Determining the meaning of ideophones: folk definitions
Revised and published as:
Dingemanse, M. (2015). Folk definitions in linguistic fieldwork. In J. Essegbey, B. Henderson, & F. McLaughlin (Eds.), Language Documentation and Endangerment in Africa (pp. 215–238). John Benjamins. doi:10.1075/clu.17.09din
Is is true that meanings are not readily assigned to ideophones? A study of folk definitions ((Folk definitions are explanations by native speakers in the language under study. In this study of folk definitions of Siwu ideophones, I asked four native speakers of Siwu to explain ideophones in Siwu, and I videotaped their explanations.)) of Siwu ideophones shows that speakers converge on ways of explaining them, sketching scenes and using gesture and verbal paraphrase to capture the depictive meanings of ideophones.
What can [depictive] gestures tell us about the meanings of ideophones? Let us take the case of gìlìgìlì vs. minimini. The difference between these ideophones turns out to be hard to articulate in Siwu; both seem to be about some kind of roundness. However, looking at the gestures accompanying the folk definitions, a clear distinction emerges. While explaining gìlìgìlì, all four speakers draw a circle with their index finger. In contrast, while explaining minimini, all four speakers produce a two-handed gesture depicting a sphere. We see thus that the gesture reliably changes with the word form, suggesting that gìlìgìlì should be glossed as ‘circular (round 2D)’ and minimini as ‘spherical (round 3D)’.