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. []