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. []