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

On the history of the term ‘ideophone’

(Note: Looking for a modern definition of the term? Check out “‘Ideophone’ as a comparative concept” (2019). That chapter supplies the following: Ideophone. Member of an open lexical class of marked words that depict sensory imagery. It provides evidence and arguments for the cross-linguistic utility of this definition.)

A common term for expressive vocabulary in African linguistics is ‘ideophone’. It has become a tradition to cite the first paragraph of Doke’s definition in any study on ideophones:

Ideophone (Idéophone) [Ideophon]
A vivid representation of an idea in sound. A word, often onomatopoeic, which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, colour, sound, smell, action, state or intensity.
Doke, Bantu Linguistic Terminology, 1935, p. 118

Samarin, in his excellent overview of ideophony in Bantu, carefully notes that ‘[i]t is reported that Doke also is responsible for creating the term ideophone, but I have not come across supporting evidence. Its first appearance seems to be in 19531 with the publication of his Bantu Linguistic Terminology.’ (Samarin 1971:132). Indeed, examples of studies crediting Doke with inventing the term are easily found; here are just a few invoking Doke’s definition2 [relegated to a footnote to save space].

The idea of ‘ideophone’ before Doke

It is little known that Doke did not actually coin this term, but just gave a new definitional twist to an already existing concept.

One application of the term that was particularly current in Doke’s time was that by the psychologist-phoneticist Edward Wheeler Scripture (1864-1945). In his Elements of Experimental Phonetics, Scripture used the term ideogram for the holistic perception of a printed word. As he says, ‘printed words are perceived in wholes as ideograms and not as combinations (…) … words may be perceived under conditions that exclude any perception of the single elements.’ (Scripture 1902:128). Then he draws a parallel between the ‘image’ of the printed word and that of the auditory word:

It may be suggested that auditory words and phrases from ‘ideophones’ just as printed ones form ‘ideograms’. The further distinctions may be made of ideograms and ideophones into sensory (visual words and auditory words) and motor ones (written words and spoken words). In all probability the most prominent features of a phonetic unit are first perceived and the details are gradually filled in. (Scripture 1902:132)

Thus, for Scripture, an ideophone is a unit of sound that is perceived as a holistic whole rather than as a combination of some parts; and this holistic whole represents one idea. This is a very psycholinguistic notion, implying some theory of language processing and comprehension.

Century Dictionary Supplement, 1909, p. 623


Century Dictionary Supplement, 1909, p. 623

Scripture’s thoughts on this must have gained currency, for a few years later we find the term ‘ideophone’ included in the 1909 supplement to the famous Century Dictionary. In that definition (shown to the right), we can already identify the seeds of Doke’s usage of the term; and the two derived forms given are even more suitable: “ideophonetics, the method of direct representation of ideas by vocal sounds; ideophonous, representing ideas by vocal sounds…” (Cent. Dict., Suppl. p. 623).

First known use in 1881 by A.J. Ellis

Before going back to Doke, let’s dig a little deeper still. According to the OED, the term ideophone can be traced back to an 1881 work by philologist/ethnomusicologist Alexander J. Ellis. (Attentive readers will already have spotted the words “2. First used by A.J. Ellis” in the Century Dictionary lemma above.) Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track down the citation provided by the OED, which runs thus: “1881 A. J. ELLIS Synops. Lect. Lond. Dialectical Soc. 2 Nov., Mimetics, ideographics, and ideophonetics. Fixed ideograph, variable ideophone, and their connection.” (Suggestions welcome.)

(Update. Thanks to the LH Truth Squad, we have the beginning of an answer: OED lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower tells us that The OED is citing a printed card announcing two of the London Dialectical Society’s November meetings, mailed by Ellis to James Murray (they were friends), and subsequently deposited by Murray in the OED archives. In the comments below, Jesse says furthermore: We’ll be clarifying our bibliography to show that this is not a published item. Hey, it does feel kind of nice to have some influence on the OED lemma for ‘ideophone’!)

Meanwhile, here is the relevant part of the definition as the OED currently has it:

ideophone [Gr. voice, sound], (a) term used by A. J. Ellis (in contradistinction to ideograph) for a sound or group of sounds denoting an idea, i.e. a spoken word; … (OED, 2nd ed. 1989)

This definition resonates very much with Scripture’s ideas, but strangely enough the wording is attributed to Ellis. For all we know, Ellis may well have made the same distinction as Scripture did some twenty years later, but it remains a bit puzzling that Scripture’s wording (“it may be suggested that”) seems to imply some claim of originality.3

But it’s not the representation of ideas!

Be it Scripture or Ellis via Scripture, the essential idea is clear: the representation of ideas through sound. Doke takes over this idea, adds the term ‘vivid’, and specifies the semantics a bit more; but all the while, Scripture’s definition is still at the core. Doke’s most important innovation thus lies not so much the term in itself, nor in its definition, but rather in his insistence on its status as a separate part of speech in Bantu languages. It has been noted before that Doke’s definition is not without problems; indeed Samarin, in his characteristic blend of wit and skepticism, grumbles about the ease with which linguists have been citing it uncritically.4

To me, the problem lies exactly in the residue of Scripture’s definition that is still present. “A representation of an idea in sound” — which word isn’t, one might ask? The term somehow fails to pick out precisely what is special about expressive vocabulary. Ideophones do not just represent; they evoke, they convey. What do they evoke or convey? Not so much ideas (an all too disembodied notion), but rather sensory perceptions, inner feelings, and sensations.5 How do ideophones do this? Often through sound-symbolic means, that is, through a close linkage of sound and meaning; another feature of expressive vocabulary that is only dimly present in Doke’s definition.6

Let’s close todays’ session with an example of an ideophone from Siwu, an undescribed Niger-Congo language of eastern Ghana. It may not be the most tasteful one, but I’m sure it will give you a good idea of what ideophones are about. The ideophone is sàsàsàsàsà, and in my database it is glossed as ‘spontaneous outcoming of urine’:

gɔ yukukpe ɔpia mɛ̀ ɔ̀tu i kanya, kùru lotsɛ mɛ̀ ìbɔrɛ sàsàsàsàsàsà
when thief he-put me gun in mouth, urine it-give me outcoming IDPH7
‘When the robber put a gun into my mouth, I started urinating sàsàsàsàsàsà‘ (lit. urine gave me outcoming ~)


  1. 1909. ideophone. Century Dictionary, Supplement:623.
  2. 1989. ideo-. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.
  3. Alexandre, Pierre. 1966. Préliminaire à une présentation des idéophones Bulu. In Neue Afrikanische Studien, Hamburger Beiträge zur Afrika-Kunde, 9-28, Hamburg: Deutsches Institut für Afrika-Forschung.
  4. Fordyce, James F. 1983. The Ideophone as a phonosemantic class: the case of Yoruba. In Current Approaches to African Linguistics, Ed. Ivan R Dihoff, 263-278, Dordrecht: Foris.
  5. Geurts, Kathryn Linn, and Elvis Gershon Adikah. 2006. Enduring and endearing feelings and the transformation of material culture in West Africa. In Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture, Eds. Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Gosden, and Ruth Phillips, 35-60, Oxford: Berg.
  6. Schiller, J. Ch. Fr. v. 1900. The Phonetic Text of Wilhelm Tell. Ed. George Hempl. New York: Hinds and Noble.
  7. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1999. The Case for Sound Symbolism. Annual Review of Anthropology 28:225-252.
  8. Scripture, Edward Wheeler. 1902. The Elements of Experimental Phonetics. C. Scribner’s Sons.
  9. Tedlock, D. 1999. Ideophone. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 9, no. 1-2:118-120.
  10. Voeltz, F. K. Erhard, and Christa Kilian-Hatz, eds. 2001. Ideophones. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  11. von Staden, Paul M. S. 1977. Some remarks on ideophones in Zulu. African Studies 36, no. 2:195 – 224.
  1. a typographical error — the bibliography to Samarin’s article cites the year as 1935 []
  2. Some studies invoking Doke’s definition: ‘Greater uniformity was only found after Doke introduced the term “ideophone”.’ (Von Staden 1977:195)
    ‘Since C. M. Doke (Bantu Linguistic Terminology, 1935) introduced and defined the term ‘ideophone’ as a linguistic category for the classification of words in the Zulu languages, it has been employed variously in the description of many Bantu and non-Bantu African languages.’ (Fordyce 1983:263)
    ‘Le terme d’idéophone, inventé par C. M. Doke …’ (Alexandre 1966:9)
    ‘Doke (1935:118) first defined the ideophone as “a vivid representation…’ (Nuckolls 1999:239)
    ‘The term ideophone first came into use among linguists specializing in African and especially Bantu languages.’ (Tedlock 1999:119)
  3. As an aside, I should mention that between Ellis and Scripture, the term seems to have been used in pedagogic materials for language acquisition. Apparently, around 1900 there was a series by Robert Morris Pierce titled Ideophonic Texts for Acquiring Languages. The only part of this series I’ve been able to trace so far is George Hempl’s edition of Wilhelm Tell (1900). This use of the term meshes nicely with some further remarks by Scripture in his discussion of ideograms/ideophones, especially the following: “In regard to acquiring a foreign language the facts mentioned in this chapter seem to indicate: (…) 2. the advantage of learning words and phrases as ideograms and ideophones” (Scripture 1902:133). []
  4. ‘If Bantu languages have a class of words that deserves a name, this class must surely be identified on formal grounds. (…) I believe that Bantu ideophones can indeed be so characterized, but most writers have been content to quote Doke’s definition of them rather than justify their classification.’ (Samarin 1971:133).
    In all fairness, what few people seem to be aware of (but what is noted in the introduction to Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001) is that Doke’s definition extends beyond the brief and oft-cited part on p. 118; in the remainder of the definition, Dokes notes specifically that ideophones have special phonological and phonotactic characteristics (Doke 1935:118-119). []
  5. On that issue, consider the following suggestion: ‘In fact, we would suggest that in many African and black Atlantic contexts speech is bodied forth rather than cerebrally confined’ (Geurts & Adikah 2006:55) []
  6. ‘Then why call this weblog The Ideophone?’, you may ask. Partly because it’s still a common term (being defined wrongly does not preclude being used profitably, as plenty of authors have shown), partly because of the irony of it, and partly because that’s what I’m trying to achieve: to sound out ideas in the hope of succesfully conveying some sense of the beauty and the intricacy of expressivity in language. []
  7. I’ve simplified the glosses, leaving out noun class prefixes, agreement, and needlessly technical abbreviations. []

6 responses to “On the history of the term ‘ideophone’”

  1. As I wrote in LanguageHat’s comments:

    The OED is citing a printed card announcing two of the London Dialectical Society’s November meetings, mailed by Ellis to James Murray (they were friends), and subsequently deposited by Murray in the OED archives.

    We’ll be clarifying our bibliography to show that this is not a published item.

  2. The OED is citing a printed card …

    Thanks! Do you happen to have access to that card? I’d be interested to hear more about the context in which Ellis used the term ideophone.

    We’ll be clarifying our bibliography to show that this is not a published item.

    Perfect. You might want to take note that in the online version, Ellis’ name is linked to another work entirely: this is where the link leads to. (I’ve checked that work, and am pretty sure ideophone isn’t found in there. For those interested, an online version of one volume of that work can be found at the Internet Archive: On early English pronunciation )

  3. Wouldn’t this definition mean that every language has ideophones? It would be hard to imagine a language that does not express statements strongly through evocative imagery – I suggest the use of swears and vulgarities in english is quite often ideophonous. They employ anatomical and sexual terms which they don’t mean literally in order to evoke a force of emotion or shock which is non-representational. It makes me wonder how expressives/ideophones are seen socially in the African cultures you have cited thus far? are they considered vulgar or unwholesome in some way?

  4. You are quite right in suggesting that every language has some means for expressivity. However, as outlined here, I would propose to use the term expressives/ideophones only for those languages in which expressive vocabulary forms a clearly identifiable form class (either a grammatical category or an ideophonic subset of the lexicon). And by ‘identifiable’, I mean definable by a constellation of phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic criteria. (It has been pointed out e.g. by GT Childs that such a class may be most profitably thought of as a prototype category.)

    Taking that perspective, I think it is very significant that so many languages of the world have somehow lexicalized expressivity in such a systematic way (a little more on that here, under ‘Why study expressive vocabulary?’). But certainly, your English examples fall under the expressive use of language. Christopher Potts has an NSF funded project on exactly those issues in English, and there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between English expressive vocabulary and expressives/ideophones in languages such as I have been highlighting here.

    As for your second question, no, ideophones are not at all seen as vulgar (they do make for very effective insults, but that’s only a secondary function, and one of minor importance in those languages I’ve worked with; I do have some interesting data on that). To the contrary: being able to use ideophones is often a sign of eloquency, and as such highly valued. There are vulgar ideophones, of course; but the Siwu ideophones I’ve gathered so far cover a much wider spectrum than swear words and the like in English. And the same holds for collections of Ewe, Yoruba, Somali, Gbaya, Gbeya, ChiTumbuka, Korean, Mandarin, and Semai ideophones I’ve looked at.

    Anyway, great questions. I’ll be addressing these issues at more length in future postings.

  5. it is very intesting topic and i wish to do something on ideophones:the question is, why was it thought that doke coined the term while there are evidences which show otherwise?again where can i get the literature on the topic?but,why this area is not well known so far?
    MY ARGUMENTS:ideophones indicate some behaviours of lexical words,why scholars put them in a group of its own?why not inserting them into various groups of which they fit syntactically?if an ideophone shows a verb property then put it there.

  6. i have observed also that,ideophones can be lexicalised upon frequent uses,if this is the case,then it not fair making them a group of its own,whwt do you say?

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