How to paint with language

Words evolve not as blobs of ink on paper but in face to face interaction. The nature of language as fundamentally interactive and multimodal is shown by the study of ideophones, vivid sensory words that thrive in conversations around the world. The ways in which these “Lautbilder” enable precise communication about sensory knowledge has now for the first time been studied in detail. It turns out that we can paint with language, and that the onomatopoeia we sometimes classify as childish might be a subset of a much richer toolkit for depiction in speech, available to us all and in common use around the globe.

[Written for the Max Planck Jahrbuch 2013. A German version, translated by Gunter Senft, appeared here and in Scinexx Magazine.]


Few professions should be more familiar with the nature of words than academia. Words are the currency of our trade. They record our cumulative progress, and they measure our productivity as we disperse our ideas through articles and books. How easy is it to fall in love with the printed word, black symbols on a white page, tidy spaces separating units of thought like stars dotting the skies of conceptual clarity!

How different are our everyday ways with words. We roll them on our tongues as we speak, whisper, or exclaim. They become pliable as we perform, prolong, and repeat them. We colour them with fine shades of meaning as we exert control over pitch, intensity, and duration. We masterfully integrate them with gestures and facial expressions into what linguists call composite utterances (Enfield 2009). For a long time all of these things were cordoned off as paralanguage: not the real thing, but a side show detracting us from the incisiveness of an idealised formal language. In the philosopher Frege’s musings on language, aesthetic delight and the striving for truth are in direct opposition.

However, this view is fast becoming outdated as linguists increasingly realise that the written word is a poor model for our true communicative competence. Language evolved in a much richer environment, and it has always done more for us than just deliver disembodied information. We use language to build social relations, to relate our experiences and to express our stances. We do not just inform, we also perform. This calls for a renewed study of how words work.


Often the best way to develop a fresh view of one’s field of study is to radically change one’s starting point. Linguists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics do this by collecting new data on languages far afield. In the Language & Cognition Department, researchers carry out sustained fieldwork in over twenty locations across the globe. Over the last few years, there have been several in-depth studies of a type of words known as ideophones. Characterised as “vocal images”, these words are probably the best approximations of painting in speech. They were long seen as exotic, out-of-the-way words, but new research shows that they are ubiquitous in conversations across the globe, and used in unforeseen ways.

Ideophones are words whose form is suggestive of their meaning. Familiar examples include English kerplop and boom or German holterdipolter and tick-tack. But whereas in European languages, these words tend to be small in number and limited mainly to imitating sound, many of the world’s languages have hundreds or even thousands of ideophones, covering a much broader range of sensory meanings. Take tuŋjil-tuŋjil ‘bobbing, floating’, ulakpulak ‘unbalanced scary appearance’ and c’onc’on ‘woven tightly’ from Korean; or dhdŋɔh ‘appearance of nodding constantly’, praduk pradɛk ‘noises of scattered small drops of rain’ and grɛ:p ‘crispy sound’ from Semai, a language of peninsular Malaysia; or mukumuku ‘mumbling mouth movements’, fũɛ̃fũɛ̃ ‘elastic, flexible’ and kpɔtɔrɔ-kpɔtɔrɔ ‘walking like a tortoise’ from Siwu, a language of eastern Ghana (Dingemanse 2012).

Durch Video-Aufnahmen fremder Sprachen – hier Unterhaltung beim Herstellen von Palmöl in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Ghana, – analysieren die Wissenschaftler alltägliche Gespräche, in denen Lautmalereien vorkommen.

Linguists investigate the communicative uses of ideophones and gestures by making video-recordings of everyday social interaction — here, conversations during the making of palm-oil in Akpafu, Ghana. (Photo: Mark Dingemanse)

When studying video recordings of conversations in such languages, one sees that these words, with their peculiar forms and colourful meanings, are not spoken like ordinary words. They are delivered as performances. They bring to life the events in ways that ordinary words never do. Observing them in use, we get a sense of what the linguist and psychologist Karl Bühler meant when he wrote, “If there were to be a vote on who is more richly equipped with resources, the painter with colours or the painter with the voice, I would not hesitate to give the second my vote” (Bühler 1934).


How can we paint with speech? In the ideophone systems of the world’s languages, there are three basic ways in which speech is used to depict sensory imagery — three types of iconicity (Dingemanse 2012). The first is to imitate sound with sound, as in English boom ‘sound of explosion’. This is called direct iconicity. It is the most simple way, but also the most limited. After all, not all events involve sound. What all events do have is internal temporal structure. This is where the second method comes in: the structure of words may resemble the structure of events. Bühler recognised this when he noted that words may be “Gestalt faithful” to the events they represent. Therefore we call this type Gestalt iconicity. For instance, words can be prolonged to evoke duration, closed syllables can evoke end points, and repeated syllables can evoke repetition — as in several of the examples given above. Third, and finally, sometimes similar words are used for similar events. Take the three Semai words grɛ:p ‘of chewing fruit’, gra:p ‘of chewing crisps’, grɨ:p ‘of chewing cassava’. They share a common template gr_p which we can characterise as ‘crispy sound’ (Tufvesson 2011). Because related words map onto related meanings, we call this type relative iconicity. Together, these three ways of suggesting meaning are part of the word painter’s toolkit. They allow depictive words like ideophones to form perceptual analogies of events.

But how does one know that some stretch of speech is intended as an ideophone —a vocal image— rather than an ordinary word? Comparative research shows that languages converge on remarkably similar ways to do this. For instance, across languages, ideophones sound special because they exhibit certain liberties relative to other words. They have a wider range of possible syllable structures and word forms, and they are remarkably susceptible to playful word formation processes like reduplication and lengthening. In spoken utterances, they stand out because they show a great measure of syntactic independence and they tend to be delivered as an intonation unit of their own. Last but not least, in many languages, ideophones are introduced by quotative markers or “say” or “do” verbs, emphasizing their performative nature. All of these features work together to mark ideophones as depictions, much as the frame around a painting tells us to interpret it as a painting and not as the wallpaper.


Researchers of the Language & Cognition Department are studying ideophones in a number of fieldsites. They use specially designed stimulus materials to study how these words encode sensory perceptions (Majid and Levinson 2011). They make high quality video and audio recordings of everyday conversations to understand how people use these words in face to face interaction — the kind of setting in which language evolved and keeps evolving. In the course of this research it has become clear that ideophones are far from the stylistic flourishes that people once took them to be. They are dedicated sensory words, on a par with industry-designed sensory vocabularies in terms of their structure and coverage of sensory spaces (Dingemanse and Majid 2012). They are used to communicate expert knowledge during joint work and to share and interpret experiences in storytelling. In languages which have thousands of ideophones, they are seen as the ultimate sign of eloquence.

Every challenge represents an opportunity. Ideophones challenge us to innovate theory and methods, encouraging us to move away from a view of language limited by ideologies or traditions to a perspective that is informed by as wide a range of data as possible. In the end, it should come as no great surprise that depiction may be just as important as description in linguistic life. Even our own findings are not communicated just in abstract words. We illustrate them with gestures and visualise them in figures and diagrams. There is truth, then, to the saying that an image says more than a thousand words. But what we may have overlooked was that our words have been peppered with images all along.

Speech tends to come together with gesture. Here, a speaker clearly makes a point.

Speech tends to come together with gesture. Here, a speaker clearly makes a point. (Photo: Mark Dingemanse)


  • Bühler, Karl. 1934. Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: G. Fischer.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2012. “Advances in the cross-linguistic study of ideophones.” Language and Linguistics Compass 6 (10): 654–672. doi:10.1002/lnc3.361.
  • Dingemanse, Mark, and Asifa Majid. 2012. The semantic structure of sensory vocabulary in an African language. In Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, ed. N. Miyake, D. Peebles, and R. P. Cooper, 300–305. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
  • Enfield, N. J. 2009. The Anatomy of Meaning: Speech, Gesture, and Composite Utterances. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Majid, Asifa, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2011. “The Senses in Language and Culture.” The Senses and Society 6 (1): 5–18.
  • Tufvesson, Sylvia. 2011. “Analogy-making in the Semai Sensory World.” The Senses and Society 6 (1): 86–95. doi:10.2752/174589311X12893982233876.

Expressiveness and system integration

Just a heads-up to let interested readers know of a newish article on the morphosyntactic typology of ideophones by yours truly: Expressiveness and system integration. On the typology of ideophones, with special reference to Siwu (PDF). Completed in May 2012, it has been peer reviewed and accepted, and is due to appear in a special issue of Language Typology and Universals, though the special issue editor tells me that it may, regrettably, take another while before it actually comes out.

Expressiveness and system integration

Deideophonisation and ideophonisation on the expressiveness and system integration continuum

Anyway because this is now being referred to in numerous places I have decided to make the pre-preprint available here. The basic approach is to exploit corpus data on the morphosyntactic variation of ideophones within a language to shed light on some larger questions in the morphosyntactic typology of ideophones. Some of the proposals of possible interest to typologists include the following:

  • an inverse correlation between morphosyntactic integration and various expressive features (the more syntactically independent an ideophone is, the more susceptible it is to the typical processes of expressive morphology and prosodic foregrounding)
  • a functional explanation of the inverse correlation (ideophones are prototypically syntactically independent to help signal their status as depictions of sensory imagery; this also explains their common occurrence at utterance edge)
  • a generalisation about ideophone morphosyntax in relation to frequency (higher frequency ideophones tend to be easier to integrate into morphosyntax, a Zipfian effect that may have to do with the erosive role of frequency)
  • a prediction with regard to the areal diffusion of ideophones (to the extent that ideophones are typically characterised by a low degree of morphosyntactic integration, this should increase their borrowability)
  • a scalar conception of the differences between ideophone systems across  languages (looking at morphosyntax and expressive morphology allows us to state more explicitly what makes the ideophone system of Somali different from that of Siwu and these two different again from Semai)

Enjoy. Here’s to hoping the article won’t take too long to appear in print. I’ve already been working with Kimi Akita on an exciting follow-up project testing some of these proposals quantitatively on Japanese corpus data.

  1. Dingemanse, Mark. accepted. “Expressiveness and system integration. On the typology of ideophones, with special reference to Siwu.” STUF – Language Typology and Universals (special issue).

Ideophones in Bakairi, Brasil, 1894

Last year Sabine Reiter defended an interesting PhD thesis on ideophones in Awetí, a Tupian language spoken in the Upper Xingu area of central Brazil. In the introduction, she mentions an early source on ideophones in this area. It’s a vivid description of a native of Xingu felling a tree, and it’s full of ideophones and gestures:

Wie quält sich der Bakaïrí, um einen Baum zu fällen: frühmorgens, wenn die Sonne tschischi aufgeht, – dort im Osten steigt sie – beginnt er die Steinaxt zu schwingen. Und tschischi wandert aufwärts und der Bakaïrí schlägt wacker immerzu, tsök tsök tsök. Immer mehr ermüden die Arme, sie werden gerieben und sinken schlaff nieder, es wird ein kleiner matter Luftstoss aus dem Mund geblasen und über das erschöpfte Gesicht gestrichen; weiter schlägt er, aber nicht mehr mit tsök tsök, sondern einem aus dem Grunde der Brust geholten Aechzen. Die Sonne steht oben im Zenith; der Leib – die flache Hand reibt darüber und legt sich tief in eine Falte hinein – ist leer; wie hungrig ist der Bakaïrí – das Gesicht wird zu kläglichstem Ausdruck verzogen: endlich, wenn tschischi schon tief unten steht, fällt ein Baum: tokále = 1 zeigt der Kleinfinger. Aber Du, der Karaibe, – plötzlich ist Alles an dem Mimiker Leben und Kraft – der Karaibe nimmt seine Eisenaxt, reisst sie hoch empor, schlägt sie wuchtig nieder, tsök, tsök, pum – ah …, da liegt der Baum, ein fester Fusstritt, schon auf dem Boden. Und da und dort und wieder hier, überall sieht man sie fallen. Schlussfolgerung für den Karaiben: gieb uns Deine Eisenäxte. (Steinen 1894)

Sabine Reiter translates this passage as follows: “How the Bakaïrí struggles with felling a tree: early in the morning, when the sun tschischi rises, – there in the east it rises – he begins to swing his stone axe. And tschischi rises further, and the Bakaïrí – bravely – keeps beating tsök tsök tsök. His arms are getting tired, he rubs them; they drop down. A small and feeble puff of air escapes his mouth, he runs his hand over his exhausted face; he keeps beating, no longer with tsök tsök, but with a groan from deep within his chest. The sun has reached its zenith; the belly – the hand rubs over it and falls into a deep hollow – is empty; how hungry is the Bakaïrí – he shows the most miserable face: finally, when tschischi is already low, falls a tree: tokále = 1 shows the little finger. But you, the caraiba (nonindian), – suddenly everything on the mimic becomes lively and forceful – the caraiba takes his metal axe, swings it high up, strikes it down with force, tsök, tsök, pum – ah …, a last forceful kick, and there lies the tree on the ground. And there and yonder and here again, everywhere one sees them fall. Conclusion for the caraiba: give us your metal axes.”

For African languages, it looks like the earliest clear descriptions of ideophones go back to the 1850’s (Dingemanse 2011:Ch. 3). This particular instance from 1894 is one of the earliest sources I’ve seen yet for the Americas, but it would not surprise me at all to find much earlier descriptions (e.g. of ideophones in Quechua varieties?) given the linguistic interests of early colonisers (e.g. Jesuits) in the New World.


  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2011. “The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu”. PhD dissertation, Nijmegen: Radboud University.
  • Reiter, Sabine (2012). “Ideophones in Awetí”. PhD thesis, Köln: Universität zu Köln.
  • Steinen, Karl von den (1894). Unter den Naturvölkern Zentral-Brasiliens. Reiseschilderung und Ergebnisse der Zweiten Schingú-Expedition 1887-1888. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.

Better science through listening to lay people

Slides for a presentation given at the ECSITE 2013 Annual Conference on science communication. I spoke in a session convened by Alex Verkade (De Praktijk) and Jen Wong (Guerilla Science). The other speakers in the session were Bas Haring on ‘Ignorance is a virtue’, and Jen Wong on ‘Mixing science with art, music and play’.

We all have them: intellectual blind spots. For scientists, one way to become aware of them is to listen to people outside the academic bubble. I discuss examples from social media and serendipitous fieldwork. Social media helps academics to connect to diverse audiences. On my research blog, I have used the interaction with readers to refine research questions, tighten definitions, and explore new directions, but also to connect science and art. In linguistic and ethnographic fieldwork in Ghana, I have let serendipity shape my research. Unexpected questions and bold initiatives from locals led me in directions I would never have anticipated on the basis of expert knowledge. Ultimately the involvement of lay people led to methodological innovations, changes of perspective, and most importantly, a host of new questions.

Hyperlinks for material mentioned

Convenors and speakers


Thanks for the wonderful tweets — and feel free to get in touch!

A poster on ideophones

No matter how large or complex a PhD thesis, it should be possible to present an outline of the main argument on a simple poster. On that note, here’s a 1-page summary of some of the key findings from my thesis on the meaning and use of ideophones.

The occassion is a festive one: I’ve been awarded the Otto Hahn Medal from the Max Planck Society at their Annual Meeting in Potsdam. After receiving the medal, laureates were given the opportunity to present a poster summarising their research.

The Meaning and Use of Ideophones (poster)

Poster: The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu (click to enlarge)

Is this really a 1-page summary of a 300+-page thesis? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that the basic argument for ideophones as depictive words, and depiction as a significant strategy in language use, is key to the thesis. No in the sense that the poster makes no mention of the sketch grammar of Siwu or of the chapters on ideophones and iconicity, folk definitions, the language of perception tasks, the use of ideophones in special genres, the creation of ideophones, and the relation between ideophones and gesture.

For this poster I’ve picked the sorting task (diagrams visualise well) and the qualitative corpus analysis. It would be easy to make four different posters all making a similar kind of argument but using different empirical evidence. That is precisely the approach I’ve taken in the thesis: looking at ideophones from different perspectives and using different methods to arrive at a holistic understanding of the phenomenon.

Description and depiction

Depiction is a technical term used in psychology, philosophy, and art history, but less so in linguistics. One of my claims about ideophones is that they are best understood (typically, canonically, with the customary provisos about the fluid categories of natural language) as depictive words. Do we really need a term like that? Can’t we make do with good old ‘expressive’ or ‘vivid‘? No, I say. But what then is this elusive concept of depiction? How can we tell that something is intended as a depiction? What is depiction, such that we can distinguish it from other modes of representation? In answering these questions, it is useful to make a distinction between the signals that frame something as a depiction on the one hand, and the aspects of depiction as a mode of representation on the other hand. But let’s start with something more basic: words and images.

Words versus images

There is a domain where distinct modes of representation are very important and very clear: that of visual representations, in particular written words versus images. Take the following slide (from one of my presentations), with on the left a sentence involving le soleil “the sun” and on the right an image of the sun. (Bonus points for those who see whose handwriting that is.) The claim here is a simple one: that the left and the right side involve two distinct modes of representation.

Description and depiction

Description and depiction (Mark Dingemanse)

I’m guessing most readers will agree with at least this basic distinction. What we call this distinction doesn’t matter a lot, but I call it, following the literature, “description” versus “depiction”. More important than the labels are the ways in which the phenomena differ. On the slide above, a first opposition is between propositional vs. imagistic. This is in a way restating the same point (see Kosslyn 1980 for more details), so I’ll focus on the remaining three. There are three key differences that help us to deductively distinguish depictions from descriptions: descriptions differ from depictions (1) in terms of symbol system they use (using discrete symbols vs. using gradient markings), (2) in terms of form-meaning mappings (basically arbitrary vs. basically iconic), (3) in terms of how we interpret them (“decode” to interpret vs. “imagine” to interpret).

Words as images

Words can't describe! (toothpaste for dinner)

Words can’t describe! (toothpaste for dinner)

Without even having started worrying about ideophones, this is a distinction that we need to make. It’s a distinction that is motivated on independent grounds. Words are different from images in their mode of representation, and we find a number of clear differences between the descriptive and depictive modes of representation.

The next step of my argument consists simply in noting that precisely those three key ways in which descriptions differ from depictions (in the visual mode) are also ways in which plain words differ from ideophones (in spoken language). Ideophones tend to use more gradient and discrete symbol systems; their form-meaning mappings tend to be more iconic than arbitrary; and to interpret them, we “imagine” more than we “decode” (Dingemanse 2011, 2012). Of course these differences are not absolute; in my thesis I have pointed out, for instance, that convention (and hence decoding) also plays an important role in depiction. After all ideophones are conventionalised words and not creative formations — most of the time.

When I say that ideophones are depictions, this is a statement about their mode of representation. It is more about a way some thing can be than about the thing itself. Take the sun. That’s a pretty good ‘thing’. Now take the two representations of the sun shown above. Even those representations are tangible ‘things’, in the sense that we can talk about them, point at them, isolate them (as I do on the slide above). But the way in which those two representations differ, that is their mode of representation. It is about the way something can represent something else. That is the sense in which I call an image of the sun and an ideophone in spoken language a depiction.  Continue reading

AVT/Anéla Dissertation Award 2012

The Meaning and Use of Ideophones (2011)

The Meaning and Use of Ideophones (2011)

This weekend, at the annual Taalgala ceremony in Utrecht, I was awarded the AVT/Anéla Dissertatieprijs 2012 for my dissertation The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu. For this prize, jointly presented by the Dutch Society for General Linguistics and the Dutch Association for Applied Linguistics, an independent jury selects the best dissertation in linguistics in The Netherlands in 2011.

Competition was fierce, and I feel greatly honoured that the jury unanimously choose my thesis on account of its “high scores in terms of methodology, crafsmanship, originality and clarity of reporting”. They also wrote of the thesis that it is “an exceptionally thorough piece of work, very well written and accessible to a degree rarely exhibited in dissertations in linguistics”. Whew!  Continue reading

Two recent studies of ideophones in the Americas

Asheninka Perene speaker (from the ELAR archive)

A quick heads up to note the publication of two nice studies of ideophones by Americanists Janis Nuckolls (BYU) and Elena Mihas (James Cook University).

The first, by Janis Nuckolls, is “Ideophones in Bodily Experiences in Pastaza Quichua (Ecuador)“. It appeared in the proceedings of STLILLA 2011. The latest iteration in a long and fruitful line of work on ideophones by Janis Nuckolls, it analyses verb-ideophone collocations with a special emphasis on embodied meaning.

The second, by Elena Mihas, is “Ideophones in Alto Perené (Arawak) from Eastern Peru“, published in Studies in Language. I’m very excited about this study because it presents a lot of brand new data, both on the ideophone system of Alto Perené and on the ideophone systems of a couple of closely related languages.

  1. Nuckolls, Janis B. 2012. “Ideophones in Bodily Experiences in Pastaza Quichua (Ecuador).” Proceedings of STLILLA 2011. (PDF)
  2. Mihas, Elena I. 2012. “Ideophones in Alto Perene (Arawak) from Eastern Peru.” Studies in Language 36 (2): 300–344. doi:10.1075/sl.36.2.04mih

Advances in the cross-linguistic study of ideophones

Just out: a review of ideophone research by yours truly, titled Advances in the cross-linguistic study of ideophones, published in Language and Linguistics Compass. This article focuses on some recent developments in ideophone research. Some of the things it offers include a cross-linguistically viable definition of ideophones; an argument for why ideophones are structurally marked; a review of how ideophones depict sensory imagery; some tools for developing a semantic typology of ideophones; an implicational hierarchy of ideophone systems; and an argument for studying ideophones in actual use rather than just in narratives.

The review doesn’t say much about the morphosyntactic typology of ideophones because there will be another publication coming out on precisely that topic (‘Expressiveness and system integration‘, in STUF – Language Typology and Universals); and it doesn’t say much about ideophones and gesture because there is a chapter on that in my thesis (as well as forthcoming publications).