Part two of our series on early sources (part one is here) is dedicated to Reverend O. E. Vidal, M.A.1 who as early as 1852 made a number of very insightful comments on ideophones in Yoruba in the preface to Samuel Crowther’s Yoruba dictionary:
There is another very striking feature in the Yoruba language, which I feel unwilling to pass over in this memoir, although, at the present stage of our knowledge on the subject of African philology, it will not afford any help in assigning to this language its proper position on the ethnological chart. The adverb is a part of speech in which we do not commonly recognise any characteristic sufficiently prominent to become a distinctive mark of any language, either generic or specific. But in the case of the Yoruba there is a most observable peculiarity in the use of this part of speech, which must, I think, eventually prove to be such a distinctive mark. Speaking in general terms, we may say, that each individual adverb of qualification possesses an idiosyncrasy of its own which altogether incapacitates it from supplying the place of another. It contains within itself the idea of the word which it is employed to qualify, although, as to form and derivation, totally unconnected with that word. In this way “almost every adjective and verb has its own peculiar adverb to express its quality” or rather its degree. This peculiarity must certainly greatly increase the expressiveness of the language. (Vidal, p. 15-16)
Vidal’s reserved tone shows just how little known the phenomenon of ideophony was at the time of his writing. Yet his comments are incisive and to the point; he sums up pretty much of what is significant about ideophones. He continues:
Thus, for example, in sentences where we should employ the word “very” let the subject of which we were speaking be what it might, the Yoruban would express the same meaning with far more of definiteness and precision by a separate adverb in each case, no two of which could be used convertibly. We should say, for instance, ” The tree is very high;” ” the bird flies very high;” “this cloth is very yellow;” ” the scarlet is very red;” ” the glass is very dazzling.” But the Yoruban would vary his adverb in every example ; thus “iggi ga fiofio;” “eiye fo tiantian;’ “aso yi pon rokiroki“; “ododo pipa roro;” “awojijin ndan maratimaran”
It is true, we have adverbs which can only be applied to certain classes of subjects, as the word “beautifully” can only be used concerning objects of sense ; but even here the tendency to generalize is observable : “beautifully” belongs of course, in its original acceptation, only to objects of sight, as, “the cloth is beautifully yellow ;” but we employ it constantly in reference to objects of hearing, speaking of harmony as beautifully soft, and so on. In the Yoruba, on the contrary, we observe the working of a principle the very opposite of this generalization. Thus the word “fiofio,” used above, can only apply to the idea of height, and that, too, only when the subject of which height is predicated is connected with the ground, and stands upon it ; for when the idea of height implies distance from the ground and separation from it, another distinct adverb, “tiantian,” must be employed. So, too, the adverb ” rokiroki” can only be used of a yellow colour, although the word itself does not mean yellow; and ” roro” only of a red, or, at least, dark colour, though the word has no such meaning; the fact being, that they imply ideas connected with those colours respectively, and not with the category of colour generally. (Vidal, p. 16-17)
Here Vidal touches on one of the defining features of ideophones: their amazing semantic specifity. The English translation equivalent ‘very’ pales in comparison to the work done by this type of adverbs. The four examples he cites are by no means isolated cases; as he notes:
And this principle seems to pervade the language; so that, in order to speak it correctly, it is necessary to know not only the verb or adjective which expresses what we wish to say, but also the peculiar and appropriate adverb which denotes the degree or quality attaching to it. 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. (Vidal, p. 17)
Here once again it becomes clear how little was known at the time about ideophony in African languages. Today we know of course that ideophony pervades the great majority of African languages (and lots of non-African ones too).
Owen Emeric Vidal deserves major credit for attending to a phenomenon that he could have easily overlooked or ignored (as witnessed by many contemporary —and later— grammars and dictionaries that remain silent on the issue), and for capturing a good deal of its essential features.
- Crowther, Samuel Ajayi. 1852. A Vocabulary of the Yoruba language, Together with Introductory Remarks by the Rev. O. E. Vidal, M. A. London: Seeleys. [Available on Archive.org]
- McLaren, J. 1886. An Introductory Kafir Grammar with Progressive Exercises. Lovedale.