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]
ì-se sááá
it is saaa
[suuu̥] burning sensation [esp. in the mouth]
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’1, 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.2 It is in focus, I would argue, in an old friend of ours: Japanese uja uja, another ideophone depicting a swarming event.

  1. Plus the suffix -rij, cognate with English -(e)ry, ‘activity or place related to’, ultimately from French of course. []
  2. I ought to be able to show you this, but I’m not decided yet how I’m going to add video to this blog. []

On playthings and tools

Let me draw your attention to the newly added quote at the top right of this page: “…they are playthings, not the tools of language.” The quote comes from Max Müller’s Lectures on the Science of Language (I’m citing the 1862 edition). I wrote a little about the historical context of that quote recently but let’s not worry about that right now.1

The quote is nice because along with Müller’s healthy skepticism we get an observation thrown in for free: that there is a playful dimension to imitative use of speech sounds. Müller was here of course relying on his own intuitions. In recent work, Janis Nuckolls has noted that besides playfulness, sound-symbolism for SAE speakers is often associated with ‘qualities such as childishness, whimsy, and simplicity, that make it inappropriate for many discursive contexts.’2

‘You have to pepper your speech’

Not so in Siwu, and in many other pervasively ideophonic languages. In Siwu, to stick to my own trade, use and knowledge of ideophones is a marker of eloquence, and a sign indeed that one ‘knows the language’. In fact, although my Siwu is less than fluent (to say the least), I have quite often received compliments because of the way I used ideophones — saying, for example, ɔ-bù kpɛtɛ̀ɛ̀ɛ̀ {3SG-be.wet IDPH.soaked} ‘She was drenched to the skin’ instead of the simpler, ideophone-less version.

For Siwu speakers, ideophones are not just embellishments. As one of my assistants said, ‘we could tell a story without ideophones, but we use them to let people’s mind go, or get more understanding’. Another succinct explanation came from an elder in the community: à-kparara ara {2SG-IDPH.illuminate things} ‘you illuminate things’ (and yes, kparara is an ideophone). There you have it: ideophones as tools.

Playful ones nonetheless — said the aforementioned assistant, ‘without these words, speech is buààà [bland]. You have to pepper it’. You guessed it. Buààà is another of those playthings.


  1. Müller, Max. 1862. Lectures on the Science of Language. 3rd ed. London: Longman.
  2. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1995. Quechua texts of perception. Semiotica 103, no. 1/2: 145-169.
  3. 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.
  1. Here’s the gist, if you don’t want to follow through: it’s embedded in a debate about the origins of language and Müller is here discrediting what he called the bow-wow theory, i.e. the theory of the imitative origin of language. []
  2. See Nuckolls 1995:146. Part of Nuckolls’ point is that these associations may well have played a role in the struggles to understand and appreciate the nature of ideophony in pervasively ideophonic languages. Another common misunderstanding deriving from an SAE-rooted conception of sound-symbolism is the idea that ideophones are just imitative of sound — they’re not, of course. []

Three misconceptions about ideophones

In a previous post I have outlined the history of the term ideophone. This post takes on three common misunderstandings about the nature of ideophones. As an added bonus, if you read all three, you get one for free. The working definition I adopt for ‘ideophones’ is the following: Marked words that depict sensory imagery. In lay terms, ideophones are words that stand out (are ‘marked’) and whose form betrays something of (is depictive of) their meaning.

  1. ‘Ideophone’ is just jargon for onomatopoeia. Not quite. Onomatopoeia are generally understood to be limited to words imitating sounds. Ideophones however evoke all sorts of sensory events — not just sounds, but also taste, gait, visual effects, texture, smell, and so on.1
    Consider the following Siwu ideophones: vɛlɛvɛlɛ ‘a dizzy, giddy feeling in the body’; yuayua ‘a sensation of burning (the visual impression, the feeling, or both)’; kpotoro-kpotoro ‘moving jerkily like a tortoise’; ɣɛkpɛtɛɛ ‘delicately fragile, for example of autumn leaves’. These words do not imitate sounds, yet to a Siwu speaker they vividly depict sensory events in a way that is reminiscent of onomatopoeia.2 The German linguists had an excellent term for this: Lautmalerei ‘painting with sound’, the result of which was a Lautbild ‘sound picture’ (Westermann 1907, 1927, cf. also Bühler 1934).
  2. English and other Standard Average European (SAE) languages lack ideophones. Not quite. Given the definition of ideophone above, ideophony is probably a universal phenomenon. English, for example, has ideophonic words like glimmer, twiddle, tinkle which are depictive of sensory imagery: their form betrays something of their meaning in ways that words “chair” and “dog” do not.
    All the same it is true (and interesting) that languages differ in the extent to which they systematize and elaborate their ideophonic (expressive) resources. In that sense English is definitely a much less ideophonic language than, say, Semai (Central Aslian, Austroasiatic, Malaysia), where ideophones are a word class as big as the two other major word classes, nouns and verbs3, or Gbeya (Adama-Eastern, Niger-Congo, Central African Republic), where over 5000 ideophones have been collected4. In the latter type of language, ideophones make up a large and clearly recognizable class of words, whereas in English, ideophonic vocabulary is sprinkled all over the lexicon (and probably less common overall).
  3. Ideophones are a feature of primitive languages. Not quite. This idea is at least as old as the first descriptions of ideophones in ‘exotic’ languages. It was made popular by anthropologist Lévy-Bruhl’s musings about ‘primitive mentality’,5 in which ideophones were adduced as evidence for the ‘irresistible tendency’ of the native to ‘imitate all one perceives’ (1926:142). One thing we have learned since then is that the notion of ‘primitive language’ makes no sense outside the highly problematic model of cultural evolutionism in which it was coined.
    I don’t even want to give counterexamples in the form of supposedly non-primitive languages which nonetheless are ideophonic; anyone interested can look up some relevant literature (start with Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001). For linguists, languages differ in interesting ways and along all sorts of dimensions; but the supposed dimension of primitivity is not one of them.

Continue reading

  1. Some consider onomatopoeia a subcategory of ideophony, in which case onomatopes would be those ideophones that evoke auditory events. However, this is a choice that can only be made on a language by language basis.
    A related issue is the fact that languages differ in interesting ways with regard to the relative elaboration of the different sensory modalities in their ideophone inventories. Certain indigenous languages of North America for example seem to have ideophones that are predominantly auditory (cf. Webster 2008 on Navajo), whereas auditory ideophones make up only a small fraction of the inventories of many African languages. []
  2. Historically, ‘onomatopoeia’ has been used in a broader sense (see for example a previous post on early sources on African ideophones). The sound-only connotation of ‘onomatopoeia’ is the main reason for advocating the more general term ‘ideophone’. []
  3. Diffloth 1976:249 []
  4. Samarin 1970:55 []
  5. See Lévy-Bruhl (1910) Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Sociétés Inférieures (translated as How Natives Think, 1926). []

Early sources on African ideophones, part III: ‘Onomatopoeia as a formative principle’, 1886

The steady influx of vocabularies of ‘exotic’ languages during the nineteenth century caused a veritable flowering of comparative philology in Western Europe. It became en vogue to be looking at languages from outside Europe, and the late nineteenth century especially seems to have been a time in which every gent in academia (and yes, they were mostly gents) had to have dabbled in African philology.

One such gent was Harry Thurston Peck (1856-1914). A classicist who would later become known for such works as Latin Pronunciation (1890), an edition of the Suetonius (1889), and most importantly the Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, he apparently had access to some dictionaries of West African languages in the 1880’s and could not, of course, resist the temptation to do something with it. The results were published in the American Journal of Philology in 1886.

Peck’s article is both disappointing and interesting. Disappointing for its dubious methodology, interesting because of the sheer amount of ideophones it presents in a time when the pervasiveness of ideophony in African languages was not widely recognized. Continue reading

Fresh wild melon and meat full of gravy: food texture verbs in G|ui (Khoisan)

Today’s dish of expressive vocabulary is particularly tasty. It comes from G|ui, a Khoisan language of Botswana.1 To Africanists, expressive words from Khoisan languages are of special interest because Khoisan has been claimed on various occasions to lack ideophones, otherwise thought to be one of those linguistic traits that characterize Africa as a linguistic area (Meeussen 1975:3,2 Heine & Leyew 2007:21). On ideophones in Khoisan, Samarin wrote in the 1970’s:

It is worth adding that although ideophones characterize Bantu languages and their related (and even some unrelated) languages of the North and Northwest (for example, Ewe and Hausa), the non-Bantu languages of the extreme South (that is, Khoisan) do not appear to have them. 3
(Samarin 1971:160-1, emphasis mine)

Some twenty years later, in an important overview of African ideophones, G. Tucker Childs also noted that ‘the absence of ideophones in Khoisan is another puzzling area’ (Childs 1994:179).

Since then, however, there have been a few reports of ideophones in Khoisan. Childs (2003) revised his 1994 statements, citing Nama and Kxoe (both spoken in Namibia) as Khoisan languages in which ideophones were attested. Indeed, Kilian-Hatz (2001), in an article comparing ideophones from Baka (Niger-Congo, Cameroon) and Kxoe, attributes the claim not so much to a lack of ideophones in Khoisan, but rather to a general lack of data on Khoisan. Still, the previous reports (often based on personal communication with Khoisanists) do cast something of a shadow of doubt over the issue.

Okay, so some Khoisan languages might not have a class of words that perfectly maps onto the category of ideophones in neighbouring Bantu languages. But surely they have their own expressive resources — linguistic structures that are used to convey or evoke sensory perceptions, sensations, and inner feelings. What do these look like? One particulary nice dataset comes from G|ui, a language of the central Kalahari desert sporting an impressive amount of food texture verbs. The data comes from a talk4 by Hirosi Nakagawa at ALT VII in Paris last year. Rarely does one get linguistic data that is so mouth-watering.

Food texture verbs in G|ui

Food texture verbs in G|ui (from a handout by Hirosi Nakagawa)

Continue reading

  1. G|ui [gwj], also written |Gui, G|wi, is spoken by the G|úi-kò, lit. ‘people of the bush’ (Nakagawa 1996). []
  2. Thanks to Stanly Oomen for bringing this paper to my attention. []
  3. Careful as always, he added: “This is my tentative conclusion, based on some reading of the literature and personal communication with investigators who know these languages from first-hand experience. But perhaps this statement is too strong.” (Samarin 1971:160-1) []
  4. Nakagawa gave a talk on the perception verbs of Kǂʰábá (Khoisan, closely related to G|ui) at ALT 2007 in Paris. I wasn’t there; the handout was passed on to me by a colleague at the MPI. []

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

Expressive verbs in Tuareg

Some years ago I was following a course by Maarten Kossmann on Tuareg (Tamasheq, Tamajeq, Tamahaq). It was thoroughly enjoyable. After the first lecture we were all alotted a letter of the great Dictionnaire Touareg — Français1 (a consonant, obviously), and for the remainder of the course these 15 to 40 dictionary pages would form the basis for a number of excercises in the weeks to follow. It was an interesting method; for Kossmann this must have felt like letting loose a bunch of sheep just to see what patterns their random grazing would produce.

Anyway, I was given the letter F and I remember being intrigued, during those hours of grazing pp. 169-189 of the Dictionnaire, by those classes of verbs that were characterized by reduplication. There are various types of reduplication here: classes 7, 8 and 15 are characterized by full, classes 11 and 16 by initial, and class 9 by final reduplication.2 The interesting thing is that these verbs also seem to cluster together semantically in various ways.

Examples in F

Let’s look at some data. Of the 168 verb roots starting in F in the dictionary, there are five class 7 verbs, eight class 8 verbs, 18 class 9 verbs, and two class 11 verbs (no verbs from class 15 and 16 in this sample). That’s 5%, though that percentage is pretty meaningless with such a small sample. Here’s a selection of expressive verbs: Continue reading

  1. The great two volume dictionary by Prasse, Alojaly and Mohamed (2003) that is, not the grand four volume one by Père Charles de Foucauld (1951-2).
    By the way, a tip: the Prasse et al. 2003 dictionary is incredibly low-priced at €63. Note that this is for the two volumes together, so that’s a whopping 1031 pages in hardcover! Shipping and handling costs are a bit high (€22) if you’d order directly from Museum Tusculanum Press, the publisher, but it’s possible to find it in other places. []
  2. Tuareg verbs can be divided into a number of morphological classes. Different authors have come up with different ways to do this, and I’ll just follow Kossmann here (who himself mostly follows Prasse 1972-4) in distinguishing 19 major verb classes. The two parameters that aid in making the distinctions are: “(a) the formal make-up of the (consonantal) stem (number of consonants, geminations, reduplications, etc.), and (b) the morphological behaviour of these verbs as regards the aspectual apophony.” (Kossmann 2004:55ff.). []

w00t chosen ‘word of 2007’

Languagehat’s news flash on w00t (chosen as the Merriam-Webster’s Word of ’07) piqued my interest. A quote:

There’s a lot of “l33t speak” I don’t care for, but I’ve always liked w00t; there’s something primally yawpish about it, and I’m glad to see it get this recognition.

Now, I have no idea what ‘yawpish’ is, but I guess I can more readily relate to w00t than to yawpish precisely because there is ‘something primally yawpish’ about w00t. What is that?

I think it has something to do with the iconic quality of the double 001 (which to me conveys something like wide open eyes and raised eyebrows) coupled with the vowel length and vowel quality. It seems the long rounded tense back vowel [u:] renders the word more apt for its purpose than, say, an unrounded lax vowel like [a:] would have done. This may have something to do with the peculiar configuration of the facial muscles required by the former. Try it for yourself — isn’t it true that [wu:t] just feels better —for this particular meaning— than [wa:t]?

Being sympathetic to Sapir’s ideation reigns supreme in language, I would be the last to look voor such things in every English word. But in this case, I think it is quite probable that at least part of the appeal of w00t lies in this non-arbitrary relationship between form and meaning. The word seems to evoke the experience it is meant to encode (happiness, victory, in-your-face) both visually and through its sound. In that respect, it’s an interesting piece of expressive vocabulary.

(The original article from the New York Times as linked to by Languagehat is here. It quotes Merriam-Webster’s president, John Morse, as saying that ”w00t” was an ideal choice because it blends whimsy and new technology.)

  1. Note that the typeface this site is set in, Georgia, makes the difference between woot and w00t a bit difficult to see because 0 (zero) barely exceeds the x-height which o (lowercase “oh”) has. Here’s the difference in a monospace font: woot / w00t. The point is that w00t mixes letters and numbers, as any good l33t-speak does. []