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  • Alexandra Bissell

Language In and Of the Body: Some Thoughts on Language, Emotion, and Performance

Navigating the world necessarily involves interpretation of both the linguistic and the physical dimensions of life. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in the fourth chapter of their book, Metaphors We Live By (1980), discuss orientational metaphors as one point at which language and the body converge. Orientational metaphors, or linguistic expressions that “give a concept a spatial orientation,” reflect the bodies we have and the ways they move in the world (14). Lakoff and Johnson contend that these metaphorical orientations are based in our embodied experiences and influenced by our culture. The primary examples they offer are structured by the up-down binary:

Happy is up / Sad is down

“My spirits rose”; “She fell into a depression”; “They’re feeling down

Health and life are up / Sickness and death are down

“She’s in top shape”; “Their health is declining”; “He dropped dead”

Having control or force is up / Being subject to control or force is down

“I am on top of the situation”; “They are under his control”

More is up / Less is down

“Her income rose last year”; “You are underage”

Foreseeable future events are up (and ahead)

“All upcoming events are listed in the paper”; “I’m afraid of what’s up ahead of us”

Good is up / Bad is down

“Things are looking up”; “It’s been downhill ever since”; “They produce high-quality work”


This first set of examples, Happy is up/Sad is down, engage the embodied experience of emotion. To explain how these expressions may have developed, Lakoff and Johnson cite the correlation between one’s posture and their emotional state – “drooping posture” is generally associated with sadness while a more upright position communicates positive feelings (15). In addition to metaphors structured by height, Lakoff and Johnson note that some “minor metaphorical expressions” are structured by notions of breadth – Happy is wide/Sad is narrow – because “happiness also tends to correlate physically with a smile and a general feeling of expansiveness” (18).

The question of language and the body, as Andrew Bennett suggests, “has to do not just with how language signifies – or indeed fails to signify – the body, but with how it performs embodiment, how language itself embodies, is embodied” (75, emphasis original). Lakoff and Johnson’s orientational metaphors are examples of language performing embodiment. When communicating emotion, however, we often do not rely solely on language that performs embodiment, but also use and interpret gestures and facial expressions that conversely embody those linguistic articulations. Performance-based arts like acting provide illustrative examples.

Take for instance the big finish of a positive motivational song and dance number in a Broadway musical. In Wicked (2003), the musical based on Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel of the same name that reimagines the story of The Wizard of Oz, the first act concludes with the show’s signature song “Defying Gravity.” The song, which is essentially about not giving up, ends with Elphaba up in the air, limbs outstretched, belting a run that tops out at an incredible high F. Visually, this moment demonstrates many of the orientational metaphors Lakoff and Johnson discuss: happy is up; life is up; having control is up; future/hope is up; good is up; and happy is wide (15-18).

The iconic scene of Maria twirling atop the hills in The Sound of Music (1965) offers another visualization of the body performing happiness in accordance with some of these common orientational metaphors: happy is up (on a hill); life is up; happy is wide (15-18).

This question of embodiment and performance of language is made more complex when something like American Sign Language (ASL) is added to the mix, as it was in the 5th Avenue Theatre’s 2018 production of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Joshua Castille as Quasimodo. Castille signed throughout the Seattle production while another cast member sang alongside him.

ASL as a mode of communication not only employs the orientational metaphors through which language performs embodiment, but also involves the body performing language. In referencing Peter Brooks’ work on the body and its relation to language, Bennett writes that “the symbolic necessarily ‘move[s] us away from the body” (73). ASL complicates this notion because the gestures that make up the language symbolize words, which are symbols themselves, but they are performed by, and deeply felt in, the physical body. So in order to engage with the symbolism of the language itself, someone using ASL must rely on that bodily performance to communicate with others.

In the context of acting, physical motions are generally an exaggeration of day-to-day body language. Many of the motions involved in ASL are also reminiscent of this body language, thus making it possible for those who do not “speak” ASL to understand the gist of what someone might be saying. Castille’s performance exaggerates both his ASL and his body language movements, using both to speak to the audience.

Bennett further asserts that “Romanticism is the attempt, through the instrument of language to go beyond the body, the bodily organs, the senses, and the acknowledgement that such a transcendental move is founded in language and the body” (79). In Castille’s performance, the various layers of meaning-expression created primarily in the body, transcend the body by creating a visual that exists outside of the viewer’s body – by relating a concept, that is then filtered through our minds and memories in order to be recognized in a bodily way, like physically feeling the effects of an emotion (e.g. crying, that expansive feeling in the chest when one is “moved,” laughing, smiling, etc.). The meaning and emotion begin in the performer’s body, are translated into a signifier of bodily experience through physical movements and verbal language, and those signifiers are then filtered through the consciousness of the audience member’s mind and memories into a (re)lived physical experience and/of emotion.

By examining the relation of the language used to describe abstract concepts, we are able to expose the many intricate ways linguistic expression is connected to our physical experiences of having (and being) bodies that move through the world. It is so easy, especially when working in academia, to get trapped inside our own thoughts and neglect our own materiality. So in some ways, it is a comfort to know that our physical existence is constantly being reflected back to us through language.

*Special thanks to Andrew Del Mastro for his thoughts and questions in class discussion that sparked these ideas.

Works Consulted

Bennett, Andrew. “Language and the Body.” The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature, edited by David Hillman and Ulrika Maude, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Clement, Olivia. “Get a Glimpse of Joshua Castille as Quasimodo in 5th Avenue Theatre’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Playbill, 6 June 2018,

“Defying Gravity.” Wicked, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Universal Stage Productions, 2003, Gershwin Theatre, New York.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, 1980.

“‘Out There’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame at The 5th Avenue Theatre.” YouTube, uploaded by 5thAvenueTheatre, 12 June 2018,

The Sound of Music. Directed by Robert Wise, Twentieth Century Fox, 1965.

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