‘Do ideophones really stand out that much?’ (with sound clips)

Bulbul posted an interesting anecdote in a comment on one of my earlier posts:

On my way home today, I took the scenic route, through the old town, where the Weinachtsmarkt is in full swing with Christmas lights glowing, Glühwein flowing and all that jazz. As I was trying to get through the crowds, I noticed a black gentleman standing next to one of the stalls obviously admiring something and talking on the phone in a language I could not immediately identify.

And just as I passed him, he said “You know” and then something I would transcribe as “ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ” followed by a laugh. “I bet this ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ is an ideophone” I said to myself and immediately started wondering whether the person on the other end truly understood what was being conveyed – in other words, whether that “ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ” was a word with a shared meaning. Now I know better – assuming I was right in identifying the word as an ideophone, of course.

I still don’t know what language that was (I’m guessing Yoruba based on a few words I might have heard), so do ideophones really stand out that much that even a non-speaker can identify them as such?

Decide for yourself

So that’s today’s question: do ideophones really stand out that much? This is something you can only decide for yourself. Here are three examples from Siwu. They come from my corpus of everyday discourse and represent the three most common ideophone constructions. These three constructions account for 88% of 230 ideophone tokens in the corpus; the examples thus can be said to be typical of ideophone usage in day to day conversations in Siwu.

I will not transcribe them at this point; I just want you to listen.

Example 1


Example 2


Example 3


Well do they?

Now you’re in the position to answer bulbul’s question: do ideophones really stand out that much that even a non-speaker can identify them? The answer —mine at least— is yes. If you are a hearing person, I’m willing to bet you had no trouble at all identifying the ideophones in the above three sound samples.

Before I give you the transcriptions, it is worthwile to ponder for a moment why ideophones stand out like this. I’ve hinted at this on other occasions, for example yesterday’s ditty on vivid suggestion, a post on Feedburner’s Zap! Pow! Kraaakkkk!, and the last ideophone proeverij; and also in a recent paper, where I wrote:

As marked words, ideophones set themselves apart from the surrounding linguistic material; as a likely locus of performative foregrounding, they stimulate emotional engagement; as depictions, they supply vivid imagery and recreate sensory events in sound, inviting the listener onto the scene as it were.

So ideophones stand out for a reason: to attract attention to themselves as words qua words, to mark themselves as depictions in a stream of descriptive material. Let’s suppose the gentleman overheard by Bulbul was indeed using an ideophone. Standing at the Weinachtsmarkt, he was attempting to share a vivid image of something he had in mind with the person on the other end; to do so, he needed to signal that what followed ‘You know’ was different somehow from bland referential prose; and this he did (unwittingly for sure) by performatively foregrounding ‘ŋɛrɛrɛrɛ‘.

Of course it’s a bit flaky to draw conclusions on the basis of a couple of syllables overheard on a Weinachtsmarkt. Was it Nigerian Pidgin, which we know has lots of ideophones (Faraclas 1996)? Was he codeswitching? Was he perhaps simply stuttering? There’s no way of knowing. That’s why I gave the Siwu examples, which come from an extensive corpus of everyday social interaction. Want to know what those mean? Click ‘Show’ below to check it out.

Context: during a joint activity, one man comments on the way his collaborator is working.
Alɛ Kàntɔ kùgɔ ɔ̀-sɛ ɔ̀-bra ũ a-ra lo. Tsintsin.tsintsintsin!
like NAME how 3SG-HAB 3SG-do his things UFP. IDPH.neatly.INT3
‘Just like Kanton, the way he does his stuff. Neat!
Context: a woman relates a story about the unexpected death of her cousin to two other workers.
Bo kagbàmìkù gaǹgbe ne, ka-ɔ̃-lo ma kanana.nanananana
our area Cka-DEM TOP, ING-he-silence them IDPH.silent.INT5
‘As for our neighbourhood there, it silenced them completely.’
Context: the gunpowder specialist explains what good gunpowder ought to look like.
krɔ̃ nɛ, kù-wà gɔ-ǹgbe kù-nyɔ dɔbɔrɔɔ.ɔɔɔ
now TOP, Cku-stuff Aku-DEM Cku-look IDPH.soft.INTx
‘Now this stuff here, it looks soft and fine-grained.’


  1. Dingemanse, Mark. 2009. Ideophones in unexpected places. In Proceedings of Conference on Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory 2, ed. Peter K. Austin, Oliver Bond, Monik Charette, David Nathan, and Peter Sells, 83-97. London: SOAS, November 14.
  2. Faraclas, Nicholas. 1996. Nigerian Pidgin. New York: Routledge.

Slides for ‘Ideophones in unexpected places’

Slides for my recent paper ‘Ideophones in unexpected places’, presented at LDLT2 in London, November 13-14. Though the inquisitive rooster in the title slide may not be looking for them, there are ideophones for just about any salient feature depicted in this scene. But what are people using them for? And what specialized uses may arise out of the core interactional functions of ideophones? Those are the questions addressed in this paper.

Supplementary material can be found on another page. A slightly updated version of the full paper is available here (PDF). Here is how to cite it:

  1. Dingemanse, Mark. 2009. ‘Ideophones in unexpected places’. In Proceedings of Conference on Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory 2, ed. Peter K. Austin, Oliver Bond, Monik Charette, David Nathan, and Peter Sells, 83-94. London: SOAS.

Slides for ‘The interaction of syntax and expressivity in Siwu ideophones’

Slides for a talk titled The interaction of syntax and expressivity in Siwu ideophones, presented in Berkeley at the 2009 International Conference on RRG, August 9, 2009. The handout can be downloaded here. The slides are also available as a PDF file. You can cite this presentation as follows:

  1. Dingemanse, Mark. 2009. “The interaction of syntax and expressivity in Siwu ideophones”. Paper presented at the 2009 International Conference on RRG, August 9, Berkeley.

Bingo! Refinding the oldest specimen of Siwu

The oldest written fragments of Siwu found so far come from Rudolph Plehn (1898).1 Besides some words and phrases (edited and published in 1899 by his friend Seidel), Plehn took down two lines of songs. To one of them I devoted a post some time ago. Now I’ve found a full transcription of the other, buried in a somewhat obscure thesis titled The music of Tokpaikor shrine in Akpafu: a case study of the role of Tokpaikor music in Akpafu traditional worship. How that thesis came to be in my possession is a story of its own, involving an utterly unhelpful secretary at the University of Ghana’s Music Dept, a forged letter, and a surprise parcel from Princeton professor Kofi Agawu in my pigeon hole back home — but let me not waste any more time on that.


(Gesänge der Apafu-leute, Plehn 1898:119)

So what do we have? First Plehn’s transcription. Rendered as mekoko lofomadisu, it’s a bad case of garbled transmission at multiple levels. Word boundaries and the contrast between open and close vowels didn’t make it; even the verb is lost in translation, leaving us with a simple apposition of ‘Die Henne, die Küchlein’ (‘the hen, the chicks’). Plehn does have quite an interesting interpretation of the song: Continue reading

  1. Actually, I suspect that we may find a few numerals in an article from the 1880s, based on this allusion from Christaller 1888: “Im Norden des westlichen, jetzt englischen Ewhe-Gebiets kommen noch einige unbedeutende, kaum bekannte Sprachen vor, wie Boe, Akabu, Adele, Tribu, deren Zahlwörter von 1-10 zu finden sind in den Mitteilungen der Geografischen Gesellschaft zu Jena Bd. IV, S. 40, am Schlusse der Beschreibung einer Reise durch jene Gegenden.” I believe his reference is to an 1884 article. []

‘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. []

A cultural revival?

Jedesmal, wenn ein Solo beendet hat, fällt der ganze Chor ein und singt einen Refrain, der aber nur aus den verschiedenen Vokalen besteht, die auf alle möglichen und unmöglichen Arten ausgesprochen werden, also eigentlich immer dasselbe. Interessant wäre es, einen solchen Gesang aufzunehmen. (Kruse, Krankheit und Tod in Akpafu, 1911, p. 192)

Everytime when a solo ends, the choir joins in and sings a refrain that just consists of a number of different voices which are uttered in all possible and impossible ways; so in a way it is always the same [words]. It would be interesting to record such a song.

The closing paragraphs of my previous post were cited in several places (e.g. Culture Making, Far Outliers) as evidence of a cultural revival. Although I feel it is really too soon to say whether this is the case, I’m glad to report that the dirges that we recorded in Akpafu-Todzi are in wide circulation now and are even being played during funerals, to great acclaim. Even people who I don’t know very well have told me how glad they are that these dirges are available now. I in turn should thank Timothy “T.T.” Akuamoah from Todzi for bringing up the idea of recording the dirges in March 2008. Were it not for his organizing talents, we would never have had so many wonderful singers around. There are plans for a follow-up project involving more recordings in the weeks around Easter.

I don’t think Friedrich Kruse, the German missionary whose description of a Siwu funeral dirge is quoted above, ever actually expected these dirges to be recorded. The Germans were quite adamant about their Ewe-only policy in schools and churches; in fact there is no evidence that any of the missionaries (who manned the Akpafu missionary station for a good thirty years altogether) ever learned to speak Siwu — to the contrary, Schosser (1907) records several cases of women who could not yet be baptised because of their limited understanding of Ewe, and the mission chronicles show a glaring ignorance of Mawu culture in general (Bürgi 1921). It speaks for the vigour of Mawu culture that Siwu is alive and well nowadays, and that the Mawu are taking an active interest in their own cultural heritage.


Allow me to present another wonderful example of the genre. Last summer I wrote about the ideophone kanana. Here is a funeral dirge in which that ideophone, evoking a tranquil silence, plays a central role. It would normally be sung during the wakekeeping, in the middle of the night.

The song, with call and response revolving around the realization that death strikes everyone —barren women just as well as nursing mothers—, begins and ends in silence. Be silent and stay in your houses. What more can one do in the face of a sad loss? Text, structure, and melody work together to create a compelling and most of all intensely sad dirge.

Siwu English gloss
mìlo kanana si mìsɛ i mi ayo
milo kananaaa
[repeat] ɔlɛmã ìwo, ɔtalɛpo ìwo, mìloo
ɔlɛmã sìse, ɔtalɛpo sìse,
mìlo kanana si mìsɛ i mi ayo
be still kanana and stay in your houses
be still kananaa
[repeat] see the barren woman’s grave, the nursing mother’s grave, and be still
see the barren woman’s grave-mound, the nursing mother’s grave-mound;
be still kanana and stay in your houses


The funeral dirges of the Mawu are full of parallelisms. The above dirge features parallelisms within and across lines. Within lines, the powerful contrast between ɔlɛmã ‘barren woman’ and ɔtalɛpo ‘nursing mother’ is used to silence all — one’s status in life is of no relevance whatsoever to death. Across lines, grave (ìwo, literally ‘pit’) and grave-mound (sìse, literally ‘clay heap’) are parallels that help establish a certain poetic balance. Some examples of semantically rhyming words that are commonly used in parallelisms are:

ɔnyiì/ɔtalɛpò/ɔ̀rɔ̃gó bielè
man/young man
mother/nursing woman/true woman
sit/be on/be in
owner of the house/important person
sweet/very sweet

The previous posting noted how the grammatical affordances of Siwu were used to achieve a tight and pithy expression. Here, we see in more detail the work being done by the selection and contrast of semantic units. First of all, ideophones —words that are perfectly suited to vividly express feelings and emotions— are used in the dirges to great effect. Secondly, we see that parallel units related by likeness or contrast are an essential device to enrich meaning and achieve poetic balance in this genre of verbal art. (See Fox 1974, Baronti 2001, for parallels from other languages.)


  1. Agawu, Kofi. 1990. Variation procedures in Northern Ewe song. Ethnomusicology 34, no. 2: 221-243.
  2. Baronti, David Scott. 2001. Sound symbolism use in affect verbs in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan. Dissertation, University of California, Davis.
  3. Bürgi, Ernst. 1921. Geschichte von Station Akpafu, 1897-1917. Lome. Signatur 7,1025 – 5/2; Film FB 3697. Staatsarchiv Bremen.
  4. Fox, James J. 1991. Our ancestors spoke in pairs. In Explorations in the ethnography of speaking, ed. Richard Bauman and Joel Sherzer, 65-85. 2nd ed. Studies in the social and cultural foundations of language 8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Kruse, F. W. 1911. Krankheit und Tod in Akpafu. Der Anscharbote, October 29.
  6. Schosser, Herman. 1907. Akpafu: ein Stück Kultur- und Missionsarbeit in Deutsch Togo. Bremer Missions-Schriften 21. Bremen: Verlag der Norddeutschen Missions-Gesellschaft.

People are animals (sings the Isakpolo bird)

Morning clouds in Kawu

It is no news that people are animals, especially not this Darwin Year. But normally that something we say of ourselves. Wouldn’t it be rather more interesting if another member of the animal kingdom would weigh in on the matter?

It happens in Kawu, where I am right now for fieldwork (hence the silence on this blog). The call of the ìsakpòlò (Common Bulbul, Pycnonotus barbatus),1 singing in the early morning, perfectly resembles the tonal contour of the following Siwu phrase:

màturi bra màbɔi
people make animals
‘People are just animals’
Recording of the call:
Whistled imitation and pronunciation of the Siwu sentence:

Tone in Siwu is lexically distinctive. Low tone is marked by grave accent (à), High tone is unmarked, and the rare Extra High tone (which in most cases arises from tonal sandhi processes) is marked with an acute accent (á).

The first time I became aware of this bird was when one of my assistants jokingly said, ‘That bird is insulting us.’ Next time I’ll try to provide a picture it. Meanwhile, there you go. People are animals. You didn’t hear this from me. You heard it from the ìsakpòlò bird.

  1. I thank Ies Goedbloed for helping me identify the species. []

I thought I had company (a Mawu dirge)

Women performing a funeral dirge in Akpafu-Mempeasem

Funeral dirges (sìnɔ in Siwu) are a special genre of songs to be sung during the period of public mourning preceding a burial. The musical structures of these dirges, the performances, and their place in the larger context of the funeral have been described in some detail by Agawu (1988) and before him by the German missionary Friedrich Kruse (1911); however, the linguistic aspects of the genre have not received any attention so far.

The funeral dirge below was recorded August 17, 2007 in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Volta Region, Ghana (along with six other dirges). It was transcribed and translated with the gentle help of Reverend A.Y. Wurapa.

Siwu English gloss
mɛ̀ sɔ màturi pia mɛ̀
      sêgbe kàku kaɖè
      sêgbe nnɔmɛ miɖè
      sêgbe ìsoma iɖè
      sêgbe àsekpe aɖè
I said, ‘people are with me’
      not knowing it meant mourning
      not knowing it meant tears
      not knowing it meant sadness
      not knowing it meant graves
[audio:http://thesis.ideophone.org/files/audio/12_Dirge_1.mp3|titles=I thought I had company]

The Siwu is beautifully economic in expression. It contains only two verbs: pia ‘be (with)’ and ɖe ‘be (existential)’. The that is translated as ‘said’ is actually a quotative complementizer. An English translation cannot do without marking tense, but in Siwu, the poem does not contain any tense or aspect markers, being set in an aorist-like default that can be interpreted as recent past or present.

Some of the poetic devices at work here are lost in translation. One is the focus construction which emphasizes the content words in the last four Siwu lines (‘mourning it is; tears it is; sadness it is; graves it is’). Another is the fact that these content words belong to four different grammatical genders in Siwu: the first is an noun in KA with locative connotation, the second a liquid/mass noun in MI, the third a singular noun in I, the fourth a plural noun in A. I’m not sure whether this pattern is as striking to native speakers as it is to me, but note that the gender is reinforced by the agreement morphology on the ‘be’-verb (ka-, mi-, i-, a-). One could think of it as a case of ‘subliminal verbal patterning in poetry’ (Jakobson 1980).
Continue reading

In Siwu, gunpowder doesn’t just go BANG!

Below follows an abstract for a talk I will be giving later this year at WOCAL 6.

Ideophones are marked words that depict sensory imagery (cf. Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001). This paper presents results of an ongoing research project into the linguistic and cultural ecology of ideophones in Siwu, a Ghana-Togo-Mountain language spoken north of Hohoe in Ghana’s Volta Region. Of central interest to the project is the role played by ideophones in the discursive practice of the Mawu. A range of methods is used to investigate this issue (including elicitation tasks and collections of folk definitions), but this paper will focus on data from natural conversational discourse.

It will be shown that ideophones occur across a wide variety of speech genres, including greeting exchanges, conversations, arguments, insults, narratives, and special genres like riddles (mìdzòlo), recreational songs (àlikpi), and funeral dirges (sìkubiɛnɔ). Zooming in on one usage context, we will look at conversations during the making of gunpowder. [N.B. The conversations are of course in Siwu. The examples are presented in pseudo-English because of the abstract requirements.]

A   Now this stuff here looks ɖɔbɔrɔɔɔ [soft].
B   Wũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩ [fine and granular] A   Wũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩwũrĩ!
B   So it will pass through the gun nipple.
A   Indeed. It won’t be kpokolo-kpokolo [lumpy], you see? It will be very grinded very soft ɖɔbɔrɔɔɔ. So that it can reach inside the gun nipple.

Example (1) shows how, during material culture production, the speakers calibrate their understanding of processes and technologies not with cold technical language, but with ideophones (cf. Nuckolls 1995). Later on in the same conversation, some speakers anticipate the ceremonial gunfire for which the gunpowder is being produced by collaboratively creating a vivid sensory spectacle:

C   When it does tawtaw, you would be standing silently. The gunman topples [because of the recoil] — he puts [this sound] in your ears rrrɔ̂ŋ! Then you’ll just be silenced kananananana, standing there. You’ll be watching things.
E   [In background] It goes gbií im̀ ̀!
C   Boy will it sound — it goes gbíiiìim̀ ̀m̀ !

An analysis of this ‘poetry in ordinary language’ (Evans-Pritchard 1962) will throw light on the interplay of language, culture and the perceptual world in Mawu society.


  1. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1962. Ideophones in Zande. Sudan Notes and Records 34: 143-146.
  2. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1995. Quechua texts of perception. Semiotica 103, no. 1/2: 145-169.  
  3. Voeltz, F. K. Erhard, and Christa Kilian-Hatz, eds. 2001. Ideophones. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Mumbling and other mouth sensations: Ideophone proeverij II (with sound clips)

With three mouth-related ideophones we’ve got a true proeverij this time. Welcome to dinner! You’re invited to try the first ideophone on the menu, mùkùmùkù. Feel free to sustain the mumbling to get some feeling for the word. Mùkùmùkùmùkùmùkù. The mumbling mouth movements of a toothless person. This is quite a special ideophone in that uttering it (or shall I say muttering it) actually gives one a bit of the mouth feeling a mumbling toothless must be having.

[mùkùmùkù] the mumbling mouth movements of a toothless person
ɔ̀ɖe kanya mukùmùkù • he eats like a toothless person [lit. eats mouth mùkùmùkù]

Now take a deep breath, and get ready for the next course: saaaaaa. This is a Siwu ideophone for a cool sensation in the mouth, as one would get for example with mint or toothpaste. It is devoiced towards the end, so it ends, quite appropriately, in a breath sound. It has a sister ideophone suuu, which evokes a burning sensation as one would get when taking in, for example, a very spicy soup. (The burning is continuous, i.e., not punctuated; yuayua would be an ideophone for a punctuated burning sensation.)

[saaḁ] cool sensation [esp. in the mouth]
ì-se sááá
it-COP IDPH.cool
it is saaa
[suuu̥] burning sensation [esp. in the mouth]
ah! ì-te ì-bɛbɛrɛ mɛ [sucks in air]… ì-te ì-bɛbɛrɛ mɛ sùuú kɛ̀lɛ̀!
INTJ.pain it-PROG it-be.burning me … it-PROG it-be.burning me IDPH.hot just
Ah! It is burning me … it’s burning me suuu!

If you listen to the audio clips, you’ll note that the ideophones are uttered in a prosodically marked way, with a drawn out vowel, intonational foregrounding, and (in the case of suuu) heavy tonal modulation. This performative aspect of ideophone use is one of the ways in which ideophones stand out in discourse, calling attention to themselves and thereby to the imagery they evoke (cf. Nuckolls 1996:62-78).

Together, saaa and suuu form a sound-symbolic cluster of items that are closely related in both form and meaning. There are more clusters like that — last time’s ɣeee ‘swarming of animals’ for example has a close relative ɣɔɔɔ which describes a moving mass of water. This type of clustering (it has been likened to templatic morphology) is quite common in ideophonic vocabulary worldwide. Finally, note that the opposition between saaa/suuu and mùkùmùkù illustrates once again the iconicity of word form that was highlighted in the previous proeverij.


  1. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1996. Sounds Like Life: Sound-Symbolic Grammar, Performance, and Cognition in Pastaza Quechua. New York: Oxford University Press.