The goal of this project was to conduct a detailed empirical study of Egyptian textual material in order to investigate what has been described as the cognitive foundations of metaphor usage. In particular, the group focused on determining to what extent spatial expressions constitute a basal element of metaphorical speaking, and henced whether they represent the fundamental and historically primary constituents of metaphorical thinking.


The meaning of a (potentially metaphorical) lexeme in context formed the basis of the analysis. The degree of conventionality of these metaphors was also a key focus: How can we distinguish productively used, yet conventionalized metaphors from new metaphors or fossilized and no longer transparent metaphors? The question of whether language users were aware of the metaphorical character of a given expression was also a point of enquiry, as was the role of genre and register in the choice and use of metaphors.

Methodological approach

Such questions required valid testing procedures. A tripartite method of analysis was developed to enable this: a lexical, a conceptual and a textual analysis. The lexical analysis was based around the analysis of single lexemes and tags meaning in context with reference to a corpus dictionary. The conceptual analysis, based around this metaphorical lexeme, consideres what kind of conceptual metaphor (like life is a journey) may be behind it. The textual analysis traces patterns of lexemes and their potentially underlying conceptual metaphors in and across whole texts. The research team, with the support of Topoi, used these analytical levels to build the first ever metaphorical annotation system for a corpus of Ancient Egyptian texts (Projet Ramsès, Liège). Although the tagging has been based around a roughly ‚synchronic’ database (a ca. 500 year span), a second, diachronic corpus (the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae) has been employed to address questions of metaphor development. Such an approach has permitted both qualitative and quantitative analyses. Moreover, a range of genres in the corpus have been and will be tagged: literature, epistolary texts and scientific texts have already been considered; monumental and legal texts await analysis.

In the lexical semantic portion of the research, the semantic span of lexemes, for instance ‘entering’, ‘exiting’ in relation to disease, were considered to note under what conditions, and at what time, the lexeme adopted a metaphorical meaning. An important condition, for instance, is the genre of the text in question, which seems to influence the degree of metaphoricity of such a lexeme. In Ancient Egyptian medical texts, for instance, disease is often considered an animate being, like a daimon, whose agency in “the disease enters the body” may undermine a metaphorical analysis (Di Biase-Dyson, talk 2016 in Louvain-la-Neuve, France). This can be contrasted with the more overtly metaphorical use of “entering” in the teaching of Amenemope, in which “social access to the right company” is implied (Chantrain and Di Biase-Dyson, 2018).

The conventionality of spatial metaphor was addressed, for instance, in a study of the use of “path” in Egyptian wisdom texts, from which emerged that entirely conventional metaphorical lexemes, like “path”, were being expanded on in novel ways in the same texts, thereby creatively extending the metaphor. For instance, the “path of life” described at the beginning of the teaching of Amunnacht, when not followed, results in being stranded at sea (Di Biase-Dyson, 2016 open access, Di Biase-Dyson, 2016).

The degree of awareness of metaphoricity was addressed at the textual level, establishing preliminary typology of markers, including repetition, the use of synonyms to extend a metaphor, clusterings of metaphors and also adoptions of and amendments to metaphors from other works. The issue of metaphor awareness, pressing not only in studies of ancient world texts but also in contemporary metaphor studies, was addressed by Camilla Di Biase-Dyson and Markus Egg, who in July 2016 hosted the international conference “The premeditated path. Deliberate metaphor in ancient and modern texts”.

The intensive use of the second database (Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae)  expanded the diachronic scope of this enquiry and helped to consider in more detail the extent to which spatial meaning was not only conceptually, but also chronologically, primary to other meanings. In sum, the research conducted has provided fresh insights into ancient data.