On my way home today, I took the scenic route, through the old town, where the Weinachtsmarkt is in full swing with Christmas lights glowing, Glühwein flowing and all that jazz. As I was trying to get through the crowds, I noticed a black gentleman standing next to one of the stalls obviously admiring something and talking on the phone in a language I could not immediately identify.
And just as I passed him, he said “You know” and then something I would transcribe as “ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ” followed by a laugh. “I bet this ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ is an ideophone” I said to myself and immediately started wondering whether the person on the other end truly understood what was being conveyed – in other words, whether that “ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ” was a word with a shared meaning. Now I know better – assuming I was right in identifying the word as an ideophone, of course.
I still don’t know what language that was (I’m guessing Yoruba based on a few words I might have heard), so do ideophones really stand out that much that even a non-speaker can identify them as such?
Decide for yourself
So that’s today’s question: do ideophones really stand out that much? This is something you can only decide for yourself. Here are three examples from Siwu. They come from my corpus of everyday discourse and represent the three most common ideophone constructions. These three constructions account for 88% of 230 ideophone tokens in the corpus; the examples thus can be said to be typical of ideophone usage in day to day conversations in Siwu.
I will not transcribe them at this point; I just want you to listen.
Well do they?
Now you’re in the position to answer bulbul’s question: do ideophones really stand out that much that even a non-speaker can identify them? The answer —mine at least— is yes. If you are a hearing person, I’m willing to bet you had no trouble at all identifying the ideophones in the above three sound samples.
Before I give you the transcriptions, it is worthwile to ponder for a moment why ideophones stand out like this. I’ve hinted at this on other occasions, for example yesterday’s ditty on vivid suggestion, a post on Feedburner’s Zap! Pow! Kraaakkkk!, and the last ideophone proeverij; and also in a recent paper, where I wrote:
As marked words, ideophones set themselves apart from the surrounding linguistic material; as a likely locus of performative foregrounding, they stimulate emotional engagement; as depictions, they supply vivid imagery and recreate sensory events in sound, inviting the listener onto the scene as it were.
So ideophones stand out for a reason: to attract attention to themselves as words qua words, to mark themselves as depictions in a stream of descriptive material. Let’s suppose the gentleman overheard by Bulbul was indeed using an ideophone. Standing at the Weinachtsmarkt, he was attempting to share a vivid image of something he had in mind with the person on the other end; to do so, he needed to signal that what followed ‘You know’ was different somehow from bland referential prose; and this he did (unwittingly for sure) by performatively foregrounding ‘ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ‘.
Of course it’s a bit flaky to draw conclusions on the basis of a couple of syllables overheard on a Weinachtsmarkt. Was it Nigerian Pidgin, which we know has lots of ideophones (Faraclas 1996)? Was he codeswitching? Was he perhaps simply stuttering? There’s no way of knowing. That’s why I gave the Siwu examples, which come from an extensive corpus of everyday social interaction. Want to know what those mean? Click ‘Show’ below to check it out.
- Dingemanse, Mark. 2009. Ideophones in unexpected places. In Proceedings of Conference on Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory 2, ed. Peter K. Austin, Oliver Bond, Monik Charette, David Nathan, and Peter Sells, 83-97. London: SOAS, November 14.
- Faraclas, Nicholas. 1996. Nigerian Pidgin. New York: Routledge.