Early sources on African ideophones, part IV: S.W. Koelle on Kanuri, 1854

It is high time for a continuation of our series honouring the ancestors of ideophone studies. Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle is one of the founding fathers of African linguistics, and 1854 was one of his more productive years. In the same year, besides his Kanuri grammar (from which the excerpt below is taken), he issued what may be called a corpus of Kanuri folklore, a grammar of Vai, and the first large-scale comparison of some 200 African languages, the famed Polyglotta Africana. Here is what he has to write about ideophones in Kanuri:

§289. The Kanuri language has a peculiar kind of adverbs, which we may call specific or confined adverbs, each being confined in its use to one or a few particular adjectives or their denominative verbs, as illustrated in the following examples. These singular adverbs which seem to be common in African languages, as they exist also in the Aku and Vei, have something in their nature which may be compared to the onomatopoetica, or something in which the immediate, instinctive sense of language particularly manifests itself. They are eminently expressions of feelings (German, Gefühlsworte), or manifestations of vague impressions rather than of clearly defined ideas. (p. 283)

As might be expected from someone who handled so many different languages, Koelle rightly hypothesized that ideophones would be a feature shared by many African languages. Note that Aku is an old term for Yoruba, the language for which Vidal had claimed independently that “This singular feature of the Yoruba language is unique, and therefore I shall not waste time in comparing it with the adverbial systems, whatever they may be, of other African languages.”

As it happens, this singular feature of Yoruba would turn out to be not so unique among African languages. With Kanuri joining Yoruba (Vidal 1852) and Ewe (Schlegel 1857), we now have three independent claims from the 1850’s on the significance of ideophones in three major African languages. Although I do not exclude the possibility of finding yet earlier sources, things are starting to look like we may justifiably call this period the decade of the discovery of ideophones in Africa.


  1. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. Outlines of a grammar of the Vei language, together with a Vei-English vocabulary. And an account of the discovery and nature of the Vei mode of syllabic writing. London: Church Missionary House.
  2. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. Grammar of the Bórnu or Kānurī language. London: Church Missionary House.
  3. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. African native literature, or Proverbs, tales, fables, & historical fragments in the Kanuri or Bornu language. London: Church Missionary House.
  4. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854b. Polyglotta Africana London: Church Missionary House.
  5. Schlegel, Joh. Bernhard. 1857. Schlüssel der Ewesprache, dargeboten in den Grammatischen Grundzügen des Anlodialekts. Stuttgart.
  6. Vidal, Owen Emeric. 1852. Introductory Remarks. In A Vocabulary of the Yoruba language, ed. Samuel Ajayi Crowther. London: Seeleys.

2 thoughts on “Early sources on African ideophones, part IV: S.W. Koelle on Kanuri, 1854

  1. Pingback: Aduerbia sonus: Ideophones in two 17th century grammars of Japanese | The Ideophone

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