‘Do ideophones really stand out that much?’ (with sound clips)

Bulbul posted an interesting anecdote in a comment on one of my earlier posts:

On my way home today, I took the scenic route, through the old town, where the Weinachtsmarkt is in full swing with Christmas lights glowing, Glühwein flowing and all that jazz. As I was trying to get through the crowds, I noticed a black gentleman standing next to one of the stalls obviously admiring something and talking on the phone in a language I could not immediately identify.

And just as I passed him, he said “You know” and then something I would transcribe as “ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ” followed by a laugh. “I bet this ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ is an ideophone” I said to myself and immediately started wondering whether the person on the other end truly understood what was being conveyed – in other words, whether that “ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ” was a word with a shared meaning. Now I know better – assuming I was right in identifying the word as an ideophone, of course.

I still don’t know what language that was (I’m guessing Yoruba based on a few words I might have heard), so do ideophones really stand out that much that even a non-speaker can identify them as such?

Decide for yourself

So that’s today’s question: do ideophones really stand out that much? This is something you can only decide for yourself. Here are three examples from Siwu. They come from my corpus of everyday discourse and represent the three most common ideophone constructions. These three constructions account for 88% of 230 ideophone tokens in the corpus; the examples thus can be said to be typical of ideophone usage in day to day conversations in Siwu.

I will not transcribe them at this point; I just want you to listen.

Example 1

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Example 2

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Example 3

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Well do they?

Now you’re in the position to answer bulbul’s question: do ideophones really stand out that much that even a non-speaker can identify them? The answer —mine at least— is yes. If you are a hearing person, I’m willing to bet you had no trouble at all identifying the ideophones in the above three sound samples.

Before I give you the transcriptions, it is worthwile to ponder for a moment why ideophones stand out like this. I’ve hinted at this on other occasions, for example yesterday’s ditty on vivid suggestion, a post on Feedburner’s Zap! Pow! Kraaakkkk!, and the last ideophone proeverij; and also in a recent paper, where I wrote:

As marked words, ideophones set themselves apart from the surrounding linguistic material; as a likely locus of performative foregrounding, they stimulate emotional engagement; as depictions, they supply vivid imagery and recreate sensory events in sound, inviting the listener onto the scene as it were.

So ideophones stand out for a reason: to attract attention to themselves as words qua words, to mark themselves as depictions in a stream of descriptive material. Let’s suppose the gentleman overheard by Bulbul was indeed using an ideophone. Standing at the Weinachtsmarkt, he was attempting to share a vivid image of something he had in mind with the person on the other end; to do so, he needed to signal that what followed ‘You know’ was different somehow from bland referential prose; and this he did (unwittingly for sure) by performatively foregrounding ‘ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ‘.

Of course it’s a bit flaky to draw conclusions on the basis of a couple of syllables overheard on a Weinachtsmarkt. Was it Nigerian Pidgin, which we know has lots of ideophones (Faraclas 1996)? Was he codeswitching? Was he perhaps simply stuttering? There’s no way of knowing. That’s why I gave the Siwu examples, which come from an extensive corpus of everyday social interaction. Want to know what those mean? Click ‘Show’ below to check it out.


  1. Dingemanse, Mark. 2009. Ideophones in unexpected places. In Proceedings of Conference on Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory 2, ed. Peter K. Austin, Oliver Bond, Monik Charette, David Nathan, and Peter Sells, 83-97. London: SOAS, November 14.
  2. Faraclas, Nicholas. 1996. Nigerian Pidgin. New York: Routledge.

Synaesthesia: a cross-cultural pilot

We’ve just launched the web page for a project we’ve been working on in the Language & Cognition group: Synaesthesia across cultures. The most exciting part of the project is the second iteration of a pilot we’ve developed for cross-cultural field research on the forms and prevalence of synaesthesia. In contrast to online tests (e.g. synesthete.org), our pilot uses low tech methods so that it can be used even in non-literate communities and in remote fieldsites where there is no electricity (let alone internet access).

The pilot is currently being taken to L&C fieldsites across the globe, but we’re also welcoming external collaborators. If you’re interested, check out Synaesthesia, a cross-cultural pilot or our project page.


  1. Majid, Asifa, Tessa van Leeuwen, and Mark Dingemanse. 2009. Synaesthesia: a cross-cultural pilot. In Field Manual Volume 12, 8-13. Nijmegen: MPI for Psycholinguistics.  
  2. Majid, Asifa, Tessa van Leeuwen, and Mark Dingemanse. 2008. Synaesthesia: a cross-cultural pilot (first version). In Field Manual Volume 11, 37-41. Nijmegen: MPI for Psycholinguistics.  

Man is an animal (sings the Isakpolo bird)

Morning clouds in Kawu

It is no news that humans say man is an animal, especially not this Darwin Year. But wouldn’t it be rather more interesting if another member of the animal kingdom would weigh in on the matter?

It happens in Kawu, where I am right now for fieldwork (hence the silence on this blog). The call of the ìsakpòlò (Common Bulbul, Pycnonotus barbatus), singing in the early morning, perfectly resembles the tonal contour of the following Siwu phrase:

màturi bra màbɔi
people make animals
‘People are just animals’
Recording of the call:

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Whistled imitation and pronunciation of the Siwu sentence:

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Tone in Siwu is lexically distinctive. Low tone is marked by grave accent (à), High tone is unmarked, and the rare Extra High tone (which in most cases arises from tonal sandhi processes) is marked with an acute accent (á).

The first time I became aware of this bird was when one of my assistants jokingly said, ‘That bird is insulting us.’ Next time I’ll try to provide a picture it. Meanwhile, there you go. Man is an animal. You didn’t hear this from me. You heard it from the ìsakpòlò bird.

Giggles and gargles


A 2005 study suggests that Japanese ideophones of laughter activate striatal reward centers in the brain, but I think the results should be treated with a pinch of salt. Speaking of salt, Japanese gargle with salt water regularly as a prevention against the common cold; they even have an ideophone for it (but so do we, don’t we?). That’s giggles and gargles today. Let’s tackle the giggles first.

Ideophones that make you feel good

A 2005 brain imaging study suggests that ideophones for laughter, but not nonsense syllables, activate reward areas in the brain. Here is the abstract:

The neurobiological reward components of laughter induced by words were investigated. A functional magnetic resonance imaging-based brain imaging study demonstrated that visualization of mimic words and emotional facial expressionwords, highly suggestive of laughter, heard by the ear, significantly activate striatal reward centers, including the putamen/caudate/nucleus accumbens, prefrontal cortices, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the supplementary motor area, while non-mimic words under the same task that did not imply laughter do not activate these areas in humans. We tested a specific hypothesis that implicit laughter modulates the striatal dopaminergic reward centers by image formation of onomatopoeic words implying laughter and successfully confirmed the hypothesis. [Osaka & Osaka 2005]

Since ideophones have been claimed to somehow establish a more direct link between sounds and sensations than other words, brain imaging of ideophone production and comprehension is an exciting research area. Basically, the finding of Osaka & Osaka is that Japanese ideophones for laughter activate striatal reward areas, just like real laughter and other pleasurable activities do. The ideophones used are ‘ghera-ghera’ (strong laughter), ‘nikoh-nikoh’ (strong), ‘kusu-kusu’ (medium), ‘niyah-niyah’ (medium), ‘herahherah’ (weak) and ‘nitah-nitah’ (weak) (p. 1622, romanization by the authors).

But is it ideophony?

That is an interesting result, but I wonder: does the effect really occur because the words are ideophones, evoking the experience of laughter through their sound-symbolic form and imagistic meaning? Or could it simply be due to the fact that the words have to do with laughter? We can’t tell, because the baseline comparison is not with non-ideophonic real words but with nonsense words (called ‘nonsense phonemes’ by the authors). Since non-ideophonic laughter-related words have been kept out of the comparison, we cannot be sure that ideophony (onomatopoeia/mimesis) is causing the effect, although this is what the authors would like to claim.

There is some reason to think that embodied semantics might be enough to induce such effects; think for example of the brain imaging studies showing that certain sensori-motor cortex areas not only upon tactile stimulation of the body part in question (e.g. the hand), but also during the processing of body part terms and verbs implying them (e.g. hand, grasp; Rohrer 2001). So the question is: would the effect found by Osaka & Osaka also occur with non-ideophonic laughter-related words in Japanese? For comparison, it would also be good to have a not so heavily ideophonic language thrown in. Would the English verbs ‘giggle’ and ‘laugh’ also trigger the effect? Sound-symbolic ‘giggle’ moreso than ‘laughter’? Then things start to be really interesting.

A related problem is the claim that ‘image formation of onomatopoeic words’ plays a role in the effect. Once again this would be an interesting claim to test; native speakers of ideophonic languages often report that ideophones evoke vivid images. But in this study it remains an untested background assumption. The way the experiment is set up doesn’t seem to allow for any inferences about it. For all we know the effect might just be due to an association between the sound and the experience of laughter; it is not at all obvious why image formation would come in. One way to approach this issue would be to do imaging studies of ideophones that don’t imitate sounds, but other sensory events.

[Update: Kimi Akita notes that the stimuli, described by the authors as ‘laughter onomatopoeic words’ (p. 1622), actually mix sound-imitating ideophones (geragera and kusukusu) and movement/visual pattern-imitating ideophones (nikoniko, niyaniya, herahera, and nitanita). It doesn’t really help that all of the results are averaged. I might add that Japanese itself does distinguish the two groups by the terms giongo and gitaigo, even though to a non-native speaker the actual categorization in this case isn’t obvious (I would’ve grouped herahera with geragera, and I wonder what kusukusu laughter sounds like…).]


So much for the giggles. What about the gargles? The gorgeous gargling girl above is one of the stimuli used by Prof. Mutsumi Imai in a study of child-directed speech in Japanese. One of her findings is that when describing scenes like this to their child, mothers will tend to use more mimetics (ideophones) than when they are describing the same scene to an adult.

I’m planning to do a pilot in Kawu using prof. Imai’s stimuli, and one question is to what extent the original material would be usable in a West-African context. The idea is that the stimuli can be described using ideophones. Since most of the illustrations are simple events (jumping down, jumping across, throwing, rolling sth. up) I think they should be usable by and large. Perhaps the skin color will have to be changed — I prefer stimuli to be as culturally inconspicuous as possible — though the question is whether that really would affect what we’re after.

However, the one stimulus that I think won’t be familiar is the gargling one above. In the Japanese context, it is meant to elicit the ideophone garagara, probably in the light verb construction X suru ‘do X’. But in Kawu, the scene isn’t very recognizable. People usually drink from calebashes (or their hands), though whites are known to prefer cups — so my guess is that the girl would simply be seen as drinking. Since gargling is not a culturally salient event in Mawu society, I don’t think people would readily think of it, even if there happens to be an ideophonic word for it.

The Japanese ideophone for gargling is garagara. Interestingly, Kimi Akita tells me that “Japanese mothers tell their kids to pronounce “garagara” while gargling. This is because the articulation (especially, that of the velar consonant) of the mimetic is believed to help kids gargle successfully.” Now that’s an interesting intermingling of habitus and embodied meaning. I tried this (without any appreciable gargling experience) and nearly choked. This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “Embodied semantics is a killer idea”!


  1. Imai, Mutsumi, Sotaro Kita, Miho Nagumo, and Hiroyuki Okada. 2008. Sound symbolism facilitates early verb learning. Cognition 109, no. 1 (October): 54-65. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2008.07.015.
  2. Osaka, Naoyuki, and Mariko Osaka. 2005. Striatal reward areas activated by implicit laughter induced by mimic words in humans: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Neuroreport 16, no. 15 (October 17): 1621-1624.  
  3. Rohrer, Tim. 2001. Understanding through the body: fMRI and ERP investigations into the neurophysiology of cognitive semantics. Talk presented at the 2001 International Cognitive Linguistics Association, Santa Barbara: University of California.

P.S. Check out the wonderful bibliographies compiled by Kimi Akita:

  1. Akita, Kimi. 2009-02. A Bibliography of Sound-Symbolic Phenomena in Japanese. Electronic ms, Kobe University.
  2. Akita, Kimi. 2009-02. A Bibliography of Sound-Symbolic Phenomena in Other Languages. Electronic ms, Kobe University.

AAA Photo Contest galleries now online

The Winners and Finalists of the 2008 AAA Photo Contest are now available in a Flickr gallery. The photos are really beautiful — I’m honoured that one of my submissions is featured among them (and happy that Siwu ideophones are getting some press!).

Click on a photo in the slideshow below to show the author and the caption; or go directly to the slideshow on Flickr.

Edit: The semifinalists are now online, too: Flickr gallery.

I thought I had company (a Mawu dirge)

Women performing a funeral dirge in Akpafu-Mempeasem

Funeral dirges (sìnɔ in Siwu) are a special genre of songs to be sung during the period of public mourning preceding a burial. The musical structures of these dirges, the performances, and their place in the larger context of the funeral have been described in some detail by Agawu (1988) and before him by the German missionary Friedrich Kruse (1911); however, the linguistic aspects of the genre have not received any attention so far.

The funeral dirge below was recorded August 17, 2007 in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Volta Region, Ghana (along with six other dirges). It was transcribed and translated with the gentle help of Reverend A.Y. Wurapa.

Siwu English gloss
mɛ̀ sɔ màturi pia mɛ̀
      sêgbe kàku kaɖè
      sêgbe nnɔmɛ miɖè
      sêgbe ìsoma iɖè
      sêgbe àsekpe aɖè
I said, ‘people are with me’
      not knowing it meant mourning
      not knowing it meant tears
      not knowing it meant sadness
      not knowing it meant graves

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The Siwu is beautifully economic in expression. It contains only two verbs: pia ‘be (with)’ and ɖe ‘be (existential)’. The that is translated as ‘said’ is actually a quotative complementizer. An English translation cannot do without marking tense, but in Siwu, the poem does not contain any tense or aspect markers, being set in an aorist-like default that can be interpreted as recent past or present.

Some of the poetic devices at work here are lost in translation. One is the focus construction which emphasizes the content words in the last four Siwu lines (‘mourning it is; tears it is; sadness it is; graves it is’). Another is the fact that these content words belong to four different grammatical genders in Siwu: the first is an noun in KA with locative connotation, the second a liquid/mass noun in MI, the third a singular noun in I, the fourth a plural noun in A. I’m not sure whether this pattern is as striking to native speakers as it is to me, but note that the gender is reinforced by the agreement morphology on the ‘be’-verb (ka-, mi-, i-, a-). One could think of it as a case of ‘subliminal verbal patterning in poetry’ (Jakobson 1980).
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A hand drawn map of Kawu

Colleen’s post about the Hand Drawn Map Contest reminded me of a neat map of Kawu I was given some time ago. Kawu is the area where I do fieldwork, located in the Hohoe district of Ghana’s beautiful Volta Region. This map was drawn in 2003 by John Atsu, literacy coordinator and member of the Siwu Language Committee

Geography: Extent of Kawu

Geography: Extent of Kawu. By John Atsu, 2003 [click to enlarge]

The main villages (squares) and the tarred roads (thick lines) would be found on any sufficiently detailed map; more interesting are the farm settlements (FM), where farmers stay overnight if they work far from home; and the foot paths (x-x-x-x) that connect the villages where there are no roads.

I’m not sure why the map is oriented as it is (with West on the lower side), not having done fieldwork in enough different villages to be sure about how the Mawu talk about directionality and orientation. The mountainous area on the lower side of the map is simply called Kùbe ‘the mountains’; partly in it, partly beyond it lies Awubeame, literally ‘in the mountains of the Mawu’, the area where the Mawu people lived before they split up into Akpafu and Lolobi.

The Kawu area is divided into two zones: Akpafu (north-west, comprised of Todzi, Odomi, Mempeasem, Adokor, and Sokpoo) and Lolobi (south-east, with Kumasi, Ashiambi, and Huyeasem). The names of the villages are usually prefixed by the traditional area: Akpafu-Todzi, Lolobi-Kumasi, and so on. A mountain ridge, or actually the river Dayi just east of it, provides a natural boundary between the two areas. The main dialectal division in Siwu corresponds to this geographic boundary.

Right in the center of the map lies Akpafu-Mempeasem, the village that is my home base while in the field. There is a foot path from there to Adokor (top left corner) which crosses the mountains (via Todzi) and a densely forested valley, until it reaches Sokpoo, where it changes into a 2nd class untarred road. It’s a very nice hike. And this map tells me I should also try to hike to Lolobi-Ashiambi one day — there is a footpath after all.

Below a picture of Akpafu-Todzi, the oldest town of Kawu and the seat of the paramount chief.

Akpafu-Todzi seen from mount Ɔgagɛ̃

Akpafu-Todzi seen from mount Ɔgagɛ̃ , facing north, September 2008.
In the valley lies Akpafu-Odomi.

Finalist in the AAA Photo contest

The results of the AAA photo contest have just been announced. Congratulations to the winner, Peter Biella! Of my four submissions, one made it to the finals (best 20) and one to the semifinals (best 54). All 294 submissions will appear in the AAA Flickr gallery in due course; mine follow below.

My finalist was the following photo, titled “Kããã“:

Kyeei Yao, an age group leader, oversees a festival in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Volta Region, Ghana. The expensive draped cloth, the Ashanti-inspired wreath, the strings of beads which are handed down through the generations, and the digital wristwatch work together to remind us that culture is a moving target, always renewing and reshaping itself.
Kããã is a Siwu ideophone for ‘looking attentively’.

This picture was taken by my wife, Gijske de Boo, while I was busy videotaping the same events that Kyeei Yao is attending to. Together with the other 19 finalists it will be featured in the upcoming issue of Anthropology News; the finalists will also be hung as prints in the AAA office.

The photo that made the semifinals is called “The drum makers“:

Two artisans repair an atumpani drum in preparation for the funeral of a chief in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Volta Region, Ghana. A newly prepared antelope skin is fastened to the hard wood frame of the drum using a nylon cord and wooden pegs.

This picture was taken on the compound of Joseph (the man to the right), very close to my own home in Akpafu-Mempeasem. The earthen wall behind the men is Joe’s house, built of sun-hardened puddled mud like most houses in the village.

Bad Death

A submission which I thought was perhaps the most interesting even though it didn’t make it to the semifinals was “Bad Death ritual“:

A ‘bad death’ ritual in Ghana’s Volta Region. On the village cemetery, relatives of a man who died in a hunting accident listen anxiously to a woman who is possessed by the spirit of the deceased. The hunters, who have just brought the spirit home from the place of the accident deep in the jungle, keep their distance. Red is the colour of danger, black that of death.

This event took place right after a long and tiring march into the jungle and back, to pacify the spirit of a hunter killed in a tragic accident. I was able to take the picture from this perspective because I was dragged right in front of the possessed woman by Foster, one of my assistants, who had been my guide on the expedition. I also have an audio recording of her speech, which turned out to be a very interesting mix of prophesy and admonition. I’ll have to write more about that some time.

My final submission was the photo of Akpafu-Todzi which is also featured on this blog.

It’s a sunny day in Akpafu-Todzi, the old mountain citadel of the Mawu people in the central Volta Region of Ghana. The town, which has endured numerous sieges and which was the site of an ancient iron industry, is tranquil because this is the time for most people to engage in collaborative rice farming.

Phonology Assistant

Phonology Assistant (PA) is a free phonology tool by SIL that (as of version 3.0) works interactively with the data stored in Toolbox, Fieldworks Language Explorer, and Speech Analyzer. It automates many of the cumbersome and repetitive tasks associated with doing phonological analysis, and it does so in a most systematic and revealing way. The things it does more or less automatically include drawing up a phone inventory; computing relative frequencies of phones; computing syllable structures; generating phonotactic charts for every conceivable combination of positions, phones, or features; and finding minimal pairs along various dimensions. A powerful search function allows the user to search for phonetic patterns within specified environments.

A review of Phonology Assistant by me was published yesterday in Language Documentation & Conservation. It’s a tremendously useful tool — anyone who has ever been faced with the task of doing phonological analysis will know that it can grow enormously complex, especially if one wants to be comprehensive and look not just at simple positional distribution (initial, medial, final) but also at occurrence in different environments (intervocalic, before voiced fricatives, after a nasal consonant, etc.). PA assists in these household chores, and does it all with an interface so smooth you wouldn’t notice the conceptual complexity of the tasks. Check out the review (pdf) or the PA website.

  1. Dingemanse, Mark. 2008. Review of Phonology Assistant 3.0.1. Language Documentation & Conservation 2, no. 2: 325-331. doi:http://hdl.handle.net/10125/4350.