Depiction is a technical term used in psychology1, philosophy2, and art history3, but less so in linguistics4. One of my claims about ideophones is that they are best understood (typically, canonically, with the customary provisos about the fluid categories of natural language) as depictive words. Do we really need a term like that? Can’t we make do with good old ‘expressive’ or ‘vivid‘? No, I say. But what then is this elusive concept of depiction? How can we tell that something is intended as a depiction? What is depiction, such that we can distinguish it from other modes of representation? In answering these questions, it is useful to make a distinction between the signals that frame something as a depiction on the one hand, and the aspects of depiction as a mode of representation on the other hand. But let’s start with something more basic: words and images.
Words versus images
There is a domain where distinct modes of representation are very important and very clear: that of visual representations, in particular written words versus images. Take the following slide (from one of my presentations), with on the left a sentence involving le soleil “the sun” and on the right an image of the sun. (Bonus points for those who see whose handwriting that is.5) The claim here is a simple one: that the left and the right side involve two distinct modes of representation.
I’m guessing most readers will agree with at least this basic distinction. What we call this distinction doesn’t matter a lot, but I call it, following the literature, “description” versus “depiction”. More important than the labels are the ways in which the phenomena differ. On the slide above, a first opposition is between propositional vs. imagistic. This is in a way restating the same point (see Kosslyn 1980 for more details), so I’ll focus on the remaining three. There are three key differences that help us to deductively distinguish depictions from descriptions: descriptions differ from depictions (1) in terms of symbol system they use (using discrete symbols vs. using gradient markings), (2) in terms of form-meaning mappings (basically arbitrary vs. basically iconic), (3) in terms of how we interpret them (“decode” to interpret vs. “imagine” to interpret).
Words as images
Without even having started worrying about ideophones, this is a distinction that we need to make. It’s a distinction that is motivated on independent grounds. Words are different from images in their mode of representation, and we find a number of clear differences between the descriptive and depictive modes of representation.
The next step of my argument consists simply in noting that precisely those three key ways in which descriptions differ from depictions (in the visual mode) are also ways in which plain words differ from ideophones (in spoken language). Ideophones tend to use more gradient and discrete symbol systems; their form-meaning mappings tend to be more iconic than arbitrary; and to interpret them, we “imagine” more than we “decode” (Dingemanse 2011, 2012). Of course these differences are not absolute; in my thesis I have pointed out, for instance, that convention (and hence decoding) also plays an important role in depiction. After all ideophones are conventionalised words and not creative formations — most of the time.
When I say that ideophones are depictions, this is a statement about their mode of representation. It is more about a way some thing can be than about the thing itself. Take the sun. That’s a pretty good ‘thing’. Now take the two representations of the sun shown above. Even those representations are tangible ‘things’, in the sense that we can talk about them, point at them, isolate them (as I do on the slide above). But the way in which those two representations differ, that is their mode of representation. It is about the way something can represent something else. That is the sense in which I call an image of the sun and an ideophone in spoken language a depiction.
Signals and aspects of depictions
Having established this sense of depiction, we can next make a distinction between signals and aspects of depictions. A signal serves to alert the interpreter to a difference. It’s like the frame of a painting. That frame is not itself the depiction, but it frames it, marks it as distinct from the surrounding material. Distinct how? In mode of representation. Good examples of signals of depiction in speech are things like quotative markers or performative foregrounding. Both can be seen in an example like “The car went VROOOM” — the ‘go’ verb functions as the quotative marker, and the capitals of vroom help highlight its performative nature (a convention familiar from comic strips). Note that there is nothing depictive about the quotative verb itself. It just serves to introduce someting as as depiction.
Aspects of depictions is what I want to call the more direct manifestations of the depictive mode itself. For instance the smudges of paint on a painting, dark in some places and light in some others, thick in some places and thinner in others. This gradient use of paint is what makes the painting a depiction rather than a description. Good examples of aspects of depiction in speech are the iconic form-meaning mappings we find in ideophones: for instance the fact that word structure may resemble event structure in ideophones like dzâ! ‘sudden appearance’ or fwɛ̃fwɛ̃ ‘flexible’ (the technical term for this is Gestalt iconicity, Dingemanse 2011). These forms of iconicity, found commonly in ideophones but rarely in ordinary words, show that we find ourselves in another mode of representation, one in which verbal material is being used in gradient ways.
Of course, semiotics being what it is (or more to the point, we humans being what we are), signals and aspects may sometimes be conflated. The use of paint in a painting is not only an aspect of the depiction that helps you imagine the scene; it also serves as a signal that alerts you to the fact that you are now looking at a depiction and not a description. In language, performative foregrounding is not only a signal that we are now listening to a depiction: it can also serves as an aspect of the depiction, as in Janis Nuckolls’ descriptions of Quechua ideophones where intonation is used to signal height and other things (Nuckolls 1996). And in an ideophone that is reduplicated eleven times in my Siwu corpus, the expressive morphology serves not just as a signal that we’ve entered the depictive mode, it is also an aspect of the depiction itself in that it may iconically signal ongoing repetition.
The burden of alternative accounts
In closing, it is useful to think about what this account is giving us — and conversely, how we could argue against it. What it gives us is a unified explanation of a set of features that have struck linguists as noteworthy from early on. Ideophones have always been described in special terms such as “vivid”, “expressive”, “playful”, “peculiar”, but none of these terms have been properly defined and so we’ve been stuck, for a long time, with subjective, piecemeal characterisations of ideophones. Here I have argued that the depictive mode of representation is a key feature (perhaps the key feature) distinguishing ideophones from ordinary words.
If one really wanted to argue against a depictive account of ideophones, one would have to come up with good reasons for the conglomerate of signals and aspects that I argue point us to the depictive nature of ideophones. One would have to explain why they often come with quotative marking; why their forms are more gradient and iconic than ordinary words; why they are in many languages susceptible to expressive morphology; and why they are often performatively foregrounded. That seems a tall order. This is precisely the thought process I went through before ending up at the solution presented at length in my thesis and summarised here. The solution lies in recognising that ideophones differ from ordinary words in terms of mode of representation, in a way that is analogous to the difference between written words and images.
Note. I thank Kimi Akita and Herb Clark for their thoughtful questions about these matters, which over the years have helped me to clarify my account of ideophones as depictions.