Early sources on African ideophones, part III: ‘Onomatopoeia as a formative principle’, 1886

The steady influx of vocabularies of ‘exotic’ languages during the nineteenth century caused a veritable flowering of comparative philology in Western Europe. It became en vogue to be looking at languages from outside Europe, and the late nineteenth century especially seems to have been a time in which every gent in academia (and yes, they were mostly gents) had to have dabbled in African philology.

One such gent was Harry Thurston Peck (1856-1914). A classicist who would later become known for such works as Latin Pronunciation (1890), an edition of the Suetonius (1889), and most importantly the Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, he apparently had access to some dictionaries of West African languages in the 1880’s and could not, of course, resist the temptation to do something with it. The results were published in the American Journal of Philology in 1886.

Peck’s article is both disappointing and interesting. Disappointing for its dubious methodology, interesting because of the sheer amount of ideophones it presents in a time when the pervasiveness of ideophony in African languages was not widely recognized. To tackle the method first, Peck’s approach boils down to a simplistic attempt at reducing all multisyllables of Twi, Fante and Gã to monosyllabic CV roots. Virtually all multisyllables containing -ba-, for example, are considered ‘derived’ from the root BA; the only constraint seems to be that there has to be some conceivable semantic link, however vague or far-fetched.

It is this kind of sloppy method, I am afraid, that was partly responsible for getting research into sound symbolism a bad name.1 I will come back to that point below, but not before I’ve allowed the reader a brief peek into Peck’s data.

The data

The body of Peck’s study is basically a dense list of ideophonic vocabulary from Twi, Fante, and Gã. You only need to see a fragment to get a sense for what it is like:

Some specimens of purely isolated onomatopoetic words are given below, to show with what facility they are formed, and how numerous they are: Babababa, raindrops. bambam, clapping. bereberedere, gentle dropping ; used of rain, slow steps, etc.; hence, fluency, sweetness of speech. desebese, whispering. birebire, confused talk ; (…) butubutu, drum-taps ; also butubutubutu. dododow, to stutter. fatafata, flickering, flitting as a bat ; also expressed by ferefere and fefereefefeere. fwe, the peep of a bird ; a whistle ; hence, bofwe, to whimper. (…) fwifwi, the swish of a whiplash ; hence, a whiplash. (…) gengengenfeng = tintinnitus. gyirigyiviw, gristly to the teeth. habababa, chatter. Cf. biribiri; so hobobobo, and kasakasa in the sense of confused whispers ; found also under the forms akasakasa, nfkase, okasafo, etc., and giving rise to a very large number of derivatives (cf. Christaller, Lexicon, p. 224). kesiw, to belch wind. kirididi, and kirrrr, to rush, roll. kitikiti, rushings, turbulence; also, kitirikitiri. kokoko, the dropping of water. akokoakoko, id.; also used of a quarrel; (…) ridididi, trippingly. sorow and surowsorow, susurrus. susu, the sound of pounding maize in a mortar. asusu, to whisper; Fr. chuchoter. tafotafovo, to lap up. takataka, to drip. taradada, id. tetere, id. (…) tumtum, pounding. tutututu, the boiling of water; cf. kukukufu, supra. twawn, the blow of a stone when it falls. ntwom, a smack. woroworo, the roar of waves; to murmur. worwowo, dripping. yang, a drum. yoŋŋ, a reverberation. (pp. 494-5)

‘Vanishingly small’

Now, Peck’s stated goal was not just to uncover the primordial monosyllables of the West African tongue; his paper was also a contribution to an ongoing debate about the pervasiveness of imitation as a formative principle in languages. Peck vehemently opposed the position articulated by Max Müller in his widely publicized Lectures on the Science of Language (Müller 1862): “Though there are names in every language formed by imitation of sound, yet these constitute a very small proportion of our dictionary. They are playthings, not the tools of language, and any attempt to reduce the most common and necessary words to imitative sounds ends in complete failure.” Peck sought to demonstrate that imitative words2 did not constitute ‘a very small proportion’ and were not mere ‘playthings’ either — at least not in these three West-African languages.3

Meanwhile, it is interesting how similar Müller’s position is to an oft-quoted statement by F. J. Newmeyer in his discussion of iconicity and generative grammar (Newmeyer 1992): “the number of pictorial, imitative, or onomatopoetic nonderived words in any language is vanishingly small.” (Newmeyer presents this as an indirect quotation from Whitney 1874.) I suspect it is partly due to awkward rebuttals like Peck’s that views like those of Müller and Whitney, which simply reflect the relatively poor state of linguistic knowledge of the late nineteenth century, are still current in some quarters of linguistics. (A certain fondness for de Saussure’s radical arbitrariness of the sign may also play a role in this marginalization of sound symbolism, some people4 have argued.)

Real data

It seems Peck was right in at least one thing: it will take real data to disarm this view. I’m not intent on doing so in a single blog post, if only because I realize all too well that haphazard collections of ideophonic vocabulary of the Peck type bring us nowhere. But it won’t hurt to turn to our bookshelves for a moment and inspect some of the work that has appeared since 1874 to get some estimates on the actual pervasiveness of ideophony:

  • over 5000 ideophones were collected in Gbeya (Adama-Eastern, Niger-Congo, Central African Republic) by Samarin (1970:155);
  • 2097 entries out of a total of 8544 are ideophones in a dictionary of related Gbaya (Noss 1986);
  • a Zulu (Southern Bantu, South Africa) dictionary contains over 2600 ideophones (Samarin 1970:155);
  • in Semai (Central Aslian, Austroasiatic, Malaya), ideophones form ‘a word-class of the same order of magnitude as the first two [nouns and verbs]’ (Diffloth 1976:249);
  • in Japanese, there are several dictionaries devoted to ideophonic words, many of them containing several thousands of entries (Kita 1997).

The list could be expanded, but it will do for now. What it makes clear is that Whitney’s sweeping statement (‘the number of pictorial, imitative, or onomatopoeic nonderived words in any language is vanishingly small’) is not just exaggerated — it is utterly and wildly misguided. What is more, earlier installments in this series have shown that already by the time it was uttered, it was problematic: there was ample data from Yoruba (Vidal in Crowther 1852) and Ewe (Schlegel 1857) to suggest a greater role for imitation/depiction in language. Nowadays, it seems there really is no excuse to keep repeating the claim. (Unless of course you’d rather keep the number of languages in your typological sample vanishingly small.)

In closing, I should make clear that it is not so much the uninformed claim itself that bothers me, but rather the fact that it blocks the sight on so many other interesting issues. By a priori assuming that imitative strategies are marginal everywhere, we are turning a deaf ear to the music of language. To mention just a few questions one might want to ask, what do we know about the differential distribution of depictive strategies in the lexicons of the world’s languages? Where does the spectacular elaboration of vivid sensory vocabulary in some languages come from? What do people use these thousands of ideophones for? What kinds of sound-symbolic mappings do we find in them? But those are issues for another series of posts. Or indeed for a dissertation.


  1. Crowther, Samuel Ajayi. 1852. A Vocabulary of the Yoruba language, Together with Introductory Remarks by the Rev. O. E. Vidal, M. A. London: Seeleys.
  2. Diffloth, Gérard. 1976. Expressives in Semai. Austroasiatic Studies 1, Oceanic Linguistics. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, Special Publication 13: 249-264.
  3. Kita, Sotaro. 1997. Two-dimensional semantic analysis of Japanese mimetics. Linguistics 35: 379-415.
  4. Kropp Dakubu, Mary Esther. 1998. Ideophones in Dangme and their place in linguistic semantics. Papers in Ghanaian Linguistics 11: 1-18.
  5. Müller, Max. 1862. Lectures on the Science of Language. 3rd ed. London: Longman.
  6. Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1992. Iconicity and Generative Grammar. Language 68, no. 4 (December): 756-796.
  7. Noss, Philip A. 1986. The Ideophone in Gbaya Syntax. In Current Approaches to African Linguistics, ed. Gerrit J. Dimmendaal, 3:241-255. Dordrecht: Foris.
  8. Peck, H. T. 1886. Onomatopoeia in Some West African Languages. The American Journal of Philology 7, no. 4: 489-495.
  9. Samarin, William J. 1971. Survey of Bantu ideophones. African Language Studies 12: 130-168.
  10. Schlegel, Joh. Bernhard. 1857. Schlüssel der Ewesprache, dargeboten in den Grammatischen Grundzügen des Anlodialekts. Stuttgart.
  11. Whitney, William Dwight. 1874. Physei or thesei – natural or conventional? Transactions of the American Philological Association 6: 95-116.


  1. I should stress that Peck was by no means the only one to employ it. For example, there is a similar attempt for Ewe and Yoruba by A.J. Ellis around the same time, in a book called The Ewe speaking tribes of the Slave coast.
  2. Peck and other contemporaries, and arguably Müller himself too, took onomatopoeia in a wider sense than just imitation of sound. This is clear from Peck’s use of the term (many of the ideophonic words he cites are not sound imitations). Whitney (1874), cited below, defines his terms more rigorously and explicitly refers to ‘pictorial, imitative, or onomatopoetic words’.
  3. He did not seem to realize, though, that his ‘attempt to reduce’ was at the same time quite vulnerable to Müller’s deservedly harsh critique.
  4. E.g. Waugh, Nuckolls, Kita.

3 thoughts on “Early sources on African ideophones, part III: ‘Onomatopoeia as a formative principle’, 1886

  1. Pingback: Four Stone Hearth « Clashing Culture

  2. I am a PhD student in Linguistics. i find the work on ideophones very enlightning and inspiring.I am currently working on Phonosemantics and the status of ideophones in Tiv language ( a Nigerian language ).

  3. Pingback: Oh no! Ideophones are not response cries! — The Ideophone

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