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).

What’s wrong with “vivid”? The evolution of a definition

A "vivid" butterflyIdeophones, like so many things in life, are easy to identify but hard to define. Many researchers have grumbled about the shortcomings of Doke’s descriptive characterization of ideophones (see discussion here), but few have attempted to formulate an alternative. For better or worse, I did,1 but it took me a few iterations to arrive at something that I felt worked well enough to be useful in cross-linguistic research. One of these iterations featured the word “vivid”, but I’ve since dropped it. Why? Continue reading

  1. I should mention that early on in my PhD, probably back in 2007, it was Ruth Singer who insisted I needed to have a strong definition. Thanks Ruth! []

New issue of SemiotiX

Just out: a new issue of SemiotiX, the e-journal on all things semiotic edited by prof. Paul Bouissac. Among other things, it features a guest column by yours truly.

Ever felt sceptical about the supposed iconicity of ideophones like Siwu kananaa ‘silent’ or Japanese iya iya ‘with a heavy heart’? Isn’t it similar to the cute, but mistaken story that all Chinese characters are like little pictograms? And what have these two things got to do with the paintings of Van Gogh, Duchamp, and Mondriaan? Read all about it.

Van Gogh, Almond Blossoms; Duchamp, Nu descendant un escalier; Mondriaan, Victory Boogie Woogie

  1. Dingemanse, Mark. 2012. “Coerced Iconicity in Writing and Speech.” SemiotiX XN-8 (September).

On the use of structural criteria in defining ideophones

Note to readers: Portions of this post have been revised and published in the following paper:

Dingemanse, Mark. 2019. “Ideophone” as a comparative concept. In Akita, Kimi & Pardeshi, Prashant (eds.), Ideophones, Mimetics, Expressives, 13–33. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. (doi:10.1075/ill.16.02din) (PDF)

Recently I’ve been having a conversation with Roger Blench about whether structural markedness should play a role in the definition of a useful cross-linguistic conception of ideophones. Over the last few years, Roger has been producing a steady stream of exciting new data on ideophones, often straight from the field (e.g. handouts and drafts on Nyinkyob ideophones, Ngiemboon ideophones, Kolokuma Ịjọ ideophones, and Bafut ideophones). His most recent position is staked out in a paper on Mwaghavul expressives on his website. Here is a key quote:

“Ideophones not only fall into different word classes, but also into a range of conceptual classes. They may demonstrate a characteristic phonology, morphology or canonical form, but this is absent in some languages, even where the ideas they express are conserved. To characterise this richness, it is helpful to switch to a larger class of ‘expressives’ (a characteristic Asian terminology) to encompass these ideas; ideophones would just be a subset. [emphasis MD]

In this reply (which is an edited version of a document shared with Roger some weeks ago) I raise two problems with this proposal. The first problem is one of definitional criteria: how far can we dilute before we lose substance? The second is one of descriptive choices: does the Mwaghavul case really warrant changing our conception of ideophones, or are there other ways to handle it? Continue reading

An ideophone poem by Stacey Tran

Last week the Portland Review published a beautiful ideophone poem by Stacey Tran, titled From the World Encyclopedia of Ideophones. It consists of ideophones from Navajo, Japanese, Vietnamese, Yoruba and Siwu juxtaposed with poetry lines that evoke the rich and textured meanings of these words. Read the piece here. I’m not sure I can quote it in full here but I have to quote the Siwu ideophone and the lines that it inspired:

mukumuku  — (Siwu) mumbling mouth movements

A woman at the grocery store choosing an orange, one after the other tumbling onto the ground in front of her, for all that is known they might have been the ones she would have wanted to bring home to her daughter, her back rounds as she picks each one up off the confetti linoleum.

— Stacey Tran, From the World Encyclopedia of Ideophones (source)

The title is brilliant too. You will look in vain for a traditional printed book titled The World Encyclopedia of Ideophones. Yet it is true that the ideophone inventories of languages across the globe form an impressive compendium of everyday poetry. Thank you, Stacey Tran, for creating this wonderful work of art and for reminding us that ideophones are, as Evans-Pritchard wrote, poetry in ordinary language.

Phonosemantics, Chinese characters, and coerced iconicity

Update: SemiotiX issue XN-8 features a revised and expanded version of this essay.

The light descending (from the sun, moon and stars.) To be watched as component in ideograms indicating spirits, rites, ceremonies.The linguistic blogosphere featured some posts recently on the topic of phonosymbolism, phonosemantics, and Chinese characters. It started with a post by Victor Mair over at Language Log, outlining several approaches to “etymologizing” Chinese characters. A follow-up by David Branner highlighted some of the problems with simplistic notions of phonosymbolism. Here I add some texture to the conversation by discussing the views of Ezra Pound, making a comparison to form-meaning mappings in ideophones, and introducing the notion of coerced iconicity. Continue reading

Now available: The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu

Yesterday I successfully defended my PhD thesis at the Radboud University Nijmegen. I was promoted to doctor cum laude.

This means that I can now make the thesis officially available to anyone interested. You can find it at, where you can also inspect the online supplementary materials, listen to audio clips, and check out photos. Or just download the PDF directly. Enjoy!

Also check out these press releases related to the thesis and the defense:

Daniel Tammet invents his own Siwu ideophone

I loved Daniel Tammet’s second book Embracing The Wide Sky (2009). In his own words, Embracing The Wide Sky is “a personal and scientific exploration of how the brain works and the differences and similarities between savant and non-savant minds”. It surveys work from psychology and linguistics and even indirectly (okay, very indirectly) features my work on Siwu ideophones. Continue reading