On the use of structural criteria in defining ideophones

Note to readers: Portions of this post have been revised and published in the following paper:

Dingemanse, Mark. 2019. “Ideophone” as a comparative concept. In Akita, Kimi & Pardeshi, Prashant (eds.), Ideophones, Mimetics, Expressives, 13–33. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. (doi:10.1075/ill.16.02din) (PDF)

Recently I’ve been having a conversation with Roger Blench about whether structural markedness should play a role in the definition of a useful cross-linguistic conception of ideophones. Over the last few years, Roger has been producing a steady stream of exciting new data on ideophones, often straight from the field (e.g. handouts and drafts on Nyinkyob ideophones, Ngiemboon ideophones, Kolokuma Ịjọ ideophones, and Bafut ideophones). His most recent position is staked out in a paper on Mwaghavul expressives on his website. Here is a key quote:

“Ideophones not only fall into different word classes, but also into a range of conceptual classes. They may demonstrate a characteristic phonology, morphology or canonical form, but this is absent in some languages, even where the ideas they express are conserved. To characterise this richness, it is helpful to switch to a larger class of ‘expressives’ (a characteristic Asian terminology) to encompass these ideas; ideophones would just be a subset. [emphasis MD]

In this reply (which is an edited version of a document shared with Roger some weeks ago) I raise two problems with this proposal. The first problem is one of definitional criteria: how far can we dilute before we lose substance? The second is one of descriptive choices: does the Mwaghavul case really warrant changing our conception of ideophones, or are there other ways to handle it? Continue reading

The clay tablet tradition of African comparative linguistics

Found this gem in a review of Paul de Wolf’s (1971) The Noun Class System of Proto-Benue-Congo:

This work falls within the ‘clay tablet’ tradition of African comparative linguistics, and, like other things in the same tradition (Meinhof, Greenberg), it has the properties of being inscrutable and yet at the same time, in broad outline, convincing. The two together make an infuriating whole. (Kelly 1973:716)

Continue reading

The power of vivid suggestion

On the whole, however, it is safer to see ideophones and similar sounds as proof of their users’ sensitive feeling for language, a deep sensitive attachment to sounds and their power of vivid suggestion or representation. In many cases, a speaker or oral artist can avoid an ideophone by simply duplicating a word of action: for jegidezie tiii, for instance, the narrator could have said jegide jegide, which would translate into something like ‘walked on and on.’ But tiii has a special appeal both as a sound and as a more dramatic way of capturing the idea of extent.

Isidore Okpewho, African Oral Literature, 1992 p. 96. (The example is from Ijo.)

Okpewho’s remarks highlight the importance of the material properties of the ideophonic word. It is not a simple case of having words for things that some other languages may not have lexicalized words for; it is the nature of the ideophonic word —the fact that meaning is suggested by the material properties of the sign— that makes it such a significant linguistic device. What Okpewho calls ‘vivid suggestion’ I have tried to capture with the phrase ‘vivid depiction’ in my working definition of ideophones.


  1. Okpewho, Isidore. 1992. African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

The body in Yoruba

When I finished my MA thesis back in 2006 I made it available online as a gesture to the Yoruba community. It used to be available from my site until I changed servers. Then some good soul uploaded it at Scribd, where it continued to draw visits from various Yoruba forums; however, this happened without my permission and the file was out of my control. I asked the uploader to withdraw it so that I could distribute a slightly updated version here. Such requests never work of course, but still I want to try.

Please do not redistribute the PDF file below; instead point people to this page or give them the link https://ideophone.org/download/the-body-in-yoruba.pdf. That way I can update the file if need be, and everyone can be sure they get the most recent version.

The Body in Yoruba (2.45 MB)
Dingemanse, Mark. 2006. The Body in Yoruba: a linguistic study. MA Thesis, Leiden University.

Early sources on African ideophones, part IV: S.W. Koelle on Kanuri, 1854

It is high time for a continuation of our series honouring the ancestors of ideophone studies. Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle is one of the founding fathers of African linguistics, and 1854 was one of his more productive years. In the same year, besides his Kanuri grammar (from which the excerpt below is taken), he issued what may be called a corpus of Kanuri folklore, a grammar of Vai, and the first large-scale comparison of some 200 African languages, the famed Polyglotta Africana. Here is what he has to write about ideophones in Kanuri:

§289. The Kanuri language has a peculiar kind of adverbs, which we may call specific or confined adverbs, each being confined in its use to one or a few particular adjectives or their denominative verbs, as illustrated in the following examples. These singular adverbs which seem to be common in African languages, as they exist also in the Aku and Vei, have something in their nature which may be compared to the onomatopoetica, or something in which the immediate, instinctive sense of language particularly manifests itself. They are eminently expressions of feelings (German, Gefühlsworte), or manifestations of vague impressions rather than of clearly defined ideas. (p. 283)

As might be expected from someone who handled so many different languages, Koelle rightly hypothesized that ideophones would be a feature shared by many African languages. Note that Aku is an old term for Yoruba, the language for which Vidal had claimed independently that “This singular feature of the Yoruba language is unique, and therefore I shall not waste time in comparing it with the adverbial systems, whatever they may be, of other African languages.”

As it happens, this singular feature of Yoruba would turn out to be not so unique among African languages. With Kanuri joining Yoruba (Vidal 1852) and Ewe (Schlegel 1857), we now have three independent claims from the 1850’s on the significance of ideophones in three major African languages. Although I do not exclude the possibility of finding yet earlier sources, things are starting to look like we may justifiably call this period the decade of the discovery of ideophones in Africa.


  1. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. Outlines of a grammar of the Vei language, together with a Vei-English vocabulary. And an account of the discovery and nature of the Vei mode of syllabic writing. London: Church Missionary House.
  2. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. Grammar of the Bórnu or Kānurī language. London: Church Missionary House.
  3. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. African native literature, or Proverbs, tales, fables, & historical fragments in the Kanuri or Bornu language. London: Church Missionary House.
  4. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854b. Polyglotta Africana London: Church Missionary House.
  5. Schlegel, Joh. Bernhard. 1857. Schlüssel der Ewesprache, dargeboten in den Grammatischen Grundzügen des Anlodialekts. Stuttgart.
  6. Vidal, Owen Emeric. 1852. Introductory Remarks. In A Vocabulary of the Yoruba language, ed. Samuel Ajayi Crowther. London: Seeleys.

Ideophones around the web

With another busy summer gone, here is a post highlighting some of the stuff that’s floated by in the ideophonic blogosphere. I haven’t seen anything like last year’s ideophonic earrings, but we do have more news on Sotho siks!, the introduction of ideophones in the Nyungwe Bible, and a postcard from Taiwan on ideophones in children’s stories. Continue reading

‘If you do not speak Siwu to me in my home, I will not pay your school fees!’

One day in Accra, my daughter came home from school and talked to me in English. I said, “I no be hear English.1 In my home, we speak Siwu.” My daughter said, “But the teacher has said that we should not speak Vernacular at home!”

Vernacular! Vernacular! By that he means any local language other than English. So I said to her: “Siwu is my language. In my home we speak Siwu! At school you can speak English!” She started shivering and crying, because the teacher had threatened children who spoke Vernacular. So he had put her in fear. But I said to her: “If you do not speak Siwu to me in my home, I will not pay your school fees!” Now that she is grown up, she boasts that she can speak Siwu fluently even though she grew up in Accra. Many of her cousins don’t hear2 Siwu at all.

This quote is from T.T., a very proud speaker of Siwu. Not all Mawu people raising children outside of Kawu are quite so insistent on maintaining Siwu, but his words do highlight the prevailing attitude among Mawu speakers, namely that it is good to speak Siwu besides many other languages. Teachers, meanwhile, are steadfastly convinced that speaking ‘Vernacular’ is about the worst thing a student can do, despite evidence that being allowed to learn in (and speak) your own language(s) improves education rather than hampering it.

In the same conversation, which took place some months ago in his home in Akpafu-Tɔdzi, T.T. continued:

I cannot pray in English. I cannot pray in Ewe. I talk to my God in my own language. When someone outside Kawu asks me to pray, I will pray in my own language. They may not understand, but they will hear ‘Amen’. They will know alright that I have prayed, and they will say ‘Amen’ to it.


  1. Note the fine imitation of Ghanaian Pidgin English here, and the attendant suggestion of the superior expressive power of Siwu. For the speaker, this is one of several reasons to stick to Siwu (see also the prayer quote further on). []
  2. In Ghanaian English, the word ‘hear’ has taken on broader meanings under influence of local language structures. In many Ghanain (and indeed West-African) languages, the verb ‘hear’ extends to ‘understanding’, especially a language. []

Two talks on ideophones at SOAS

If you’re in London and able to come to SOAS at short notice, there will be two talks on ideophones tomorrow afternoon: one by my colleague Sylvia Tufvesson and one by myself. The talks will be on Wednesday, 3 June, 3-5pm, in room 4418 in SOAS. Here are the titles and abstracts:

Phonosemantics and perceptual structures: The case of Semai ideophones

by Sylvia Tufvesson, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Ideophonic vocabulary often displays some degree of sound symbolism; i.e. perceived likeness between form and meaning such that words with similar meanings resemble each other phonetically. Languages differ in their means of attaining such form-meaning mapping and these correlations can develop freely in spontaneous speech. This talk examines one such pattern, that of stem alternation. The language of focus is Semai (Austroasiatic, Mon-Khmer), spoken by an Aslian community on Peninsular Malaysia. Semai ideophones convey speakers´ perceptual experiences in semantically detailed ways, often withmultiple aspects of an experience encoded in one word. Data show that through different types of stem alternation, speakers express fine-grained semantic differences between different sensory events. This structural tool is used to switch between sensory modalities or convey differences in the internal structure of a specific sensory event. In addition, some types of alternations are used more productively than others in spontaneous speech, suggesting a continuum of conventionality in the linguistic encoding of perception.

How to do things with ideophones. Observations on the use of vivid sensory language in Siwu

by Mark Dingemanse, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Many African, Asian and American languages have a class of words called ideophones: marked words that vividly evoke sensations and perceptions. Hitherto, research on ideophony has focused almost exclusively on the form of ideophones to the neglect of their function. This talk will look at ideophones in actual usage in Siwu, a Kwa language of eastern Ghana. It will be shown that ideophones occur across a wide variety of speech genres, including conversations, arguments, insults, narratives, greeting routines, and special genres like riddles, recreational dances, and funeral dirges. A closer look at data from about 60 minutes of spontaneous conversations will elucidate the different uses to which ideophones are put by both speakers and recipients in tellings and turn-by-turn talk. Some specific genres, including funeral dirges and recreational dances, will be compared to show how the use of ideophones may be constrained by genre.

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 []