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)

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  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. []

On the history of the term ‘ideophone’

A common term for expressive vocabulary in African linguistics is ‘ideophone’. It has become a tradition to cite the first paragraph of Doke’s definition in any study on ideophones:

Ideophone (Idéophone) [Ideophon] A vivid representation of an idea in sound. A word, often onomatopoeic, which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, colour, sound, smell, action, state or intensity.
Doke, Bantu Linguistic Terminology, 1935, p. 118

Samarin, in his excellent overview of ideophony in Bantu, carefully notes that ‘[i]t is reported that Doke also is responsible for creating the term ideophone, but I have not come across supporting evidence. Its first appearance seems to be in 19531 with the publication of his Bantu Linguistic Terminology.’ (Samarin 1971:132). Indeed, examples of studies crediting Doke with inventing the term are easily found; here are just a few invoking Doke’s definition2 [relegated to a footnote to save space].

The idea of ‘ideophone’ before Doke

It is little known that Doke did not actually coin this term, but just gave a new definitional twist to an already existing concept. Continue reading

  1. a typographical error — the bibliography to Samarin’s article cites the year as 1935 []
  2. Some studies invoking Doke’s definition: ‘Greater uniformity was only found after Doke introduced the term “ideophone”.’ (Von Staden 1977:195)
    ‘Since C. M. Doke (Bantu Linguistic Terminology, 1935) introduced and defined the term ‘ideophone’ as a linguistic category for the classification of words in the Zulu languages, it has been employed variously in the description of many Bantu and non-Bantu African languages.’ (Fordyce 1983:263)
    ‘Le terme d’idéophone, inventé par C. M. Doke …’ (Alexandre 1966:9)
    ‘Doke (1935:118) first defined the ideophone as “a vivid representation…’ (Nuckolls 1999:239)
    ‘The term ideophone first came into use among linguists specializing in African and especially Bantu languages.’ (Tedlock 1999:119)

Early sources on African ideophones, part I: Schlegel on Ewe, 1857

This is the first post in a series. Featured philologist of today is Joh. Bernhard Schlegel, for providing us with precious data on ideophones (expressives) in nineteenth-century Ewe, a Kwa language of southeastern Ghana. But since this is the first post on ideophones here, let’s first try to answer the obvious question: what are ideophones, anyway?

Ideophones1 are a type of words used by speakers to convey a vivid impression of a certain sensation or sensory perception. They are found abundantly in Asian and African languages, as well as in some South American languages. It is important to note that in these languages, they form a distinct class of words, definable by a constellation of phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic criteria. As a class of words, they are rare in Indo-European languages.

Cross-linguistically, ideophones are marked words in many ways.2 They are phonologically marked by deviant phonotactics and all sorts of co-occurrence constraints; they have special morphology (often iconic, e.g. reduplication, lengthening); there is some syntactical ‘aloofness’ to them (can’t be negated, are often less well integrated into the sentence); and they are semantically very specific, typically evoking experiences as a whole rather than encoding some attributes of objects of events. Part of what makes them stand out is that ideophones utilize sound symbolism to map onto the ‘analogue’ sensory world. Continue reading

  1. Expressives and mimetics are two other commonly used terms for the same phenomenon. []
  2. Many of the ideas in this brief overview were articulated in close collaboration with my colleague Sylvia Tufvesson, who is working on expressives in Semai, a Mon-Khmer language of the Malay peninsula. []