What’s wrong with “vivid”? The evolution of a definition

A "vivid" butterflyIdeophones, like so many things in life, are easy to identify but hard to define. Many researchers have grumbled about the shortcomings of Doke’s descriptive characterization of ideophones (see discussion here), but few have attempted to formulate an alternative. For better or worse, I did,1 but it took me a few iterations to arrive at something that I felt worked well enough to be useful in cross-linguistic research. One of these iterations featured the word “vivid”, but I’ve since dropped it. Why?

Doke’s “vivid representation”

I started by considering Doke’s definition, analysing why it had been succesful for Bantu, and listing what I felt was problematic about it. Doke (1935), you’ll recall, defined the ideophone as “A vivid representation of an idea in sound”.2 The definition was imperfect on several counts, as I noted here: “representation” was not specific enough because, as I argued, all signs represent somehow; the key is the mode of representation, and this is what distinguishes ideophones from ordinary words. The bland word “idea” was too much disembodied, lacking links to sensory experience. And “representation in sound” didn’t quite capture the multi-modal nature of ideophones: they fact that their production involves not just sound but also articulatory gestures, and that in actual use they are often accompanied with hand gestures.

One thing about Doke’s characterization that felt intuitively right was “vivid”, and so that word made an appearance in the earliest iterations of my own definition. One such iteration appeared on this blog, and was also published in an article that appeared around the same time. It was:

  1. Ideophones are marked words that vividly depict sensory events (Dingemanse 2009:83)

Most elements of the definition were designed as an improvement over Doke’s characterization, but “vivid” remained there as a little tribute to him. Yet that proved to be problematic. Over the course of the next year I presented my evolving work for many audiences, and time and again people were giving me a hard time over precisely that word.3 They would ask: What is “vivid”? How do you define it? Is it not subjective by definition? At the same time, for other parts of the audience, it seemed to strike a chord: people agreed that there was something about ideophones that made them special, and that this something was quite well captured by the term “vivid”, subjective or not.


As I pondered the problem with “vivid”, I realised that it was basically redundant with two other elements in the definition: “marked” and “depict”. So I decided that I might as well do without “vivid” and stick with the better defined terms. Allow me to enlarge.

Marked, as I use it (mindful of Martin Haspelmath’s (2006) injunction not to overuse the word), refers to the fact that ideophones stand out from other words in various ways: by skewed phonotactics, special word forms, expressive morphology, and foregrounded prosody. Some of these things surely (but subjectively) qualify as “vivid”, but the more important point is that the structural markedness of ideophones is relatively well-understood and supported by much previous work (Vidal 1852; Newman 1968; Diffloth 1980; Klamer 2002; and see my 2012 review for many examples).

The verb depict is in opposition to “describe”. By saying that ideophones depict I mean that they employ a mode of signification that invites people to experience them as playful performances rather than as prosaic descriptions. Here, too, we get the subjective sense of “vividness”; but again, we don’t need to rely on that sense because the depiction/description distinction is well-founded in the literature, and well-supported by work on ideophones (Kunene 1965; 2001; Clark and Gerrig 1990; Nuckolls 1996; Güldemann 2008). Another appealing thing about it is that it links to a psychological literature on imagery in thinking (Kosslyn 1980, Barsalou 1999): the depictive status of ideophones may well be connected to the fact that they seem be more directly linked to sensory imagery, something I’ve written about before.

The latest iteration

In sum, any marked word that depicts something is necessarily going to be vivid: it follows from the two defining criteria rather than being itself a defining element. Qualifications like “vivid”, “playful”, “expressive” make intuitive sense, but if not carefully defined, they introduce an element of subjectivity. Therefore the latest (though possibly not the final) version as follows:

  1. Ideophones are marked words that depict sensory imagery (Dingemanse 2011:25)

Unfortunately, you can’t control something once it is in print. Some follow-up work has cited the 2009 version, though it does seem that the 2011 version has been picked up more widely. If you consider citing the definition — if only to critique it! — please take the latest version instead of proliferating the intuitively right, but hard to define term “vivid”. Thank you!

PS Attentive readers will have spotted another difference between the two versions: from “sensory events” to “sensory imagery”. That, too, has a good motivation, but I will keep that for a follow-up post on ideophones and mental representation.


  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.
  2. Dingemanse, Mark. 2011. “The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu”. PhD dissertation, Nijmegen: Radboud University. http://thesis.ideophone.org/.
  3. Doke, Clement Martyn. 1935. Bantu Linguistic Terminology. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
  4. Haspelmath, Martin. 2006. “Against Markedness (and What to Replace It With).” Journal of Linguistics 42 (01): 25–70. doi:10.1017/S0022226705003683.


  1. I should mention that early on in my PhD, probably back in 2007, it was Ruth Singer who insisted I needed to have a strong definition. Thanks Ruth!
  2. Doke’s original definition is longer and offers more detail, but this part is widely cited as a short characterization of ideophones.
  3. Kimi Akita, then at Berkeley, was one of those critical audience members — thanks Kimi!

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