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

Ideophones around the web

With another busy summer gone, here is a post highlighting some of the stuff that’s floated by in the ideophonic blogosphere. I haven’t seen anything like last year’s ideophonic earrings, but we do have more news on Sotho siks!, the introduction of ideophones in the Nyungwe Bible, and a postcard from Taiwan on ideophones in children’s stories.

In How is Sotho siks! doing?, I asked for more information on an interesting ideophone reported in 1965 by Daniel P. Kunene. I had trouble locating Kunene online, else I would’ve asked him directly. As it happens, this distinguished emeritus professor of African Languages and Literatures just started his own blog last month — and promply devoted the third posting to a most interesting response to my query. This for sure is the blogosphere at its best. In his response, Prof. Kunene builds on the helpful comments of Tebello Thejane regarding the fact that siks is very malformed for a Sesotho word:

The fact that, if Sothoized, English “six”, would have been “sikisi” is of cardinal relevance, precisely because my article deals with the phenomenon “siks,” and not “sikisi.” It immediately triggers the question of social and geographical mobility or restriction, and should make the reader go back to the restricted circulation mentioned in my footnote. The group in which I heard it and used it myself was of young people, maybe even as young as higher primary level. That would certainly explain “siks” versus “sikisi.” It also restricts it generationally, further limiting its ability to spread. Clearly, then, Thejane’s 56-year-old mother living in Qwa-qwa would have been most unlikely to hear it.

This gives us a lot more detail on on the provenance of the form. Given its limited circulation at the time, it may have fallen out of use by now, but it remains an interesting specimen of ideophonic language use.

Ideophones in bible translations

We stay in southern Africa for the next item, on ideophones in the Nyungwe bible translation (Nyungwe is a Bantu language of Mozambique). Ideophones and bible translations have never had an easy relationship (Noss 1999), but the times may be changing. David Ker of Lingamish reports on a checking session in the ongoing Nyungwe bible translation project. In verse 6 of John 18, “[t]he verb for “go back” was changed to a verb meaning “knocked back/reeling” and an ideophone was added to mimic the sound of them falling down”. As David writes,

My favorite change was the addition of the ideophone in verse 6. I’ve never been able to get my head around ideophones. But they are very common in Nyungwe and they make the difference between a flat text and one that gets everybody interested. It was gratifying to see how excited the translators became reading the text aloud with the addition of an ideophone.

We may cite a more recent publication by Daniel Kunene for a description what happens here: the ideophone “climbs the stage to become an act, thus removing itself from the ordinary run-of-the-mill narrative surrounding it. (…) Having created a surreal world, the ideophone invites the audience to perceive with their senses that which it represents, whether aural, visual, olfactory, and so on” (Kunene 2001:190). For a less eloquent description of the persuasive effect of ideophones, compare my ‘Under the spell of ideophones‘.

A postcard from Taiwan

Finally, there’s a postcard from Taiwan on onomatopoeia and ideophones in ‘Chinese’ (probably Min Chinese or Hokkien) children’s stories:

There are some interesting examples onomatopoeia/ideophones, the variety of which is comparable to the sound effects you might see in Japanese manga. Heck, there’s even one that doesn’t have a Chinese character shorthand for it, and it’s good old “Pu!” This nearly imitates the Japanese practice of using the syllabary system (like Hiragana) instead of the ideographic system (Kanji) to emphasize a sound effect, perhaps even serving to stretch it out.

What is especially interesting about this is the change of writing system, the effect of which is quite similar to the prosodic foregrounding of ideophones in live speech. In both cases this points to ideophones using a different mode of meaning — one in which sound and sense are intricately linked (Diffloth 1972).


  1. Diffloth, Gérard. 1972. Notes on expressive meaning. Chicago Linguistic Society 8: 440–447.
  2. 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.
  3. Noss, Philip A. 1999. The Ideophone: A Dilemma for Translation and Translation Theory. In New Dimensions in African Linguistics and Languages, ed. Paul F. A. Kotey, 261-272. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
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One response to “Ideophones around the web”

  1. The Kimwani Bible translation team in Mozambique was using ideophones more than a decade ago as far as I know.

    Interesting that the ideophones are used in translation of narrative but not dialogue, thus Jesus’ claim that Peter would deny him before the cock crows doesn’t use the ideophone.

    Thanks for this site and the research you do.

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