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

Upcoming talk: Ezra Pound among the Mawu

Up next week: the Seventh Biennial Symposium on Iconicity in Language and Literature (programme here), at Victoria College, University of Toronto, June 9-14, 2009. It looks like an interesting bunch of linguists and literary theorists. I will give a talk on Tuesday the 9th, the abstract for which can be found below.

Ezra Pound among the Mawu: the everyday poetics of ideophones in a West-African society

by Mark Dingemanse, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

The language of the Mawu people of eastern Ghana has a large class of ideophones: marked iconic words that vividly evoke feelings. Ideophones are found abundantly in African, Asian, and Amerindian languages; as a distinct class of words they are rare in Indo-European (Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001). Their use has been summarized eloquently by Fortune:

‘With them one is in a special realm of spoken art. There is a roundness, a complete shape, not so vividly conveyed by more complex constructions, more formal expressions. They attempt to be a vivid re-presentation or re-creation of an event in sound … Always they try to capture the freshness of an event and express it of themselves with nothing to dull or cloud the evocation’ (Fortune 1962, 6)

The similarity between ideophonic and poetic language is easy to see (cf. Nuckolls 2006). Yet the shadow of Lévy-Bruhl, who assigned mimesis in language to the realm of primitivity, has loomed large over linguistics and literary theory alike. The poet Ezra Pound, a central figure of Modernism, is a case in point: while his fascination with Chinese writing spawned the ideogrammic method, the mimicry and gestures of the ‘primitive languages in Africa’ would never become more than a mere curiosity (ABC of Reading, 21).

This talk imagines Pound transposed into the culture of the Mawu. What would have struck him about their ways of ‘charging language’ with imagery? I will show that there are three levels of iconicity in Siwu ideophones —direct, relative, and Gestalt iconicity— which are combined in various ways to vividly recreate sensory events in sound. The abundant use of ideophones across a wide range of discourse genres suggests a concern of Siwu speakers with their perceptions. These observations will be juxtaposed with Pound’s views on the ‘word of literary art which presents, defines, suggests the visual image’ (Selected Prose, 321), and his perpetual interest in the exact qualities of perceptions. The goal of this contrastive analysis is to shed light on the linguistic and cultural ecology of an everyday poetic device in the world’s languages, and in so doing to rehabilitate what one might call ‘the ideophonic method’.


  1. Fortune, G. 1962. Ideophones in Shona: An Inaugural Lecture Given in the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland on 28 April 1961. Oxford University Press.
  2. Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. 1910. Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Sociétés Inférieures. Paris.
  3. Nuckolls, Janis B. 2006. The Neglected Poetics of Ideophony. In Language, Culture, and the Individual, ed. Catherine O’Neil, Mary Scoggin, and Kevin Tuite, 39-50. München: Lincom Europa.
  4. Pound, Ezra. 1914. Vorticism. Fortnightly Review 96, no. 573: 461-471.
  5. ———. 1934. ABC of Reading. London: Routledge.
  6. ———. 1973. Selected Prose. New York: New Directions.
  7. Voeltz, F. K. Erhard, and Christa Kilian-Hatz, eds. 2001. Ideophones. Typological Studies in Language, 44. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

3 responses to “Upcoming talk: Ezra Pound among the Mawu”

  1. Is this, by any chance, the sort of talk that gets videotaped and posted somewhere for the hoi polloi to peruse later? I’m no linguist, but I’d love to see this.

  2. Mark,

    This looks quite interesting and I would love to look at it at some point. Some Navajo poets that I have worked with, pointed to Pound as an influence. best, akw

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