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.
- ‘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.1
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.2 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).
- 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 verbs3, or Gbeya (Adama-Eastern, Niger-Congo, Central African Republic), where over 5000 ideophones have been collected4. 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).
- 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’,5 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.
And because it’s ‘read three, get one for free’ today, here is your bonus misunderstanding:
- An ideophone is a type of musical instrument. Not quite. Xylophones, marimbas and the like are called idiophones, lit. ‘self-sounding’. This is distinct from ideophone, which derives from ‘idea-sounding’. Don’t worry, it’s a common error.
- Bühler, Karl. 1934. Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. G. Fischer.
- Diffloth, Gérard. 1976. Expressives in Semai. Austroasiatic Studies 1, Oceanic Linguistics. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, Special Publication 13: 249-264.
- Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. 1910. Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Sociétés Inférieures. Paris.
- Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. 1926. How Natives Think. Trans. Lilian A Clare. New York: Washington Square Press.How Natives Think. Trans. Lilian A Clare. New York: Washington Square Press.
- Samarin, William J. 1970. Field procedures in ideophone research. Journal of African Languages 9, no. 1: 27-30.
- Voeltz, F. K. Erhard, and Christa Kilian-Hatz, eds. 2001. Ideophones. Ed. F. K. Erhard Voeltz and Christa Kilian-Hatz. Typological Studies in Language, 44. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- Webster, Anthony K. 2008. ‘To Give an Imagination to the Listener’: The neglected poetics of Navajo ideophony. Semiotica 171: 343-365.Semiotica 171: 343-365.
- Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1907. Grammatik der Ewe-Sprache. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.Grammatik der Ewe-Sprache. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.
- Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1927. Laut, Ton und Sinn in Westafrikanischen Sudansprachen. In Festschrift Meinhof, 315-328. Hamburg: J.J. Augustin.
- Some consider onomatopoeia a subcategory of ideophony, in which case onomatopes would be those ideophones that evoke auditory events. However, this is a choice that can only be made on a language by language basis.
A related issue is the fact that languages differ in interesting ways with regard to the relative elaboration of the different sensory modalities in their ideophone inventories. Certain indigenous languages of North America for example seem to have ideophones that are predominantly auditory (cf. Webster 2008 on Navajo), whereas auditory ideophones make up only a small fraction of the inventories of many African languages. [↩]
- Historically, ‘onomatopoeia’ has been used in a broader sense (see for example a previous post on early sources on African ideophones). The sound-only connotation of ‘onomatopoeia’ is the main reason for advocating the more general term ‘ideophone’. [↩]
- Diffloth 1976:249 [↩]
- Samarin 1970:55 [↩]
- See Lévy-Bruhl (1910) Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Sociétés Inférieures (translated as How Natives Think, 1926). [↩]