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.1 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

  1. I cannot do much research on this man in the field, but here I found a highly intriguing document by the same man, whose linguistic curiosity seemed to parallel his godliness. His full name was Owen Emeric Vidal. []

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.

Adjectives and the gospel in Ewe

Previously, we’ve looked at a perceptive account of ideophones in nineteenth-century Ewe by Joh. Bernard Schlegel. But Schlegel was not just a keen observator of the synchronic structure of Ewe, he also had clear ideas on where the language came from (damned primitivity) and where it was going (blessed enlightenment). A Pietist missionary above all else, Schlegel was quite sure that the coming of the Gospel would have a profound impact on the Ewe people — and on their language:

Dass die Ewe-Sprache in der Entfaltung und Entwicklung der Adjektiven noch so zurück ist, hat darin seinen Grund, daß sie viele Verben hat, welche schon an sich eine Eigenschaft ausdrücken. (…) Die Ansätze zu einer reicheren Entfaltung sind in die Sprache vorhanden, und wenn erst einmal das Evangelium und was in seinem Geleite folgt, in diese westafrikanischen Völker und Sprachen Eingang gefunden hat, so wird sich zeigen, welche schöpferische Momente in denselben (…) verborgen liegen. (Schlegel 1857:84)

That the Ewe language is still so backwards in the unfolding and development of adjectives, has its ground in the fact that it has many verbs that already express properties. (…) The prerequisites for a richer unfolding are available in the language, and when the Gospel with all its consequences will have found acceptance in these West African peoples and languages, it will be seen which moments of creation are lying dormant in them.

One and a half century later it would seem we are in the position to behold the awesome influence of the Gospel on the Ewe language. Alas, at last count, Ewe still has no more than five or six basic, underived adjectives (Ameka 1991) — not counting ideophones, that is (Ameka 2001).1 One wonders whether there is perhaps another area in the language where we may behold its beneficial effect. Or did the Gospel misfire (at least as far as Ewe adjectives go)? Anyway, what is probably most astonishing is how Schlegel in writing this passage could overlook the sparkling creativity so apparent in ideophones. The moral seems to be that if it’s not a damn adjective, it can’t be civilized, let alone sanctified.2


  1. Ameka, Felix Kofi. 1991. Ewe: its grammatical constructions and illucutionary devices. PhD thesis, Australian National University.
  2. Ameka, Felix Kofi. 2001. Ideophones and the Nature of the Adjective Word Class in Ewe. In Ideophones, ed. F. K. Erhard Voeltz and Christa Kilian-Hatz, 25-48. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  3. Noss, Philip A. 1999. The Ideophone: A Dilemma for Translation and Translation Theory. New Dimensions in African Linguistics and Languages, 261-272.
  4. Schlegel, Joh. Bernhard. 1857. Schlüssel der Ewesprache, dargeboten in den Grammatischen Grundzügen des Anlodialekts. Stuttgart.
  1. Ameka (2001) is devoted to the question whether or not ideophones should be counted as adjectives, and on the implications of that choice for one’s theory of adjectival expressions. Since Schlegel himself saw ideophones as a special type of adverbs, it seems fair to keep out ideophones for present purposes. []
  2. On that note, see Noss (1999), who writes about the rarity of ideophones in translations of the Bible. []

Under the spell of ideophones

One1 of the nice things about fieldtrips is getting immersed in another culture area with, for one thing, different news priorities. When in Ghana, I somehow find it relieving to read the news stories about the rise of herbal medicine, spectacular roundups of Nigerian armed robbers, local chieftaincy conflicts, and parcels of cocaine that miraculously turn into flour under the eyes of the police.2 Far better reading than the daily adventures of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Ghanaian newspapers are always vibrant and engaging, with lots of sharp columns and ample space for letters to the editor. As an example, take the following quote from a column titled ‘Jesus died for our sins, including our carbon sins’, which appeared in the Easter issue of The Spectator. It adresses the huge problem of environmental pollution through plastic packagings and litter.

Have you taken a peak into a gutter lately? Hmm-hmm!! Roadsides? Oh, and farmlands too! Plastic rubbish is literally swallowing us up. How I wish plastic is food we could eat so it’ll go away! But, no! Plastics and much of our increasing volume of rubbish stay put.
So with impudence, we are destroying this earth fuga fuga, manya manya, basa basa and even waa waa, with rubbish as our weapon. We take the earth for granted. We are behaving like the guy in the Jesus story about the Prodigal Son. It is as if we are telling God that He owes us and must replace this earth after we’ve messed it up. Our land, sea, rivers, gutters, backyards and roadsides all harbour secret sorrows as nonbiodegradable ‘bola’ precariously anchor themselves onto our national tapestry.

Dr. Doris Yaa Dartey, The Spectator, March 21, 2008, p. 24 (scan of the original, online version)

I’ve selected this fragment for the words in bold, which are of course ideophones. Wait a moment — ideophones? What are they doing here, in a sea of English words in the columns of a perfectly respectable newspaper with nation-wide distribution? At first sight, this doesn’t seem to mesh well with the literature, in which it is often stated that ideophones are not likely to occur in print.3 (The idea is that as a feature of conversations, narratives, and folklore, ideophones are thought to belong to the domain of spoken rather than written language.) But is this really a counterexample? Continue reading

  1. This posting summarizes some of the points made in a talk given at the MPI-EVA in Leipzig on May 9, 2008. The talk is titled ‘Ideophones in the wild’. []
  2. Just in case you were wondering: last I checked, the rice flour that I brought home from Kawu had not turned into cocaine. []
  3. E.g. Samarin 1971:152; Fortune 1971:242; Dwyer & Moshi 2003:178; etc. []

The mysteries of Christian doctrine, or, How an African language was mistaken for an Amazonian one

In an excellent post over at Greater Blogazonia, Lev Michael unravels a spectacular error which led several eminent specialists of American languages to believe that a West African language named Arda was actually spoken on the Amazon between the Nanay and Marañon Rivers.

Lev’s post is recommended reading (as is his blog Greater Blogazonia in general), so in what follows, I will assume that you’ve at the very least glanced through his fascinating analysis of how this error came to be propagated in quite a few reference works on the indigenous languages of southern America.

It seems very fitting to me that Lev’s excellent piece of sleuthing comes at this point in time, exactly 350 years after the first appearance of José de Najera’s Doctrina Christiana y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda, the mysterious manuscript that is the pivot on which all of this hinges. So go read his exposé and after that, feel free to check back here for some more background information.

Doctrina Christiana - Y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda

The first page of the 1658 Doctrina Christiana – Y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda
(from Labouret & Rivet 1929)

Continue reading

Fresh wild melon and meat full of gravy: food texture verbs in G|ui (Khoisan)

Today’s dish of expressive vocabulary is particularly tasty. It comes from G|ui, a Khoisan language of Botswana.1 To Africanists, expressive words from Khoisan languages are of special interest because Khoisan has been claimed on various occasions to lack ideophones, otherwise thought to be one of those linguistic traits that characterize Africa as a linguistic area (Meeussen 1975:3,2 Heine & Leyew 2007:21). On ideophones in Khoisan, Samarin wrote in the 1970’s:

It is worth adding that although ideophones characterize Bantu languages and their related (and even some unrelated) languages of the North and Northwest (for example, Ewe and Hausa), the non-Bantu languages of the extreme South (that is, Khoisan) do not appear to have them. 3
(Samarin 1971:160-1, emphasis mine)

Some twenty years later, in an important overview of African ideophones, G. Tucker Childs also noted that ‘the absence of ideophones in Khoisan is another puzzling area’ (Childs 1994:179).

Since then, however, there have been a few reports of ideophones in Khoisan. Childs (2003) revised his 1994 statements, citing Nama and Kxoe (both spoken in Namibia) as Khoisan languages in which ideophones were attested. Indeed, Kilian-Hatz (2001), in an article comparing ideophones from Baka (Niger-Congo, Cameroon) and Kxoe, attributes the claim not so much to a lack of ideophones in Khoisan, but rather to a general lack of data on Khoisan. Still, the previous reports (often based on personal communication with Khoisanists) do cast something of a shadow of doubt over the issue.

Okay, so some Khoisan languages might not have a class of words that perfectly maps onto the category of ideophones in neighbouring Bantu languages. But surely they have their own expressive resources — linguistic structures that are used to convey or evoke sensory perceptions, sensations, and inner feelings. What do these look like? One particulary nice dataset comes from G|ui, a language of the central Kalahari desert sporting an impressive amount of food texture verbs. The data comes from a talk4 by Hirosi Nakagawa at ALT VII in Paris last year. Rarely does one get linguistic data that is so mouth-watering.

Food texture verbs in G|ui

Food texture verbs in G|ui (from a handout by Hirosi Nakagawa)

Continue reading

  1. G|ui [gwj], also written |Gui, G|wi, is spoken by the G|úi-kò, lit. ‘people of the bush’ (Nakagawa 1996). []
  2. Thanks to Stanly Oomen for bringing this paper to my attention. []
  3. Careful as always, he added: “This is my tentative conclusion, based on some reading of the literature and personal communication with investigators who know these languages from first-hand experience. But perhaps this statement is too strong.” (Samarin 1971:160-1) []
  4. Nakagawa gave a talk on the perception verbs of Kǂʰábá (Khoisan, closely related to G|ui) at ALT 2007 in Paris. I wasn’t there; the handout was passed on to me by a colleague at the MPI. []