Fresh wild melon and meat full of gravy: food texture verbs in G|ui (Khoisan)

Today’s dish of expressive vocabulary is particularly tasty. It comes from G|ui, a Khoisan language of Botswana.1 To Africanists, expressive words from Khoisan languages are of special interest because Khoisan has been claimed on various occasions to lack ideophones, otherwise thought to be one of those linguistic traits that characterize Africa as a linguistic area (Meeussen 1975:3,2 Heine & Leyew 2007:21). On ideophones in Khoisan, Samarin wrote in the 1970′s:

It is worth adding that although ideophones characterize Bantu languages and their related (and even some unrelated) languages of the North and Northwest (for example, Ewe and Hausa), the non-Bantu languages of the extreme South (that is, Khoisan) do not appear to have them. 3
(Samarin 1971:160-1, emphasis mine)

Some twenty years later, in an important overview of African ideophones, G. Tucker Childs also noted that ‘the absence of ideophones in Khoisan is another puzzling area’ (Childs 1994:179).

Since then, however, there have been a few reports of ideophones in Khoisan. Childs (2003) revised his 1994 statements, citing Nama and Kxoe (both spoken in Namibia) as Khoisan languages in which ideophones were attested. Indeed, Kilian-Hatz (2001), in an article comparing ideophones from Baka (Niger-Congo, Cameroon) and Kxoe, attributes the claim not so much to a lack of ideophones in Khoisan, but rather to a general lack of data on Khoisan. Still, the previous reports (often based on personal communication with Khoisanists) do cast something of a shadow of doubt over the issue.

Okay, so some Khoisan languages might not have a class of words that perfectly maps onto the category of ideophones in neighbouring Bantu languages. But surely they have their own expressive resources — linguistic structures that are used to convey or evoke sensory perceptions, sensations, and inner feelings. What do these look like? One particulary nice dataset comes from G|ui, a language of the central Kalahari desert sporting an impressive amount of food texture verbs. The data comes from a talk4 by Food texture verbs in G|ui

Food texture verbs in G|ui (from a handout by Hirosi Nakagawa)

On having ideophones

The food texture verbs above evoke an amazing number of different in-mouth perceptions. Their semantics is very detailed, including not just tactile information but also sound, and often an evaluative dimension too. It thus seems these words package information from different sensory modalities; in other words, they function to evoke a sensation as a whole rather than picking out aspects of it. A striking characteristic is furthermore the full reduplication, which presumably adds a sense of iterativity or distributedness to the event. We can also identify some sound-symbolic clusters (closely related forms mapping onto closely related meanings). Compare k!qúm̀ k!qúm̀ ‘texture of baked potatoes’, χúm̀ χúm̀ ‘texture of crispy pie’, and k|qχúm k|q̀χúm̀ ‘texture of crispy thin snacks’; or k!q’ábù k!q’ábù ‘underdone meat’ and kǂqábù kǂqábù ‘chewing gum’.

In the light of this data, it is worth thinking more carefully about what it might mean for a language to ‘have no ideophones’. Presumably, what the Khoisan-related claims mean is that there may be no unified, large class of expressive vocabulary like in Bantu.5 This might just be the case (though we don’t know for G|ui, and we have seen above that the claim is controversial). If it is so, it need not surprise us, for it is well known that languages differ in the extent to which they systematize and emphasize their expressive resources.

Indeed, how do languages go about systematizing their expressive resources? How does ideophony come about? What sort of societal features nurture ideophony, or inhibit it? I would argue that these issues are more urgent than the question whether or not a language can be said to have ideophones according to some essentially arbitrary measure. To really understand ideophony, we need to look at expressive vocabulary in all its guises. It has never been claimed that Berber languages are ideophonic, as far as I know — yet the expressive verbs of Tuareg share many properties with words that have been called ideophones in other African languages; and they help us to get a grip on the phenomenon of expressivity in language.

The food texture verbs of G|ui present a similar case. They demonstrate that the G|úi-kò, hunter-gatherers from the central Kalahari desert, care about making fine-grained distinctions in talking about in-mouth perceptions of food. This may be related not only to the sheer amount of different foods they eat — ‘people eat more than 80 species of plants and 40 species of animals’ (Tanaka 1996:16) — but also to the enormous significance of food in the harsh semi-desert environment of the G|úi-kò: ‘food resources are basically consumed the day they are acquired, in a hand-to-mouth kind of existence’ (ibid., 14).6 In a society where food is so intimately tied to existence, it is no wonder that people like to share the sensations related to eating it.

The G|úi-kò form a small-scale society living in close connection to the natural world. Tanaka notes that ‘[t]hey do not distinguish the animal world as cut off from their human world. It may be said that such an attitude is granted for the people who live enmeshed in the wilderness and are naturalists in the sense that they are an integral part of nature’ (ibid., 27). It has been noted by several authors (e.g. Westermann 1937; Nuckolls 2004) that such circumstances seem to favour the development of ideophony. Whether you call them ideophones or not, the food texture verbs of G|ui form another vital piece of the puzzle of expressivity in language.


  1. Childs, G Tucker. 1994. African Ideophones. In Sound Symbolism, Ed. Leanne Hinton, Johanna Nichols, and John J. Ohala, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Childs, G. Tucker. 2003. An Introduction to African Languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  3. Heine, Bernd, and Zelealem Leyew. 2007. Is Africa a linguistic area? In A Linguistic Geography of Africa, 15-35, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Meeussen, A. E. 1975. Possible Linguistic Africanisms. Language Sciences 35:1-5.
  5. Nakagawa, Hirosi. 1996. An Outline of |Gui Phonology. African study monographs. Supplementary issue 22:101-124.
  6. Nakagawa, Hirosi. 2007. A preliminary report on the perception verbs of Kǂʰábá. Talk presented at ALT VII, Paris, September 25, 2007.
  7. Nuckolls, Janis B. 2004. To be or to be not ideophonically impoverished. In Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Symposium about Language and Society — Austin, Texas Linguistic Forum, 131-142, Austin.
  8. Samarin, W. J. 1971. Survey of Bantu ideophones. African Language Studies 12:130-168.
  9. Tanaka, Jiro. 1996. The World of Animals Viewed by the San Hunter-Gatherers in Kalahari. African study monographs. Supplementary issue 22:11-28.
  10. Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1937. Laut und Sinn in einigen westafrikanischen Sudan-Sprachen. Archiv für vergleichende Phonetik 1:154-172, 193-211.

N.B. This is the first post on The Ideophone with a ‘smart bibliography’ using COinS. If you use Zotero, the references above are just two clicks away from your library. Pretty cool, huh?


  1. G|ui [gwj], also written |Gui, G|wi, is spoken by the G|úi-kò, lit. ‘people of the bush’ (Nakagawa 1996).
  2. Thanks to Stanly Oomen for bringing this paper to my attention.
  3. Careful as always, he added: “This is my tentative conclusion, based on some reading of the literature and personal communication with investigators who know these languages from first-hand experience. But perhaps this statement is too strong.” (Samarin 1971:160-1)
  4. Nakagawa gave a talk on the perception verbs of Kǂʰábá (Khoisan, closely related to G|ui) at ALT 2007 in Paris. I wasn’t there; the handout was passed on to me by a colleague at the MPI.
  5. Cf. Childs, writing on ideophones in Nama (Khoisan, Namibia): ‘Although the crop is not rich, there are non-onomatopoeic ideophones …’ (Childs 1994:197, emphasis mine).
  6. In fact, Nakagawa’s list of food texture verbs is foreshadowed in the following remark by Tanaka: ‘there are many specific verbs to express the difference in shape, quality and ways of eating and cooking food.’ (Tanaka 1996:17).