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

Can you tell the difference between lɛkɛrɛɛ and lukuruu?

Lɛkɛrɛɛ and lukuruu are two Siwu ideophones depicting imagery of being well-rounded. But they differ in degree. One of them evokes an image of being seriously fat, the other depicts the state of being merely chubby. Can you guess which is which?

Few people find this question difficult to answer. But I won’t reveal the right answer just yet. Instead, by way of celebrating the fact that is now fully up and running, I want to show you how my senior consultant Ruben explains these ideophones in Siwu. Pay particular attention to his gestures — you’ll see that it is fairly easy to get an idea of the meanings of these ideophones even if you don’t understand Siwu!

Folk definition of lɛkɛrɛɛ by Ruben:

[jwplayer file=”/wp-content/blogs.dir/4/files/video/9_lekeree_RO.flv” captions.file=”/files/video/”]

Folk definition of lukuruu by Ruben:

[jwplayer file=”/wp-content/blogs.dir/4/files/video/9_lukuruu_RO.flv” captions.file=”/files/video/”]

Iconicity and depiction

Now let me reveal what you likely already felt: lɛkɛrɛɛ depicts being somewhat chubby (the smaller end of the scale), while lukuruu depicts being seriously fat (the large end of the scale). You used two types of evidence to come to this conclusion. First, you used your own intuitions of magnitude sound symbolism to match the back vowel /u/ with the idea of large magnitude and the front vowel /ɛ/ with the idea of small magnitude. This type of magnitude symbolism is probably a universal feature of human embodied cognition, relying on cross-modal mappings that are common to us all. Ideophones, due to their depictive nature, often show it, but long ago Edward Sapir (1929) showed that English speakers have similar intuitions about nonce words like mil and mal.1 The second type of evidence you used (if you watched both video clips) was Ruben’s gestures. They relied on a perhaps even more transparent way of mapping form onto meaning: for lɛkɛrɛɛ, the gesture was relatively small and located mainly around the belly, while for lukuruu, the gesture occupied a much larger area of gesture space.

This example shows some ways of mapping form and meaning that make universal sense. Ideophones, marked words that depict sensory imagery, often tap into such form-meaning mappings: their form betrays something of their meaning. But we should not think of ideophones as simply imitative words. Consider the particular template in which these vowels do their sound-symbolic work: L-K-R. Is that suggestive of “fatness”? Probably not. What we have, then, is a combination of iconicity (the magnitude symbolism of the vowel) and conventionalized form (the L-K-R template). In my thesis, I argue that it is not simple resemblance that characterizes ideophones, but rather a depictive mode of representation. Ideophones are depictions: they enable you to experience what it is like to see the thing depicted, but just like line drawings or paintings, they require knowledge of representational conventions to be interpreted fully (Gombrich 1960).2 As Edward Sapir wrote, “They do not directly grow out of nature, they are suggested by it and play with it” (1921:6). Much more on that in chapter 7 of the thesis; and more about the gestures accompanying folk definitions of ideophones in chapter 9.

Check out

That’s right. My thesis, titled The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu, has been finished for a while now. I can’t distribute it yet, but most of the supplementary materials are online at This means you can already enjoy video clips of folk definitions of ideophones, pictures and diagrams of a sorting task with ideophones, and photos from Kawu, among many other things. Oh, and there is the bibliography.

As soon as the thesis becomes available, I will announce it here. Meanwhile, enjoy this appetizer!


  1. Dingemanse, Mark. 2011. The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu. PhD dissertation, Nijmegen: Radboud University/MPI for Psycholinguistics.
  2. Gombrich, E. H. 1960. Art & Illusion: a study in the psychology of pictorial representation. London/New York: Phaidon.
  3. Ohala, John J. 1983. “Cross-language use of pitch: an ethological view.” Phonetica 40 (1): 1-18.
  4. Sapir, Edward. 1929. “A study in phonetic symbolism.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 12 (3): 225-239.
  1. A well-known hypothesis about the ethological basis underlying this effect is Ohala’s (1983) frequency code. []
  2. You think illustrations communicate immediately? Try eliciting words using a 2D representation of a sphere like this in a non-literature community. You’ll get things like “black shape with a patch of white” instead of “ball” or “sphere”, because people have not learnt to see that 2D representation as a sphere. []
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9 responses to “Can you tell the difference between lɛkɛrɛɛ and lukuruu?”

  1. Great! There’s a third way you can tell the difference. Ruben seems to use a deeper voice with more pressure behind it, and slightly lengthened words when describing lukuruu. It seems to indicate magnitude and as well as being iconic of heaviness.

  2. Actually, in my browser with text at default size, italic “ɛ” looks like “s”, so when I read “lɛkɛrɛɛ” I saw “lsksrss”. My browser settings are not particularly unusual, so it’s safe to assume that many other visitors see the same. I zoom in when I want to read IPA symbols clearly.

  3. @Kyle, nice observation, and you’re absolutely right. In chapter 7 of my thesis (available for download soon) I spend some time talking about how performance characteristics like voice quality, tempo etc. help to turn ideophones into persuasive depictions.

  4. beautiful post again! (as an ideophoneaficionado i often visit your blog/website)

  5. “L-K-R. Is that suggestive of “fatness”?”

    Do you think that the voiced continuants L and R are at least suggestive of something bulging or pendent?

    Of course, they do not have this meaning as individual sounds, but to my ears L-K-R fits better than say, T-G-P.

    Then again, I have already watched the videos and read your comments, so I guess I’m “primed”. Always a problem with ideophones …

  6. Felix, I think that is an empirical question. As you say, we might be primed by this particular example. However, we already know that certain (kinds of) vowels are associated more-often-than-statistically-likely with certain meanings, and it doesn’t strike me as impossible that this would hold for certain consonants too. Ideophones are excellent stuff for empirical work of the maluma-takete and bouba-kiki kind.

  7. I ‘stumbled’ across this as I am making a slide on [fei˩ tyt˥ tyt˥] versus [fei˩ tʰɐn˩ tʰɐn˩] in Cantonese, also ideophones for two types of fatness.

    Before I saw the videos, I had the opposite mapping of vowels in my head. For me, [u] is small, and [ɛ] is big. Vowel height I suppose.

    For instance, (in my understanding) in Okinawan turuturu is a slower and smaller melt/drip event than taratara.

  8. I’m not sure what Okinawan /u/ is like, but in for instance Japanese it is quite unrounded; the Siwu /u/ in contrast is a good heavy rounded [u]. Conceivably, rounding also may play a role besides vowel height. Anyway, all this goes just to show that one should never think of these things in absolute terms. As I argue in my thesis, sound-symbolic mappings always involve conventionalized language-internal systems of oppositions. General tendencies exist but we should always expect them to be overlaid with a layer of conventionalisation. As Sapir said, “They do not directly grow out of nature, they are suggested by it and play with it.”

  9. I agree.

    After seeing the clips I also convinced myself how /u/ can suggest obesity/roundness. In Cantonese we also have [jyn˩ ku˥ lʊk˥] and [jyn˩ tɐm˩ tɐm˩]: one is more associated with 3D roundness, and the other is more associated with roundness in a flat and horizontal way.

    (By the way, Standard/ Eastern Japanese has the high back vowel unrounded. Western Japan and the Ryukyus have the high back vowel very rounded, traditionally at least.)

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