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

How is Sotho siks! doing?

In a neat 1965 paper on ideophones in Southern Sotho, Daniel P. Kunene writes about an ideophone derived from a gesture:

There is an interesting and amusing case of the coining of an ideophone from the type of gesture used. The gesture for running is clenched fingers, outstretched thumb pointing upwards and wiggled from side to side in imitation of the swaying of the body as the weight is transfered from the one foot to the other. Normally it is the right hand that is used. By coincidence, the thumb of the right hand represents the number ‘six’ in counting on the fingers — counting beginning on the small finger of the left hand, and ‘crossing over’ from the thumb of the left hand (five) to the thumb of the right hand (six). From this has come the ideophone siks in Sotho! This refers to running, especially fleeing from something:

a-re síks
he did this: siks!
he ran away


Kunene calls this an ideophone for structural and semantic reasons: it occurs in the same syntactic slot (introduced by re like most ideophones) and it vividly depicts an event. A footnote however reveals ‘Restricted to relatively few people, it is true, but there all the same.’ The question is: does anyone know whether the form has caught on and has been used more widely? I’ve looked around on the web, but googling for short words like that seems hopeless.


  1. Kunene, Daniel P. 1965. The ideophone in Southern Sotho. Journal of African Languages 4: 19-39.
  2. Kunene, Daniel P. 1978. The Ideophone in Southern Sotho. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.
  3. 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.
  1. Kunene, The Ideophone in Southern Sotho, 1987:37-38 []

4 responses to “How is Sotho siks! doing?”

  1. e, marc

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone using this ideophone before, and indeed my knowledge of it comes from Kunene’s paper (incidentally, I found it in book form while browsing the Wits library, in 2003, and now that you say it’s actually a paper would explain why the book was so thin).

    I just asked my mother — a 56 year old native of Qwa-qwa with numerous relatives from Lesotho — if she recognised it, and she didn’t.

    I’m sure you already know this, but I thought I should mention that phonologically this word is very malformed for Sesotho (it’s a closed syllable with a consonant cluster), but such is the nature of ideophones that they sometimes break the language’s rules for emotional effect. Some rural people pronounce English six as “sikisi” {HLL} when importing it into Sesotho.

  2. Tebello, thanks for weighing in (and for asking your mother!). I suspected as much. Of course there could be a limited network in which it is still thriving.

    Kunene’s 1978 book (cited above) is just a somewhat extended version of the 1965 paper. Nothing essential is in the book that is not in the paper.

    I would’ve liked to ask Kunene himself, but as he is emeritus now I have some trouble locating him online.

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