This chapter introduces the aims and scope of the thesis and describes the fieldwork and data that inform it.

Click here to read the introductory paragraphs to the thesis
Picture a late afternoon in the mountainside village of Akpafu-Mempeasem, eastern Ghana. A handful of people are hanging around in the shade of a mango tree when a farmer stops by to offer them some fruit for sale. A lively discussion ensues about the quality of the goods. One person notes that the cassava is nicely smooth sinisinisinisini and that the avocado has the perfect oblong egg-like shape sɔdzɔlɔɔɔɔ; another agrees, but suspects that the unripe banana would make one’s teeth feel chalky tìtìrìtììì. The farmer grins and leaves the fruit. Payment will follow later. The language spoken is Siwu; the words in italic are ideophones.

This thesis is concerned with ideophones — what they mean and how they are used by speakers of Siwu. Along the way we will see, among other things, that ideophones are a markedly special kind of words; that their meanings are surprisingly specific and closely linked to perception and the senses; that they are ubiquitous in everyday conversations in Siwu; that they are also used in such disparate genres as greeting routines and funeral dirges; and that people use them to share in sensory experiences and to sort out matters of experiential knowledge.

Why study ideophones? This has been a question put to me by many people, linguists and laymen alike, and it shows that there is still some way to go towards a proper understanding of the significance of ideophones to the science of language. This thesis travels part of that way. As I show in these pages, ideophones provide us with a unique opportunity to study culturally shaped ways of attending to the perceptual world. They shed new light on language and creativity, on the relation between everyday talk and verbal art and on the link between visual and verbal modes of language. They demonstrate how speech can depict sensory imagery, challenging received views about the importance of the arbitrariness of the sign. They encourage us to innovate theory and methods because traditional linguistic practices largely fail to capture them. They show how a linguistic device can combine aesthetic gratification and communicative precision. As Ɔɖimɛ Kanairo, one of my consultants, puts it: “Ideophones are like pepper. Without them, speech is buàà [tasteless].”

Ideophones are found in many languages around the world, but up to now linguistic science has largely failed to come to terms with them. Indeed, investigators of Standard Average European languages have tended to marginalise them as “playthings, not the tools of language” (Müller 1895) and even “the lunatic fringe of language” (Frankis 1991). A recent volume compiling important primary research calls them “a step-child of modern linguistic science” (Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001a). An additional problem is that they are traditionally regarded as hard to elicit, with their meaning and use characterised as “elusive” and “unpredictable”.

This thesis does not take such a pessimistic view. Instead, it confronts the difficulties head-on, using a bricolage of methods —some old, some improved, some new— to get a handle on the meaning and use of ideophones. The data come from Siwu, a richly ideophonic language spoken in a small-scale, rural community in eastern Ghana, in the linguistic region where ideophone systems were first described one and a half century ago. The methods range from video-recording natural conversations to stimulus-based elicitation and from pile-sorting tasks to the collection of folk definitions. Theoretical perspectives are drawn from semiotics, semantic typology, conversation analysis and the ethnography of speaking. Out of this, ideophones emerge as a vivid and versatile communicative device repaying close analytical attention.


Audio clips

Extract 1.1: Camera
Extract 1.2: That’s the way he wants it