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

Oh no! Ideophones are not response cries!

Looking for a published version of this? These observations about ideophones vs. interjections also appear in a 2021 OUP Handbook article:

Dingemanse, M. (2021). Ideophones. In E. van Lier (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Word Classes. Oxford University Press. doi: 10.31234/

In their commentary on Evans & Levinson’s recent hotly debated Myth of Language Universals paper, Pinker & Jackendoff briefly mention ideophones — and erroneously shelve them away as ‘response cries’:1

English, for example, has phenomena similar to Chinese classifiers (e.g., a piece of paper, a stick of wood), Athabaskan verb distinctions (among locative verbs; Levin 1993; Pinker 1989; 2007), ideophones (response cries such as yum, splat, hubba-hubba, pow!; Goffman 1978), and geocentric spatial terms (e.g., north, upstream, crosstown; Li & Gleitman 2002)

It is about time I wrote another installment of misconceptions about ideophones. It seems this error is a particularly easy one to make for speakers of SAE languages. In this post I want to flesh out why this might be so, and explain what’s the difference.

Goffman on response cries

So why are ideophones not response cries? Let’s have a look at Goffman (1978) first:

We see such ‘expression’ [i.e. response cries, MD] as a natural overflowing, a flooding up of previously contained feeling, a bursting of normal restraints, a case of being caught off-guard. (p. 800)

A response cry is (if anything is) a ritualized act in the ethological sense of that term. Unable to shape the world the way we want to, we displace our manipulation of it to the verbal channel, displaying evidence of our alignment to the on-going events; the display takes the condensed, truncated form of a discretely-articulated, non-lexicalized expression. (p. 801)

Now Goffman is a little too simplistic here about response cries (also known as interjections) — for they may well be lexicalized expressions and they may well have a communicative function beyond a ‘natural overflowing’ (Ameka 1992, Kockelman 2003). But that’s another issue; my worry here is with the common confusion of ideophones and interjections. Pinker and Jackendoff are not the first to confuse the two. And the two classes are indeed superficially similar in a number of ways: both often have marked phonotactics and both seem somehow tied to the here and now (Ameka 1992:112-113). But the main reason for the confusion lies, I think, in the fact that both are perceived to be ‘about’ emotions and sensations in one way or another.

Ideophones are not responses

It is in the nature of this ‘aboutness’ that the distinction between ideophones and interjections can be seen most clearly. Interjections index speaker’s stances to events in the immediate context of the speech event, very much like direct reactions (cf. Goffman’s description). I drop a vase and say, ‘Oops!’; you pick up the pieces, cut yourself and say, ‘Ouch!’ Those are prototypical examples of response cries.

Now imagine ideophones being like that. This evokes visions of speakers of ideophonic languages looking at the world in utter bewilderment, emitting response cries at trees shaking in the wind, a closely woven basket, ants swarming on their anthill, a smooth river stone, turtles lumbering across the road, a rough mud wall, flour finely ground, a person sitting timidly. Kpakpakpakpakpa! Sinisinisini! Ɣeee! Pɔlɔpɔlɔpɔlɔ! Kpokolo-kpokolo! Wòsòròò! Dɛkpɛrɛɛɛɛ! Kpììì! (All of these, incidentally, are proper Siwu ideophones.) What a rich mental life must these natives have!2

Needless to say, this is not how people use ideophones. A first hint is that some languages have ideophone inventories going into the thousands. What on earth would people need so many response cries for? The point is that ideophones are doing something else entirely. They are not emotive interjections; they are more like a sensory vocabulary, a rich set of tools to talk about the specifics of sensory perceptions.

Perhaps the difference between interjections and ideophones is best explained in semiotic terms. In a Peircean framework, interjections have a strong indexical component; they are literally rooted in the here and now, contiguous to the occasioning events (Kockelman 2003). Ideophones are more displaced: they do not index events so much as recreate them through various types of iconic form-meaning mappings. They are more icons than indexes; more depictions of than responses to.

Interactional functions of ideophones

Fine, you say, so they are different. But what do speakers do with these words, if they’re not response cries? A core interactional function of ideophones is the creation of heightened interlocutory involvement (Nuckolls 1992; Kunene 2001; Dingemanse 2009). 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. (Compare the use of iconic gestures by a good narrator.) As Siwu speakers themselves put it, ‘you use these words to capture the attention’, ‘we use them to guide the mind to more understanding’, and ‘they make stories more interesting.’

Moreover, ideophones are also used during joint activities (e.g. the making of gunpowder, pressing palm oil, building mud houses), where their highly specific, sensory semantics allows collaborators to quickly and precisely converge on a shared understanding of the processes and of the state of the materials they are handling. In this context, ideophones are used as a ‘precision tool’ as it were. (Imagine using response cries for this. ‘Ouch! Now you hit my hand. Move back. Yuck! You made it all pulpy! Oops! I dropped the hammer’ — Nah, it wouldn’t work.) Ideophones, in short, are a vivid and versatile communicative workhorse, well integrated in everyday social interaction and in the linguistic system.

If you’re interested to learn more about what ideophones actually are, feel free to check out my paper on ‘ideophone typology‘ or come and hear me talk about the use of ideophones in joint activities at the AAA meeting in Philadelphia in a couple of weeks.


  1. Ameka, Felix K. 1992. Interjections: The Universal Yet Neglected Part of Speech. Journal of Pragmatics 18, no. 2-3: 101-118.
  2. 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.   (PDF)
  3. Evans, Nicholas, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2009. The Myth of Language Universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32: 429-492.
  4. Goffman, Erving. 1978. Response Cries. Language 54, no. 4 (December): 787-815.
  5. Kockelman, Paul. 2003. The Meanings of Interjections in Q’eqchi’ Maya: From Emotive Reaction to Social and Discursive Action. Current Anthropology 44, no. 4: 467-497.
  6. Kunene, Daniel P. 2001. Speaking the Act: The Ideophone as a Linguistic Rebel. In Ideophones, ed. F. K. Erhard Voeltz and Christa Kilian-Hatz, 183-191. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  7. Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. 1910. Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Sociétés Inférieures. Paris.
  8. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1992. Sound Symbolic Involvement. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 2, no. 1: 51-80.
  9. Pinker, Steven, and Ray Jackendoff. 2009. The reality of a universal language faculty. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32: 465-466. doi:10.1017/S0140525X09990720.  
  10. Samarin, William J. 1971. Survey of Bantu ideophones. African Language Studies 12: 130-168.
  1. N.B. This is not intended as a response to Pinker & Jackendoff’s actual point; I’m just taking the opportunity to rectify a common mistake. They would no doubt say that whatever you want to call them, English also has a couple of such words (and I would largely agree, but see point 2 here). As to their actual point on the need to recognize ‘universal grammar’ (UG), I find it not more convincing than two years ago, when I made some observations on the “grammar of the gaps“. []
  2. This is a reference to the ideas of Lévy-Bruhl about ideophones. He chalked it all up to the “primitive mentality” which sees only in singularities, never abstractions. []

6 responses to “Oh no! Ideophones are not response cries!”

  1. Hi Mark,

    Your post reminds me of some facts about Japanese mimetics that have not been stressed before.

    First, interjections (e.g., E? ‘What?’, Haa ‘Sigh’) often appear in soliloquy, but (interjectional) ideophones are by far less likely to. This difference seems to support the “sound symbolic involvement” hypothesis. We use ideophones for communication.

    Second, there are some emotion mimetics of interjectional origin (e.g., hat(-to) ‘startled’ < Ha' (gasp), hot(-to) 'relieved' < Ho' (sigh of relief)). They instantiate the emotive "semantics" of interjections. Third, the Siwu ideophones you give in the third section headed "Ideophones are not responses" look a little bit different from Japanese mimetics with similar meanings. We can use some mimetics interjectionally (e.g., Dokaan! 'Baang!') but cannot use others (perhaps less iconic ones) so (e.g., *Kuyokuyo! 'Worrying!'). This seems to suggest the graded nature of "interjectionality" or "ideophonicity". How about Siwu ideophones? Best, Kimi

  2. Hi Kimi, I agree that there may be spillover between the categories of interjections and ideophones (as tends to be the case with many linguistic categories).

    Your Japanese examples are interesting. I can think of a couple of similar examples in Siwu — e.g. the expression “ɣààà” for surprise, which always comes with the ‘jaw open, eyebrows raised’ facial expression, is borderline interjection/ideophone and I would have difficulty deciding on a category.

    As for the Siwu examples cited in my post, they are supposed to be within the scope of the irony of that paragraph. In fact they would never be used like that; they would rather be used in constructions and contexts like those outlined here.

  3. What would you call the sound we make to indicate the recognition of a close call? It’s done on the in-breath with the lips forming almost the same shape when we say “Oh” and it can be quite drawn out? It’s a bit like a “gasp” but more drawn out and the mouth is in a different shape. It’s done on purpose and can also be a comment about the danger or suspenseful nature of a mutually witnessed TV program that ended in an exciting but unresolved way so you have to wait for the next episode to find out what happens. Is there a special term for this sound? And how might a writer spell such a sound (like we have a way to spell the out- breath sound “whew” or “pfew”)?

  4. Gee, that’s not easy! On your last question, I have no idea how to write it, although I do recognize the phenomenon from your description.

    Based on its most prototypical use (you doing it when you’re in a close call) I think I would call it an interjection. It is certainly not an ideophone, ideophones being subjective evocations of perceived events rather than reactions to events.

    Linguists have made different sorts of distinctions within the category of interjections. According to one influential categorization (Ameka 1992) I think this would classify as cognitive and/or emotive, rather than, say, conative or phatic. As Ameka writes:

    The emotive ones are those that express the speaker’s state with respect to the emotions and sensations they have at the time. For example, Yuk! ‘I feel disgust’; Wow! ‘I am surprised’; Ouch! ‘I feel pain’; Ugh! ‘I feel disgust’ (see Wierzbicka 1992). Cognitive interjections are those that pertain to the state of knowledge and thoughts at the time of utterance. Examples include: Aha! ‘I now know this’; (Ewe) ehe! ‘I now remember’.
    (Ameka p. 113)

    Ameka, Felix K. 1992. Interjections: The Universal Yet Neglected Part of Speech. Journal of Pragmatics 18, no. 2-3: 101-118.

  5. […] “They are mostly used to convey emotional content”? Note again the upgrading of what was a small aside in another claim to a highly questionable generalisation. This sudden shelving away of ideophones as conveying “emotional content” also seems to make the common error of conflating depictive/performative iconicity and expressive/emotive indexicality; several of the papers cited in the ms point out why this is unnecessary and misleading, so I won’t go into that here (see also this old blog post). […]

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