Sounding out ideas on language, vivid sensory words, and iconicity

Adjectives and the gospel in Ewe

Previously, we’ve looked at a perceptive account of ideophones in nineteenth-century Ewe by Joh. Bernard Schlegel. But Schlegel was not just a keen observator of the synchronic structure of Ewe, he also had clear ideas on where the language came from (damned primitivity) and where it was going (blessed enlightenment). A Pietist missionary above all else, Schlegel was quite sure that the coming of the Gospel would have a profound impact on the Ewe people — and on their language:

Dass die Ewe-Sprache in der Entfaltung und Entwicklung der Adjektiven noch so zurück ist, hat darin seinen Grund, daß sie viele Verben hat, welche schon an sich eine Eigenschaft ausdrücken. (…) Die Ansätze zu einer reicheren Entfaltung sind in die Sprache vorhanden, und wenn erst einmal das Evangelium und was in seinem Geleite folgt, in diese westafrikanischen Völker und Sprachen Eingang gefunden hat, so wird sich zeigen, welche schöpferische Momente in denselben (…) verborgen liegen. (Schlegel 1857:84)

That the Ewe language is still so backwards in the unfolding and development of adjectives, has its ground in the fact that it has many verbs that already express properties. (…) The prerequisites for a richer unfolding are available in the language, and when the Gospel with all its consequences will have found acceptance in these West African peoples and languages, it will be seen which moments of creation are lying dormant in them.

One and a half century later it would seem we are in the position to behold the awesome influence of the Gospel on the Ewe language. Alas, at last count, Ewe still has no more than five or six basic, underived adjectives (Ameka 1991) — not counting ideophones, that is (Ameka 2001).1 One wonders whether there is perhaps another area in the language where we may behold its beneficial effect. Or did the Gospel misfire (at least as far as Ewe adjectives go)? Anyway, what is probably most astonishing is how Schlegel in writing this passage could overlook the sparkling creativity so apparent in ideophones. The moral seems to be that if it’s not a damn adjective, it can’t be civilized, let alone sanctified.2


  1. Ameka, Felix Kofi. 1991. Ewe: its grammatical constructions and illucutionary devices. PhD thesis, Australian National University.
  2. Ameka, Felix Kofi. 2001. Ideophones and the Nature of the Adjective Word Class in Ewe. In Ideophones, ed. F. K. Erhard Voeltz and Christa Kilian-Hatz, 25-48. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  3. Noss, Philip A. 1999. The Ideophone: A Dilemma for Translation and Translation Theory. New Dimensions in African Linguistics and Languages, 261-272.
  4. Schlegel, Joh. Bernhard. 1857. Schlüssel der Ewesprache, dargeboten in den Grammatischen Grundzügen des Anlodialekts. Stuttgart.
  1. Ameka (2001) is devoted to the question whether or not ideophones should be counted as adjectives, and on the implications of that choice for one’s theory of adjectival expressions. Since Schlegel himself saw ideophones as a special type of adverbs, it seems fair to keep out ideophones for present purposes. []
  2. On that note, see Noss (1999), who writes about the rarity of ideophones in translations of the Bible. []

One response to “Adjectives and the gospel in Ewe”

  1. […] Mark Dingemanse, at The Ideophone, has a discussion of Joh. Bernard Schlegel’s assertion, published in 1857, that Ewe wasn’t a fully civilized language because it didn’t have enough adjectives (ironic, because the number of adjectives in a student essay is usually a reliable predictor of just how over-written it is…). Although Schlegel thought that the Bible would have the salutary effect of increasing Ewe adjectival creativity, a century and a half later, the Good Book still hasn’t led to the hoped-for linguistic proliferation. Check it out at Adjectives and the gospel in Ewe. […]

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