Mumbling and other mouth sensations: Ideophone proeverij II (with sound clips)

With three mouth-related ideophones we’ve got a true proeverij this time. Welcome to dinner! You’re invited to try the first ideophone on the menu, mùkùmùkù. Feel free to sustain the mumbling to get some feeling for the word. Mùkùmùkùmùkùmùkù. The mumbling mouth movements of a toothless person. This is quite a special ideophone in that uttering it (or shall I say muttering it) actually gives one a bit of the mouth feeling a mumbling toothless must be having.

[mùkùmùkù] the mumbling mouth movements of a toothless person
ɔ̀ɖe kanya mukùmùkù • he eats like a toothless person [lit. eats mouth mùkùmùkù]

Now take a deep breath, and get ready for the next course: saaaaaa. This is a Siwu ideophone for a cool sensation in the mouth, as one would get for example with mint or toothpaste. It is devoiced towards the end, so it ends, quite appropriately, in a breath sound. It has a sister ideophone suuu, which evokes a burning sensation as one would get when taking in, for example, a very spicy soup. (The burning is continuous, i.e., not punctuated; yuayua would be an ideophone for a punctuated burning sensation.)

[saaḁ] cool sensation [esp. in the mouth]
ì-se sááá
it is saaa
[suuu̥] burning sensation [esp. in the mouth]
ah! ì-te ì-bɛbɛrɛ mɛ [sucks in air]… ì-te ì-bɛbɛrɛ mɛ sùuú kɛ̀lɛ̀!
INTJ.pain it-PROG it-be.burning me … it-PROG it-be.burning me just
Ah! It is burning me … it’s burning me suuu!

If you listen to the audio clips, you’ll note that the ideophones are uttered in a prosodically marked way, with a drawn out vowel, intonational foregrounding, and (in the case of suuu) heavy tonal modulation. This performative aspect of ideophone use is one of the ways in which ideophones stand out in discourse, calling attention to themselves and thereby to the imagery they evoke (cf. Nuckolls 1996:62-78).

Together, saaa and suuu form a sound-symbolic cluster of items that are closely related in both form and meaning. There are more clusters like that — last time’s ɣeee ‘swarming of animals’ for example has a close relative ɣɔɔɔ which describes a moving mass of water. This type of clustering (it has been likened to templatic morphology) is quite common in ideophonic vocabulary worldwide. Finally, note that the opposition between saaa/suuu and mùkùmùkù illustrates once again the iconicity of word form that was highlighted in the previous proeverij.


  1. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1996. Sounds Like Life: Sound-Symbolic Grammar, Performance, and Cognition in Pastaza Quechua. New York: Oxford University Press.

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