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.

Ideophones around the web

With another busy summer gone, here is a post highlighting some of the stuff that’s floated by in the ideophonic blogosphere. I haven’t seen anything like last year’s ideophonic earrings, but we do have more news on Sotho siks!, the introduction of ideophones in the Nyungwe Bible, and a postcard from Taiwan on ideophones in children’s stories. Continue reading

‘If you do not speak Siwu to me in my home, I will not pay your school fees!’

One day in Accra, my daughter came home from school and talked to me in English. I said, “I no be hear English. In my home, we speak Siwu.” My daughter said, “But the teacher has said that we should not speak Vernacular at home!”

Vernacular! Vernacular! By that he means any local language other than English. So I said to her: “Siwu is my language. In my home we speak Siwu! At school you can speak English!” She started shivering and crying, because the teacher had threatened children who spoke Vernacular. So he had put her in fear. But I said to her: “If you do not speak Siwu to me in my home, I will not pay your school fees!” Now that she is grown up, she boasts that she can speak Siwu fluently even though she grew up in Accra. Many of her cousins don’t hear Siwu at all.

This quote is from T.T., a very proud speaker of Siwu. Not all Mawu people raising children outside of Kawu are quite so insistent on maintaining Siwu, but his words do highlight the prevailing attitude among Mawu speakers, namely that it is good to speak Siwu besides many other languages. Teachers, meanwhile, are steadfastly convinced that speaking ‘Vernacular’ is about the worst thing a student can do, despite evidence that being allowed to learn in (and speak) your own language(s) improves education rather than hampering it.

In the same conversation, which took place some months ago in his home in Akpafu-Tɔdzi, T.T. continued:

I cannot pray in English. I cannot pray in Ewe. I talk to my God in my own language. When someone outside Kawu asks me to pray, I will pray in my own language. They may not understand, but they will hear ‘Amen’. They will know alright that I have prayed, and they will say ‘Amen’ to it.


Two talks on ideophones at SOAS

If you’re in London and able to come to SOAS at short notice, there will be two talks on ideophones tomorrow afternoon: one by my colleague Sylvia Tufvesson and one by myself. The talks will be on Wednesday, 3 June, 3-5pm, in room 4418 in SOAS. Here are the titles and abstracts:

Phonosemantics and perceptual structures: The case of Semai ideophones

by Sylvia Tufvesson, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Ideophonic vocabulary often displays some degree of sound symbolism; i.e. perceived likeness between form and meaning such that words with similar meanings resemble each other phonetically. Languages differ in their means of attaining such form-meaning mapping and these correlations can develop freely in spontaneous speech. This talk examines one such pattern, that of stem alternation. The language of focus is Semai (Austroasiatic, Mon-Khmer), spoken by an Aslian community on Peninsular Malaysia. Semai ideophones convey speakers´ perceptual experiences in semantically detailed ways, often withmultiple aspects of an experience encoded in one word. Data show that through different types of stem alternation, speakers express fine-grained semantic differences between different sensory events. This structural tool is used to switch between sensory modalities or convey differences in the internal structure of a specific sensory event. In addition, some types of alternations are used more productively than others in spontaneous speech, suggesting a continuum of conventionality in the linguistic encoding of perception.

How to do things with ideophones. Observations on the use of vivid sensory language in Siwu

by Mark Dingemanse, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Many African, Asian and American languages have a class of words called ideophones: marked words that vividly evoke sensations and perceptions. Hitherto, research on ideophony has focused almost exclusively on the form of ideophones to the neglect of their function. This talk will look at ideophones in actual usage in Siwu, a Kwa language of eastern Ghana. It will be shown that ideophones occur across a wide variety of speech genres, including conversations, arguments, insults, narratives, greeting routines, and special genres like riddles, recreational dances, and funeral dirges. A closer look at data from about 60 minutes of spontaneous conversations will elucidate the different uses to which ideophones are put by both speakers and recipients in tellings and turn-by-turn talk. Some specific genres, including funeral dirges and recreational dances, will be compared to show how the use of ideophones may be constrained by genre.

How is Sotho siks! doing?

In a neat 1965 paper on ideophones in Southern Sotho, Daniel P. Kunene writes about an ideophone derived from a gesture:

There is an interesting and amusing case of the coining of an ideophone from the type of gesture used. The gesture for running is clenched fingers, outstretched thumb pointing upwards and wiggled from side to side in imitation of the swaying of the body as the weight is transfered from the one foot to the other. Normally it is the right hand that is used. By coincidence, the thumb of the right hand represents the number ‘six’ in counting on the fingers — counting beginning on the small finger of the left hand, and ‘crossing over’ from the thumb of the left hand (five) to the thumb of the right hand (six). From this has come the ideophone siks in Sotho! This refers to running, especially fleeing from something:

a-re síks
he did this: siks!
he ran away

Kunene calls this an ideophone for structural and semantic reasons: it occurs in the same syntactic slot (introduced by re like most ideophones) and it vividly depicts an event. A footnote however reveals ‘Restricted to relatively few people, it is true, but there all the same.’ The question is: does anyone know whether the form has caught on and has been used more widely? I’ve looked around on the web, but googling for short words like that seems hopeless.


  1. Kunene, Daniel P. 1965. The ideophone in Southern Sotho. Journal of African Languages 4: 19-39.
  2. Kunene, Daniel P. 1978. The Ideophone in Southern Sotho. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.
  3. Kunene, Daniel P. 2001. Speaking the Act: The Ideophone as a Linguistic Rebel. In Ideophones, ed. F. K. Erhard Voeltz and Christa Kilian-Hatz, 183-191. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

In Siwu, gunpowder doesn’t just go BANG!

Below follows an abstract for a talk I will be giving later this year at WOCAL 6.

Ideophones are marked words that depict sensory imagery (cf. Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001). This paper presents results of an ongoing research project into the linguistic and cultural ecology of ideophones in Siwu, a Ghana-Togo-Mountain language spoken north of Hohoe in Ghana’s Volta Region. Of central interest to the project is the role played by ideophones in the discursive practice of the Mawu. A range of methods is used to investigate this issue (including elicitation tasks and collections of folk definitions), but this paper will focus on data from natural conversational discourse.

It will be shown that ideophones occur across a wide variety of speech genres, including greeting exchanges, conversations, arguments, insults, narratives, and special genres like riddles (mìdzòlo), recreational songs (àlikpi), and funeral dirges (sìkubiɛnɔ). Zooming in on one usage context, we will look at conversations during the making of gunpowder. [N.B. The conversations are of course in Siwu. The examples are presented in pseudo-English because of the abstract requirements.]

A   Now this stuff here looks ɖɔbɔrɔɔɔ [soft].
B   Wũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩ [fine and granular] A   Wũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩ!
B   So it will pass through the gun nipple.
A   Indeed. It won’t be kpokolo-kpokolo [lumpy], you see? It will be very grinded very soft ɖɔbɔrɔɔɔ. So that it can reach inside the gun nipple.

Example (1) shows how, during material culture production, the speakers calibrate their understanding of processes and technologies not with cold technical language, but with ideophones (cf. Nuckolls 1995). Later on in the same conversation, some speakers anticipate the ceremonial gunfire for which the gunpowder is being produced by collaboratively creating a vivid sensory spectacle:

C   When it does tawtaw, you would be standing silently. The gunman topples [because of the recoil] — he puts [this sound] in your ears rrrɔ̂ŋ! Then you’ll just be silenced kananananana, standing there. You’ll be watching things.
E   [In background] It goes gbií im̀ ̀!
C   Boy will it sound — it goes gbíiiìim̀ ̀m̀ !

An analysis of this ‘poetry in ordinary language’ (Evans-Pritchard 1962) will throw light on the interplay of language, culture and the perceptual world in Mawu society.


  1. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1962. Ideophones in Zande. Sudan Notes and Records 34: 143-146.
  2. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1995. Quechua texts of perception. Semiotica 103, no. 1/2: 145-169.  
  3. Voeltz, F. K. Erhard, and Christa Kilian-Hatz, eds. 2001. Ideophones. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

One year of ideophones

Time flies vuuu. About one month ago, The Ideophone has silently celebrated its first birthday kananana. English interspersed with ideophones looks childishly weird susuusu and chaotic basabasa, and that is precisely tutuutu one of the issues I’ve been trying to address here: what is the nature of ideophony, and how is it connected to language ecologies and ideologies?

An overview of the best posts of 2008 on The Ideophone follows below, but first let me highlight a nice new initiative by Neuroanthropology.net. They’ve hosted the Best of Anthro Blogging 2008, a compendium of the most popular and the best posts from various blogs all across the anthropological blogosphere. The Ideophone won prizes in the categories ‘Best Fieldtrip’ and ‘Best Illustration’. There’s the roundup and the prizes, but what I liked most were the elaborate reflections on the submissions in two substantial posts by Daniel Lende on The Relevance of Anthropology. Continue reading

Early sources on African ideophones, part III: ‘Onomatopoeia as a formative principle in the Negro languages’, 1886

The steady influx of vocabularies of exotic languages during the nineteenth century caused a veritable flowering of comparative philology. It became en vogue to be looking at primitive languages, and the late nineteenth century especially was a time in which every respectable gent in academia had to have dabbled in African philology.

One such gent was Harry Thurston Peck (1856-1914). A classicist who would later become known for such works as Latin Pronunciation (1890), an edition of the Suetonius (1889), and most importantly the Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, he apparently had access to some dictionaries of West African languages in the 1880’s and could not, of course, resist the temptation to do something with it. The results were published in the American Journal of Philology in 1886.

Peck’s article is both disappointing and interesting. Disappointing for its dubious methodology, interesting because of the sheer amount of ideophones it presents in a time when the pervasiveness of ideophony in African languages was not widely recognized. Continue reading


The card arrived in the mail today, so I can now call myself the lucky owner of this rendition of the beautiful Kisi ideophone bíààà — ‘rain softly falling’.

Some time ago I wrote about Taro Gomi’s illustrations of Japanese ideophones, citing his warning that

“Linguists, who are always described by such orthodox adjectives as kashikoi (wise), tadashii (right), erai (great), or rippana (respected), cannot handle them” (1989:iii).

No matter how sympathetic I am to that provocative statement, it is not entirely true — if only because the work of art above was made by someone with an academic background in linguistics.

What it makes clear, though —and this is of course what Gomi means, and where I agree with him— is that ideophones deserve special treatment.

(See my previous post for background info on the artist and on Kisi.)