African ideophones and their contribution to linguistics — workshop at WOCAL8 in Kyoto, Aug 2015


Dr. Mark Dingemanse (Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen)
Prof. Sharon Rose (University of California, San Diego)

African ideophones and their contribution to linguistics

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WOCAL8, August 21-24 2015, Kyoto

Africa’s linguistic diversity has impacted the study of language in many ways. The articulatory phonetics of the Khoi and San languages prompted methodological innovations in phonetics, the tonal systems of West-African languages spurred the development of autosegmental phonology, and the ornate morphology of Bantu prompted syntacticians to reconsider the balance between transformational rules and lexical elaboration. In this workshop we consider how the study of ideophones can contribute to theory and methods in linguistics.

Ideophones (also known as mimetics or expressives) are marked words that depict sensory imagery. A major word class in many African languages, they are somewhat of an inconvenient truth for the dogma that spoken languages rarely feature iconicity in the lexicon. Their phonology is marked in a way that bears a clear relation to the broader phonological system of the language, providing for a unique window into phonological structure. Their prosody and morphosyntax set them apart as special words, yet they are more deeply integrated in linguistic subsystems than is often assumed, raising interesting questions about what is in and outside grammar. Their meanings are rich and imagistic, providing unparalleled ways to talk about sensory perceptions. All of these properties represent areas where ideophones can shed light on the design features of language, the iconic affordances of speech, and the nature of human communicative competence.

This workshop gathers international experts to present recent research on ideophones and to put recent developments into theoretical context. Submissions are expected to focus on the connection between ideophone research and foundational issues in linguistics, from phonology to prosody and from syntax to meaning. We encourage papers that show how new approaches can shed light on old questions, and how the systematic study of ideophones can contribute new insights to our understanding of the structure of language and languages. One and a half centuries after the earliest descriptions of ideophones in African languages, the 8th World Congress of African Linguistics in Kyoto offers a unique chance to take stock of what we have learned so far from ideophones, and to explore ways to integrate this knowledge into the broader language sciences.

Important dates

Deadline for abstract submission: October 31, 2014

Notification of acceptance: December 1, 21014

Conference: August 21-24, Kyoto

Abstracts should follow the general guidelines established for the submission of abstracts for WOCAL 8, which can be found here:

Abercrombie on ‘paralanguage’


David_T._AbercrombieThere is an urgent need for the comparative study, over as much of the world as possible, of the full range of paralinguistic phenomena — the kind of thing for which the linguistic field-worker is best fitted. Fact-finding, not theorising, is what is wanted at this present juncture.

Abercrombie, David. 1968. “Paralanguage.” International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders 3 (1): 55–59. doi:10.3109/13682826809011441.

That was almost half a century ago. Yet apart from some striking exceptions like Adam Kendon and David Wilkins, it is only since the last decade that fieldworkers have begun to collect multi-modal data in earnest.

Zbikowski on music and social interaction


Instead of probing the cultural or historical context for musical utterances, or the complex networks of social interaction that give rise to musical behavior, music theory continues to focus on details of musical discourse with an obsessiveness that is both maddening and quixotic to cultural and social theorists.

Zbikowski, Lawrence Michael. 2002. Conceptualizing music : cognitive structure, theory, and analysis. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

A Mawu community in Sefwi, Western Region, Ghana

In Kawu on the very final day of my 2012 fieldtrip, I heard something unusual. Some people talked about a community of Mawu people, speakers of Siwu, living in Sefwi. Now Kawu, as you know, is in the east of Ghana, close to the border with Togo. Sefwi on the other hand is all the way in Western Region, some 500 kilometres away from Kawu as the crow flies. How did they get there?  Continue reading

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

The clay tablet tradition of African comparative linguistics

Found this gem in a review of Paul de Wolf’s (1971) The Noun Class System of Proto-Benue-Congo:

This work falls within the ‘clay tablet’ tradition of African comparative linguistics, and, like other things in the same tradition (Meinhof, Greenberg), it has the properties of being inscrutable and yet at the same time, in broad outline, convincing. The two together make an infuriating whole. (Kelly 1973:716)

Continue reading

The power of vivid suggestion

On the whole, however, it is safer to see ideophones and similar sounds as proof of their users’ sensitive feeling for language, a deep sensitive attachment to sounds and their power of vivid suggestion or representation. In many cases, a speaker or oral artist can avoid an ideophone by simply duplicating a word of action: for jegidezie tiii, for instance, the narrator could have said jegide jegide, which would translate into something like ‘walked on and on.’ But tiii has a special appeal both as a sound and as a more dramatic way of capturing the idea of extent.

Isidore Okpewho, African Oral Literature, 1992 p. 96. (The example is from Ijo.)

Okpewho’s remarks highlight the importance of the material properties of the ideophonic word. It is not a simple case of having words for things that some other languages may not have lexicalized words for; it is the nature of the ideophonic word —the fact that meaning is suggested by the material properties of the sign— that makes it such a significant linguistic device. What Okpewho calls ‘vivid suggestion’ I have tried to capture with the phrase ‘vivid depiction’ in my working definition of ideophones.


  1. Okpewho, Isidore. 1992. African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

The body in Yoruba

When I finished my MA thesis back in 2006 I made it available online as a gesture to the Yoruba community. It used to be available from my site until I changed servers. Then some good soul uploaded it at Scribd, where it continued to draw visits from various Yoruba forums; however, this happened without my permission and the file was out of my control. I asked the uploader to withdraw it so that I could distribute a slightly updated version here. Such requests never work of course, but still I want to try.

Please do not redistribute the PDF file below; instead point people to this page or give them the link That way I can update the file if need be, and everyone can be sure they get the most recent version.

The Body in Yoruba (2.45 MB)
Dingemanse, Mark. 2006. The Body in Yoruba: a linguistic study. MA Thesis, Leiden University.

Early sources on African ideophones, part IV: S.W. Koelle on Kanuri, 1854

It is high time for a continuation of our series honouring the ancestors of ideophone studies. Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle is one of the founding fathers of African linguistics, and 1854 was one of his more productive years. In the same year, besides his Kanuri grammar (from which the excerpt below is taken), he issued what may be called a corpus of Kanuri folklore, a grammar of Vai, and the first large-scale comparison of some 200 African languages, the famed Polyglotta Africana. Here is what he has to write about ideophones in Kanuri:

§289. The Kanuri language has a peculiar kind of adverbs, which we may call specific or confined adverbs, each being confined in its use to one or a few particular adjectives or their denominative verbs, as illustrated in the following examples. These singular adverbs which seem to be common in African languages, as they exist also in the Aku and Vei, have something in their nature which may be compared to the onomatopoetica, or something in which the immediate, instinctive sense of language particularly manifests itself. They are eminently expressions of feelings (German, Gefühlsworte), or manifestations of vague impressions rather than of clearly defined ideas. (p. 283)

As might be expected from someone who handled so many different languages, Koelle rightly hypothesized that ideophones would be a feature shared by many African languages. Note that Aku is an old term for Yoruba, the language for which Vidal had claimed independently that “This singular feature of the Yoruba language is unique, and therefore I shall not waste time in comparing it with the adverbial systems, whatever they may be, of other African languages.”

As it happens, this singular feature of Yoruba would turn out to be not so unique among African languages. With Kanuri joining Yoruba (Vidal 1852) and Ewe (Schlegel 1857), we now have three independent claims from the 1850’s on the significance of ideophones in three major African languages. Although I do not exclude the possibility of finding yet earlier sources, things are starting to look like we may justifiably call this period the decade of the discovery of ideophones in Africa.


  1. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. Outlines of a grammar of the Vei language, together with a Vei-English vocabulary. And an account of the discovery and nature of the Vei mode of syllabic writing. London: Church Missionary House.
  2. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. Grammar of the Bórnu or Kānurī language. London: Church Missionary House.
  3. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. African native literature, or Proverbs, tales, fables, & historical fragments in the Kanuri or Bornu language. London: Church Missionary House.
  4. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854b. Polyglotta Africana London: Church Missionary House.
  5. Schlegel, Joh. Bernhard. 1857. Schlüssel der Ewesprache, dargeboten in den Grammatischen Grundzügen des Anlodialekts. Stuttgart.
  6. Vidal, Owen Emeric. 1852. Introductory Remarks. In A Vocabulary of the Yoruba language, ed. Samuel Ajayi Crowther. London: Seeleys.