Two classic papers on ideophones and iconicity by Westermann (PDF)

Two duck-related ideophones exist in varieties of Ewe, spoken in Eastern Ghana: a simple kpakpa imitating the sound; and a form dabodabo that seems more mysterious at first sight. In an early paper on ideophones (available below), linguist Diedrich Westermann describes a discussion about these words with his Ewe consultant:

Ewe has two dialectally separated words for duck, kpakpa after its quacking and ɖaboɖabo. When I asked a local whose dialect does not have the latter why it is that other people would say ɖaboɖabo, his answer was, “Well, because…”, and he used his upper body to imitate the waddle of a duck. (Westermann 1937:159)

This nicely brings home the depictive nature of ideophones: when people use ideophones, they use all verbal and visual means available to enable others to imagine what it is like to perceive the scene depicted.1

For a forthcoming paper on the research history of ideophones I’ve been re-reading two of Westermann’s papers on West-African ideophones and iconicity (1927, 1937). The papers are full of interesting observations and generalisations. As I write:

In two pioneering studies Westermann (1927; 1937) compared ideophones across a handful of West-African languages and described how acoustic and articulatory factors like reduplication, tone, vowel quantity, vowel quality and muscle tension appeared to be systematically related to some aspects of the meanings of ideophones (Table 2).  This made Westermann one of the first to outline a range of recurrent iconic associations in lexical items across languages.

Westermann’s work on sound-symbolism in ideophones was contemporary with experimental work on sound-symbolism by Köhler (1929) and Sapir (1929). In an allohistory yet to be written, this experimental work would have benefited from Westermann’s observations. Studies of pseudowords like bouba and kiki would have avoided reductive attempts to locate simple meanings in single sounds, and cognitive scientists would have had early access to a wide range of iconic associations attested in natural languages. In reality, ideophone studies and experimental work on sound symbolism continued in splendid isolation for at least another half century, like ships passing in the night.

Westermann’s work on ideophones and iconicity is still not widely known or cited. Two reasons contribute to it: (1) most of his writings are in German; (2) they appeared in pretty obscure places. If you don’t read German you’re out of luck, but at least the other problem can be solved. I’ve scanned the papers and make them available here: Westermann 1927; Westermann 1937. Enjoy!

  • Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1927. “Laut, Ton Und Sinn in Westafrikanischen Sudansprachen.” In Festschrift Meinhof, 315–28. Hamburg: L. Friederichsen. (PDF)
  • Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1937. “Laut Und Sinn in Einigen westafrikanischen Sprachen.” Archiv Für Vergleichende Phonetik 1: 154–72, 193–211. (PDF)


  1. It also shows that ideophones are hard to explain in words: when explaining ideophones, native speakers tend to resort to gestures, other ideophones, and in general multimodal communication, as described in a paper on folk-definitions of ideophones (PDF).

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