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

‘Do ideophones really stand out that much?’ (with sound clips)

Bulbul posted an interesting anecdote in a comment on one of my earlier posts:

On my way home today, I took the scenic route, through the old town, where the Weinachtsmarkt is in full swing with Christmas lights glowing, Glühwein flowing and all that jazz. As I was trying to get through the crowds, I noticed a black gentleman standing next to one of the stalls obviously admiring something and talking on the phone in a language I could not immediately identify.

And just as I passed him, he said “You know” and then something I would transcribe as “ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ” followed by a laugh. “I bet this ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ is an ideophone” I said to myself and immediately started wondering whether the person on the other end truly understood what was being conveyed – in other words, whether that “ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ” was a word with a shared meaning. Now I know better – assuming I was right in identifying the word as an ideophone, of course.

I still don’t know what language that was (I’m guessing Yoruba based on a few words I might have heard), so do ideophones really stand out that much that even a non-speaker can identify them as such?

Decide for yourself

So that’s today’s question: do ideophones really stand out that much? This is something you can only decide for yourself. Here are three examples from Siwu. They come from my corpus of everyday discourse and represent the three most common ideophone constructions. These three constructions account for 88% of 230 ideophone tokens in the corpus; the examples thus can be said to be typical of ideophone usage in day to day conversations in Siwu.

I will not transcribe them at this point; I just want you to listen.

Example 1


Example 2


Example 3


Well do they?

Now you’re in the position to answer bulbul’s question: do ideophones really stand out that much that even a non-speaker can identify them? The answer —mine at least— is yes. If you are a hearing person, I’m willing to bet you had no trouble at all identifying the ideophones in the above three sound samples.

Before I give you the transcriptions, it is worthwile to ponder for a moment why ideophones stand out like this. I’ve hinted at this on other occasions, for example yesterday’s ditty on vivid suggestion, a post on Feedburner’s Zap! Pow! Kraaakkkk!, and the last ideophone proeverij; and also in a recent paper, where I wrote:

As marked words, ideophones set themselves apart from the surrounding linguistic material; as a likely locus of performative foregrounding, they stimulate emotional engagement; as depictions, they supply vivid imagery and recreate sensory events in sound, inviting the listener onto the scene as it were.

So ideophones stand out for a reason: to attract attention to themselves as words qua words, to mark themselves as depictions in a stream of descriptive material. Let’s suppose the gentleman overheard by Bulbul was indeed using an ideophone. Standing at the Weinachtsmarkt, he was attempting to share a vivid image of something he had in mind with the person on the other end; to do so, he needed to signal that what followed ‘You know’ was different somehow from bland referential prose; and this he did (unwittingly for sure) by performatively foregrounding ‘ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ‘.

Of course it’s a bit flaky to draw conclusions on the basis of a couple of syllables overheard on a Weinachtsmarkt. Was it Nigerian Pidgin, which we know has lots of ideophones (Faraclas 1996)? Was he codeswitching? Was he perhaps simply stuttering? There’s no way of knowing. That’s why I gave the Siwu examples, which come from an extensive corpus of everyday social interaction. Want to know what those mean? Click ‘Show’ below to check it out.

Context: during a joint activity, one man comments on the way his collaborator is working.
Alɛ Kàntɔ kùgɔ ɔ̀-sɛ ɔ̀-bra ũ a-ra lo. Tsintsin.tsintsintsin!
like NAME how 3SG-HAB 3SG-do his things UFP. IDPH.neatly.INT3
‘Just like Kanton, the way he does his stuff. Neat!
Context: a woman relates a story about the unexpected death of her cousin to two other workers.
Bo kagbàmìkù gaǹgbe ne, ka-ɔ̃-lo ma kanana.nanananana
our area Cka-DEM TOP, ING-he-silence them IDPH.silent.INT5
‘As for our neighbourhood there, it silenced them completely.’
Context: the gunpowder specialist explains what good gunpowder ought to look like.
krɔ̃ nɛ, kù-wà gɔ-ǹgbe kù-nyɔ dɔbɔrɔɔ.ɔɔɔ
now TOP, Cku-stuff Aku-DEM Cku-look IDPH.soft.INTx
‘Now this stuff here, it looks soft and fine-grained.’


  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, 83-97. London: SOAS, November 14.
  2. Faraclas, Nicholas. 1996. Nigerian Pidgin. New York: Routledge.
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4 responses to “‘Do ideophones really stand out that much?’ (with sound clips)”

  1. To clarify: the gentleman in question spoke an uindentified African language with the occasional English word thrown in. He spoke quite fast, so there may have been 40-60 words in those 15-20 seconds it took me to navigate the crowds. I’m pretty sure that there were at least three more English words in addition to that “you know”, but I can’t for the life of me remember which ones.
    Thank you for the examples, they do sound very much like what I heard. The redu/tri/pentaplications do stand out, but I suspect it’s the change in prosody that caught my ear.
    By the way, what exactly do you mean by “most common ideophone constructions”? Surely not “most frequent ideophone words” or is it? And does it have anything to do with the fact that these three seem to (sample bias alert) occur clause-/sentence-finally?

  2. What I mean is “constructions” in the linguistic sense. The first I call the Utterance construction, in which the ideophone, quite simply, forms an utterance on its own. The second is the Adverbial construction, which has the ideophone as modifier within a predicate phrase. The third is an Attributive construction, with the ideophone as complement of a two-place predicate. This is quite like an identity construction; it involves verbs like se ‘be’, ba ‘have’, bara ‘make’ and the perceptual verb nyɔ ‘look’.

    When I say that these represent the most common constructions, I mean that (1) these are three out of five constructions in which ideophones occur in Siwu, and (2) these three constructions account for 88% of 230 ideophone tokens in my corpus. So there’s no sampling bias here; in a sense, I couldn’t have picked more typical examples.

  3. That “sampling bias alert” referred to me making half-assed conclusions based on three examples. I certainly didn’t mean to accuse you of anything, apologies if it sounded that way :)
    Thank you for the explanation. I took a look at slides to one of your presentations in the mean time (which I should have done in the first place) and understood what you meant right away.

  4. Oh I see :) Well anyway, in a sense it certainly does have to do with the fact that all three have the ideophone utterance-finally. As soon as the ideophone is burdened with any serious morphosyntax (such as an adjectival suffix or subject agreement, as in the remaining two constructions), it is demoted from the utterance-final place and loses a great deal of its expressiveness (you may have seen this in the RRG or the WOCAL slides).

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