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 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.)

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.

Somali ideophones revealed

I missed it back in March, probably because I was in the field: a delightful post on ideophones in Somali over at Beautiful Horn of Africa. An intriguing introduction…

In this fast moving 21st Century of information superhighway, you should feel obligated to expose youself to the rest of the world so that your presence in words and deeds can be felt by others.
Watch out what I’m about to reveal.

…is followed by a veritable explosion of ideophonic vocabulary: “Fuuq is to drink heavy drinks like milkshake or creamy liquid; bacaac is the cry of the lamb while baac is a fool; fadfad is the bubbling of sticky cornmeal on a cooking pot; xaax is to feel cold; xuux is to instill fear in children; yaq is something nasty in appearance; aq is uttered when smoke disturbs one’s visibility; yar is astonishment; uf is bad smell; bash is for any object that split into pieces when dropped while bush is when a jelly-like substance falls on the floor then splits in to bish; shabaax is sound from sea waves or meandering river water; dhibiq is for falling droplets; dhaw dhaw and qaw qaw is scrubbing of metals; hatishow is to sneeze; qabac qabac is when an object is blown by the wind; …”

The stream of consciousness quality of the prose calls to mind what Gérard Diffloth calls the ‘expressive mood’. In another form, I have witnessed this phenomenon in live conversations, where ideophones tend to erupt in chunks rather than being distributed evenly over the full length of the conversation. Continue reading

Early sources on African ideophones, part II: Vidal on Yoruba, 1852

Part two of our series on early sources (part one is here) is dedicated to Reverend O. E. Vidal, M.A. who as early as 1852 made a number of very insightful comments on ideophones in Yoruba in the preface to Samuel Crowther’s Yoruba dictionary:

There is another very striking feature in the Yoruba language, which I feel unwilling to pass over in this memoir, although, at the present stage of our knowledge on the subject of African philology, it will not afford any help in assigning to this language its proper position on the ethnological chart. The adverb is a part of speech in which we do not commonly recognise any characteristic sufficiently prominent to become a distinctive mark of any language, either generic or specific. But in the case of the Yoruba there is a most observable peculiarity in the use of this part of speech, which must, I think, eventually prove to be such a distinctive mark. Speaking in general terms, we may say, that each individual adverb of qualification possesses an idiosyncrasy of its own which altogether incapacitates it from supplying the place of another. It contains within itself the idea of the word which it is employed to qualify, although, as to form and derivation, totally unconnected with that word. In this way “almost every adjective and verb has its own peculiar adverb to express its quality” or rather its degree. This peculiarity must certainly greatly increase the expressiveness of the language. (Vidal, p. 15-16)

Vidal’s reserved tone shows just how little known the phenomenon of ideophony was at the time of his writing. Yet his comments are incisive and to the point; he sums up pretty much of what is significant about ideophones. He continues: Continue reading

GTM Workshop 2008

In 1968 Bernd Heine published the first comparative study of the so-called Togorestsprachen. Around the same time Kevin Ford and Mary Esther Kropp Dakubu were involved in the linguistic documentation of some of the languages of the Ghana-Togo mountains; Ford was writing a dissertation on Avatime (Siya) and doing comparative work on several other GTM languages besides; and Kropp Dakubu was compiling several voluminous comparative wordlists in the Comparative African Wordlists series. Their activities in the late 1960s and the early 1970s marked an initial wave of research into the GTM languages.

A full forty years later, these three eminent linguists are with us to take part in the second international workshop on on the description and documentation of the GTM languages. A very special occassion indeed. I’ll be giving a talk on ideophones and the slippery slope of expressivity in Siwu.


  1. Heine, Bernd. 1968. Die Verbreitung und Gliederung der Togorestsprachen. Berlin: Reimer.
  2. Kropp Dakubu, Mary Esther, and Kevin C Ford. 1988. The Central Togo Languages. In The Languages of Ghana, ed. Mary Esther Kropp Dakubu, 119-154. London: Kegan Paul.