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

Farewell, Mr. Ideophone: William J. Samarin (1926-2020)

William John Samarin (photo University of Toronto)

I note with sadness that William J. Samarin has passed away in Toronto on January 16, 2020 at the age of 93. An all too short obituary notes that he was “known for his work on the language of religion and on two Central African languages: Sango and Gbeya”.

In linguistics, Samarin was of course also known for his extensive work on ideophones, playful and evocative words with sensory meanings. Only a few years after his Berkeley PhD he published a short and visionary paper on “African ideophones” (1966) that foreshadowed many of the themes that would occupy him in the next decades. A string of empirical and theoretical papers followed that brought new élan to the study of ideophones by dramatically extending the methodological toolbox and the kinds of topics studied, from lexical semantics to sociolinguistic variation, and from semantic typology to the use of ideophones in insults.

I have worked on the topic of ideophones a little over a decade now, and Samarin was always there in the background. He was there in the form of his formidable oeuvre, but also through active correspondence we kept up until halfway 2018. In this blog I want to share some personal recollections as well as some unpublished notes by Samarin about how he came to the study of ideophones.

Incidentally, we didn’t start off very well. In early 2010, when I first wrote to him as a wide-eyed grad student sharing a half-baked draft of a paper, he wrote back with stern (and justified) advice:

You see that if were your supervisor, I would be giving you a hard time about your generalizations. … Make sure that you are being as hard on yourself as you are (or might be) on others. (Samarin, personal communication, March 2010)

Several of my early interactions with Samarin were like this, and his bluntness was fairly intimidating to a PhD student in love with ideophones. Our exchanges led me to seriously rethink my rhetorical approach, placing more emphasis on theoretical foundations and methodological choices, and being as gentle and constructive as possible — in line with his advice to be “as hard on yourself as you are (or might be) on others”. This is why the acknowledgements of my PhD thesis note that “Samarin in particular has been highly sceptical at one point, and helpfully so”.

In late 2011, I sent him a hard copy of my thesis, a 400 page tome that he received in good spirits. This marked a change in our interactions, as he started to treat me more like a peer than a clueless grad student. In a message acknowledging receipt of the thesis, he fondly recalled how he used to be called “Mr Ideophone” at Leiden University, where he spent part of his sabbatical in 1966-1967:

Considering myself to be one of the pioneers in the study of ideophones (Jan Voorhoeve used to call me Mr Ideophone!), I am so pleased that they finally are getting the attention they deserve. They are the dramatic aspect of everyday speech, and speech should not be reduced to formulas and diagrams. (Samarin, personal communication, October 2011)

In later years, I would send drafts and papers to him knowing that they would get a tough but fair reading; and I would get the occasional email from him asking to look up an academic article not available in his library. His criticism remained as blunt and direct as ever, which made his rare notes of appreciation all the more precious.1

Samarin on ideophones

In one of our exchanges I asked Bill how he got involved in the study of ideophones. He responded, “since you asked me how I got on to studying  ideophones I decided to write a bit of autobiography for my archives.” I don’t know whether this bit of autobiography actually appears in his archives, so I share it here for posterity:

My serious study of ideophones arose from the fact that grammarians were not taking them seriously in African languages. They were even trivialized. This puzzled me because I found that they were used frequently in everyday discourse in all kinds of circumstances in the Gbaya (Gbeya) language which I began to analyze and learn in February 1954. Some of them I heard rather often, others rarely, but I could not ignore them if I wanted to speak the language in the same way Gbayas in northwestern Ubangi-Shari spoke it. I was using the language all day long, almost to the exclusion of Sango, in the Bossangoa district, most of whose population spoke mutually intelligible varieties of Gbaya. … Besides, they were curious words (like kpiti kpiti, with high tones) and hard to define.

But it was after I had written my grammar of the language in 1961 that I undertook to study them as a worthy topic in African linguistics. Naturally, the first thing was to read what had been said about them. This meant perusing grammars. Fortunately, I was a visiting professor at the University of Leiden in 1966-1967. There were plenty of grammars there, also at School of African Studies in London and at the Hartford Seminary Foundation, where I was teaching. (Henry Alan Gleason Jr had been librarian there, making an effort to acquire literature for graduate study in linguistics.)

Following our departure from the Central African Republic in 1960 I made several trips back for further work on Sango. These gave me the opportunity to sneak in some systematic study of Gbaya ideophones, like the one where I tape-recorded descriptions of someone making a clay pot in Sango and in Gbaya. I had more opportunity for study in Leiden, where my assistant was a Gbaya young married man. And in December 1972 my wife and I spent two weeks in the village of Bowai once again working on ideophones.

By this time my focus was on trying to demonstrate that Gbaya ideophones were authentic words that could (and should) be entered in a dictionary, not ephemeral and spontaneous idiolectal creations. And by this time one was able to analyze data with a computer, at that time with punched cards. For a while, therefore, I was working on the origin and development of Sango with my right hand and ideophones with my left one. A fire destroyed my computer data at the university, but there are many tape recordings in my archives at the University of Toronto. (Samarin, personal communication, January 2016)

The papers Samarin published in this period include important methodological contributions (Samarin 1967, 1970a, 1971a), a wide-ranging piece on expressive language (Samarin 1970b), and a comprehensive literature review of work on ideophones in Bantu (Samarin 1971b). I have built on Samarin’s work in several of my papers, but I don’t think a comprehensive appraisal of his methodological and theoretical to the study of ideophones is available. That is beyond the scope of this blog, however.

Rewards beyond words

Samarin and I were last in touch in 2018, when I wrote to him with a note of appreciation about his 1998 autobiographical essay (Samarin 1998). That essay contains the following gem which seemed to me entirely typical of Samarin’s poetic sensibilities and attention to detail:

If you have seen the full moon rising out of the deep sands that surround
Timbuctoo dwarfing the sky as well as earth in its clarity and brilliance while you are drinking mint tea with some Tamachek-speaking ‘Blue People,’ you will have experienced some rewards beyond words and sharing. If you are sensitive to such beauty, of course. It is given to us who study language to have rewarding experiences, sometimes of simple pleasure, sometimes of ‘spiritual’ if not of almost transcendental significance.

I have just teased a young girl going the opposite way by remarking that whereas she had a parasol to protect herself from the sun, what could I do without one. About fifteen feet away from me she stops and says, ‘Kà ga mu ma’, and I am overwhelmed with information and sensations: I hear the first word in a construction where I wouldn’t have expected it; I notice that she does not use the determinant ‘ni’ with the meaning ‘it;’ I enjoy the precise stepping up of pitch from low to mid to high and the abrupt falling to low again as she tells me, with no twinkle of coquetry on her lips, but with the spontaneous generosity of a well-reared African child: ‘So come take it.’ This is an imperishable and complex vignette. It illustrates the reward of being able to talk Sango and use it appropriately with another human being. (Samarin 1998:27)

I wrote to Bill to say I was touched by this vignette — it is such an eloquent representation of that quintessential fieldworkers’ feeling of belonging. It captures something very deep and real about the privilege of taking part in other linguistic and social worlds. It also brings out the always-on analytical mindset of the fieldworker, for whom being in the moment is always puncuated by meta-observations. Field work, for me, is very much about that liminal state between ‘other’ and ‘insider’, never fully one or the other, yet enough of both to feel oddly detached-yet-grounded.

In writing back, Bill shared another biographical fact that few people may know: his involvement as a linguistics expert in an International Criminal Court case about atrocities in Bangui (his expert testimony concerned the possibility of recognizing the Congolese origin of the perpetrators on the basis of their accents). He ended his message, characteristically, with a note of appreciation about field work that will resonate strongly with many linguists and anthropologists.

It was kind of you to comment on my professional memoir. I especially was pleased by your having perceived the emotion I had in recalling that experience with the little girl, which is repeated every time I recall it. She responded to my lighthearted remark with maturity, self-confidence, kindness, and trust, a lot more than many adults would have done. I should have interrupted my walk back home to go with her in the opposite direction to continue with a conversation.

You put your finger on the feeling of “belonging.” That’s what brought tears when I was testifying before the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2011. (A Congolese general was being tried for what his soldiers did in Bangui.) The love I have for Central Africans welled up in me. … Field work gives us the opportunity to be enriched and blessed in many ways. (Samarin, personal communication, April 2018)

Besides working on ideophones, Samarin made important contributions to the fields of contact linguistics, field linguistics, and the study of glossolalia. I hope someone more qualified than me will write a comprehensive academic obituary. Here, I have just highlighted some of his pioneering contributions to the study of ideophones, which his work helped make not merely respectable but also exciting and relevant to the broader language sciences.

Samarin prided himself in being nicknamed Mr. Ideophone by Jan Voorhoeve in the 1960s. His lasting intellectual legacy may be that he helped prepare the field for contributions by a much wider range of scholars, so that today there is no longer a single “Mr” or “Ms” or “Mx” Ideophone, but a broad network of diverse researchers working together. Farewell, Mr. Ideophone!

References cited

A good amount of Samarin’s work is available in the University of Toronto’s T-SPACE repository. In 2018, Samarin sent me a overview of his papers, presentations, and research projects which I will publish in a separate post as it provides a good overview of his work from his own point of view. Here are the papers cited above:

  • Samarin, W. J. (1965). Perspective on African ideophones. African Studies, 24(2), 117–121.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1967). Determining the meaning of ideophones. Journal of West African Languages, 4(2), 35–41.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1970a). Field procedures in ideophone research. Journal of African Languages, 9(1), 27–30.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1970b). Inventory and choice in expressive language. Word, 26, 153–169.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1971a). Measuring variation in the use of Gbeya ideophones. Annales de L’Université d’Abidjan, Ser. H, 2, 483–488.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1971b). Survey of Bantu ideophones. African Language Studies, 12, 130–168.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1998). C’est passionnant d’être passionné. In E. F. K. Koerner (Ed.), First person singular III: Autobiographies by North American scholars in the language sciences (pp. 187–226). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  1. About my Glossa review, he wrote: “It was thoughtful of you to inform me of the publication in ‘Glossa’ of your “chronological narrative” about ideophones. But you are being too modest: the essay is much more than that; it’s a ‘white paper’ or template for the study of this phenomenon that you so clearly describe from different points of view. It’s as if you were holding a handful of ore in you palm that contained a lot of gold. (…) Carry on with your good work. Bill.” []

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