The power of vivid suggestion

On the whole, however, it is safer to see ideophones and similar sounds as proof of their users’ sensitive feeling for language, a deep sensitive attachment to sounds and their power of vivid suggestion or representation. In many cases, a speaker or oral artist can avoid an ideophone by simply duplicating a word of action: for jegidezie tiii, for instance, the narrator could have said jegide jegide, which would translate into something like ‘walked on and on.’ But tiii has a special appeal both as a sound and as a more dramatic way of capturing the idea of extent.

Isidore Okpewho, African Oral Literature, 1992 p. 96. (The example is from Ijo.)

Okpewho’s remarks highlight the importance of the material properties of the ideophonic word. It is not a simple case of having words for things that some other languages may not have lexicalized words for; it is the nature of the ideophonic word —the fact that meaning is suggested by the material properties of the sign— that makes it such a significant linguistic device. What Okpewho calls ‘vivid suggestion’ I have tried to capture with the phrase ‘vivid depiction’ in my working definition of ideophones.


  1. Okpewho, Isidore. 1992. African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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.

Two talks on ideophones at SOAS

If you’re in London and able to come to SOAS at short notice, there will be two talks on ideophones tomorrow afternoon: one by my colleague Sylvia Tufvesson and one by myself. The talks will be on Wednesday, 3 June, 3-5pm, in room 4418 in SOAS. Here are the titles and abstracts:

Phonosemantics and perceptual structures: The case of Semai ideophones

by Sylvia Tufvesson, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Ideophonic vocabulary often displays some degree of sound symbolism; i.e. perceived likeness between form and meaning such that words with similar meanings resemble each other phonetically. Languages differ in their means of attaining such form-meaning mapping and these correlations can develop freely in spontaneous speech. This talk examines one such pattern, that of stem alternation. The language of focus is Semai (Austroasiatic, Mon-Khmer), spoken by an Aslian community on Peninsular Malaysia. Semai ideophones convey speakers´ perceptual experiences in semantically detailed ways, often withmultiple aspects of an experience encoded in one word. Data show that through different types of stem alternation, speakers express fine-grained semantic differences between different sensory events. This structural tool is used to switch between sensory modalities or convey differences in the internal structure of a specific sensory event. In addition, some types of alternations are used more productively than others in spontaneous speech, suggesting a continuum of conventionality in the linguistic encoding of perception.

How to do things with ideophones. Observations on the use of vivid sensory language in Siwu

by Mark Dingemanse, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Many African, Asian and American languages have a class of words called ideophones: marked words that vividly evoke sensations and perceptions. Hitherto, research on ideophony has focused almost exclusively on the form of ideophones to the neglect of their function. This talk will look at ideophones in actual usage in Siwu, a Kwa language of eastern Ghana. It will be shown that ideophones occur across a wide variety of speech genres, including conversations, arguments, insults, narratives, greeting routines, and special genres like riddles, recreational dances, and funeral dirges. A closer look at data from about 60 minutes of spontaneous conversations will elucidate the different uses to which ideophones are put by both speakers and recipients in tellings and turn-by-turn talk. Some specific genres, including funeral dirges and recreational dances, will be compared to show how the use of ideophones may be constrained by genre.

Giggles follow-up: smiling verbs and happy adjectives show facial motor resonances

Just a quick follow-up on my earlier post. Foroni & Semin (in press, Psychological Science) do what I hoped somebody did: examining the bodily grounding of non-ideophonic vocabulary related to emotional states. Theirs is not an imaging study like Osaka & Osaka 2005, but a study of motor resonance in facial muscles. The terms tested are action verbs (to smile; to frown) and adjectives for the corresponding emotional states (without overt facial configurational semantics), e.g. ‘happy; angry’.

Very briefly, the results indicate that both types of words induce motor resonance in facial muscles, though the action verbs do so more strongly than the adjectives. The authors note the striking similarity of the results to earlier experiments involving visual stimuli (pictures of facial expressions, Ekman style; e.g. Dimberg & Petterson 2000). An interesting second experiment shows that the motor resonance even exerts influence on judgements of the funniness of cartoons: subjects subliminally primed with the verb ‘smile’ tend to rate cartoons as funnier than subjects subliminally primed with the verb ‘frown’. If facial muscle activity is inhibited by having participants holding a pen between their lips, the effect is not significant; neither is it significant in the case of adjectives like happy and angry.

There is some wiggle room still for ideophones. As Foroni and Semin say, ‘Not all linguistic expressions have the same consequences. Certain categories (i.e. verbs) induce motor resonance more than others and contribute differentially to the shape of our judgments.’ My hypothesis would be that ideophones for emotional states and facial configurations would rival verbs in the extent to which they cause motor resonance. Osaka & Osaka’s (2005) results are inconclusive in this regard, because they did not include non-ideophonic action verbs or other words in their comparison.


  1. Dimberg, Ulf, and Maria Petterson. 2000. Facial Reactions to Happy and Angry Facial Expressions: Evidence for Right Hemisphere Dominance. Psychophysiology 37, no. 05: 693-696.
  2. Foroni, Francesco, & Semin, Gün R. (2009). Language that puts you in touch with your bodily feelings: The Multimodal Responsiveness of Affective Expressions. Psychological Science.
  3. 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.  

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.

One year of ideophones

Time flies vuuu. About one month ago, The Ideophone has silently celebrated its first birthday kananana. English interspersed with ideophones looks childishly weird susuusu and chaotic basabasa, and that is precisely tutuutu one of the issues I’ve been trying to address here: what is the nature of ideophony, and how is it connected to language ecologies and ideologies?

An overview of the best posts of 2008 on The Ideophone follows below, but first let me highlight a nice new initiative by They’ve hosted the Best of Anthro Blogging 2008, a compendium of the most popular and the best posts from various blogs all across the anthropological blogosphere. The Ideophone won prizes in the categories ‘Best Fieldtrip’ and ‘Best Illustration’. There’s the roundup and the prizes, but what I liked most were the elaborate reflections on the submissions in two substantial posts by Daniel Lende on The Relevance of Anthropology. Continue reading

Zap! Pow! Kraaakkkk! Ideophones for involvement at FeedBurner

FeedBurner, a service for managing RSS feeds, provided us with a nice example of ideophonic language on its corporate blog last year:

Starting right now, you just log into your Blogger account, select Settings | Site Feed, enter your FeedBurner feed address and click “Save Settings.” Zap! Pow! Kraaakkkk! Now you’ve got the complete picture of how your content is being consumed out here, out there, out everywhere.

HIT! ( Visual Linguist)

The technique at work here is commonly used in comics. Neil Cohn over at The Visual Linguist refers to it as ‘replacing a certain panel to get an entailment of the action’ (see example to the right).

I would think of it not so much as replacing a panel for something else but rather as zooming in on the action. The goal is not to get the entailment of the action, although that may be the effect. The goal is rather to drag the reader onto the scene to focus on the raw action, inviting her/him to recreate it in the imagination.

Behind the scenes

The ideophones used in the FeedBurner post invite us to imagine what happens after we click ‘Save settings’. They provide us with a peek behind the scenes, suggesting that a whole slew of machinery is set going by this one click, and Zap! Pow! Kraakkkk! produces the desired result.

Dragging us onto the scene is something ideophones do exceedingly well (see ‘Under the spell of ideophones‘). As marked words, they set themselves apart from the surrounding linguistic stuff and take center stage (Kunene 2001). As sound images (depictions, Lautbilder) of sensory events, they ‘fire the individual imagination’ (a phrase used by Deborah Tannen (2007[1989]:134) in a discussion of the role of imagery in conversation) and create a heightened sense of involvement (Nuckolls 1992).

The FeedBurner example is interesting because this type of mimetic use of language is stylistically marked for most English speakers. It sort of fits in with the branding strategy of FeedBurner, which is characterized by a decidedly colloquial style of communication all throughout their website. Cornelius Puschmann had a thoughtful post on such issues of style some time ago.


  1. Kunene, Daniel P. 2001. Speaking the Act: The Ideophone as a Linguistic Rebel. In Ideophones, ed. F. K. Erhard Voeltz and Christa Kilian-Hatz, 183-191. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  2. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1992. Sound Symbolic Involvement. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2, no. 1: 51-80.  
  3. Tannen, Deborah. 2007. Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue, and Imagery in Conversational Discourse. 2nd ed. Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mumbling and other mouth sensations: Ideophone proeverij II (with sound clips)

With three mouth-related ideophones we’ve got a true proeverij this time. Welcome to dinner! You’re invited to try the first ideophone on the menu, mùkùmùkù. Feel free to sustain the mumbling to get some feeling for the word. Mùkùmùkùmùkùmùkù. The mumbling mouth movements of a toothless person. This is quite a special ideophone in that uttering it (or shall I say muttering it) actually gives one a bit of the mouth feeling a mumbling toothless must be having.

[mùkùmùkù] the mumbling mouth movements of a toothless person
ɔ̀ɖe kanya mukùmùkù • he eats like a toothless person [lit. eats mouth mùkùmùkù]

Now take a deep breath, and get ready for the next course: saaaaaa. This is a Siwu ideophone for a cool sensation in the mouth, as one would get for example with mint or toothpaste. It is devoiced towards the end, so it ends, quite appropriately, in a breath sound. It has a sister ideophone suuu, which evokes a burning sensation as one would get when taking in, for example, a very spicy soup. (The burning is continuous, i.e., not punctuated; yuayua would be an ideophone for a punctuated burning sensation.)

[saaḁ] cool sensation [esp. in the mouth]

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ì-se sááá
it is saaa
[suuu̥] burning sensation [esp. in the mouth]

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ah! ì-te ì-bɛbɛrɛ mɛ [sucks in air]… ì-te ì-bɛbɛrɛ mɛ sùuú kɛ̀lɛ̀!
INTJ.pain it-PROG it-be.burning me … it-PROG it-be.burning me just
Ah! It is burning me … it’s burning me suuu!

If you listen to the audio clips, you’ll note that the ideophones are uttered in a prosodically marked way, with a drawn out vowel, intonational foregrounding, and (in the case of suuu) heavy tonal modulation. This performative aspect of ideophone use is one of the ways in which ideophones stand out in discourse, calling attention to themselves and thereby to the imagery they evoke (cf. Nuckolls 1996:62-78).

Together, saaa and suuu form a sound-symbolic cluster of items that are closely related in both form and meaning. There are more clusters like that — last time’s ɣeee ‘swarming of animals’ for example has a close relative ɣɔɔɔ which describes a moving mass of water. This type of clustering (it has been likened to templatic morphology) is quite common in ideophonic vocabulary worldwide. Finally, note that the opposition between saaa/suuu and mùkùmùkù illustrates once again the iconicity of word form that was highlighted in the previous proeverij.


  1. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1996. Sounds Like Life: Sound-Symbolic Grammar, Performance, and Cognition in Pastaza Quechua. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ideophone proeverij I

kùrodzai te kùfɛrɛrɛ ɣèèè: Queleas come to drink in thousands at dusk and the last rays light up their wings. Photo © Wildcaster

kùrodzai te kùfɛrɛrɛ ɣèèè: Queleas come to drink in thousands at dusk and the last rays light up their wings. Photo © Wildcaster

While I’m busy analysing conversational data from the last two fieldtrips, my plan is treat you to a few fine Siwu ideophones every once in a while: an ideophone proeverij.

Incidentally, the title of this mini-series testifies to a sad lexical gap in English: there seems to be no good equivalent for the Dutch ‘proeverij’, a noun derived from the verb proeven ‘to taste’, blandly translatable as ‘tasting event’ but rich with layers of allusions to culinary delight and bon-vivantism. However, let’s not worry too much about the lexical poverty of English and go straight on to savour some Siwu sound symbolism.


of cutting in a sawing movement

ɔ̀to ɔtu kɔkɔ́ ítì tsɔ̀kwɛtsɔ̀kwɛ • he is cutting off the fowl’s head in a sawing movement ~
[ʕèèè] of living beings moving in great numbers (swarm, flock)
màturi sɛ́ ɣèèè • people are swarming ~ [lit. they go ~]
kùbɔibi sɛ ɣèèè • the insects are swarming ~ [lit. they go ~]
kùrodzai te kùfɛrɛrɛ ɣèèè, ɔ̀wuri amɛ • the birds are flying ~ in the sky
àkpɛ sɛ ɣèèè ndu amɛ • the fishes go ~ in the water

Siwu ideophones display a weak iconic relationship between the form of the ideophone and the aspectual structure of the event evoked; in other words, they usually look like the events they depict. Reduplication for example evokes repetition, distribution, plurality, or a combination of these. In tsɔ̀kwɛtsɔ̀kwɛ above, reduplication is coupled with alternating vowel and tone patterns that bring into focus the irregularity of the sawing event. In contrast to this, non-reduplicated monosyllabic ideophones like ɣèèè depict sensory events as unsegmented or unitary.

The ideophone ɣèèè is interesting in this respect because it could also have focused on the pluractional sense of a swarming event — in which case you would expect a reduplicated form. This sense is out of focus however, as the gesture that regularly accompanies the ideophone also shows. It is in focus, I would argue, in an old friend of ours: Japanese uja uja, another ideophone depicting a swarming event.