Ideophones, expressiveness and grammatical integration

Ideophones —vivid sensory words found in many of the world’s languages— are often described as having little or no morphosyntax. That simple statement conceals an interesting puzzle. It is not often that we can define a word class across languages in terms of its syntax (or lack thereof). After all, most major types of word classes show intriguing patterns of cross-linguistic variation. There is no particular reason to expect that the morphosyntactic position or degree of embedding of, say, noun-like or verb-like words will be similar across unrelated languages. Indeed that is why typologists define comparative concepts primarily by reference to semantic rather than grammatical or morphosyntactic properties (Croft 2003; Haspelmath 2007).  Continue reading

Sound symbolism boosts novel word learning: comparing ideophones and adjectives

We have a new paper out. It’s actually been available since February in an online-first version, but for those of us who love page numbers and dead trees, the journal has now printed it in its August issue on pages 1274-1281. Citation:

Lockwood, G., Dingemanse, M., & Hagoort, P. (2016). Sound-symbolism boosts novel word learning (PDF). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42(8), 1274-1281. doi:10.1037/xlm0000235

This is another one for which we’ve made available the stimuli —word lists and sound files— through OSF, contributing to our mission to make research from our lab replicable. Also, we have since replicated the results in a follow-up study where we also took EEG and individual difference measures.

I provide a quick summary in 2×3 points below. For a write-up that’s much more fun and has great illustrations, check out Gwilym Lockwood’s Sound symbolism boosts novel word learning: the MS Paint version. Continue reading

Sound symbolism in language: Does nurunuru mean dry or slimy?

Guest posting by Gwilym Lockwood, PhD student in the Neurobiology of Language Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Also see papers for more info and scientific results.

Picture taken from Gomi 1989 ‘An illustrated dictionary of Japanese onomatopoeic expressions’

Picture taken from Gomi 1989 ‘An illustrated dictionary of Japanese onomatopoeic expressions’

When you hear the word dog, you understand it because you have learned that meaningless individual sounds mean dog when arranged in a specific order into a word – it’s not like d means “fluffy”, o means “four legs”, and g means “enjoys rolling in smelly things”. The sound of the word dog is unrelated to the thing it means – it just so happens that the combination of d, o, and g in English mean dog. The same concept in other languages is expressed with very different sounds; hond in Dutch, inu in Japanese, sobaka in Russian. The idea that the individual sounds which make up words are unrelated to the meaning of the word that those sounds express is called arbitrariness in linguistics.

Arbitrariness seems to make sense; if the sounds of language did have specific meanings, if the sounds of words were related to the things they mean, then surely all languages would sound quite similar. Given that they rather obviously do not (for example, Hawaiian has only eight consonants, while Georgian has 28, and !Xóõ, spoken in Botswana, has at least 58), it is safe to say that there is little or no relation between sound and meaning.

However, researchers have recently started to investigate this assumption. Several languages around the world use sound symbolic words called ideophones, which are used to talk about sensory imagery. Interestingly, these words seem to be directly related to their meaning (i.e. the sounds of the words are symbolic of their meaning), and even more interestingly, there seems to be something universal about these words – several experiments have shown that people who don’t speak these languages can still understand (or accurately guess) the meanings of ideophones.

We can try that out now. See if you can guess the meanings of these Japanese ideophones (answers below):

  1. nurunuru – dry or slimy?
  2. pikapika – bright or dark?
  3. wakuwaku – excited or bored?
  4. iraira – happy or angry?
  5. guzuguzu – moving quickly or moving slowly?
  6. kurukuru – spinning around or moving up and down?
  7. kosokoso – walking quietly or walking loudly?
  8. gochagocha – tidy or messy?
  9. garagara – crowded or empty?
  10. tsurutsuru – smooth or rough?
Click here to see the answers to the quiz
  1. nurunuru – slimy
  2. pikapika – bright
  3. wakuwaku – excited
  4. iraira – angry
  5. guzuguzu – moving slowly
  6. kurukuru – spinning around
  7. kosokoso – walking quietly
  8. gochagocha – messy
  9. garagara – empty
  10. tsurutsuru – smooth


Did you guess the meanings of these words better than you would expect? Unlike the word dog, it seems that the individual sounds in these words actually do contribute to the meaning of the words, and this is called sound symbolism. Sound symbolism is the opposite of arbitrariness, but the two can coexist perfectly happily within language.

Speakers of languages with sound symbolic ideophones, such as Japanese, often talk about how the ideophones create a very vivid image or feeling in their minds, whereas normal words don’t. When a Japanese person hears the word kirakira, meaning sparkly, it is like they can actually see the thing that is sparkly. How sound symbolism works, however, is not quite clear, and there have not yet been many neuroscience studies on it, but the research so far suggests that hearing sound symbolic words might involve other forms of sensory perception in a similar way to how people with synaesthesia associate colours to letters. My research at MPI is to investigate why certain sounds appear to be related to certain meanings across languages and how the brain processes these sounds.

Read more

Aduerbia sonus: Ideophones in two 17th century grammars of Japanese

One of my projects here at The Ideophone has been to track down early sources on ideophonic phenomena. For example, I have suggested that we may call the 1850’s the decade of the discovery of ideophones in African linguistics. But we can push back the linguistic discovery of ideophones a little further by looking to other traditions. Today we look at Japanese, for which I have found some early 17th century grammatical treatises that offer information on ideophones (nowadays called ‘mimetics’ in Japanese linguistics). Continue reading

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.

Waza waza

waza waza

waza waza, Gomi 1989:193 · © 1989

I came across this lovely Japanese ideophone in my own copy of Gomi’s Illustrated Dictionary, and I’m sharing it waza waza just for you to enjoy.


  1. Gomi, Taro. 1989. An Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions. Transl. by J. Turrent. Tokyo: Japan Times.

Do you know this feeling?

uja uja, Gomi 1989:24 · © 1989

What better way to compensate for the overload of text in the previous posts than with some excellent illustrations of Japanese gitaigo? I have recently been looking at Taro Gomi’s delightful Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions, featuring cartoon-like depictions of almost 200 Japanese sound-symbolic words used to evoke certain sensations, feelings, and sensory perceptions. Continue reading