Clifton Pye

pyersqr (at) ku (dot) edu

Walking is similar to talking in that most humans do both without giving much thought to how they accomplish these activities. We are able to walk because we have established the complex motor routines that are needed to put one foot in front of another. The occasional stumble reminds us how unseen bumps or potholes disrupt these unconscious routines. It should come as no surprise, then, that we struggle to define the meaning of walk.

The meaning of walk depends on the activity that we’re familiar with. In order for this reference to work, we have to transfer the motor routines that we have internalized to the visual images of other people walking. We can’t do this directly so we rely upon metaphor to make the connection. The visual image of walking is what it would be like if another person exercised a similar motor complex for walking. Since metaphors aren’t exact (similarities aren’t identities), the metaphor can be extended to all manner of walks generated by people with different leg lengths, pelvic widths, foot orientations, etc.

A metaphorical understanding of walking accommodates the many tacit assumptions about the activity. We think of walking on level terrain when, in fact, we walk on all sorts of tilted terrains. But when does a walk become a climb? We can walk up a hill or stairs, but ordinarily we climb up ropes and ladders. At the heart of our internalized walking routine is the idea that walking doesn’t require much exertion in contrast to running, skipping and climbing. Steeper slopes require more effort and turn walking into climbing.

Our internalized walking routine also assumes a dry terrain in earth’s gravity. Walking into water becomes wading and walking on the moon produces a different result than walking on earth because of the weaker gravity on the moon. Walking in space produces yet another result because your feet aren’t in contact with the ground. These examples show how the internalized motor routine becomes associated with vastly different visual images when the initial assumptions about walking are violated.

We easily extend our walking metaphor to animals with four, six, eight, or a hundred legs. While the perception of physical effort is key to asserting that dogs, flies, spiders and caterpillars all walk, the visual image of four-legged, six-legged, eight-legged and hundred-legged gaits all differ from the visual image of a two-legged gait. The image of an octopus walking underwater lacks any resemblance to our ordinary idea of walking. Some two-legged animals don’t walk. Robins and kangaroos, for example, hop. While our walking metaphor is fairly elastic, it doesn’t include every manner of locomotion.

English is well equipped with synonyms for walking, including: stroll, saunter, sashay, strut, stalk, prance, stagger, swagger, mosey, wander, waddle and ramble. These synonyms point to subtle contrasts between styles or intentions and demonstrate that our internalized motor routine for walking includes many parameters. The intentional contrasts are especially worth noting as they indicate that the same visual image can support different interpretations depending upon the intention of the speaker. Walk, stroll, strut and ramble involve the same motor routine, but with different intentions.

Oddly enough, while English has many synonyms for adult styles of walking, it lacks words to describe how babies get around before they learn to walk. Walking upright is an incredibly difficult feat to master the first time, not unlike learning to ride a bicycle. Many children develop their own walking hacks before they are able to stand. Besides crawling, some children become adept at walking on all fours, either face down or face up. Another method involves scooting around on the bottom. English lacks a single word for walking on all fours, but Spanish has one - gatear (crawl or walk like a cat).

If you think you know what walking means, think again. We know nothing about the development of walking metaphors in children or the degree to which children’s metaphors for walking match the adult metaphors. The same point can be made for our understanding of semantic development for all other verbs in all languages. It is time to put our boots on and start walking.


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Brackenbury, T. and Pye, C. 2005. Semantic deficits in children with language impairments: Issues for Clinical Assessment. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools 36: 5-16.

Lakoff, G. 1993. The contemporary theory of metaphor. In A. Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, pp. 202-251. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pye, C. 2017. A metaphorical theory of meaning. Linguistik Indonesia 35:1-12.

Rumelhart, D. E. 1993. Some problems with the notion of literal meanings. In O. Andrew (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, pp. 71-82. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mar. 19, 2018

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