Why it is useful to distinguish iconicity from indexicality

Every once in a while I come across work that conflates iconicity and indexicality, or lumps them together under a broad label of motivation (often in opposition to ‘arbitrariness’). Even if I tend to advocate for treating terminology lightly, I think there are many cases where it does pay off to maintain this distinction, and conflating it comes at a cost.

Not distinguishing iconicity and indexicality means losing the ability to explain how and why some linguistic resources differ in markedness & morphosyntactic behaviour, as I point out for the analogical issue of ideophones vs interjections here. A related case is transparent compounds, which naïve raters (under some instructions) also rate as highly iconic, yet for which it helps to be able to articulate how they differ from the kind of form-meaning resemblance usually targeted by the technical term iconicity.

There are also deeper evolutionary implications you’d lose sight of without the distinction. If an ancestral pain vocalization underlies interjections like ‘ow’, that makes for a different causal story than cross-linguistic similarities that can be ascribed to (possibly convergent) iconic mappings. So to explain why today’s languages are the way they are, a distinction like this comes in useful.

But for my money, the most interesting questions lie in where iconic vs indexical motivations overlap and where they diverge, and how this influences learning, processing, and cultural evolution. We can’t see those questions if we lump the notions together, nor when we dichotomize them.

This short post originated as a twitter thread.

New paper: Trilled /r/ is associated with roughness

Very happy to see this paper out! We combine comparative, lexical, historical, and psycholinguistic evidence for an in-depth look at a pervasive form of cross-modal iconicity.

For me, this goes back to ~2011, when I wondered why Siwu ideophones for roughness like wòsòròò, safaraa and dɛkpɛrɛɛ (all with trilled /r:/) felt so… rough. So something clicked when Bodo Winter told me about an intriguing link between /r/ & roughness in English in 2015

Many email threads, conversations, github commits and submissions & revisions later, we have this beast of a paper where we look at /r/~rough in sensory adjectives in English & Hungarian, trace it across hundreds of languages worldwide, and even peer back some 6 millennia in Proto-Indo-European.

It’s been such a pleasure to be part of this endeavour alongside Bodo Winter, Martón Soskuthy and Marcus Perlman. Do check out Bodo’s excellent summary in the thread linked above. And find the paper —open access!— here:


Oh, by the way, one crunchy factoid about this paper (which Marcus Perlman pointed out to us) is that the r-for-rough link persists in present-day English variants where /r/ is no longer trilled — and that it can be awakened, like a sleeping beauty, as in this ad for Ruffles chips.

Originally tweeted by @dingemansemark@scholar.social (@DingemanseMark) on January 21, 2022.

WOCAL10 workshop: Centering pragmatic phenomena on the margins

With the tenth World Congress of African Linguistics around the corner (June 7-12, 2021), let me draw your attention to a workshop we are organizing: Centering pragmatic phenomena on the margins in African languages. Convened by Felix Ameka and Mark Dingemanse, this workshop gathers researchers from at least 8 African universities and from around the world for a report on the latest development in this exciting research area. Workshop abstract:

In pragmatics, as in linguistics in general, various expressive devices that are indispensable in communication have been left on the margins as being non-conventional, non-lexical or non-verbal. This includes a range of interjections, particles, response cries, calls and conversational gestures but also bodily conduct such as sighs, sniffs, coughs, and winks. Despite their ubiquity in everyday interaction, many of these devices are thought of as extra-linguistic or paralinguistic and have consequently been mostly ignored in theoretical and empirical linguistic work. There is a realization on the rise in the language sciences that grappling with these devices holds the key to an understanding of language, the unique feature of the human species. In this workshop, we focus on the interactional uses of linguistic elements, or more broadly semiotic resources, that are traditionally thought of as extra-grammatical, non-lexical, or para-linguistic based on linguistic practices and norms in African communities of practice, with a view to moving them from the margins to the centre in African and general linguistics.

Felix Ameka & mark dingemanse, convenors

The workshop takes place online as part of WOCAL, for which registration is required. Registration is free for participants from the Global South and €50 for others. The fees are used to support the inclusiveness and diversity of the overall programme, including technical support, subtitling, live captioning, sign language interpretation and other measures.

Here’s the programme of our workshop:

Monday June 7, 16:00-18:00 — PRAG 1 🔗

1600-1630Intro | From liminal signs to phatic interjections
Mark Dingemanse
1630-1700Human-animal communication in the Iraqw language
Chrispina Alphonce
1700-1730Human-to-domesticated animal communication in Zargulla
Azeb Amha
1730-1800Masking emotions: a study of Hausa women’s expression of ‘kunya’
Aisha Umar Adamu

Break & possibility for socializing — and then PRAG 2 🔗

1900-1930Emotive interjections in Maasai (Arusa)
Michael Karani, Alexander Andrason
1930-2000Ideophones, interjections and particles: their forms and uses in Dompo
Ester Manu-Barfo
2000-2030Some utterance particles in Amharic conversations
Mulugeta Seyoum
2030-2100Pragmatic borrowing: the case of Tafi, a Ghana-Togo Mountain language
Mercy Bobuafor

Tuesday June 8, 16:00-18:00 — PRAG 3 🔗

1600-1630Forms and functions of backchanneling in Ruruuli and Luganda
Margaret Zellers, Mandy Lorenzen, Saudah Namyalo, Alena Witzlack-Makarevich
1630-1700Clicks as areal verbal gestures in the Lake Chad Basin and beyond
Florian Lionnet
1700-1730Moving clicks and other non-word vocalisations to the centre
Felix Ameka
1730-1800Final discussion All workshop participants (chaired by convenors)

You can download the workshop programme along with all abstracts here:

The sound of rain, softly falling (Tucker Childs, 1948-2021)

News just reached me that we have lost a dear colleague and one of the people responsible for introducing the world of linguistics to African ideophones: George Tucker Childs, 1948-2021.

Tucker was a cheerful presence in the field of African linguistics and a towering figure in the subfield that he and I had in common, ideophone studies. His groundbreaking PhD dissertation on Kisi in 1988 was chock-full of these sparkling words evocative of sensory imagery, and the topic would never lose his interest. He was one of the pioneers of the sociolinguistic study of ideophones and his 1994 review of African ideophones remains one of the most cited chapters of a famed volume on Sound Symbolism. One of his last academic publications was a chapter in the 2019 proceedings of an international workshop on ideophones in which he, characteristically, combined acute fieldwork-based observations with perceptive questions for future research.

We met several times over the years and corresponded quite a bit, sometimes about new work, sometimes about the future of African linguistics and how to ensure better representation of its diversity. “This is an issue I wrestle with all the time, how best to encourage young [authors], especially African, to submit”, he wrote to me in his capacity as the editor of one of the specialist journals in the field. In Tucker we have lost an adventurous colleague driven by a sense of wonder and by a passion for the documentation and revitalization of endangered languages.

Tucker’s emails often started with a salutation that included a description of his location and the weather conditions — which, when they came from Portland, often meant rain. I enclose a rendition by artist Joanna Taylor of an evocative Kisi ideophone that appears in Tucker’s PhD thesis: bíààà ‘the sound of rain, softly falling’. Words are a poor substitute for human contact, but I wish his loved ones the serenity evoked by the sound of nourishing rain.

Note: If you want to write your condolences or share your memories of Tucker, his family set up a special website here.

Bibliography of Tucker Child’s ideophone-related publications (see Google Scholar)

  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1988a. The phonology and morphology of Kisi. University of California, Berkeley. (PhD dissertation.)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1988b. The phonology of Kisi ideophones. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 10(2). 165–190. (doi:10.1515/jall.1988.10.2.165)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1989. Where do ideophones come from? Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 19(2). 55–76.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1994a. African Ideophones. In Hinton, Leanne & Nichols, Johanna & Ohala, John J. (eds.), Sound Symbolism, 178–204. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1994b. Expressiveness in contact situations: the fate of African ideophones. Journal of Pidgin and Creole languages 9(2). 257–282.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1996. Where have all the ideophones gone? The death of a word category in Zulu. Toronto Working Papers in Linguistics 15. 81–103.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2001. Research on Ideophones, Whither Hence? The Need for a Social Theory of Ideophones. In Voeltz, F. K. Erhard & Kilian-Hatz, Christa (eds.), Ideophones, 63–73. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2003. An Introduction to African Languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2014. Constraints on violating constraints: How languages reconcile the twin dicta of “Be different” and “Be recognizably language.” Pragmatics and Society 5(3). 341–354. (doi:10.1075/ps.5.3.02chi)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2018. Forty-plus years before the mast: My experiences as a field linguist. In Sarvasy, Hannah & Forker, Diana (eds.), Word Hunters: Field linguists on fieldwork. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2019. Ideophones as a measure of multilingualism. In Akita, Kimi & Pardeshi, Prashant (eds.), Iconicity in Language and Literature, vol. 16, 303–322. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. (doi:10.1075/ill.16.13tuc)

Farewell, Mr. Ideophone: William J. Samarin (1926-2020)

William John Samarin (photo University of Toronto)

I note with sadness that William J. Samarin has passed away in Toronto on January 16, 2020 at the age of 93. An all too short obituary notes that he was “known for his work on the language of religion and on two Central African languages: Sango and Gbeya”.

In linguistics, Samarin was of course also known for his extensive work on ideophones, playful and evocative words with sensory meanings. Only a few years after his Berkeley PhD he published a short and visionary paper on “African ideophones” (1966) that foreshadowed many of the themes that would occupy him in the next decades. A string of empirical and theoretical papers followed that brought new élan to the study of ideophones by dramatically extending the methodological toolbox and the kinds of topics studied, from lexical semantics to sociolinguistic variation, and from semantic typology to the use of ideophones in insults.

I have worked on the topic of ideophones a little over a decade now, and Samarin was always there in the background. He was there in the form of his formidable oeuvre, but also through active correspondence we kept up until halfway 2018. In this blog I want to share some personal recollections as well as some unpublished notes by Samarin about how he came to the study of ideophones.

Incidentally, we didn’t start off very well. In early 2010, when I first wrote to him as a wide-eyed grad student sharing a half-baked draft of a paper, he wrote back with stern (and justified) advice:

You see that if were your supervisor, I would be giving you a hard time about your generalizations. … Make sure that you are being as hard on yourself as you are (or might be) on others. (Samarin, personal communication, March 2010)

Several of my early interactions with Samarin were like this, and his bluntness was fairly intimidating to a PhD student in love with ideophones. Our exchanges led me to seriously rethink my rhetorical approach, placing more emphasis on theoretical foundations and methodological choices, and being as gentle and constructive as possible — in line with his advice to be “as hard on yourself as you are (or might be) on others”. This is why the acknowledgements of my PhD thesis note that “Samarin in particular has been highly sceptical at one point, and helpfully so”.

In late 2011, I sent him a hard copy of my thesis, a 400 page tome that he received in good spirits. This marked a change in our interactions, as he started to treat me more like a peer than a clueless grad student. In a message acknowledging receipt of the thesis, he fondly recalled how he used to be called “Mr Ideophone” at Leiden University, where he spent part of his sabbatical in 1966-1967:

Considering myself to be one of the pioneers in the study of ideophones (Jan Voorhoeve used to call me Mr Ideophone!), I am so pleased that they finally are getting the attention they deserve. They are the dramatic aspect of everyday speech, and speech should not be reduced to formulas and diagrams. (Samarin, personal communication, October 2011)

In later years, I would send drafts and papers to him knowing that they would get a tough but fair reading; and I would get the occasional email from him asking to look up an academic article not available in his library. His criticism remained as blunt and direct as ever, which made his rare notes of appreciation all the more precious.1

Samarin on ideophones

In one of our exchanges I asked Bill how he got involved in the study of ideophones. He responded, “since you asked me how I got on to studying  ideophones I decided to write a bit of autobiography for my archives.” I don’t know whether this bit of autobiography actually appears in his archives, so I share it here for posterity:

My serious study of ideophones arose from the fact that grammarians were not taking them seriously in African languages. They were even trivialized. This puzzled me because I found that they were used frequently in everyday discourse in all kinds of circumstances in the Gbaya (Gbeya) language which I began to analyze and learn in February 1954. Some of them I heard rather often, others rarely, but I could not ignore them if I wanted to speak the language in the same way Gbayas in northwestern Ubangi-Shari spoke it. I was using the language all day long, almost to the exclusion of Sango, in the Bossangoa district, most of whose population spoke mutually intelligible varieties of Gbaya. … Besides, they were curious words (like kpiti kpiti, with high tones) and hard to define.

But it was after I had written my grammar of the language in 1961 that I undertook to study them as a worthy topic in African linguistics. Naturally, the first thing was to read what had been said about them. This meant perusing grammars. Fortunately, I was a visiting professor at the University of Leiden in 1966-1967. There were plenty of grammars there, also at School of African Studies in London and at the Hartford Seminary Foundation, where I was teaching. (Henry Alan Gleason Jr had been librarian there, making an effort to acquire literature for graduate study in linguistics.)

Following our departure from the Central African Republic in 1960 I made several trips back for further work on Sango. These gave me the opportunity to sneak in some systematic study of Gbaya ideophones, like the one where I tape-recorded descriptions of someone making a clay pot in Sango and in Gbaya. I had more opportunity for study in Leiden, where my assistant was a Gbaya young married man. And in December 1972 my wife and I spent two weeks in the village of Bowai once again working on ideophones.

By this time my focus was on trying to demonstrate that Gbaya ideophones were authentic words that could (and should) be entered in a dictionary, not ephemeral and spontaneous idiolectal creations. And by this time one was able to analyze data with a computer, at that time with punched cards. For a while, therefore, I was working on the origin and development of Sango with my right hand and ideophones with my left one. A fire destroyed my computer data at the university, but there are many tape recordings in my archives at the University of Toronto. (Samarin, personal communication, January 2016)

The papers Samarin published in this period include important methodological contributions (Samarin 1967, 1970a, 1971a), a wide-ranging piece on expressive language (Samarin 1970b), and a comprehensive literature review of work on ideophones in Bantu (Samarin 1971b). I have built on Samarin’s work in several of my papers, but I don’t think a comprehensive appraisal of his methodological and theoretical to the study of ideophones is available. That is beyond the scope of this blog, however.

Rewards beyond words

Samarin and I were last in touch in 2018, when I wrote to him with a note of appreciation about his 1998 autobiographical essay (Samarin 1998). That essay contains the following gem which seemed to me entirely typical of Samarin’s poetic sensibilities and attention to detail:

If you have seen the full moon rising out of the deep sands that surround
Timbuctoo dwarfing the sky as well as earth in its clarity and brilliance while you are drinking mint tea with some Tamachek-speaking ‘Blue People,’ you will have experienced some rewards beyond words and sharing. If you are sensitive to such beauty, of course. It is given to us who study language to have rewarding experiences, sometimes of simple pleasure, sometimes of ‘spiritual’ if not of almost transcendental significance.

I have just teased a young girl going the opposite way by remarking that whereas she had a parasol to protect herself from the sun, what could I do without one. About fifteen feet away from me she stops and says, ‘Kà ga mu ma’, and I am overwhelmed with information and sensations: I hear the first word in a construction where I wouldn’t have expected it; I notice that she does not use the determinant ‘ni’ with the meaning ‘it;’ I enjoy the precise stepping up of pitch from low to mid to high and the abrupt falling to low again as she tells me, with no twinkle of coquetry on her lips, but with the spontaneous generosity of a well-reared African child: ‘So come take it.’ This is an imperishable and complex vignette. It illustrates the reward of being able to talk Sango and use it appropriately with another human being. (Samarin 1998:27)

I wrote to Bill to say I was touched by this vignette — it is such an eloquent representation of that quintessential fieldworkers’ feeling of belonging. It captures something very deep and real about the privilege of taking part in other linguistic and social worlds. It also brings out the always-on analytical mindset of the fieldworker, for whom being in the moment is always puncuated by meta-observations. Field work, for me, is very much about that liminal state between ‘other’ and ‘insider’, never fully one or the other, yet enough of both to feel oddly detached-yet-grounded.

In writing back, Bill shared another biographical fact that few people may know: his involvement as a linguistics expert in an International Criminal Court case about atrocities in Bangui (his expert testimony concerned the possibility of recognizing the Congolese origin of the perpetrators on the basis of their accents). He ended his message, characteristically, with a note of appreciation about field work that will resonate strongly with many linguists and anthropologists.

It was kind of you to comment on my professional memoir. I especially was pleased by your having perceived the emotion I had in recalling that experience with the little girl, which is repeated every time I recall it. She responded to my lighthearted remark with maturity, self-confidence, kindness, and trust, a lot more than many adults would have done. I should have interrupted my walk back home to go with her in the opposite direction to continue with a conversation.

You put your finger on the feeling of “belonging.” That’s what brought tears when I was testifying before the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2011. (A Congolese general was being tried for what his soldiers did in Bangui.) The love I have for Central Africans welled up in me. … Field work gives us the opportunity to be enriched and blessed in many ways. (Samarin, personal communication, April 2018)

Besides working on ideophones, Samarin made important contributions to the fields of contact linguistics, field linguistics, and the study of glossolalia. I hope someone more qualified than me will write a comprehensive academic obituary. Here, I have just highlighted some of his pioneering contributions to the study of ideophones, which his work helped make not merely respectable but also exciting and relevant to the broader language sciences.

Samarin prided himself in being nicknamed Mr. Ideophone by Jan Voorhoeve in the 1960s. His lasting intellectual legacy may be that he helped prepare the field for contributions by a much wider range of scholars, so that today there is no longer a single “Mr” or “Ms” or “Mx” Ideophone, but a broad network of diverse researchers working together. Farewell, Mr. Ideophone!

References cited

A good amount of Samarin’s work is available in the University of Toronto’s T-SPACE repository. In 2018, Samarin sent me a overview of his papers, presentations, and research projects which I will publish in a separate post as it provides a good overview of his work from his own point of view. Here are the papers cited above:

  • Samarin, W. J. (1965). Perspective on African ideophones. African Studies, 24(2), 117–121.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1967). Determining the meaning of ideophones. Journal of West African Languages, 4(2), 35–41.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1970a). Field procedures in ideophone research. Journal of African Languages, 9(1), 27–30.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1970b). Inventory and choice in expressive language. Word, 26, 153–169.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1971a). Measuring variation in the use of Gbeya ideophones. Annales de L’Université d’Abidjan, Ser. H, 2, 483–488.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1971b). Survey of Bantu ideophones. African Language Studies, 12, 130–168.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1998). C’est passionnant d’être passionné. In E. F. K. Koerner (Ed.), First person singular III: Autobiographies by North American scholars in the language sciences (pp. 187–226). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  1. About my Glossa review, he wrote: “It was thoughtful of you to inform me of the publication in ‘Glossa’ of your “chronological narrative” about ideophones. But you are being too modest: the essay is much more than that; it’s a ‘white paper’ or template for the study of this phenomenon that you so clearly describe from different points of view. It’s as if you were holding a handful of ore in you palm that contained a lot of gold. (…) Carry on with your good work. Bill.” []

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)

When publication lag turns predictions into postdictions

In late 2011, I defended my PhD thesis and submitted two papers on ideophones. One to Language and Linguistics Compass, where it was reviewed, revised and accepted in May 2012. It appeared in late 2012 and against all odds (for a topic so obscure) went on to become the #1 most cited article in that journal of the last 5 years. Around the same time, I submitted another paper to a special issue of STUF – Language typology and universals, where like the first, it was reviewed, revised and accepted in May 2012. That paper finally appeared in… wait for it… August 2017 (!). A preprint has been available for a while, but in linguistics, people generally avoid citing those so it hasn’t really had much of a chance. Anyway, here it finally is!

Old! New! Dingemanse, Mark. 2017. “Expressiveness and system integration. On the typology of ideophones, wish special reference to Siwu .” STUF – Language Typology and Universals 70 (2): 363–84. doi:10.1515/stuf-2017-0018 (PDF).

Postdiction? Prereplication?

This has led to the interesting situation that some predictions made in this paper have become postdictions:

The generality of these proposals predicts that the morphosyntax of ideophones in other languages should pattern in similar ways, at least with respect to grammatical integration and expressiveness. (p. 378)

Indeed, a replication of the main result appeared before the paper itself (Dingemanse & Akita 2016), making it what, a precognitive replication? Pre-replication? Anyway, here’s the call for replication that was the original impetus for my collaboration with Kimi Akita:

We know now that most languages have multiple constructions in which ideophones can be used, and these constructions will in all likelihood differ from each other along the lines sketched here (as well as in other ways). Cataloguing such differences on the basis of evidence from naturally occurring data will contribute to the description of the morphosyntax of ideophone systems in individual languages and will make it possible to refine and replicate the findings here crosslinguistically. (p. 379)

I’m glad to see this paper finally out. Fortunately, it contains some stuff that wasn’t preempted by later papers that appeared earlier. For instance, there are observations on frequency, borrowing, and ideophonisation and deideophonisation that would be worth following up in larger corpora and in other languages. Have a read!

Two classic papers on ideophones and iconicity by Westermann (PDF)

Two duck-related ideophones exist in varieties of Ewe, spoken in Eastern Ghana: a simple kpakpa imitating the sound; and a form dabodabo that seems more mysterious at first sight. In an early paper on ideophones (available below), linguist Diedrich Westermann describes a discussion about these words with his Ewe consultant:

Ewe has two dialectally separated words for duck, kpakpa after its quacking and ɖaboɖabo. When I asked a local whose dialect does not have the latter why it is that other people would say ɖaboɖabo, his answer was, “Well, because…”, and he used his upper body to imitate the waddle of a duck. (Westermann 1937:159)

This nicely brings home the depictive nature of ideophones: when people use ideophones, they use all verbal and visual means available to enable others to imagine what it is like to perceive the scene depicted.1

For a forthcoming paper on the research history of ideophones I’ve been re-reading two of Westermann’s papers on West-African ideophones and iconicity (1927, 1937). The papers are full of interesting observations and generalisations. As I write:

In two pioneering studies Westermann (1927; 1937) compared ideophones across a handful of West-African languages and described how acoustic and articulatory factors like reduplication, tone, vowel quantity, vowel quality and muscle tension appeared to be systematically related to some aspects of the meanings of ideophones (Table 2).  This made Westermann one of the first to outline a range of recurrent iconic associations in lexical items across languages.

Westermann’s work on sound-symbolism in ideophones was contemporary with experimental work on sound-symbolism by Köhler (1929) and Sapir (1929). In an allohistory yet to be written, this experimental work would have benefited from Westermann’s observations. Studies of pseudowords like bouba and kiki would have avoided reductive attempts to locate simple meanings in single sounds, and cognitive scientists would have had early access to a wide range of iconic associations attested in natural languages. In reality, ideophone studies and experimental work on sound symbolism continued in splendid isolation for at least another half century, like ships passing in the night.

Westermann’s work on ideophones and iconicity is still not widely known or cited. Two reasons contribute to it: (1) most of his writings are in German; (2) they appeared in pretty obscure places. If you don’t read German you’re out of luck, but at least the other problem can be solved. I’ve scanned the papers and make them available here: Westermann 1927; Westermann 1937. Enjoy!

  • Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1927. “Laut, Ton Und Sinn in Westafrikanischen Sudansprachen.” In Festschrift Meinhof, 315–28. Hamburg: L. Friederichsen. (PDF)
  • Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1937. “Laut Und Sinn in Einigen westafrikanischen Sprachen.” Archiv Für Vergleichende Phonetik 1: 154–72, 193–211. (PDF)
  1. It also shows that ideophones are hard to explain in words: when explaining ideophones, native speakers tend to resort to gestures, other ideophones, and in general multimodal communication, as described in a paper on folk-definitions of ideophones (PDF). []

African ideophones and their contribution to linguistics — workshop at WOCAL8 in Kyoto, Aug 2015


Dr. Mark Dingemanse (Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen)
Prof. Sharon Rose (University of California, San Diego)

African ideophones and their contribution to linguistics

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WOCAL8, August 21-24 2015, Kyoto

Africa’s linguistic diversity has impacted the study of language in many ways. The articulatory phonetics of the Khoi and San languages prompted methodological innovations in phonetics, the tonal systems of West-African languages spurred the development of autosegmental phonology, and the ornate morphology of Bantu prompted syntacticians to reconsider the balance between transformational rules and lexical elaboration. In this workshop we consider how the study of ideophones can contribute to theory and methods in linguistics.

Ideophones (also known as mimetics or expressives) are marked words that depict sensory imagery. A major word class in many African languages, they are somewhat of an inconvenient truth for the dogma that spoken languages rarely feature iconicity in the lexicon. Their phonology is marked in a way that bears a clear relation to the broader phonological system of the language, providing for a unique window into phonological structure. Their prosody and morphosyntax set them apart as special words, yet they are more deeply integrated in linguistic subsystems than is often assumed, raising interesting questions about what is in and outside grammar. Their meanings are rich and imagistic, providing unparalleled ways to talk about sensory perceptions. All of these properties represent areas where ideophones can shed light on the design features of language, the iconic affordances of speech, and the nature of human communicative competence.

This workshop gathers international experts to present recent research on ideophones and to put recent developments into theoretical context. Submissions are expected to focus on the connection between ideophone research and foundational issues in linguistics, from phonology to prosody and from syntax to meaning. We encourage papers that show how new approaches can shed light on old questions, and how the systematic study of ideophones can contribute new insights to our understanding of the structure of language and languages. One and a half centuries after the earliest descriptions of ideophones in African languages, the 8th World Congress of African Linguistics in Kyoto offers a unique chance to take stock of what we have learned so far from ideophones, and to explore ways to integrate this knowledge into the broader language sciences.

Important dates

Deadline for abstract submission: October 31, 2014

Notification of acceptance: December 1, 21014

Conference: August 21-24, Kyoto

Abstracts should follow the general guidelines established for the submission of abstracts for WOCAL 8, which can be found here: is.gd/wocal8abstracts

Abercrombie on ‘paralanguage’


David_T._AbercrombieThere is an urgent need for the comparative study, over as much of the world as possible, of the full range of paralinguistic phenomena — the kind of thing for which the linguistic field-worker is best fitted. Fact-finding, not theorising, is what is wanted at this present juncture.

Abercrombie, David. 1968. “Paralanguage.” International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders 3 (1): 55–59. doi:10.3109/13682826809011441.

That was almost half a century ago. Yet apart from some striking exceptions like Adam Kendon and David Wilkins, it is only since the last decade that fieldworkers have begun to collect multi-modal data in earnest.