On the use of structural criteria in defining ideophones

Recently I’ve been having a conversation with Roger Blench about whether structural markedness should play a role in the definition of a useful cross-linguistic conception of ideophones. Over the last few years, Roger has been producing a steady stream of exciting new data on ideophones, often straight from the field (e.g. handouts and drafts on Nyinkyob ideophones, Ngiemboon ideophones, Kolokuma Ịjọ ideophones, and Bafut ideophones). His most recent position is staked out in a paper on Mwaghavul expressives on his website. Here is a key quote:

“Ideophones not only fall into different word classes, but also into a range of conceptual classes. They may demonstrate a characteristic phonology, morphology or canonical form, but this is absent in some languages, even where the ideas they express are conserved. To characterise this richness, it is helpful to switch to a larger class of ‘expressives’ (a characteristic Asian terminology) to encompass these ideas; ideophones would just be a subset. [emphasis MD]

In this reply (which is an edited version of a document shared with Roger some weeks ago) I raise two problems with this proposal. The first problem is one of definitional criteria: how far can we dilute before we lose substance? The second is one of descriptive choices: does the Mwaghavul case really warrant changing our conception of ideophones, or are there other ways to handle it? Continue reading

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

Giggles and gargles


A 2005 study suggests that Japanese ideophones of laughter activate striatal reward centers in the brain, but I think the results should be treated with a pinch of salt. Speaking of salt, Japanese gargle with salt water regularly as a prevention against the common cold; they even have an ideophone for it (but so do we, don’t we?). That’s giggles and gargles today. Let’s tackle the giggles first.

Ideophones that make you feel good

A 2005 brain imaging study suggests that ideophones for laughter, but not nonsense syllables, activate reward areas in the brain. Here is the abstract:

The neurobiological reward components of laughter induced by words were investigated. A functional magnetic resonance imaging-based brain imaging study demonstrated that visualization of mimic words and emotional facial expressionwords, highly suggestive of laughter, heard by the ear, significantly activate striatal reward centers, including the putamen/caudate/nucleus accumbens, prefrontal cortices, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the supplementary motor area, while non-mimic words under the same task that did not imply laughter do not activate these areas in humans. We tested a specific hypothesis that implicit laughter modulates the striatal dopaminergic reward centers by image formation of onomatopoeic words implying laughter and successfully confirmed the hypothesis. [Osaka & Osaka 2005]

Since ideophones have been claimed to somehow establish a more direct link between sounds and sensations than other words, brain imaging of ideophone production and comprehension is an exciting research area. Basically, the finding of Osaka & Osaka is that Japanese ideophones for laughter activate striatal reward areas, just like real laughter and other pleasurable activities do. The ideophones used are ‘ghera-ghera’ (strong laughter), ‘nikoh-nikoh’ (strong), ‘kusu-kusu’ (medium), ‘niyah-niyah’ (medium), ‘herahherah’ (weak) and ‘nitah-nitah’ (weak) (p. 1622, romanization by the authors).

But is it ideophony?

That is an interesting result, but I wonder: does the effect really occur because the words are ideophones, evoking the experience of laughter through their sound-symbolic form and imagistic meaning? Or could it simply be due to the fact that the words have to do with laughter? We can’t tell, because the baseline comparison is not with non-ideophonic real words but with nonsense words (called ‘nonsense phonemes’ by the authors). Since non-ideophonic laughter-related words have been kept out of the comparison, we cannot be sure that ideophony (onomatopoeia/mimesis) is causing the effect, although this is what the authors would like to claim.

There is some reason to think that embodied semantics might be enough to induce such effects; think for example of the brain imaging studies showing that certain sensori-motor cortex areas not only upon tactile stimulation of the body part in question (e.g. the hand), but also during the processing of body part terms and verbs implying them (e.g. hand, grasp; Rohrer 2001). So the question is: would the effect found by Osaka & Osaka also occur with non-ideophonic laughter-related words in Japanese? For comparison, it would also be good to have a not so heavily ideophonic language thrown in. Would the English verbs ‘giggle’ and ‘laugh’ also trigger the effect? Sound-symbolic ‘giggle’ moreso than ‘laughter’? Then things start to be really interesting.

A related problem is the claim that ‘image formation of onomatopoeic words’ plays a role in the effect. Once again this would be an interesting claim to test; native speakers of ideophonic languages often report that ideophones evoke vivid images. But in this study it remains an untested background assumption. The way the experiment is set up doesn’t seem to allow for any inferences about it. For all we know the effect might just be due to an association between the sound and the experience of laughter; it is not at all obvious why image formation would come in. One way to approach this issue would be to do imaging studies of ideophones that don’t imitate sounds, but other sensory events.

[Update: Kimi Akita notes that the stimuli, described by the authors as ‘laughter onomatopoeic words’ (p. 1622), actually mix sound-imitating ideophones (geragera and kusukusu) and movement/visual pattern-imitating ideophones (nikoniko, niyaniya, herahera, and nitanita). It doesn’t really help that all of the results are averaged. I might add that Japanese itself does distinguish the two groups by the terms giongo and gitaigo, even though to a non-native speaker the actual categorization in this case isn’t obvious (I would’ve grouped herahera with geragera, and I wonder what kusukusu laughter sounds like…).]


So much for the giggles. What about the gargles? The gorgeous gargling girl above is one of the stimuli used by Prof. Mutsumi Imai in a study of child-directed speech in Japanese. One of her findings is that when describing scenes like this to their child, mothers will tend to use more mimetics (ideophones) than when they are describing the same scene to an adult.

I’m planning to do a pilot in Kawu using prof. Imai’s stimuli, and one question is to what extent the original material would be usable in a West-African context. The idea is that the stimuli can be described using ideophones. Since most of the illustrations are simple events (jumping down, jumping across, throwing, rolling sth. up) I think they should be usable by and large. Perhaps the skin color will have to be changed — I prefer stimuli to be as culturally inconspicuous as possible — though the question is whether that really would affect what we’re after.

However, the one stimulus that I think won’t be familiar is the gargling one above. In the Japanese context, it is meant to elicit the ideophone garagara, probably in the light verb construction X suru ‘do X’. But in Kawu, the scene isn’t very recognizable. People usually drink from calebashes (or their hands), though whites are known to prefer cups — so my guess is that the girl would simply be seen as drinking. Since gargling is not a culturally salient event in Mawu society, I don’t think people would readily think of it, even if there happens to be an ideophonic word for it.

The Japanese ideophone for gargling is garagara. Interestingly, Kimi Akita tells me that “Japanese mothers tell their kids to pronounce “garagara” while gargling. This is because the articulation (especially, that of the velar consonant) of the mimetic is believed to help kids gargle successfully.” Now that’s an interesting intermingling of habitus and embodied meaning. I tried this (without any appreciable gargling experience) and nearly choked. This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “Embodied semantics is a killer idea”!


  1. Imai, Mutsumi, Sotaro Kita, Miho Nagumo, and Hiroyuki Okada. 2008. Sound symbolism facilitates early verb learning. Cognition 109, no. 1 (October): 54-65. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2008.07.015.
  2. Osaka, Naoyuki, and Mariko Osaka. 2005. Striatal reward areas activated by implicit laughter induced by mimic words in humans: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Neuroreport 16, no. 15 (October 17): 1621-1624.  
  3. Rohrer, Tim. 2001. Understanding through the body: fMRI and ERP investigations into the neurophysiology of cognitive semantics. Talk presented at the 2001 International Cognitive Linguistics Association, Santa Barbara: University of California.

P.S. Check out the wonderful bibliographies compiled by Kimi Akita:

  1. Akita, Kimi. 2009-02. A Bibliography of Sound-Symbolic Phenomena in Japanese. Electronic ms, Kobe University.
  2. Akita, Kimi. 2009-02. A Bibliography of Sound-Symbolic Phenomena in Other Languages. Electronic ms, Kobe University.

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.

Continue reading

The sound of rain falling, in your ears

More from the missed-while-I-was-in-the-field dept.: back in August, artisan jewelry shop My Word! featured a beautiful pair of earrings decorated with the Kisi ideophone bákàlà-bákàlà for ‘the sound of big, fat raindrops.’ I love the design, in which colour, shape and size work together to recreate the event evoked by the ideophone.

bákàlà 'big fat raindrops falling'

Earrings with the Kisi ideophone bákàlà-bákàlà, by My Word! jewelry

Kisi [kqs] is spoken by upwards of 250,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. It is a member of the Southern branch of Atlantic, fairly closely related to Temne, Gola, Sherbro, and Krim. Its ideophonic system is well-known through George T. Childs’ 1988 dissertation, The phonology and morphology of Kisi.

I decided to look up the ideophone written on the earrings, and sure enough, there it is on page 182: “bákàlà-bákàlà, sound of rain falling in single, heavy droplets”. It is one of those Kisi ideophones which always come in reduplicated form, which reinforces the happy match between the word and the product.

Behind My Word! is Joanna Taylor, a paper jewelry artist with an academic background in linguistics. I guess it figures that the linguistic data is accurate, right down to the tone marks (High-Low-Low). These earrings, along with two other Kisi pieces, are part of her Project Panglossia, in which she makes (at least) two pieces per week in a language other than English in celebration of 2008, the UN’s International Year of Languages. Lovely!


  1. Childs, George Tucker. 1988. The phonology and morphology of Kisi. PhD Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Many Eyes on Siwu ne

Lots of readers looked at the challenge I posted last week (my blog statistics say more than 450 views for the post alone, so that’s many eyes indeed). A few of you were even daring enough to come up with a story on the various functions of Siwu ne. The challenge was probably a bit too difficult (involving an untranslated text in an as of yet undescribed Niger-Congo language), which makes those few attempts all the more heroic. So what did they see?


ne and its right periphery; “ne, …” accounts for almost half of the tokens

Brett was the first to bite the bullet, providing some statistics on the use of ne. He noted that “it occurs sentence initially 158 times (out of 1161) and sentence terminally 83 times. (…) It often seems to bracket a whole clause and it can even be doubled. The ne kama ne string is quite common.” Ray Girvan didn’t trust the visualization and inspected the raw text instead. He discovered that the text contains some dialogues “as well as as a complete song/poem with multiple uses of “ne” in a question”; that the construct Si …. ne occurs frequently in it; and that the text probably consisted of several different text types. On came Jason with a number of rather detailed observations: Continue reading

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

On the history of the term ‘ideophone’

A common term for expressive vocabulary in African linguistics is ‘ideophone’. It has become a tradition to cite the first paragraph of Doke’s definition in any study on ideophones:

Ideophone (Idéophone) [Ideophon] A vivid representation of an idea in sound. A word, often onomatopoeic, which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, colour, sound, smell, action, state or intensity.
Doke, Bantu Linguistic Terminology, 1935, p. 118

Samarin, in his excellent overview of ideophony in Bantu, carefully notes that ‘[i]t is reported that Doke also is responsible for creating the term ideophone, but I have not come across supporting evidence. Its first appearance seems to be in 1953 with the publication of his Bantu Linguistic Terminology.’ (Samarin 1971:132). Indeed, examples of studies crediting Doke with inventing the term are easily found; here are just a few invoking Doke’s definition [relegated to a footnote to save space].

The idea of ‘ideophone’ before Doke

It is little known that Doke did not actually coin this term, but just gave a new definitional twist to an already existing concept. Continue reading