This article is part of the theme issue 'Reconstructing prehistoric languages'.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20200193
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1824
StatePublished - 10 May 2021


  • evolution
  • grammatical asymmetry
  • grammatical complexity
  • metaphor
  • metaphor directionality
  • polity complexity


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