Ideophone proeverij I

kùrodzai te kùfɛrɛrɛ ɣèèè: Queleas come to drink in thousands at dusk and the last rays light up their wings. Photo © Wildcaster

kùrodzai te kùfɛrɛrɛ ɣèèè: Queleas come to drink in thousands at dusk and the last rays light up their wings. Photo © Wildcaster

While I’m busy analysing conversational data from the last two fieldtrips, my plan is treat you to a few fine Siwu ideophones every once in a while: an ideophone proeverij.

Incidentally, the title of this mini-series testifies to a sad lexical gap in English: there seems to be no good equivalent for the Dutch ‘proeverij’, a noun derived from the verb proeven ‘to taste’1, blandly translatable as ‘tasting event’ but rich with layers of allusions to culinary delight and bon-vivantism. However, let’s not worry too much about the lexical poverty of English and go straight on to savour some Siwu sound symbolism.


of cutting in a sawing movement

ɔ̀to ɔtu kɔkɔ́ ítì tsɔ̀kwɛtsɔ̀kwɛ • he is cutting off the fowl’s head in a sawing movement ~
[ʕèèè] of living beings moving in great numbers (swarm, flock)
màturi sɛ́ ɣèèè • people are swarming ~ [lit. they go ~]
kùbɔibi sɛ ɣèèè • the insects are swarming ~ [lit. they go ~]
kùrodzai te kùfɛrɛrɛ ɣèèè, ɔ̀wuri amɛ • the birds are flying ~ in the sky
àkpɛ sɛ ɣèèè ndu amɛ • the fishes go ~ in the water

Siwu ideophones display a weak iconic relationship between the form of the ideophone and the aspectual structure of the event evoked; in other words, they usually look like the events they depict. Reduplication for example evokes repetition, distribution, plurality, or a combination of these. In tsɔ̀kwɛtsɔ̀kwɛ above, reduplication is coupled with alternating vowel and tone patterns that bring into focus the irregularity of the sawing event. In contrast to this, non-reduplicated monosyllabic ideophones like ɣèèè depict sensory events as unsegmented or unitary.

The ideophone ɣèèè is interesting in this respect because it could also have focused on the pluractional sense of a swarming event — in which case you would expect a reduplicated form. This sense is out of focus however, as the gesture that regularly accompanies the ideophone also shows.2 It is in focus, I would argue, in an old friend of ours: Japanese uja uja, another ideophone depicting a swarming event.

  1. Plus the suffix -rij, cognate with English -(e)ry, ‘activity or place related to’, ultimately from French of course. []
  2. I ought to be able to show you this, but I’m not decided yet how I’m going to add video to this blog. []

On playthings and tools

Let me draw your attention to the newly added quote at the top right of this page: “…they are playthings, not the tools of language.” The quote comes from Max Müller’s Lectures on the Science of Language (I’m citing the 1862 edition). I wrote a little about the historical context of that quote recently but let’s not worry about that right now.1

The quote is nice because along with Müller’s healthy skepticism we get an observation thrown in for free: that there is a playful dimension to imitative use of speech sounds. Müller was here of course relying on his own intuitions. In recent work, Janis Nuckolls has noted that besides playfulness, sound-symbolism for SAE speakers is often associated with ‘qualities such as childishness, whimsy, and simplicity, that make it inappropriate for many discursive contexts.’2

‘You have to pepper your speech’

Not so in Siwu, and in many other pervasively ideophonic languages. In Siwu, to stick to my own trade, use and knowledge of ideophones is a marker of eloquence, and a sign indeed that one ‘knows the language’. In fact, although my Siwu is less than fluent (to say the least), I have quite often received compliments because of the way I used ideophones — saying, for example, ɔ-bù kpɛtɛ̀ɛ̀ɛ̀ {3SG-be.wet IDPH.soaked} ‘She was drenched to the skin’ instead of the simpler, ideophone-less version.

For Siwu speakers, ideophones are not just embellishments. As one of my assistants said, ‘we could tell a story without ideophones, but we use them to let people’s mind go, or get more understanding’. Another succinct explanation came from an elder in the community: à-kparara ara {2SG-IDPH.illuminate things} ‘you illuminate things’ (and yes, kparara is an ideophone). There you have it: ideophones as tools.

Playful ones nonetheless — said the aforementioned assistant, ‘without these words, speech is buààà [bland]. You have to pepper it’. You guessed it. Buààà is another of those playthings.


  1. Müller, Max. 1862. Lectures on the Science of Language. 3rd ed. London: Longman.
  2. Nuckolls, Janis B. 1995. Quechua texts of perception. Semiotica 103, no. 1/2: 145-169.
  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. Here’s the gist, if you don’t want to follow through: it’s embedded in a debate about the origins of language and Müller is here discrediting what he called the bow-wow theory, i.e. the theory of the imitative origin of language. []
  2. See Nuckolls 1995:146. Part of Nuckolls’ point is that these associations may well have played a role in the struggles to understand and appreciate the nature of ideophony in pervasively ideophonic languages. Another common misunderstanding deriving from an SAE-rooted conception of sound-symbolism is the idea that ideophones are just imitative of sound — they’re not, of course. []

Wordle now does Extended Latin and diacritics

Great news for those who are into visual corpus linguistics but don’t work on SAE languages: since July, Wordle handles alphabets in the Extended Latin ranges; and today its maker, Jonathan Feinberg, added support for combining diacritics. That means that you can now feed Wordle texts from languages that use tone marks and other diacritics in their orthographies. Like Siwu.

Wordle based on some ten minutes of spontaneous conversation in Siwu.

The Wordle above displays the most common words in some ten minutes of spontaneous conversation in Siwu, one of the fruits of my last fieldtrip. The conversation has four participants. Nothing groundbreaking about this particular Wordle, it’s just a nice word cloud starring: Continue reading


There are several ideophones in Siwu that have to do with silence. Here are a few examples:

mì-lo kanananana!
2PL-be.silent IDPH
(y’all) be silent kanananana!
a-rɛ kpooo-o?
2SG-sleep IDPH-Q
did you have a sound sleep?
lò-to lò-karɛ ɔ itɔ̃me a-ɣɛ à-to à-nyɔ mɛ gbigbini-gbi
1SG-PROG 1SG-ask 2SG:O message 2SG-stand 2SG-PROG 2SG-look 1SG:O IDPH-REDUP1
I’m asking you a question and you are standing looking at me gbigbinigbi!
ɔ̀-si mùnùmùnù
3SG-sit IDPH
he just sits mùnùmùnù (sickly without talking)

The implications of these four ideophones are different. The first one is perhaps the most general; it is often heard in requests for silence (esp. in the plural), but I’ve also heard it used to talk about the tranquility of the town. The second one, kpoo, is most commonly heard in the reply to the morning greeting lò yá mì ‘I greet you (pl.)’. It has a positive connotation of nocturnal silence and sound sleep. The other two both carry negative connonations: gbigbinigbi evokes a sulking silence, mùnùmùnù is silence of a more dim-witted, sickly type.

All this by way of announcing a scheduled period of radio silence during my two-month fieldtrip to Ghana from July to September 15th. I’ll be giving talks at the 26th West African Languages Conference in Winneba and the 2nd International Workshop on the GTM languages. The rest of the time I will be in Kawu, transcribing beautiful and sparkling conversation full of ideophones. In between times I may be able to post some snippets, but don’t expect too much — everything will be pretty much kanananana here. See you in September!

Many Eyes on Siwu ne

Lots of readers looked at the challenge I posted last week (my blog statistics say more than 450 views for the post alone, so that’s many eyes indeed). A few of you were even daring enough to come up with a story on the various functions of Siwu ne. The challenge was probably a bit too difficult (involving an untranslated text in an as of yet undescribed Niger-Congo language), which makes those few attempts all the more heroic. So what did they see?


ne and its right periphery; “ne, …” accounts for almost half of the tokens

Brett was the first to bite the bullet, providing some statistics on the use of ne. He noted that “it occurs sentence initially 158 times (out of 1161) and sentence terminally 83 times. (…) It often seems to bracket a whole clause and it can even be doubled. The ne kama ne string is quite common.” Ray Girvan didn’t trust the visualization and inspected the raw text instead. He discovered that the text contains some dialogues “as well as as a complete song/poem with multiple uses of “ne” in a question”; that the construct Si …. ne occurs frequently in it; and that the text probably consisted of several different text types. On came Jason with a number of rather detailed observations: Continue reading

Visual corpus linguistics with Many Eyes

I recently came across Many Eyes, a nifty data visualisation tool by IBM’s Visual Communication Lab. It has lots of options to handle tabular data, but —more interesting to linguists— it can also handle free text. The two visualization options it currently offers for text are a tag cloud and a so-called ‘word tree’. The former visualizes simple token frequency, the latter displays the occurences of a given word (or phrase) in a branching view. It is the latter that I find the most exciting feature, because it allows for rapid visual exploration of linguistic patterns in a text.

Take for instance the Siwu locative marker i. Before today I vaguely knew where it usually occurs (before an NP and after a VP, more or less). Now I know (1) that it also occurs sentence initially, as in I Ɔtuka ame, … {LOC Lolobi inside} ‘In Lolobi country, …’; (2) that it often precedes a deictic, as in …i mmɔ {LOC there} ‘over there’; and (3) that one can have nested occurrences, as in ma-sɛ ma-a-su kaku i ngbe-gɔ i ɔturi ɔ-kpi mmɔ {they-HAB they-FUT-take funeral LOC here-REL LOC person he-died there} ‘they usually will hold the funeral there were (‘in the place in which’) the person died’. The next step is to look more carefully into these particular constructions and improve my grammatical analysis. I might conclude, for example, that the distal deictic mmɔ is more nouny than I had taken it to be.

Of course, I would have discovered these facts eventually after carefully analyzing enough Siwu texts — but the point is that right now, finding and comparing these patterns took only five minutes of playing around with the word tree above. Cool, isn’t it? Let’s call it visual corpus linguistics. Continue reading

Fieldwork snippet: What ideophones do

A while ago I spent some time with a language assistant to work through a list of the Siwu ideophones I collected so far. There were some interesting metalinguistic comments on the function of ideophones. Here are three representative exchanges (MD = me, SA = assistant, MA = his daughter):


What is gawungawun?
Gawungawun… they are all the same thing [referring to a few previous ones, also ways of walking]
Aha, no there must, no, they cannot be the same — they are different words!

They are, eh, but what… it’s only describing how the person is walking [shrugs shoulders]


What about gbadaragbadara?
Gbadaragbadaraa [laughs] It’s something… its just the s… its similar.
Similar, yes. Not the same, but similar, uhuh.
Yeah, similar. Let me see, gbadaragbadara or gadaragadara, that means uh… he is not serious or he is something like he is drunk…
[calling from the kitchen] It’s just an adjective that we are using to describe the way the person is walking


What about hiriririri
Oh… no… [doesn’t recognize the word]
ki … rotate [points to the fan in the background]
ite ki hiriririri, aa, okay, okay… yeah it’s just… no… so … just … you are just describing how it is turning [displaying an attitude of doubt as to whether this word has any use at all]
yes, yeah
ite ki hiriririri [it-PROG rotate hiririri] (makes rotating gesture)

The mildly dismissive attitude of SA is quite interesting, though not shared by most other speakers — I think it has to do with a certain level of education and perhaps some other sociolinguistic factors. For now I just want to draw attention to another aspect of these metalinguistic comments.

SA is saying that it is ‘just describing how it is turning’. That implies a difference between the statements ‘it is turning’ and ‘it is turning hiriririri’. In the first one, you do not specify how it is turning (i.e. which sensation it brings about); you merely describe the event that is going on. In the second one, you do more than this: an expressive depiction is added to the analytical description of the scene.1 This is one of the ways in which ideophones ‘pepper’ everyday speech in Siwu.


  1. Clark, Herbert H, and Richard J Gerrig. 1990. Quotations as Demonstrations. Language 66, no. 4:764-805.
  2. Walton, Kendall L. 1973. Pictures and Make-Believe. The Philosophical Review 82, no. 3:283-319.
  1. On the differences between description and depiction, see Clark & Gerrig 1990 and also Walton 1973. With thanks to Herbert Clark for pointing me to this paper. []

Fieldwork snippet: What is the difference between these words?

Hello from the field! I’m currently on a five-week trip to Kawu in the beautiful Volta Region, eastern Ghana (see the picture to the right), hence the irregular posting schedule. In line with my main business here, I will share some notes on doing fieldwork.

What about gligli?
Gligli is ‘round’
But what about minimini?
Minimini is also round. Uh… when you say giligili, it is something like an oval form, oval… [Avoiding eye-contact, drawing an egg-like shape on the table]… uhuh… but minimini … is errrr…. round.

One thing I noticed during fieldwork sessions is that if pressed to explain the difference between two words, people choose one of three strategies. The first strategy (A) is to insist that the words are just the same, that there really is no difference. This strategy is the most common perhaps, but it is easily defeated by pointing to the fact that the words are clearly different, so that there must be some difference.1

The two remaining strategies are (B) making up a difference on the spot in the hope that I will faithfully write it down so that we can go on to the next item; and (C) honestly probing for the difference by imagining several different scenarios and trying out various utterances and gestures. The answers produced by those who follow strategy C are extremely valuable, because they provide lots of additional contextual information. This also makes it quite easy to distinguish strategies B and C; people following strategy B will be unnaturally quick in giving an answer and will not want to explain much more about it.

Note that it does not help to penalize assistants for using strategy B (e.g. by pointing out inconsistencies). They will only feel more uncomfortable. The best response is usually to do what they hope you will do: swiftly going on to the next item (don’t forget to leave a mark so that you can revisit the problem!). Smiling friendly and making clear that you are taking them seriously helps in restoring their peace of mind and will make strategy C more readily available to them.2

Unfortunately, there are no language-helpers who will only ever employ strategy C. When a session has been going on for long, or when it gets all too inquisitive, there is a tendency to switch to strategy B even among the most helpful and sharp assistants. Take for example the following exchange between me and SA, who is normally quite particular about giving the ‘right’ meaning of words: Continue reading

  1. Usually one does not say it as brusquely as that, because that would not work; rather, you say something like, ‘Yes, they are very similar indeed — but perhaps there is a very subtle difference; in fact, I have the feeling that there is. Try to think about the images these words evoke, and about the situations in which you can use these words. Then you can probably get a grip on the difference.’ []
  2. All this depends of course on how well you and the assistant know each other. To OK, my regular and most faithful assistant, I can simply say, “Think again. There is a difference.” Then he will lean back and say, “OK, I’m coming…”, and he will start trying out different utterances. Within one minute, he will usually have found a way to articulate the difference, together with some beautiful example sentences. []

Pfisterer on Akpafu, 1904 (part II)

Today’s posting brings you the second part of Pfisterer’s 1904 article (see the previous posting for details on the context and provenance of this piece of missionary writing). This part gives us information on religious beliefs; myths of origin; the afterlife and reincarnation; so-called ‘fetishes’ (kùɣɔ/àɣɔ in Siwu) and how they are to be served (the indigenous upland rice plays an important role); functions of priests and their servants; the mabia cult of priestesses; amulets and other objects wielding spiritual power; and funeral customs, including an all too brief bit on the funeral dirges Agawu (1988) has written about. All of this is brought in a characteristically dismissive tone, clearly designed for a specific audience: the loyal and pious supporters of the Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft in Germany.

Andreas Pfisterer in 1891 (BMPIX QS-30.001.0982.01)

Andreas Pfisterer in 1891 (BMPIX QS-30.001.0982.01)

In the future, I want to talk about some of the issues this text raises. To mention just one thing, Pfisterer narrates how he destroyed a powerful object (left in someone’s home by a witch doctor) by burning it on the public forum for all to see. The significance of this event cannot be overestimated. Pfisterer simply wanted to demonstrate the irrationality of the beliefs of the Mawu. But in the eyes of those present, he was participating in a rather dangerous type of spiritual power play. The fact that he could destroy the bewitched object without being harmed himself established his own spiritual power over that of the witch doctor, providing the Mawu with excellent reasons to align with Pfisterer and the superior power he apparently represented. More on this later; now, let’s see what Pfisterer has to say. Continue reading