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

Author:Bangura, Abdul Karim


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)...

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