Lɛkɛrɛɛ and lukuruu are two Siwu ideophones depicting imagery of being well-rounded. But they differ in degree. One of them evokes an image of being seriously fat, the other depicts the state of being merely chubby. Can you guess which is which?
Few people find this question difficult to answer. But I won’t reveal the right answer just yet. Instead, by way of celebrating the fact that thesis.ideophone.org is now fully up and running, I want to show you how my senior consultant Ruben explains these ideophones in Siwu. Pay particular attention to his gestures — you’ll see that it is fairly easy to get an idea of the meanings of these ideophones even if you don’t understand Siwu!
Folk definition of lɛkɛrɛɛ by Ruben:
Folk definition of lukuruu by Ruben:
Iconicity and depiction
Now let me reveal what you likely already felt: lɛkɛrɛɛ depicts being somewhat chubby (the smaller end of the scale), while lukuruu depicts being seriously fat (the large end of the scale). You used two types of evidence to come to this conclusion. First, you used your own intuitions of magnitude sound symbolism to match the back vowel /u/ with the idea of large magnitude and the front vowel /ɛ/ with the idea of small magnitude. This type of magnitude symbolism is probably a universal feature of human embodied cognition, relying on cross-modal mappings that are common to us all. Ideophones, due to their depictive nature, often show it, but long ago Edward Sapir (1929) showed that English speakers have similar intuitions about nonce words like mil and mal.1 The second type of evidence you used (if you watched both video clips) was Ruben’s gestures. They relied on a perhaps even more transparent way of mapping form onto meaning: for lɛkɛrɛɛ, the gesture was relatively small and located mainly around the belly, while for lukuruu, the gesture occupied a much larger area of gesture space.
This example shows some ways of mapping form and meaning that make universal sense. Ideophones, marked words that depict sensory imagery, often tap into such form-meaning mappings: their form betrays something of their meaning. But we should not think of ideophones as simply imitative words. Consider the particular template in which these vowels do their sound-symbolic work: L-K-R. Is that suggestive of “fatness”? Probably not. What we have, then, is a combination of iconicity (the magnitude symbolism of the vowel) and conventionalized form (the L-K-R template). In my thesis, I argue that it is not simple resemblance that characterizes ideophones, but rather a depictive mode of representation. Ideophones are depictions: they enable you to experience what it is like to see the thing depicted, but just like line drawings or paintings, they require knowledge of representational conventions to be interpreted fully (Gombrich 1960).2 As Edward Sapir wrote, “They do not directly grow out of nature, they are suggested by it and play with it” (1921:6). Much more on that in chapter 7 of the thesis; and more about the gestures accompanying folk definitions of ideophones in chapter 9.
Check out thesis.ideophone.org
That’s right. My thesis, titled The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu, has been finished for a while now. I can’t distribute it yet, but most of the supplementary materials are online at thesis.ideophone.org. This means you can already enjoy video clips of folk definitions of ideophones, pictures and diagrams of a sorting task with ideophones, and photos from Kawu, among many other things. Oh, and there is the bibliography.
As soon as the thesis becomes available, I will announce it here. Meanwhile, enjoy this appetizer!
- Dingemanse, Mark. 2011. The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu. PhD dissertation, Nijmegen: Radboud University/MPI for Psycholinguistics.
- Gombrich, E. H. 1960. Art & Illusion: a study in the psychology of pictorial representation. London/New York: Phaidon.
- Ohala, John J. 1983. “Cross-language use of pitch: an ethological view.” Phonetica 40 (1): 1-18.
- Sapir, Edward. 1929. “A study in phonetic symbolism.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 12 (3): 225-239.
- A well-known hypothesis about the ethological basis underlying this effect is Ohala’s (1983) frequency code. [↩]
- You think illustrations communicate immediately? Try eliciting words using a 2D representation of a sphere like this in a non-literature community. You’ll get things like “black shape with a patch of white” instead of “ball” or “sphere”, because people have not learnt to see that 2D representation as a sphere. [↩]