Somali ideophones revealed

I missed it back in March, probably because I was in the field: a delightful post on ideophones in Somali over at Beautiful Horn of Africa. An intriguing introduction…

In this fast moving 21st Century of information superhighway, you should feel obligated to expose youself to the rest of the world so that your presence in words and deeds can be felt by others.
Watch out what I’m about to reveal.

…is followed by a veritable explosion of ideophonic vocabulary: “Fuuq is to drink heavy drinks like milkshake or creamy liquid; bacaac is the cry of the lamb while baac is a fool; fadfad is the bubbling of sticky cornmeal on a cooking pot; xaax is to feel cold; xuux is to instill fear in children; yaq is something nasty in appearance; aq is uttered when smoke disturbs one’s visibility; yar is astonishment; uf is bad smell; bash is for any object that split into pieces when dropped while bush is when a jelly-like substance falls on the floor then splits in to bish; shabaax is sound from sea waves or meandering river water; dhibiq is for falling droplets; dhaw dhaw and qaw qaw is scrubbing of metals; hatishow is to sneeze; qabac qabac is when an object is blown by the wind; …”

The stream of consciousness quality of the prose calls to mind what Gérard Diffloth calls the ‘expressive mood’. In another form, I have witnessed this phenomenon in live conversations, where ideophones tend to erupt in chunks rather than being distributed evenly over the full length of the conversation. It is also interesting to note the expression of concern for the future of ‘our beautiful mother tongue’ at the end of the posting. Apparently, ideophony is closely linked to the Somali cultural identity for Shokolokubangushey, the author of the post.

Note that the author not only includes ideophones proper in his listing, but also interjections (aq, uttered when smoke disturbs one’s vision). There is an intuitive link between the two categories: both conflate speech event and narrated event. However, the primary use of ideophones is to evoke a sensory event, whereas that of interjections is to index one’s response to such an event. Anyway, ample more examples are given over there. (As an aside, I should note that I think that the author is mildly mistaken in his estimation of the ‘hefty profits’ made by European descriptive linguists through the sale of their books. I have yet to meet a linguist who got rich from the sales of his grammars or dictionaries.)

111 Somali ideophones

In this context let me just draw attention to one of the few prior publications on Somali ideophones: a study of 111 specimen, including interlinearized example sentences, published by Dhoorre & Tosco in 1998. According to them, Somali ideophones are nouns,1 a crosslinguistically uncommon situation. Being nouns, Somali ideophones have feminine gender and may have an anaphoric or definite determiner affixed to them (129). They are always introduced by a verbum dicendi, either yiri ‘to say’ or sii ‘to give’. The most common semantic fields covered by Somali ideophones are (1) movement; (2) hitting; (3) giving out a sound. Ideophones for visual impressions are scarce, with a few ideophones ‘expressing various shades of light behaviour’ (131).

I have been writing about the link between ideophones and gestures before. Dhoorre & Tosco link the nounyness of Somali ideophones to an interesting observation about their pragmatics:

‘The pragmatics of the use of ideophones, and their eventual connections with gesture, has not been investigated, but, on the whole, Somali ideophones look much less ‘pragmatically bound’ than their counterparts in other African languages; it is tempting to think that this is in correlation with their noun-like character.’ (Dhoorre & Tosco 1998:130)


  1. Dhoorre, Cabdulqaadir Salaad, and Mauro Tosco. 1998. 111 Somali Ideophones. Journal of African Cultural Studies 11, no. 2 (December): 125-156.


  1. ‘While Somali ideophones are morphosyntactically nominals, semantically they are verb-like in expressing actions and changes of state, rather than situations.’, p. 130

3 thoughts on “Somali ideophones revealed

  1. I have just been trying to pick up a bit of Somali, as I have had some recent contact with Somali refugees, and this bit on the languages ideophones is a great encouragement to be a bit more dedicated. In one of my recent moments of distraction, I ended up reading quite a bit about Somali piracy (they have a recent average of an attack every 10 days or less)… I wonder if there is a Somali pirate language developing – that could be pretty humorous – “Yar! this fadfad is xaax, shiver me timbers!”
    On another note I also began wondering whether Somali is related to Soqotri, the language spoken on the Yemeni Island. Do you know anything about this language?

  2. ROFL! the sea is shabaax today!

    As for Soqotri, I don’t know much about it, except that it is usually classified as South Semitic unlike Somali, which is an Eastern Cushitic language.

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