New paper: Redrawing the margins of language

Just out in Glossa, the premier open access journal of general linguistics:

Dingemanse, Mark. 2018. “Redrawing the Margins of Language: Lessons from Research on Ideophones.” Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics 3 (1): 1–30. doi:10.5334/gjgl.444. (download PDF)

In this paper I take up the theme of marginality (as distinct from rarity) from my 2017 essay, and take it in a different direction. I argue that the narrative of marginalisation, while historically justified, no longer suffices for ideophones, and that it obscures some of the insights from 150 years worth of research on this phenomenon. The paper is openly available so I won’t summarise it fully here; instead I’ll draw up a few of the lessons I learned while writing it.

How things get marginalised

As many have pointed out, ideophones have long been treated as marginal in linguistics. But how does something come to be seen as marginal? For ideophones, I found there are two basic strategies: assimilation and exceptionalism. In assimilation, we explain away a phenomenon by assuming it’s the same as something already familiar (and marginal anyway), giving us a reason to neglect it. In the case of ideophones, this is often done by shelving them away as interjections or as onomatopoeia. Exceptionalism is the reverse: we stress the utter difference of a phenomenon and thereby place it outside the bounds of normal linguistic inquiry — another reason to neglect it (or leave its investigation to scholars happy to work on ‘exotic’ topics).

One of the best examples of how exceptionalism works is Vidal, who in an introduction to a Yoruba dictionary wrote that he considered ideophones a “singularly unique feature” of the language, and continued, “therefore I shall not waste time in comparing it with the adverbial systems, whatever they may be, of other African languages” (Vidal 1852). Ironically, exceptionalism often arises out of a wish to stress the significance of something; but it may have the same effect as assimilation, namely to shield it from broader investigation. A goal of my paper is to walk the fine line between assimilation and exceptionalism: show what’s special about ideophones without losing sight of how they fit into the bigger picture.

Ideophones are a major word class in many languages

If you haven’t worked on or don’t speak a language with a well-developed ideophone system it can be hard to appreciate the sheer scale of ideophone inventories. Here’s a remarkable fact: in some of the most well-documented languages, ideophones are a major word class on the same order of magnitude as nouns or verbs. Would you be able to take a grammar seriously if it didn’t treat verbs? If you encounter a grammar of a Bantu language, or of Basque, Korean or Japanese, that doesn’t treat ideophones in detail, you should look at it with the same suspicion.

Language Reported magnitude of ideophone inventory
Basque “more than 4,500” (Ibarretxe-Antuñano 2006: 150)
Gbeya “over 3,000” (Samarin 1971: 161)
Japanese “4,500” (Ono 2007)
Korean “several thousands” (Sohn 2001: 96)
Semai “same order of magnitude” as nouns and verbs (Diffloth 1976: 249)
Turkish “one to two thousand” (Jendraschek 2001: 39)
Zulu “3,000” (von Staden 1977: 200)

Stress-testing theories

If ideophones indeed are a major word class in some languages, one consequence is that it becomes more urgent to include them in our theorising. What good is a theory of phonological features that can’t deal with the phonosemantic mappings or phonotactic markedness of a major word class? Or a theory of morphology that can’t deal with templatic phenomena? Or a theory of words that can’t deal with gradience in form and meaning? In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the time of the first ‘cross-linguistic encounter’, ideophones played an important role in theory formation in many areas of general linguistics.  Their role was often one of ‘stress-testing’ theories: ideophones provided the kind of boundary phenomena that could make or break generalisations.

For instance, ideophones played a crucial role in McCarthy’s (1983) new theory of nonconcatenative morphology. As he noted, “these exotic phenomena pervade the world’s languages with a regularity and complexity that makes them both essential and ideal for testing any theory of morphology”. By the way, that ideophones could be described as “exotic phenomena” and as “pervading the world’s languages with regularity” in one sentence is a perfect illustration of the viewpoint dependence of notions of marginality

Forgotten classics

Digging up old work on ideophones is very rewarding. It turns out luminaries like Vidal, Junod, and Westermann had lots of interesting stuff to say. One problem is that their work often comes in languages other than English — for instance, Junod wrote in French and Westermann in German. Since it bothered me that so few people had access to their pioneering work, my review presents some of their most insightful comments in the hope that others will benefit from them as well.

I’m particularly fond of Westermann, whose two classic papers on iconic mappings in West-African ideophones I made available for download before. These papers as well as his grammars and dictionaries of Ewe radiate a deep knowledge of the language, and his comments show how he worked closely with native speakers to really understand what ideophones do and how they work.

Diverse voices

Speaking of native speakers, one thing that is striking when you take any reasonably comprehensive bibliography of ideophone studies is the number of contributions by scholars who are also native speakers. It is hard to find other linguistic phenomena that have benefited so much from work by linguists with native speaker sensibilities. Especially in the last decades, this has shaped the course of developments in ideophone studies in important ways.

Here’s why this is important. As we have seen, marginality is to a large degree subjective: what you consider marginal depends on your methodological focus, your theoretical framework, your disciplinary upbringing, but also, importantly, your own native language(s). Scholars with native speaker sensibilities can provide an insider perspective that others may lack. It has been pointed out that having contributions from both native and non-native scholars is one of the most productive ways to do language science (Ameka 2006). Ideophone studies provide a good model for this.

In short

As ideophones are increasingly being brought into the fold of the language sciences,  they make visible our scholarly biases; they help us innovate methods and theories; and they keep giving us reasons to look at language with fresh eyes.

More in the paper: Dingemanse, Mark. 2018. “Redrawing the Margins of Language: Lessons from Research on Ideophones.” Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics 3 (1): 1–30. doi:10.5334/gjgl.444. (download PDF)

2 thoughts on “New paper: Redrawing the margins of language

  1. Could a (relative) lack of ideophones be considered a Standard Average European feature or an Indo-European feature?

  2. Hard to say, because it’s hard to disentangle the apparent rarity of ideophones in SAE/IE language from their marginalisation in grammar-writing. For all we know there might be some SAE/IE languages that have considerable ideophone systems, but all analysts are conditioned into thinking of these things are marginal and hence ignorable.

    However, clearly, well-known SAE languages like German, Dutch, English and French, Italian and Spanish do not have ideophone systems on the same order of magnitude and of the same linguistic status as the well-documented ideophone languages mentioned in my paper. So there is at least an important difference of degree (if not of kind).

    Also, in the few cases where ideophone-like words have been described in IE languages, for instance in Indo-Aryan, they have been postulated to result from cultural diffusion (in this case from Dravidian). See Emeneau 1969. So among IE experts at least there seems to be a consensus that ideophones where not a salient feature of the family.

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