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African Social Research Forum tributes to Mwalimu Harold Isaacs: a metaphorical linguistic analysis.


Tributes, which can be generally defined as sayings made to venerate or show regard and reverence for a person as clear indications of the faculties and accomplishments of that person, are given at various occasions, more often after a person dies. Paying tributes to the deceased is a common custom. Tributes are presented about a person the speakers/writers respect or as thank-you statements for what that person did in the past for them. Tributes are supposed to comfort surviving family members and friends during their period of grief; yet, it is not uncommon to hear/read tributes that are pregnant with disparaging metaphors: i.e. derogatory figures of speech in which words or phrases are applied to objects or actions to which they are not literally applicable.

This paper offers a metaphorical linguistic analysis of the tributes that have been paid to Mwalimu (Kiswahili for "Honorable Teacher") Harold Isaacs by members of the African Studies and Research Forum (of which Mwalimu Issacs was a founding member and attended all of its meetings until his death on July 10, 2015)--which is an affiliate organization of the Association of Third World Studies (ATWS) founded by him--via the ASRF listserv ( The tributes cover from July 12 to 14, 2015. This paper is essential because, as I demonstrate elsewhere, metaphors are not just "more picturesque speech." (1) The power of metaphors, as Anita Wenden observes, hinges upon their ability to assimilate new experiences so as to allow the newer and abstract domain of experience to be understood in terms of the former and more concrete, and to serve as a basis and justification for policy making. (2) Also, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson put it,
   The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters
   of the intellect. They also govern our everyday
   functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our
   concepts structure what we perceive, how we get
   around the world, and how we relate to other people.
   Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining
   our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting
   that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then
   the way we think, what we experience, and we do every
   day is very much a matter of metaphor. (3)

Given the preceding excerpt, we should be horrified by the metaphors that have become the currency in our discourses. We hear again and again how our relations mirror Darwinian survivalism. If we are to accept this characterization, we would be quite properly justified in outlawing all societal relations as brutal and uncivilized behavior that no society should have to tolerate. Indeed, human rights advocates have effectively used just such descriptions to push their approach.

We must therefore reject those metaphors that cast societal relations in a bad light and encourage such hostile, uncaring and, ultimately, selfish behavior. Some of these are quite crude and explode as soon as they are seen for what they are, but others are much more sophisticated and built into every fabric of our current thought processes. Some can be summarized in a slogan; others do not even have names. Some seem not to be metaphors at all, notably the uncompromising emphasis on the importance of greed, and some seem to lie at the very basis of our conception as individuals, as if any alternative concept would have to be antiindividualistic, or worse.

The major question probed in this paper is therefore quite straightforward: What types of metaphors are embedded in the tributes that have been paid to Mwalimu Isaacs by ASRF members since his passing? Before answering this question, however, it makes sense to first present a brief discussion of the metaphorical linguistic approach, since it is the method through which the analysis of the tributes is grounded.


As I state in our book titled Unpeaceful Metaphors, metaphors are figures of speech (i.e. the use of words in an expressive and figurative way to suggest illuminating comparisons and resemblances) based on a perceived similarity between distinct objects or certain actions. (4) According to David Crystal, the following four kinds of metaphors have been recognized: (5)

(1) Conventional metaphors are those which form a part of our everyday understanding of experience, and are processed without effort, such as "to lose the thread of an argument."

(2) Poetic metaphors extend or combine everyday metaphors, especially for literary purposes--and this is how the term is traditionally understood, in the context of poetry.

(3) Conceptual metaphors are those functions in speakers' minds which implicitly condition their thought processes--for example, the notion that "Argument is war" underlies such expressed metaphors as "I attacked his views."

(4) Mixed metaphors are used for a combination of unrelated or incompatible metaphors in a single sentence, such as "This is a virgin field pregnant with possibilities."

While Crystal's categorization is very useful from a linguistic semantics standpoint (the focus on a triadic relation among conventionality, language, and to what it refers), from the perspective of linguistic pragmatics (the focus on a polyadic relation among conventionality, speaker, situation, and hearer), however, Stephen Levinson suggests the following "tripartite classification of metaphors": (6)

(1) Nominal metaphors are those that have the form BE(x, y) such as "Iago is an eel." To understand them, the hearer/reader must be able to construct a corresponding simile.

(2) Predicative metaphors are those that have the conceptual form G(x) or G(x, y) such as "Mwalimu Isaacs steamed ahead." To understand them, the hearer/reader must form a corresponding complex simile.

(3) Sentential metaphors are those that have the conceptual form G(y) identified by being irrelevant to the surrounding discourse when literally construed.

A metaphorical change then is usually manifested by a word with a concrete meaning taking on a more abstract sense. For example, as Brian Weinstein points out,
   By creating a sudden similarity between what is known
   and understood, like an automobile or a machine, and
   what is complicated and perplexing, like American society,
   listeners are surprised, forced to make the transfer,
   and perhaps convinced. They also gain a mnemonic
   device--a catch phrase that explains complicated problems. (7)

Indeed, by manipulating metaphors, leaders and elites can create opinions and feelings, particularly when people are distressed about the contradictions and problems in the world. In such times, as exemplified immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC on September 11, 2001, the masses crave for simple explanations and directions: for example, "the attackers of September 11, 2001 hate America because of its wealth, since Americans are good people, and that America should bomb terrorists wherever they are back into the prehistoric age." (8)

In the words of Murray Edelman "internal and external passions catalyze attachment to a selected range of myths and metaphors which shape perceptions of the political world." (9) On the one hand, observes Edelman, metaphors are used to screen out undesirable facts of war by calling it a "struggle for democracy" or by referring to aggression and neocolonialism as a "presence." On the other hand, adds Edelman, metaphors are used to alarm and enrage people by referring to members of a political movement as "terrorists." (10)

Indeed, the relationship between language and peaceful or unpeaceful behavior is so obvious that we hardly think about it. Everyone agrees, according to Brian Weinstein, that language is at the core of human society and interpersonal relations--that it forms the basis of civilization. Without this method of communication, Weinstein argues, no leaders could command the resources that are needed to form a political system extending beyond family and neighborhood. He further notes that, while we admit that the ability to manipulate words in order to persuade the voters is one approach people employ to gain and hold on to power, and that we admire oratorical and writing skills as gifts, we, nevertheless, do not perceive language as a separate factor, like taxation, which is subject to conscious choices by leaders in power or by women and men who desire to win or influence power. He adds that we do not see language in the form or capital yielding measurable benefits to those who possess it. (11) Another critical aspect about language and peaceful behavior is that, following Weinstein,
   The process of making decisions in order to satisfy
   group interests, shape society in accordance with an
   ideal, solve problems, and cooperate with other societies
   in a dynamic world is at the heart of politics.
   Accumulating and investing capital are normally part of
   the economic process, but when those who own capital
   use it to exercise influence and power over others, it
   enters the political arena. Thus, if it is possible to show
   that language is the subject of policy decisions as well
   as a possession conferring advantages, a case can be
   made for the study of language as one of the variables
   pushing open or closed the door to power, wealth, and
   prestige within the societies and contributing to war and
   peace between societies. (12)

Since people employ metaphors as a conscious choice between varieties of language forms that have significant cultural, economic, political, psychological and social consequences, particularly when language skills are unevenly distributed, the major purpose of the data analysis section that follows then is to demonstrate that the metaphors that have been employed in the tributes to Mwalimu Isaacs entail different purposes. The ultimate question then is the following: How can the metaphors be systematically identified in the tributes? For an answer to this question, Levinson's treatise on tools used to analyze metaphors in the field of linguistic pragmatics is quite profitable.

Levinson discusses three theories that have undergirded the analysis of metaphors in the field of linguistic pragmatics. The first theory is the Comparison Theory which, according to Levinson, states that "Metaphors are similes with suppressed or deleted predications of similarities." (13) The second theory is the Interaction Theory which, following Levinson, proposes that "Metaphors are special uses of linguistic expressions where one 'metaphorical' expression (or focus) is embedded in another 'literal' expression (or frame), such that the meaning of the focus interacts with and changes the meaning of the frame, and vice versa." (14) The third theory is the Correspondence Theory which, as Levinson states, involves "the mapping of one whole cognitive domain into another, allowing the tracing out or multiple correspondences." (15) Of these three postulates, Levinson finds the Correspondence Theory to be the most useful because it "has the virtue of accounting for various well-known properties of metaphors: the 'non-prepositional' nature, or relative indeterminacy of a metaphor's import, the tendency for the substitution of concrete for abstract terms, and the different degrees to which metaphors can be successful." (16) Levinson then goes on to suggest the use of the following three steps to identify metaphors in a text: (1) "account for how any trope or non-literal use of the language is recognized"; (2) "know how metaphors are distinguished from other tropes;" (3) "once recognized, the interpretation of metaphors must rely on features of our general ability to reason analogically." (17)


This section entails a discussion of the metaphors employed by the ASRF writers (18) of the tributes to characterize Mwalimu Isaacs. After reading each of these panegyrics, the metaphors were teased out and placed into the following categories based on their meanings: (a) familial metaphors, (b) academician metaphors, (c) personhood metaphors. In the following subsections, these categories are defined and their attendant metaphors with meanings presented. It behooves me to mention here that many of the definitions for the metaphors were derived from the Google Dictionary ( I also must mention here that citations for the metaphors that follow are omitted because the authors of the attributes from which they were gleaned have already been mentioned and many authors evoke the same metaphors.

Familial Metaphors

Familial metaphors relate to a family or its members. As Ann Sullivan points out, "The familial metaphor crosses all cultural and societal constraints because even in the most dysfunctional families, most of us have some sense of what a perfect father could look like." (19) The following are the familial metaphors identified in the tributes and their meanings:

1. Family man--a male who is a member of a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household.

2. Brother--a man in relation to other sons and daughters of his parents.

3. Uncle--a brother of one's father or mother or the husband of one's aunt.

4. Father--a man in relation to his natural child or children.

5. Grandfather--the father of one's father or mother.

6. Great grandfather--a male who is the father of one's grandmother or grandfather.

7. Dearly beloved father--a greatly cherished man in relation to his natural child or children.

Academician Metaphors

These metaphors chronicle education and scholarship. According to Mehmet Firat and Isil Kabakci Yurdakul, academician metaphors are an outgrowth of universities being exposed to two basic transformations throughout history: (1) "from the university-oriented towards research-oriented and (2) from research-oriented to university-oriented," which were due to the "educated people and high living standards [that] occurred during the Cold War as well as the current social environment ready to reach the information necessary to increase industrialization after the 2nd World War." (20) Firat and Yurdakul also note that
   In addition, as in other fields, globalization has had
   important effects on universities in the new century.
   These new effects of globalization could be said to
   include governments' decreasing budgets allocated to
   higher education, pragmatism at universities, technology-supported
   instruction, the increasing number of students
   all over the world and the sanctions imposed on
   educational institutions. Non-governmental organizations
   also have potential for globalization. Non-governmental
   organizations are an important instrument of the
   countries, for upholding the government efforts to
   achieve globalization of universities. (21)

What ensue are the academician metaphors delineated from the tributes with their meanings:

1. Professor--a teacher or scholar in a post-secondary educational institution.

2. Mwalimu--Kiswahili for "Honorable Teacher" (or educator).

3. Colleague--a person with whom one works in academia or other professions.

4. Founder and founding president--a person who started and the first elected head of an organization.

5. Teacher--a person having a natural aptitude or skill to educate others.

6. Thinker--a person with highly developed original ideas.

7. Student--a person who is studying at a school or college.

Personhood Metaphors

These metaphors reflect the quality or condition of being an individual person. Amia Lieblich and Ruthellen Josselson inform us that metaphors of personhood comprise the quandary of progression and change over the life course and the episodes of meaning-making. They add that these metaphors are "fuzzy" and free-flowing and symbolize, albeit they do not inhibit, the ways in which people perceive their experiences and situate themselves in society and in time. (22) The personhood metaphors in the tributes and their meanings are the following:

1. Mentor--an experienced and trusted adviser.

2. Sir--a British title before the given name of a knight or baronet.

3. He was ATWS--a male who existed as the organization (Association of Third World Studies).

4. Fine man--a male who is outstanding.

5. Good man--a male who possesses desired qualities.

6. Friend--a person of a high standard with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations.

7. Gentle and accepting man--a male who is mild in temperament and behavior and consents to others' wishes.

8. Leader--a person who commands a group, organization, or country.

9. A man of the people--a male who stands up for all human beings in general or considered collectively.

10. Humble man--a male with the quality of having a modest view of his own importance.

11. Dancer of African Soukous (also referred to as Lingala or Congois)--a person who moves rhythmically to a genre of music that originated from Congo and spread throughout Africa.

12. Writer of short notes and well wishes--a person who pens brief messages and felicitations.

13. Humanitarian--a person who has a strong interest in or concern for human welfare, values, and dignity.

14. Great visionary--a person with ability, quality, or eminence considerably above average who thinks about or plans the future with imagination or wisdom.

Summary of the Findings

From the preceding analysis and Table I, it is evident that of the 28 metaphors teased out of the tributes to Mwalimu Isaacs, the majority of them are the personhood (14 or 50%) types. These are distantly followed by both the academician and familial metaphors (each with 7 or 25%). Table 1 also reveals that there are statistically significant variations among the metaphorical categories, with a mean of 9.33, a standard deviation of 4.041, a variance of 16.333, a range of 7, t-statistic of 4.000, and sig. (2-tailed) or p-value of 0.057.

It should be further noted here that all of the tributes are positive. This is a reflection of Mwalimu Isaacs' good human attributes that attracted so many of us to him and his work.


Based on my paper titled "Pan-Blackist Conceptualizations of the Black Power Paradigm: From Cheikh Anta Diop to Ali Al'amin Mazrui," after a careful analysis of the ASRF tributes examined for the present paper, I can safely place Mwalimu Isaacs in the atenu in Ancient Egyptian/Hieroglyphics or Mapinduzi in Kiswahili or Revolutionary in English school of thought, as opposed to the atenu m'ten in Ancient Egyptian/Hieroglyphics or Mapinduzi ya Malazi in Kiswahili or Revolutionary-Accommodationist in English, or the kheperu in Ancient Egyptian/Hieroglyphics or Kubadilisha in Kiswahili or Reformist in English school of thought. All of the metaphors analyzed here seem to support my categorization. It behooves me, therefore, to say a bit more about these paradigms. (23)

The term atenu was employed by Ancient Egyptians to describe revolutionaries, rebels or fiends who wanted radical change. Such people were perceived as Mesti, the divine parents of the God of Sun or Day Ra; Mesu, the gods who begat their own fathers or divine beings; and Mesut, children of God Osiris or divine beings. The concept atenu m'ten was employed by Ancient Egyptians to refer to those who wanted change but would accept things, listened to, obeyed, or be content with things as long as their burdens were assuaged. The word kheperu for Ancient Egyptians described those who sought change in form, manifestation, shape, similitude, or image. (24) Indeed, with great humility and tenacity, Mwalimu Isaacs sought to change our world by launching a scholarly organization that offered something radically new on the Third World compared to the prevailing paradigms at the time.


(1.) Abdul Karim Bangura, Unpeaceful Metaphors (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002), 61.

(2.) Anita Wenden, "Defining Peace: Perspectives from Peace Research," in C. Schaffner and A. Wenden (eds.), Language and Peace (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999), 223.

(3.) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 3.

(4.) Bangura, Unpeaceful Metaphors, 1.

(5.) David Crystal, An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Language and Languages (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), 249.

(6.) Stephen Levinson, Pragmatics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 152-153,

(7.) Brian Weinstein, The Civic Tongue (New York, NY: Longman, Inc., 1983), 8.

(8.) Abdul Karim Bangura, "Understanding and Fighting Corruption in Sierra Leone: A Metaphorical Linguistic Approach," Journal of Third World Studies 24, 1, 2007:52.

(9.) Murray Edelman, Politics as Symbolic Action: Mass Arousal and Quiescence (Chicago. IL: Markham for the Institute for Research on Poverty Monograph Series, 1971), 67.

(10.) Ibid., 65-74.

(11.) Weinstein, The Civic Tongue, 3.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Levinson, Pragmatics, 148.

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Ibid., 159.

(16.) Ibid., 160.

(17.) Ibid., 161.

(18.) The following are the names of the ASRF members who wrote tributes to Mwalimu Isaacs in alphabetical order by last names: John Agbonifo, Akwasi B. Assensoh, Abdul Karim Bangura, Assefaw Bariagaber, Peter A. Dumbuya, William Ehwarieme, Ignatius Ezeani, Delma S. Jackson, George Klay Kieh, Jr., Falla Dominic Lamin, Johnson W. Makoba, John Mukum Mbaku, Ishmael Irungu Munene, Iheanyi Osondu, Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, Emmanuel Ike Udogu, Edward Lama Wonkeryor, and Samueal Zalanga.

(19.) Ann C. Sullivan, "The World is an Emptier Place," in A. C. Sullivan (ed.), Simple Truths (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2014), 1. Retrieved on May 28, 2015 from er-place/

(20.) Mehmet Firat and Isil Kabakci Yurdakul, "University Metaphors: A study of Academicians' Perspectives," International Journal of Social Science and Education 2, 2, 2112:1-2. Retrieved on May 28, 2015 from ue%202%20,%20%202012/Paper-20/Paper-20.pdf

(21.) Ibid., 2.

(22.) Amia Lieblich and Ruthellen Josselson, 2012. "Identity and Narrative as Root Metaphors," in J. Martin and M. H. Bickhard (eds.), The Psychology of Personhood (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012). Retrieved on May 28, 2015 from rsonality-psychology-and-individual-differences/psychology personhood-philosophical-historical-social-developmental-and narrative-perspectives?format=AR

(23.) Abdul Karim Bangura, "Pan-Blackist Conceptualizations of the Black Power Paradigm: From Cheikh Anta Diop to Ali Al'amin Mazrui," Proceedings of the International Black Power Conference on Reflections, Relevance, and Continuity: Caribbean and Global Perspectives on Black Power, 2010:1-66. Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago: University of West Indies St. Augustine Campus.

(24.) Ibid.; for further details, see E. A. Wallis Budge, An Egyptian Hieroglyphics Dictionary vols. 1 & 2 (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1978).
Table 1: Frequency Statistics

Type                             N        %

Personhood Metaphors            14       50%
Academician Metaphors            7       25%
Familial Metaphors               7       25%
Total                           28      100%
Mean                           9.33
Standard Deviation             4.041
Variance                      16.333
Range                            7
t-Statistic                    4.000
Sig. (2-tailed) or p-value     0.057

Source: Self-generated by author using SPSS
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Author:Bangura, Abdul Karim
Publication:Journal of Third World Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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