Daniel Tammet invents his own Siwu ideophone

I loved Daniel Tammet’s second book Embracing The Wide Sky (2009). In his own words, Embracing The Wide Sky is “a personal and scientific exploration of how the brain works and the differences and similarities between savant and non-savant minds”. It surveys work from psychology and linguistics and even indirectly (okay, very indirectly) features my work on Siwu ideophones. Continue reading

Bingo! Refinding the oldest specimen of Siwu

The oldest written fragments of Siwu found so far come from Rudolph Plehn (1898). Besides some words and phrases (edited and published in 1899 by his friend Seidel), Plehn took down two lines of songs. To one of them I devoted a post some time ago. Now I’ve found a full transcription of the other, buried in a somewhat obscure thesis titled The music of Tokpaikor shrine in Akpafu: a case study of the role of Tokpaikor music in Akpafu traditional worship. How that thesis came to be in my possession is a story of its own, involving an utterly unhelpful secretary at the University of Ghana’s Music Dept, a forged letter, and a surprise parcel from professor Kofi Agawu in my pigeon hole back home — but let me not waste any more time on that.


(Gesänge der Apafu-leute, Plehn 1898:119)

So what do we have? First Plehn’s transcription. Rendered as mekoko lofomadisu, it’s a bad case of garbled transmission at multiple levels. Word boundaries and the contrast between open and close vowels didn’t make it; even the verb is lost in translation, leaving us with a simple apposition of ‘Die Henne, die Küchlein’ (‘the hen, the chicks’). Plehn does have quite an interesting interpretation of the song: Continue reading

Three misconceptions about ideophones

In a previous post I have outlined the history of the term ideophone. This post takes on three common misunderstandings about the nature of ideophones. As an added bonus, if you read all three, you get one for free. The working definition I adopt for ‘ideophones’ is the following: Marked words that depict sensory imagery. In lay terms, ideophones are words that stand out (are ‘marked’) and whose form betrays something of (is depictive of) their meaning.

  1. ‘Ideophone’ is just jargon for onomatopoeia. Not quite. Onomatopoeia are generally understood to be limited to words imitating sounds. Ideophones however evoke all sorts of sensory events — not just sounds, but also taste, gait, visual effects, texture, smell, and so on.
    Consider the following Siwu ideophones: vɛlɛvɛlɛ ‘a dizzy, giddy feeling in the body’; yuayua ‘a sensation of burning (the visual impression, the feeling, or both)’; kpotoro-kpotoro ‘moving jerkily like a tortoise’; ɣɛkpɛtɛɛ ‘delicately fragile, for example of autumn leaves’. These words do not imitate sounds, yet to a Siwu speaker they vividly depict sensory events in a way that is reminiscent of onomatopoeia. The German linguists had an excellent term for this: Lautmalerei ‘painting with sound’, the result of which was a Lautbild ‘sound picture’ (Westermann 1907, 1927, cf. also Bühler 1934).
  2. English and other Standard Average European (SAE) languages lack ideophones. Not quite. Given the definition of ideophone above, ideophony is probably a universal phenomenon. English, for example, has ideophonic words like glimmer, twiddle, tinkle which are depictive of sensory imagery: their form betrays something of their meaning in ways that words “chair” and “dog” do not.
    All the same it is true (and interesting) that languages differ in the extent to which they systematize and elaborate their ideophonic (expressive) resources. In that sense English is definitely a much less ideophonic language than, say, Semai (Central Aslian, Austroasiatic, Malaysia), where ideophones are a word class as big as the two other major word classes, nouns and verbs, or Gbeya (Adama-Eastern, Niger-Congo, Central African Republic), where over 5000 ideophones have been collected. In the latter type of language, ideophones make up a large and clearly recognizable class of words, whereas in English, ideophonic vocabulary is sprinkled all over the lexicon (and probably less common overall).
  3. Ideophones are a feature of primitive languages. Not quite. This idea is at least as old as the first descriptions of ideophones in ‘exotic’ languages. It was made popular by anthropologist Lévy-Bruhl’s musings about ‘primitive mentality’, in which ideophones were adduced as evidence for the ‘irresistible tendency’ of the native to ‘imitate all one perceives’ (1926:142). One thing we have learned since then is that the notion of ‘primitive language’ makes no sense outside the highly problematic model of cultural evolutionism in which it was coined.
    I don’t even want to give counterexamples in the form of supposedly non-primitive languages which nonetheless are ideophonic; anyone interested can look up some relevant literature (start with Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001). For linguists, languages differ in interesting ways and along all sorts of dimensions; but the supposed dimension of primitivity is not one of them.

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Do you know this feeling?

uja uja, Gomi 1989:24 · © 1989

What better way to compensate for the overload of text in the previous posts than with some excellent illustrations of Japanese gitaigo? I have recently been looking at Taro Gomi’s delightful Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions, featuring cartoon-like depictions of almost 200 Japanese sound-symbolic words used to evoke certain sensations, feelings, and sensory perceptions. Continue reading