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

In Siwu, gunpowder doesn’t just go BANG!

Below follows an abstract for a talk I will be giving later this year at WOCAL 6.

Ideophones are marked words that depict sensory imagery (cf. Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001). This paper presents results of an ongoing research project into the linguistic and cultural ecology of ideophones in Siwu, a Ghana-Togo-Mountain language spoken north of Hohoe in Ghana’s Volta Region. Of central interest to the project is the role played by ideophones in the discursive practice of the Mawu. A range of methods is used to investigate this issue (including elicitation tasks and collections of folk definitions), but this paper will focus on data from natural conversational discourse.

It will be shown that ideophones occur across a wide variety of speech genres, including greeting exchanges, conversations, arguments, insults, narratives, and special genres like riddles (mìdzòlo), recreational songs (àlikpi), and funeral dirges (sìkubiɛnɔ). Zooming in on one usage context, we will look at conversations during the making of gunpowder. [N.B. The conversations are of course in Siwu. The examples are presented in pseudo-English because of the abstract requirements.]

A   Now this stuff here looks ɖɔbɔrɔɔɔ [soft].
B   Wũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩ [fine and granular] A   Wũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩ!
B   So it will pass through the gun nipple.
A   Indeed. It won’t be kpokolo-kpokolo [lumpy], you see? It will be very grinded very soft ɖɔbɔrɔɔɔ. So that it can reach inside the gun nipple.

Example (1) shows how, during material culture production, the speakers calibrate their understanding of processes and technologies not with cold technical language, but with ideophones (cf. Nuckolls 1995). Later on in the same conversation, some speakers anticipate the ceremonial gunfire for which the gunpowder is being produced by collaboratively creating a vivid sensory spectacle:

C   When it does tawtaw, you would be standing silently. The gunman topples [because of the recoil] — he puts [this sound] in your ears rrrɔ̂ŋ! Then you’ll just be silenced kananananana, standing there. You’ll be watching things.
E   [In background] It goes gbií im̀ ̀!
C   Boy will it sound — it goes gbíiiìim̀ ̀m̀ !

An analysis of this ‘poetry in ordinary language’ (Evans-Pritchard 1962) will throw light on the interplay of language, culture and the perceptual world in Mawu society.


  1. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1962. Ideophones in Zande. Sudan Notes and Records 34: 143-146.
  2. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1995. Quechua texts of perception. Semiotica 103, no. 1/2: 145-169.  
  3. Voeltz, F. K. Erhard, and Christa Kilian-Hatz, eds. 2001. Ideophones. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
, ,

One response to “In Siwu, gunpowder doesn’t just go BANG!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *