What do you really need on this earth?

Natural conversations are a great source of data for all sorts of linguistic research. Linguists and conversation analysts usually study them primarily for their structure, not their content. This is not out of disinterest, but out of empirical prudence. Talk tends to support a wide range of interpretations. It is empirically safest to stick to observable structures and practices, or at most to interpretations furnished by the interlocutors themselves.

The excerpt below is translated from a corpus of natural conversations in Siwu, a language spoken in Ghana. Two elderly men are sitting in front of their house and chatting. They’ve just been talking about a fellow villager whose children are “giving him problems”. The long silence before Adom’s “So now.” signifies, among other things, that what comes now is likely a new topic. The exchange that follows is beautifully poetic both in terms of structure and topic.

Adom So now.
You have a keyboard.
Ben Mm.
A You have an uh. (1.5) this thing
B Mm.
A You have uh (0.8) radio.
B Mm.
A You have electricity.
B Mm.
A You have water.
B Mm.
A So then what really- what do you really need on this earth?
B What I need?
As for me, I don’t need anything except-
Except my bodily health.
A Just your bodily health.
B Mm.

One is tempted to talk about Maslow’s pyramid, material culture, and a whole lot of other things — but it is probably best to let the exchange speak for itself. (Translated from Siwu.)

Morning clouds in Akpafu-Mempeasem, 2009


Magritte on Words and Images (PDF)

La trahison des images (Magritte 1928-1929)

La trahison des images (René Magritte)

Magritte’s best known work by far is of course his drawing of a pipe with the text Ceci n’est pas une pipe. He made several versions over the years, but the work originated in 1928 or 1929. The title Magritte gave to this painting is La trahison des images — the treachery of images.

Less well known is the fact that in the same year, Magritte published an intriguing article in the surrealist journal La révolution surréaliste, entitled Les mots et les images. This article shows that the phenomenon so playfully taken up in La trahison des images was only one element of a larger set of problems in verbal and visual representation occupying Magritte. Here’s the first page:

Magritte 1929, p. 32

Magritte,  1929, Les mots et les images, p. 32

Magritte’s article offers 18 panels dealing with different aspects of the relation between words, images, and reality. As a succinct overview, it is extremely effective. I have used it in my own work to clarify the distinction between depiction and description.

While Magritte’s 18 sketches have been reproduced in several places (e.g. French version, English version), the original is somewhat hard to find on the interwebs. Which is why I’m sharing it here. Use the JPG versions below, or download the PDF here. Enjoy!


Magritte, René. 1929. “Les Mots et les Images.” La Révolution surréaliste 12: 32–33. (PDF)

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.


“The trouble with intellectuals,” Manny, my boss, once told me, “is that they don’t know nothing till they can explain it to themselves. A guy like that,” he said, “he gets to middle age — and by the way, he gets there late; he’s trying to be a boy until he’s forty, forty-five, and then you give him five more years until that craziness peters out, and now he’s almost fifty — a guy like that at last explains to himself that life is made of time, that time is what it’s all about. Aha! he says. And then he either blows his brains out, gets religion, or settles down to some major-league depression. Make yourself useful. Hand me that three-eights torque wrench — no, you moron, the other one.”

Summer Job, by Richard Hoffman. From the bundle Gold Star Road, Barrow Street Press 2007. Spotted on Michael Agar‘s home page and also seen at Poetry Foundation.

Slides for ‘Ideophones in unexpected places’

Slides for my recent paper ‘Ideophones in unexpected places’, presented at LDLT2 in London, November 13-14. Though the inquisitive rooster in the title slide may not be looking for them, there are ideophones for just about any salient feature depicted in this scene. But what are people using them for? And what specialized uses may arise out of the core interactional functions of ideophones? Those are the questions addressed in this paper.

Supplementary material can be found on another page. A slightly updated version of the full paper is available here (PDF). Here is how to cite it:

  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, 83-94. London: SOAS.

Intangible and abstruse


Intangible and abstruse

the bright silk of the sunlight

Pours down in manifest splendor,

You can neither stroke

the precise word with your hand

Nor shut it down under a box-lid.

Tsze Sze’s Second Thesis
Ezra Pound, The Unwobbling Pivot, 1947


Taro Gomi said: “So linguists do not deal with onomatopoeic expressions. Or perhaps I should say, they are unable to deal with them. And this is not surprising; onomatopoeic expressions are not the kind of subject matter that expert linguists can take up as a separate topic and study academically. After all, onomatopoeic expressions are not really language; they are, in a sense, raw language.”

On literariness

Toronto by night (the Royal Ontario Museum)

Embedded in the Iconicity conference in Toronto is a pleasant surprise: a three-day workshop entitled Cognitive Poetics: A Multimodal Approach. Speakers include Reuven Tsur, David Herman, Margaret Freeman, David Miall, Zoltan Kövecses, Yeshayahu Shen, Mark Changizi, and of course the organizer, the colourful Paul Bouissac. (As an aside, I can’t resist quoting the latter on the omnirelevance of semiotics: “My definition of semiotics is everything that is interesting.”) Continue reading

Upcoming talk: Ezra Pound among the Mawu

Up next week: the Seventh Biennial Symposium on Iconicity in Language and Literature (programme here), at Victoria College, University of Toronto, June 9-14, 2009. It looks like an interesting bunch of linguists and literary theorists. I will give a talk on Tuesday the 9th, the abstract for which can be found below.

Ezra Pound among the Mawu: the everyday poetics of ideophones in a West-African society

by Mark Dingemanse, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

The language of the Mawu people of eastern Ghana has a large class of ideophones: marked iconic words that vividly evoke feelings. Ideophones are found abundantly in African, Asian, and Amerindian languages; as a distinct class of words they are rare in Indo-European (Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001). Their use has been summarized eloquently by Fortune:

‘With them one is in a special realm of spoken art. There is a roundness, a complete shape, not so vividly conveyed by more complex constructions, more formal expressions. They attempt to be a vivid re-presentation or re-creation of an event in sound … Always they try to capture the freshness of an event and express it of themselves with nothing to dull or cloud the evocation’ (Fortune 1962, 6)

The similarity between ideophonic and poetic language is easy to see (cf. Nuckolls 2006). Yet the shadow of Lévy-Bruhl, who assigned mimesis in language to the realm of primitivity, has loomed large over linguistics and literary theory alike. The poet Ezra Pound, a central figure of Modernism, is a case in point: while his fascination with Chinese writing spawned the ideogrammic method, the mimicry and gestures of the ‘primitive languages in Africa’ would never become more than a mere curiosity (ABC of Reading, 21).

This talk imagines Pound transposed into the culture of the Mawu. What would have struck him about their ways of ‘charging language’ with imagery? I will show that there are three levels of iconicity in Siwu ideophones —direct, relative, and Gestalt iconicity— which are combined in various ways to vividly recreate sensory events in sound. The abundant use of ideophones across a wide range of discourse genres suggests a concern of Siwu speakers with their perceptions. These observations will be juxtaposed with Pound’s views on the ‘word of literary art which presents, defines, suggests the visual image’ (Selected Prose, 321), and his perpetual interest in the exact qualities of perceptions. The goal of this contrastive analysis is to shed light on the linguistic and cultural ecology of an everyday poetic device in the world’s languages, and in so doing to rehabilitate what one might call ‘the ideophonic method’.


  1. Fortune, G. 1962. Ideophones in Shona: An Inaugural Lecture Given in the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland on 28 April 1961. Oxford University Press.
  2. Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. 1910. Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Sociétés Inférieures. Paris.
  3. Nuckolls, Janis B. 2006. The Neglected Poetics of Ideophony. In Language, Culture, and the Individual, ed. Catherine O’Neil, Mary Scoggin, and Kevin Tuite, 39-50. München: Lincom Europa.
  4. Pound, Ezra. 1914. Vorticism. Fortnightly Review 96, no. 573: 461-471.
  5. ———. 1934. ABC of Reading. London: Routledge.
  6. ———. 1973. Selected Prose. New York: New Directions.
  7. Voeltz, F. K. Erhard, and Christa Kilian-Hatz, eds. 2001. Ideophones. Typological Studies in Language, 44. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

A cultural revival?

Jedesmal, wenn ein Solo beendet hat, fällt der ganze Chor ein und singt einen Refrain, der aber nur aus den verschiedenen Vokalen besteht, die auf alle möglichen und unmöglichen Arten ausgesprochen werden, also eigentlich immer dasselbe. Interessant wäre es, einen solchen Gesang aufzunehmen. (Kruse, Krankheit und Tod in Akpafu, 1911, p. 192)

Everytime when a solo ends, the choir joins in and sings a refrain that just consists of a number of different voices which are uttered in all possible and impossible ways; so in a way it is always the same [words]. It would be interesting to record such a song.

The closing paragraphs of my previous post were cited in several places (e.g. Culture Making, Far Outliers) as evidence of a cultural revival. Although I feel it is really too soon to say whether this is the case, I’m glad to report that the dirges that we recorded in Akpafu-Todzi are in wide circulation now and are even being played during funerals, to great acclaim. Even people who I don’t know very well have told me how glad they are that these dirges are available now. I in turn should thank Timothy “T.T.” Akuamoah from Todzi for bringing up the idea of recording the dirges in March 2008. Were it not for his organizing talents, we would never have had so many wonderful singers around. There are plans for a follow-up project involving more recordings in the weeks around Easter.

I don’t think Friedrich Kruse, the German missionary whose description of a Siwu funeral dirge is quoted above, ever actually expected these dirges to be recorded. The Germans were quite adamant about their Ewe-only policy in schools and churches; in fact there is no evidence that any of the missionaries (who manned the Akpafu missionary station for a good thirty years altogether) ever learned to speak Siwu — to the contrary, Schosser (1907) records several cases of women who could not yet be baptised because of their limited understanding of Ewe, and the mission chronicles show a glaring ignorance of Mawu culture in general (Bürgi 1921). It speaks for the vigour of Mawu culture that Siwu is alive and well nowadays, and that the Mawu are taking an active interest in their own cultural heritage.


Allow me to present another wonderful example of the genre. Last summer I wrote about the ideophone kanana. Here is a funeral dirge in which that ideophone, evoking a tranquil silence, plays a central role. It would normally be sung during the wakekeeping, in the middle of the night.

The song, with call and response revolving around the realization that death strikes everyone —barren women just as well as nursing mothers—, begins and ends in silence. Be silent and stay in your houses. What more can one do in the face of a sad loss? Text, structure, and melody work together to create a compelling and most of all intensely sad dirge.

Siwu English gloss
mìlo kanana si mìsɛ i mi ayo
milo kananaaa
[repeat] ɔlɛmã ìwo, ɔtalɛpo ìwo, mìloo
ɔlɛmã sìse, ɔtalɛpo sìse,
mìlo kanana si mìsɛ i mi ayo
be still kanana and stay in your houses
be still kananaa
[repeat] see the barren woman’s grave, the nursing mother’s grave, and be still
see the barren woman’s grave-mound, the nursing mother’s grave-mound;
be still kanana and stay in your houses

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


The funeral dirges of the Mawu are full of parallelisms. The above dirge features parallelisms within and across lines. Within lines, the powerful contrast between ɔlɛmã ‘barren woman’ and ɔtalɛpo ‘nursing mother’ is used to silence all — one’s status in life is of no relevance whatsoever to death. Across lines, grave (ìwo, literally ‘pit’) and grave-mound (sìse, literally ‘clay heap’) are parallels that help establish a certain poetic balance. Some examples of semantically rhyming words that are commonly used in parallelisms are:

ɔnyiì/ɔtalɛpò/ɔ̀rɔ̃gó bielè
man/young man
mother/nursing woman/true woman
sit/be on/be in
owner of the house/important person
sweet/very sweet

The previous posting noted how the grammatical affordances of Siwu were used to achieve a tight and pithy expression. Here, we see in more detail the work being done by the selection and contrast of semantic units. First of all, ideophones —words that are perfectly suited to vividly express feelings and emotions— are used in the dirges to great effect. Secondly, we see that parallel units related by likeness or contrast are an essential device to enrich meaning and achieve poetic balance in this genre of verbal art. (See Fox 1974, Baronti 2001, for parallels from other languages.)


  1. Agawu, Kofi. 1990. Variation procedures in Northern Ewe song. Ethnomusicology 34, no. 2: 221-243.
  2. Baronti, David Scott. 2001. Sound symbolism use in affect verbs in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan. Dissertation, University of California, Davis.
  3. Bürgi, Ernst. 1921. Geschichte von Station Akpafu, 1897-1917. Lome. Signatur 7,1025 – 5/2; Film FB 3697. Staatsarchiv Bremen.
  4. Fox, James J. 1991. Our ancestors spoke in pairs. In Explorations in the ethnography of speaking, ed. Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer, 65-85. 2nd ed. Studies in the social and cultural foundations of language 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Kruse, F. W. 1911. Krankheit und Tod in Akpafu. Der Anscharbote, October 29.
  6. Schosser, Herman. 1907. Akpafu: ein Stück Kultur- und Missionsarbeit in Deutsch Togo. Bremer Missions-Schriften 21. Bremen: Verlag der Norddeutschen Missions-Gesellschaft.

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

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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).
Continue reading