Eniayo Sobola

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This paper examines the relevance of metaphors in the interrogation of sociolinguistic meaning in the language of selected Nollywood movies. Metaphors are explored through the concept of context as an analytical framework to examine social functions performed by the metaphors.  These include the use of metaphor as  a tool for communicative competence, social identity, producing versions of metaphoric idioms, as well as showing the effects of technological advancement on the metaphors used in Nigerian movies. The data for this study are purposively selected from three hundred metaphors used in the researcher’s ongoing doctoral research. It has been established in the study that metaphor is a tool for the expression of communicative competence in the Nigerian socio-communicative context. Metaphors with indigenous lexical items are used to show social identity; thus Nigerian versions of metaphoric idioms have been produced. It has also been established that technological advancement has influenced the metaphors used in Nigerian society as portrayed in Nigerian movies, and some metaphors have been classified as peculiar Nigerian metaphors. The study shows that metaphor is worth investigating in the sociolinguistic study of language in different speech communities.

Keywords: metaphor, meaning, sociolinguistics, Nollywood movies.


Language is used in human society for different communicative purposes which help human beings to coexist and relate freely as social animals. Metaphor is an aspect of language creativity which shows how language is functionally used in a unique manner for complex communication. The reason is that it required that the speaker and the hearer share certain knowledge of metaphorical understanding needed for the interpretation of metaphors in a speech community (Searle, 1979). As a creative aspect of language use, metaphor functions in every speech community according to cultural dictates and linguistic functions in societies. Metaphor is an integral part of culture as language and culture are connected. Metaphorical expressions are used to express cultural values and beliefs of people of a society. Members of speech communities or all native speakers of languages use metaphors to communicate their worldview and uniqueness of language use in their societies (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Kövecses, 2010). Native speakers of a language use the images available in their culture to construct their metaphors. These images, at times, serve as a means of cultural and linguistic identification which language users in a speech community share as their common heritage. According to Yu (1998), the cultural model shared by the members of a speech community determines their choice of metaphor. It may not be easy for a member of a community to choose the images outside those available in his community to express his worldview because such metaphor may not express his identity with such community.

Basso (1976) has asserted that language and culture are united in metaphor:

For it is in metaphor, perhaps more dramatically than in any other form of symbolic expression, that language and culture come together and display their fundamental inseparability.

The assertion buttresses our point that metaphor is an integral part of culture which language expresses. In consonance with the assertion above, Lichang (2004) states that metaphor is the best way of illustrating cultural effects on language. Since metaphor shows the strong relationship between language and culture, the interpretation of metaphor is culture-based, and culture of every society is expressed in language use in such a society.

Metaphors are bound to express sociolinguistic meaning which is the meaning relating to language in a speech community. It has been claimed that “sociolinguistics is concerned with investigating the relationship between language and society with the goal being a better understanding of the structure of language and how languages function in communication” (Wardhaugh, 1998: 12). It is the duty of sociolinguists to study how different aspects and varieties of language are used in society and to determine the context in which they are used. The study of sociolinguistics has shown that people speak differently in different social contexts to perform social functions of language and convey social meaning (Holmes, 2008). Some social context does not allow the use of literal language but figurative form, part of which is metaphor which may be required to perform some social functions of language and convey social meaning which may be understood in sociolinguistic context. The ability to use language in such a way is referred to as communicative competence (Gumperz, 1972; Wardhaugh, 1998). Saville-Troike (1996) explored communicative competence to be the ability to use the right form of language including silence as demanded by social context to perform social function which is meaningful in particular social setting. Metaphor is required in one of such settings because literal expression may not be strong enough in the context to perform some social function. For example, in a condolence message, metaphor may be used to describe death as a debt that everyone must pay. Also in the context of child birth, a newly born baby may be metaphorically described as a bundle of blessing or joy. Metaphor is found as appropriate linguistic device in these sociolinguistic contexts. This has paved a ground for the study of metaphor with sociolinguistic meaning in Nollywood movies. 

The Language Situation in Nigeria

Nigeria is a nation with linguistic diversity and cultural differences where English functions as official language and the language of unity. English thrives along with indigenous languages in Nigeria, never posing a threat to Nigerian languages, but rather, complementing them. Nigerian languages have a steady influx of their lexical items into English which has helped in the domestication of English in Nigeria. The influx is as a result of linguistic environment in which English found itself. As Banjo (1975) has said that the language cannot be a linguistic island, it needs to interact, react and adapt to its new social and linguistic environment (Adegbija, 2004).

Bamiro (2006) asserts that linguistic hybridization exists in Nigerian linguistic situation. The phenomenon is described as “direct lexical transfers and borrowings from Nigerian languages.” This process incorporates linguistic features from native languages into English which serves as a national language in Nigeria. This incorporation is a means of sociolinguistic identity which connects the discourse and the participants in the discourse to their cultural and linguistic background. Bamiro (2000) has noted that this transfer is code-mixing which he called “transfer of untranslated words into a text” (98). The untranslated words are linguistic elements peculiar to certain cultural and linguistic communities. Some of them are personal names, names of places and objects that do not have English equivalent because they are geographically constrained. These are often found in Nigerian movies. Where such names are mentioned, they function as a means of social identity.

Nigerian screenwriters choose language that is suitable to the context of their films. Some of them resolve to produce their films in Nigerian indigenous languages to express their cultural identity and subtitled them in English in order to reach a wider audience. Others produced their films in English with cultural elements of Nigerian languages such as metaphors, proverbs and idioms with untranslated lexical items. English is used in Nigerian films in a manner that enables the language to express cultural beliefs, philosophical views, traditional values and experiences of Nigerians to both Nigerians and non-Nigerian audience both at home and in diasporas with vivid portrayal of Nigerian identity.  

Nollywood movies

Nigerian films tell Nigerian stories using Nigerian cultures and environment in either indigenous Nigerian languages or in foreign languages (Oni, 2008; Haynes and Okome, 1997). At earlier period, they were called home video because they were shot on video directly for home viewing which is a form of entertainment for the working class and women (Larking, 2000; Agbese, 2013). Nigerian films use Nigerian cultural values and norms to address issues affecting Nigerian society. Aside the films produced in English by Nigerian filmmakers, Nigerian films express cultural and sociolinguistic backgrounds of Nigeria through films in indigenous languages. Nollywood films have gone beyond the confine of the films made in the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria: Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa. It has spread its tentacles to cover other ethnic and minor languages in Nigeria. Studies have shown that there are films produced in the following languages: Benin, Nupe, Afemai, Ibibo, Ebira, Tiv, Efik, Idoma, Itsekiri, Ijaw and Urhobo (Omoera, 2013; Zajc, 2009; Ekwuazi, 1991; Idachaba, 2008). The proliferation of Nigerian films from different ethnic backgrounds projects cultural pluralism in Nigeria.

Nollywood is a name given to Nigerian film industry. The term was first used in the New York Times by Matt Steinglass in 2002 who was in search of a name for the emerging Nigerian video film industry used N- to connote Nigeria and called the industry Nollywood in imitation of the American Hollywood and the Indian Bollywood (Haynes, 2005; Oni, 2008). The name did not survive without resistance from some stakeholders in the industry, yet it has become the identity of the industry. 


Context is an essential analytical tool in interpreting and understanding of some realities beyond the level of language which it has been used to express. Often times, it is required that situation surrounding language should be put into consideration to explain and describe the meaning that is intended to be conveyed through language (Halliday and Hasan, 1985). Halliday and Hasan (1985) see this as a social approach to linguistic phenomenon. Thereby, they relate language to social structure to explain that language is used in social context, and language varies according to social context (Trudgill, 1983). Context relates to participants’ identities, roles, times, places, actions, knowledge, institutions and other factors.

Context serves as a bridge that connects the text with the situation in which it occurs (Halliday, 1985) because it is context that determines how text is to be interpreted. Halliday and Hasan posit that context precedes text because there must be a situation for discourse to occur, and each situation is marked for particular kind of text or discourse.

Context of situation

Malinowski (1923) propounded a theory of the context of situation to cover the total environment including the verbal environment and the situation in which a text occurs. Therefore, according to Malinowski, context of situation means environment of the text (Malinowski, 1923). He discovered that it required more than the immediate environment to give an adequate description of a text: it was necessary to provide information about the total cultural background because linguistic activities such as conversation or interactional exchange include not only the speech and sight around the event but also the whole cultural historical background of the participants, the kind of practices that they engaged in, the significance of such practices to their culture whether in a practical sense or as a form of ritual. All these contribute to the interpretation of meaning (Halliday and Hasan, 1985). Consequently, two kinds of contexts were introduced by him: context of situation and context of culture which are still necessary for the interpretation and understanding of text. Firth who was Malinowski’s colleague developed the notion of context situation into linguistic theory, explained that meaning is determined by context and “all linguistics was the study of meaning and all meaning was function in a context” (Firth, 1935, quoted in Halliday and Hasan, 1985).

Hymes (1967) claims that we often know what someone intends to say in a conversation, and such prediction is seen as a normal phenomenon. He asserts that such prediction is made possible through context of situation because the situation in which linguistic interaction occurs makes a great deal of information available for the participants about the meaning being exchanged and the possible meaning to be exchanged.


Text is language that functions in context, that is, language that is doing some work in some context. A text is a semantic unit: it conveys meaning. A text can be seen as a product and a process. It is a product because it is an output. It can be recorded, studied, and it is constructed in a way that can be represented in systematic forms. It is a process because it involves a continuous process of semantic choice which operates through the network of meaning potential, and each set of choices constitutes an environment for another set (Halliday and Hasan, 1985).

Context of culture

Context of culture is the general context or background for language as a system (Halliday, 1999; van Dijk, 2010). It is a broader background that helps in the interpretation of text. It is the totality of cultural practices that guide events, activities and discourses in societies. It is embedded in the knowledge of language users to make them understand the cultural norms that dictate how situations demand particular form of language. Cultural context is observed at abstract level and influences language in more diffuse and indirect manner (van Dijk, 2010). It encompasses context of situation because all social situations are inherent in culture. Context of culture covers daily social, religious, philosophical experiences of a group of people. Proper interpretation of text requires that it should be interpreted against the context of culture in which it is used in order to derive the actual meaning (Halliday, 1999). van Dijk (2010) asserts that context is culturally different from society to society. Therefore, when interpreting socio-cultural meaning of a text, society in which the text is used should be put into consideration as societal norms, beliefs and practices vary.

Methodological Framework

The data for this research are generated from three hundred metaphorical expressions extracted from thirty Nigerian films: fifteen Nigerian films in Yoruba subtitled in English and fifteen Nigerian films in English used in the researcher’s ongoing Ph. D research entitled A Linguistic Analysis of Metaphors in Selected Nollywood Films. Metaphors containing sociolinguistic features were purposively selected for analysis. The metaphors are analysed using context as an analytical tool to investigate the social context in which they are used to generate sociolinguistic meaning. The metaphors are coded as NFY for Nigerian Film in Yoruba and NFE for Nigerian Film in English. Arabic numerals are used for number of film in the list and the Roman figure for the number of metaphor among the metaphors in each film.

Data Analysis

Sociolinguistics is the study of language in relation to society. It is shows language situation and the roles that language plays in society. Holmes (2008) explains that sociolinguistics is concerned with the relationship that takes place between language and context, particularly the context in which it is used. Metaphors used in Nigerian films express communicative competence of the users of the creative language in Nigerian context. Literal language cannot be used in the context in which the metaphorical expressions are used because it will not produce sociolinguistic meaning which metaphors analysed below are able to produce. The context enables language to perform some social functions such as indicating social identity of the language users which may help to identify the speech community that the users of a language come from. There are some metaphors in the selected Nigerian films that perform social functions such as social identity. Those metaphors portray sociolinguistic meaning which is a reflection of language situation in Nigeria.

There are metaphors with socio-cultural meaning used in Nollywood movies. These metaphors are easily comprehended by the users of a language that share the same cultural values and beliefs which enhance their communicative competence. These metaphors have cultural elements that portray the cultural meaning that is intended by the speaker. Analysis of these metaphors is done below to depict how their interpretation portrays communicative competence of the language users.

i.          The voice is an egg.  (NFY 11-i)

The expression is prominent and more pronounced in Yoruba socio-cultural setting as a term of warning. It is meant to caution a speaker to be careful of utterance he or she is about to make because once words are spoken by somebody, the utterance remains. Though the speaker may renounce the utterance, its memory remains with the hearer who can make reference to it at any time. As egg cannot be packed into its shell once it breaks, the Yorubas believe that spoken words are irrevocable. Therefore, it is required that the speaker should ponder on whatever he or she is about to say before saying it. 

ii.         Come here viper.  (NFY 2-vi)

In Yoruba culture when someone is addressed as viper, it means that the person has a friendly disposition but very dangerous and deadly. Such person is not to be trusted. This may cut across other cultures like the Jewish culture where John the Baptist addressed the Jews as ‘brood of vipers’ (KJV Bible, Matthew 3: 7). It is also an aspect of Yoruba beliefs that some people are not real human beings, but they are animals that appear that appear in human form in order to live in human society.

iii.        Gossip gives women blood.  (NFE 1-i)

The metaphor comes from Igbo socio-cultural setting where the spread of information whether true or not is thriving. The speaker equates gossip among women with blood which is a means of human survival. It means that gossip makes women effective and keeps them lively in the society. Gossip is viewed as a source of news in this society.

iv.        You are a bat.  (NFY 13-x)

In most Nigerian and African cultures, bat is seen as a symbol of double identity or personality. It is used to describe someone who unreliable, not dependable and a traitor. People of this kind switch sides easily and go with anyone that benefits them.

v.         She is a mermaid.  (NFE 14-ix)

In African communities, mermaid is worshipped as the goddess of river contrary to the European view that mermaid is an imaginary being. She is adored for her beauty and ability to meet the spiritual and material needs of her worshippers. A lady is addressed as mermaid in these communities because of the extra-ordinary beauty she displays, which enchanted men to her.

It is evident from the analysis of the metaphors done above that the interpretation of the metaphors is based on culturally shared knowledge. This knowledge only demonstrates that the decoder shares the same communicative competence with the speaker in the context. Otherwise, he would have provided other interpretations for the metaphors because certain cultural elements are coded with different meanings in different societies.  

The sociolinguistic features of those metaphors are illustrated in the table below:

Classification of Metaphors    

Metaphor Sociolinguistic Meaning
Chigbo is a wild animal  (NFE 4-i) Uwape is a goat.  (NFE 6-i) Egwue is the real stuff.   (NFE 2-vi) Egondu is not the only pepper soup we have.   (NFE 6-v) Emeka’s burial is eating me up.     (NFE 1-vii) Leke is a beast.    (NFY 8-x) Eluku is an elephant.    (NFY 11-x) My back is harder than Olumo rock. (NFY 10-viii) Tinuola is the herb pot of the family.   (NFY 6-vii) Yakubu is a cat.    (NFY 13-x) Social identity – Igbo Social identity – Igbo  Social identity – Igbo   Social identity – Igbo Social identity – Igbo Social identity – Yoruba Social identity – Yoruba Social identity – Yoruba Social identity – Yoruba Social identity – Hausa/Islam
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop A busy hand is the devil’s workshop.   (NFE 15-vii) A busy waist is the devil’s workshop.  (NFE 15-viii) A busy waist is the devil’s warehouse.  (NFE 15-ix) to be a pain in the neck This boy is a pain in everybody’s buttock.    (NFE 15-iv) English metaphorical idiom Nigerian version Nigerian version Nigerian version English metaphorical idiom   Nigerian version
You can sow GSM into my life(NFE 7-vi) You are Nokia.     (NFY 15-v) You are Blackberry.   (NFY 15-vi) I am not Tecno(NFY 3-ii) Your memory card has turned upside down.   (NFY 2-v) Are you a local typewriter? (NFE 6-x) Are you a machine?   (NFE 7-viii) Technological influence – mobile phone Technological influence – mobile phone Technological influence – mobile phone Technological influence – mobile phone   Technological influence – storage device Technological influence – machine Technological influence – machine
Big grammar is the magic.  (NFE 15-v) I will not sleep: I am kerosene. (NFY 6-iv) Ebenezer Obey is a great music. (NFY 2-viii) She has eaten witchcraft. (NFE 1-iv) Soup is the breast milk of elders.  (NFY 5-vii) My brother is not your meat. (NFY 7-vi) Family inheritance is shared tree by tree: a wife and her children are a tree. (NFY 15-ii) I must appreciate my child because you are my first log. (NFY 15-iii) My child is my mirror. (NFY 15-i) My wives and children are my property. (NFY 15-i) Tinuola is the herb pot of the family. (NFY 6-vii) Self-contain is grave. (NFY 3-x) She is pepper which cannot change its nature. (NFY 14-i) Peculiar Nigerian metaphor Peculiar Nigerian metaphor Peculiar Nigerian metaphor Peculiar Nigerian metaphor Peculiar Nigerian metaphor Peculiar Nigerian metaphor   Peculiar Nigerian metaphor   Peculiar Nigerian metaphor Peculiar Nigerian metaphor Peculiar Nigerian metaphor Peculiar Nigerian metaphor Peculiar Nigerian metaphor    Peculiar Nigerian metaphor

The classification of the metaphors summarised above is explicated in the analysis below.

i. Social identity

The following metaphors with proper nouns perform the function of social identity. Some of them with indigenous names are used to identify the social and linguistic background of the characters involved in the expressions, especially their speech communities. For example,

Chigbo is a wild animal  (NFE 4-i)

The noun ‘Chigbo’ functions as a means of social identity which indicates that the metaphor is probably from the Igbo community in Nigeria because ‘Chigbo’ is an Igbo name. The same situation is applicable to the following metaphors:

Uwape is a goat.  (NFE 6-i)

Egwue is the real stuff.   (NFE 2-vi)

Egondu is not the only pepper soup we have.   (NFE 6-v)

Emeka’s burial is eating me up.     (NFE 1-vii)

The nouns in italics in the metaphors above are Igbo names which show that the users of the metaphors have linguistic relationship with Igbo speech community.

The nouns in italics in the metaphors below also indicate that they have a relationship with Yoruba speech community because they are Yoruba names.

Leke is a beast.    (NFY 8-x)

Eluku is an elephant.    (NFY 11-x)

My back is harder than Olumo rock. (NFY 10-viii)

Tinuola is the herb pot of the family.   (NFY 6-vii)

These names are means are means of social identity with Yoruba speech community. Olumo in the above expression is a name of a renowned rock in Abeokuta, Ogun state, Nigeria, which served as a refuge for Egba people during a war in the pre-colonial era. The speaker identified herself with Abeokuta where the rock is located.

The noun ‘Yakubu’ in the metaphor

Yakubu is a cat.    (NFY 13-x)

associates with Islam, which is the dominant religion in the northern Nigeria practised by the Hausas. The Islamic names are seen by most Nigerians as Hausa names; therefore, the noun ‘Yakubu’ can be identified with Islam and Hausa on social basis.

ii. Nigerian version of English metaphoric idioms

As a result of the contact between English and Nigerian languages, the reinterpretation of English expressions as a bilingual phenomenon is carried over into this context. This may be called metaphoric over-generalisation. Over-generalisation is a syntactic feature of Nigerian English (Okoro, 2004). Therefore, the Nigerian versions of the English metaphoric idiom Idle hands are the devil’s workshop have been produced. These versions are presented below:

A busy hand is the devil’s workshop.   (NFE 15-vii)

A busy waist is the devil’s workshop.  (NFE 15-viii)

A busy waist is the devil’s warehouse.  (NFE 15-ix)

The versions produced above have been identified with Nigerian language situation. This might have been as a result of the influence of the mother tongue on the English language where the speakers try to express their opinions from the indigenous language in English.

The idiom to be a pain in the neck has been modified to produce a variety in the Nigerian context. The variety is

This boy is a pain in everybody’s buttock.    (NFE 15-iv)

iii. Technological influence on English usage in Nigeria

The following metaphors reveal how technological advancement has influenced metaphors used in Nigerian films, which has been a reflection of the language situation in Nigeria. Technical items used in the metaphors below reflect creativity and flexibility of English usage in Nigeria.

i.  You can sow GSM into my life(NFE 7-vi)

In the metaphor , GSM is compared to seed of a plant that can be sown to produce fruits. My life is also compared to the soil where seed can be sown. In this context, the speaker demanded GSM as a gift in order for her to yield her body to the listener in return. A mobile phone, referred to as Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM), is a valuable gift in Nigeria that is given to someone special; demanding it in the metaphor shows that it has become a means of exchange. In the subsequent examples, human beings are compared with brands of mobile phone producers.

ii. You are Nokia.     (NFY 15-v)

In the Nigerian sociolinguistic context, Nokia brand of mobile phones is known for not being easily damaged. This feature of the brand of mobile phone is used to describe a resilient and tough person. Whoever is being addressed as Nokia in Nigeria is believed to be a rugged person.

iii. You are Blackberry.   (NFY 15-vi)

Blackberry is sophisticated and highly placed among mobile phones in Nigeria as a result of its expensive price and functions. For someone to be called Blackberry in Nigeria, it means that the person is highly rated either because the person is rich or good looking. 

iv. I am not Tecno(NFY 3-ii)

People do not want to associate with Tecno in Nigeria because they see it as a cheap and inferior brand of mobile phone that commoners can afford. Whoever is addressed as Tecno is believed to be a lower class person in Nigerian sociolinguistic context.

v. Your memory card has turned upside down.   (NFY 2-v)

The social meaning of memory card in Nigerian context is the human brain. When someone’s memory card is turned upside down, it means that the brain of the person is not functioning properly maybe because the person displays abnormality in his disposition.

vi. Are you a local typewriter? (NFE 6-x)

A typewriter is known for making noises when the buttons on its keyboard are being punched during typing unlike a computer. When someone talks without caution, the person may be referred to as a local typewriter.

 vii. Are you a machine?   (NFE 7-viii)

The meaning of machine in Nigerian sociolinguistic context is beyond something that is operated through an engine. It is used to refer to people who are very agile to perform several tasks without being tired. Some are even called German machine if they are extremely sexually active and like to have sexual intercourse with many sexual partners.

The expressions are not strange to Nigerians users of English though they are novel. They are found in the expressions of Nigerians both in their indigenous languages and in English. The sociolinguistic meaning of these metaphors reflects linguistic creativity of Nigerian users of English enables them to use technological terms in a context that compares features of technological objects with non-technological objects.

iv. Peculiar Nigerian metaphors

Okoro (2004) presents some words and expressions peculiar to Nigerian linguistic environment as peculiar Nigerianism. Some metaphors used in Nigerian films studied in this research can be classified as peculiar Nigerian metaphors because they are peculiarly used by Nigerians in conversations to convey some meaning. Some of them are:

Big grammar is the magic.  (NFE 15-v)

I will not sleep: I am kerosene. (NFY 6-iv)

Ebenezer Obey is a great music. (NFY 2-viii)

She has eaten witchcraft. (NFE 1-iv)

Soup is the breast milk of elders.  (NFY 5-vii)

My brother is not your meat. (NFY 7-vi)

Family inheritance is shared tree by tree: a wife and her children are a tree. (NFY 15-ii)

I must appreciate my child because you are my first log. (NFY 15-iii)

My child is my mirror. (NFY 15-i)

My wives and children are my property. (NFY 15-i)

Tinuola is the herb pot of the family. (NFY 6-vii)

Self-contain is grave. (NFY 3-x)

She is pepper which cannot change its nature. (NFY 14-i)

The metaphors above are novel metaphors, but they are easily understood in Nigerian sociolinguistic context. They portray linguistic creativity prominent in Nigerian linguistic contexts.


The focus of this paper is on how metaphors in Nollywood movies communicate sociolinguistic meaning using context as a theoretical tool. The analysis has shown the social functions performed by metaphors in sociolinguistic context which projects its crucial role in language use in social context. The study has shown that metaphor is a tool for communicative competence in Nigerian socio-communicative context as such metaphors communicate social and linguistic meaning better in different speech contexts. Some metaphors are used to communicate social identity because of indigenous lexical items in them which help to identify the linguistic background of the interlocutors in the discourse. It has also been discovered that Nigerian versions of metaphoric idioms have been produced as a result of linguistic over-generalisation which is a syntactic feature of Nigerian English. This over-generalisation is seen as a part of linguistic creativity. The study has also revealed that technological advancement has affected the metaphors in Nigerian movies. The technological items used in the movies have different meaning in Nigerian sociolinguistic context which enables the filmmakers to take advantage of such metaphorical usage which is common in Nigerian societies, in the composition of the film discourse. The sociolinguistic meanings giving to such items are attributive because they are derived from attributes of the items. Some metaphors have also been identified as peculiar Nigerian metaphors. These have shown peculiarity of metaphor as both cultural and linguistic elements which perform some social functions in sociolinguistic context.


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