COVID 19 Discourse:

Cognition and Language

Dr. P M. Girish




“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. I want to describe, not what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation: not real geography, but stereotypes of national character. My subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as a figure or metaphor. My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most Resistant to, metaphoric thinking

(Susan Sontag – Illness as Metaphor)



“We are caught in a triple crisis; medical (the epidemic), economic (which will hit hard whatever the outcome of the epidemic) and psychological. The basic coordinates of the everyday lives of millions are disintegrating, and the change will affect everything from flying to holidays to simple bodily contact. We have to learn to think outside the coordinate of the stock market and profit and simply find another way to produce and allocate necessary resources.”

(Slavoj Zizek, Pandemic! COVID 19 shakes the world).


Great thinkers like Susan Sontag and Zizek have examined the illness not only as a metaphor but a socio-economic-psycho reality also. The present paper examines the way of thinking in the COVID 19 era, from a cognitive linguistic perceptive. Cognition is a process by which knowledge and understanding are developed in the mind. It is a mental process of understanding our world. Whereas discourse is an umbrella term, used in a different school of thoughts such as history, sociology, cultural studies, and linguistics, etc. This article focuses on its linguistic meaning. So it may be defined: Discourse is any connected piece of speech or writing in its social contexts. It is an interactive and communicative dimension of language. An approach to study discourse is known as discourse analysis. It is somewhat different from Critical Discourse Analysis since it focuses on power and ideology hide in the text. It tries to analyse wicked aims covertly presented in the texts. So, discourse is a social statement. 

Disease and Society 

COVID 19 is a disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus. The etymology of COVID 19 is: Co stands for corona, Vi stands for virus, and D for the disease. The disease is a disorder of structure or function in a human, animal, or plant. It produces symptoms. The disease makes disorder in our society too. It means the disease has a wide range of semantic sense since it is strongly connected with the socio-political and economical systems.  

The disease can be connected with economic, institutional, medical, philosophical, literary, and artistic practices. It helps define disease as a cultural and social category. All these are well connected with language. For example, some of you might have created drawings, paintings related to COVID 19. Some of you may write poetry, sorties, tick-talk, and trolls on COVID 19 and its realms. Therefore COVID 19 pandemic is a discourse. We are not fighting with COVID 19 alone, but fighting against socio-political practices which evoke in COVID 19 discourse. 

Embodied Emergency 

The body is the physiological and biological entity that provides the basic foundation for an autonomous agent to be live, survive, and reproduce. It has different parts, organs, and different functions such as biochemical, neurological, and sensory –motoric processes. 

 Embodiment refers to the experiences that arise from the living body in its interactions with the physical world. Embodied cognition refers to the experience that embeds from the physical body in its interactions with the physical and socio-cultural atmosphere.

A state of emergency is a government that is empowered to perform actions or impose policies that it would normally not be permitted to undertake. A government can declare such a state during a natural disaster, civil unrest, armed conflict, medical pandemic or epidemic, or another biosecurity risk. Now we are under embodied emergency. 




Body: Two types 

Under this embodied emergency the entire society has been divided into two based on our body i.e.1. Physical body. 2. Virus affected the body irrespective of social and cultural bodies. It may metaphorically be named as a viral body and a non-viral body (Physical body) Moreover our society is stratified on it. 

Embodied Meaning of COVID 19 Discourse

COVID 19 discourse has its lexicon such as virus, viral, pandemic, social distancing, quarantine, room quarantine, institutional quarantine, community transmission, rapid test kit, COVID+, COVID negative, fatality rate, recovery rate, case study, vaccine, medicine, and so on. There is some phrase too like, ‘stay home stay safe’, ‘whistle-blower’, ‘community kitchen’, ‘break the chain’ etc. All these are overtly or covertly evoked from the embodied cognition. Conceptual metaphors are the linking device between embodied cognition and communication. 

Embodied Metaphors 

Our bodily experiences are expressed through conceptual metaphors which differ from the conventionalized metaphors. Traditionally: a metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is compared to another by saying that one is the other, as in ‘Chief Minister is a lion’. Here two unlike entities are compared together and features are: i). A metaphor is a property of words; it is a linguistic phenomenon. ii). Metaphor is used for some artistic and rhetorical purposes, such as when Shakespeare writes “all the world’s a stage”. iii) Metaphor is based on the resemblance between the two entities that are compared and identified. But Cognitive science is opposed to this conventional notion of metaphor. 

According to cognitive linguists such as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: i).Metaphor is a property of concepts, and not of words. ii) The function of metaphor is to better understand certain concepts, and not just some artistic or aesthetic purpose. iii). Metaphor is often not based on similarity. iv) Metaphor is pervasive both in thought and everyday language. Therefore it is an adjacent part of cognition. Metaphor is used effortlessly in everyday life by ordinary people, not just by writers, and academicians. v). Metaphor, far from being a redundant though pleasing linguistic ornament, is an inevitable process of human thought and reasoning. Lakoff and Johnson (2004) showed convincingly that metaphor is pervasive both in thought and everyday language. It is a part of our cognition. Our thought is a metaphorical expression. 

Conceptual metaphors have two conceptual domains: 1. Source domain 2. Target domain. The conceptual domain from which we draw metaphorical expressions to understand other conceptual domains is known as the source domain and the conceptual domain that is understood the way is the target domain. For example, LIFE IS A JOURNEY. In this statement, life is the target domain, while the journey is the source domain. We use this typical metaphor is pervasive in our communication. The marking between these two domains are given below:


Life is journey :                                                                     I am at a crossroads in my life

Target  domain

Source  domain

•      The person leading a life

•       His purposes

•        The means for achieving purposes.

•       Difficulties in life.

•       Counsellors

•       Progress.

•       Things you gauge your progress by

•       Choices in life.

•       Material resources and


•      a traveller.

•       destinations

•       Routes


•       impediments to travel

•       guides

•      the distance travelled

•       landmarks


•       crossroads

•       provisions



A metaphor is defined as understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another conceptual domain. Examples of this include when we talk and think about life in terms of journeys, about arguments in terms of war, and so on. The conceptual metaphors are evoked from image schema-based in the interaction between our life and environment.

Image schema

Our bodily experiences are expressed through conceptual metaphors. Mark Johnson (1990) says: ‘our bodily movements and interactions in various physical domains of experience are structured. This structure is known as an image schema. Image schema is projected by metaphor. Repeated bodily interactions of similar kind lead to the formation of image schema guiding our understanding of verbal expressions’. The concept of Johnson on image schema can be figured out as below:  


Image schema and Knowledge

Basic Domain

Image schema/concept

•       SPACE:





•        LOCOMOTION:


•        BALANCE:


•        FORCE:


•        UNITY-


•        IDENTITY:


•        EXISTENCE:


•        [SCALE:]

•        [SEQUENCE:]


•       Up-Down, Front-Back, Left-Right, Near-Far [Proximity], Centre-Periphery, Contact, Straight, Verticality

•       Container, In-Out, Surface, Full-Empty, Content

•       Momentum, Source-Path-Goal

•       Axis Balance, Twin-Pan Balance, Point Balance, Equilibrium

•       Compulsion, Blockage, Counterforce, Diversion, Removal of Restraint, Enablement, Attraction, Resistance

•       Merging, Collection, Splitting, Iteration, Part-Whole, Count-Mass, Link(Age)

•       Matching [-Mismatching], Superimposition

•       Removal [-Replace], Bounded Space, Cycle, Object, Process

•       [More-Less]


•       [Before-During-After]



The present paper discusses the basic domains such as space, containment, and locomotion along with respective image schema for constructing the conceptual metaphors in the discourse of COVID 19. It examines some metaphorical statements in this discourse followed by its examples. The data are collected from the newspapers, mainly The Hindu, Times of India, and the channel NDTV 24X7 during the early period of prevailing the pandemic COVID 19. The conceptual metaphors are elaborately used in the media discourse. For example: 

  1. Case is traveller  
  1. The number of the case reached 21000 in Chennai. 
  2. The virus travels among black
  3. We must all be practicing social distancing but let’s not distance ourselves from ideas of empathy, generosity, and caring 
  4. The domain of pandemic disease, COVID 19 is understood in terms of Traveller /emotion 

In these expressions, COVID 19 is expressed through the journey metaphor. The case refers to a disease that travels and reaches its destination as in sentence 2. whereas the sentences 3 and 4 represent ‘emotion as traveller’. 

  1. COVID 19 is War: The domain of disease is understood in terms of war. Elements from the domain of war- things like attack, defence, retreat, etc. are projected on to the abstract domain of diseases in these statements. Here are some examples: i). I express gratitude to all those involved in the fight against the COVID 19 pandemic across the country

i)COVID 19 is our third world war. 

ii). I salute the COVID 19 warriors- doctors, nurses, sanitation workers, Police, and home guards

iii).The Vaccine can prevent intracellular infections

iv.) Protective effect of the virus 

III. COVID 19 is Animal: The domain of disease is understood in terms of animals: For examples: 

i). Scientists believe that the killer virus jumped from animals to humans.

ii).COVID 19 is understood in terms of the animal. See another example:

  iii). the coronavirus roars through Brazil, with a high case fatality rate

iv). The virus is killing black people in a large number (The domain of disease is understood in terms of the animal).

  1. COVID 19 is the Container: The domain of disease is understood in terms of the container. The container schema arises from bodily interactions with insides and outsides. The heart is a container: with an open heart, everything is in mind. The content of an essay. Examples: In the COVID 19 discourse zones are containers. Here are some: containment zone, red spot, greet, and orange spot. (The domain of disease is understood in terms of the container). Containment zone, Red zone, Green Zone, and Orange Zone, red spots are frequently used in this discourse to refer to the frequency of the COVID cases. Zones are containers that have inside, outside and periphery and COVID case/patient is contents of these containers. The red zone refers to the total number of active cases. Green zone refers to zero confirmed cases to date or no confirmed case in the last 21 days. Orange the places, which are neither defined as red nor green. The spread of the virus is contained in small geographical areas. The next part of the paper focuses on another cognitive element contains in the COVID 19 discourse. In addition to the conceptual metaphor, COVID 19 discourse is enriched with metonymies, another cognitive element. 


Metonymy is an expression is used to refer to the referent of a related expression. It has mainly ‘Apart to whole relationship’ or ‘A whole to the Part relationship.’ Ex: ‘Head of the Department’. Here, ‘head’ stands for ‘Person’. See some more examples: ‘I have read Shakespeare’: here, ‘Shakespeare’ stands for the works written by Shakespeare. ‘I will be brief’ means ‘I will speak briefly’. It means metonymy involves ‘a stand for’ relationship between related ‘parts of the conceptual domain’. It is a ‘part of the whole relationship ‘.

Metonymical usages are relevant to the COVID 19 discourse; the etymology itself stands for metonymy as mentioned in the introduction. Co (Corona)+VI(virus)+D(Disease). There are more examples: i). The coronavirus roars through Brazil, with a high case fatality rate. ii). Lack of bed is a major worry: Here bed, the part, stands for the whole, hospital. iii). ‘Meet the faceless army that helped Kerala keep the virus at Bay’: Here, ‘faceless army’ is the part and it stands for health care workers like doctors, nurses, police, and sanitation workers


COVID 19 discourse is an integral part of cognition and the body is the focal point of this discourse. The interaction of our body with the physical and socio-political atmosphere makes the COVID 19 discourse as the embodied entities. Various cognitive processes like conceptual metaphor and metonymy are the basic domains that make it embodied cognition. Therefore COVID 19 discourse is a product of embodied cognition. The words used in this discourse are evoked from the embodied cognition. 

In short, embodied cognition is expressed through conceptual metaphors and is a direct expression of our thought process. COVID1 9 discourse is enriched with conceptual metaphors like journey metaphor, war metaphors, container metaphors, and animal metaphors, and so on. More studies can be done to find more conceptual metaphors and metonymy.

Select Bibliography

Gibbs, Raymond W. Jr. 2014. ‘Embodied Metaphor’, in The Bloomsbury Companion to Cognitive Linguistics. (Ed.) Jeannette Littlemore and John R Taylor. New Delhi: Bloomsbury.

Johnson, Mark. 1990. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press

Johnson, Mark.2017. The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Jonson, Mark.2017.  Embodied Mind, Meaning and Reason: How Out Bodies Give Rise to Understanding. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson, 1980/2004. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George, 1987. Women, and Fire and Dangers Things: What Categories Reveal about Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, George, 1990.The Invariance Hypothesis: Is Abstract Reason Based On Image-Schema?’ Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Langacker, 1987. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar .Vol .Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Langacker, 1999. Grammar and Conceptualization,. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Langacker, Ronald, 2004 ‘Form, meaning and behaviour’ in Cognitive and Communicative Approaches to Linguistic Analysis. Ellen Contini-Morava.

Sontag, Susan. 1977. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Stratus, Giroux.

Zizek, Slavoj.2020. Pandemic! COVID 19 shakes the world. New York:  OR Books



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