Sounding out ideas on language, vivid sensory words, and iconicity

Under the spell of ideophones

One1 of the nice things about fieldtrips is getting immersed in another culture area with, for one thing, different news priorities. When in Ghana, I somehow find it relieving to read the news stories about the rise of herbal medicine, spectacular roundups of Nigerian armed robbers, local chieftaincy conflicts, and parcels of cocaine that miraculously turn into flour under the eyes of the police.2 Far better reading than the daily adventures of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Ghanaian newspapers are always vibrant and engaging, with lots of sharp columns and ample space for letters to the editor. As an example, take the following quote from a column titled ‘Jesus died for our sins, including our carbon sins’, which appeared in the Easter issue of The Spectator. It adresses the huge problem of environmental pollution through plastic packagings and litter.

Have you taken a peak into a gutter lately? Hmm-hmm!! Roadsides? Oh, and farmlands too! Plastic rubbish is literally swallowing us up. How I wish plastic is food we could eat so it’ll go away! But, no! Plastics and much of our increasing volume of rubbish stay put.
So with impudence, we are destroying this earth fuga fuga, manya manya, basa basa and even waa waa, with rubbish as our weapon. We take the earth for granted. We are behaving like the guy in the Jesus story about the Prodigal Son. It is as if we are telling God that He owes us and must replace this earth after we’ve messed it up. Our land, sea, rivers, gutters, backyards and roadsides all harbour secret sorrows as nonbiodegradable ‘bola’ precariously anchor themselves onto our national tapestry.

Dr. Doris Yaa Dartey, The Spectator, March 21, 2008, p. 24 (scan of the original, online version)

I’ve selected this fragment for the words in bold, which are of course ideophones. Wait a moment — ideophones? What are they doing here, in a sea of English words in the columns of a perfectly respectable newspaper with nation-wide distribution? At first sight, this doesn’t seem to mesh well with the literature, in which it is often stated that ideophones are not likely to occur in print.3 (The idea is that as a feature of conversations, narratives, and folklore, ideophones are thought to belong to the domain of spoken rather than written language.) But is this really a counterexample?


Truth is, the traditional oral/literate dichotomy isn’t really helpful in deciding whether or not we are going to come across ideophones. That’s just the medium, and although different media by their very nature may afford different types of communication, I would argue that staring at the paper obscures the more interesting question, which is: why do people use ideophones? One of the reasons is persuasion. Ever been carried away by the words of a skilled writer who grabbed you by the arm and led you through her argument? Trivial differences aside, this is exactly the same experience as being under the spell of a skilled orator. It doesn’t have to do with the medium so much as with the words. Especially if those words are ideophones.

Ideophones, through their capacity to bring about a ‘here and now’-feeling, grab the audience by the arm and persuade. It is in this kind of contexts that ideophones tend to elicit exclamations of assent such as ‘It is true!’ and of course ‘Amen!’ The link to truth is significant; ideophones are not there to be disagreed with. They invite, no, induce assent ‘through the imagination’s perceiving them as “true” and through the feelings of pleasure and wonder they excite’.4

Finally, let me just briefly note that the ideophones used in this piece are not just from one Ghanaian language; some can perhaps traced back to Akan, but that should not detract from the fact that there is a subset of ideophones with an almost pan-Ghanaian distribution, of which basabasa is probably the best known. This goes just to show how deeply entrenched ideophony is in Ghanaian culture.

fuga fuga
carelessly, being spendthrift (originally Akan)
disorderly, mixed up, chaotic (cf. Dakubu 1999:102 for Ga, traced to Akan)
messy, carelessly, scattered about chaotically (pan-Ghanaian, also found in Siwu)
waa waa
Not found in this form in my Akan, Ga, and Ewe dictionaries, but here you can read that an official was accused of chopping (eating) waa waa, which means something like bolting or gobbling up food in an unseemly way.
Possibly related to Ewe ‘beschreibt das hastige, unmäßige Trinken’ [descriptive of hasty, excessive drinking], Westermann 1905:536).


  1. Dakubu, Mary Esther Kropp. 1999. Ga – English Dictionary with English – Ga index. Legon: Language Centre, University of Ghana.
  2. Dartey, Doris Yaa. 2008. Jesus Died For Our Sins Including ‘Carbon Sins’. The Weekly Spectator, March 21.
  3. Dwyer, David, and Lioba Moshi. 2003. Primary and Grammaticalized Ideophones. In Linguistic Typology and Representation of African Languages, Ed. John M Mugane, 173-185, Trenton: Africa World Press.
  4. Fortune, G. 1971. Some notes on ideophones and ideophonic constructions in Shona. African Studies 30, no. 3:237 – 258.
  5. Meisami, Julie Scott. 1993. Review: The Poetics of Alfarabi and Avicenna, by Salim Kemal. Journal of the American Oriental Society 113, no. 2:301-302.
  6. Samarin, W. J. 1971. Survey of Bantu ideophones. African Language Studies 12:130-168.
  7. Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1905. Wörterbuch der Ewe-Sprache. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer (Ernst Vohsen).
  1. This posting summarizes some of the points made in a talk given at the MPI-EVA in Leipzig on May 9, 2008. The talk is titled ‘Ideophones in the wild’. []
  2. Just in case you were wondering: last I checked, the rice flour that I brought home from Kawu had not turned into cocaine. []
  3. E.g. Samarin 1971:152; Fortune 1971:242; Dwyer & Moshi 2003:178; etc. []
  4. I borrowed that phrasing from Meisami (1993:301), a perceptive review of a work on Arabic poetry. Perhaps the ‘pleasure and wonder’ part does not hold for the ideophones in this particular example, but it does hold for many of the ideophones heard in narratives and conversations. []

14 responses to “Under the spell of ideophones”

  1. Hi. I just discovered your blog via Language Hat. I’ll have to add it to my blogroll.

    I know ideophones are pretty common in some African languages and in Japanese and Korean. Do you know of any African languages that mark them grammatically? I did fieldwork on a language in PNG (Numbami) that marks them with a suffix (-a[n]dala) that derives from the word for ‘way, path, road’ (cognate with Malay *jalan).

  2. Ideophones are also used a fair amount in contemporary written Navajo poetry. In fact, it was in doing research on the emergence of written Navajo poetry that I first began to notice the use of ideophones.

  3. Joel, thanks for stopping by! I’ve seen your paper in Oceanic Linguistics. I found it quite funny that it opened with a quote from the Wikipedia entry ‘Ideophone’, which I wrote back in 2004.

    Yes, there are ideophonic markers like that in certain African languages too — Southern African Bantu comes to mind. If you’re interested I can look up a few specific examples and send them to you by email.

  4. I just came across your blog. I’m the columnist of The Spectator whose work you included in your fascinating analysis of ideophones. Here is an explanation of why I used those expressions in print at the time I did (context is everything!). Earlier this year, a song became so popular in Ghana that used ideophones like ‘fugafuga’ ‘manya manya’ etc. So at the time of writing that piece, I decided to use words which had just made it into the national lexicon (again!) in jest of politicians and others who are perceived to be corrupt. Since I view the problem of sanitation as a corruption of the environment, I considered those ideophones superb in making my point most persuasively — at the time. If I’m to re-write that article at another time in history, I’m likely to use the most current ideophones.

  5. Doris, thank you for giving us some insight in the writing process. Your comments on the currency of ideophones are very interesting. I wonder whether you think that it is always a handful of ideophones that are current nation-wide, and how often (and under which influences) this set changes. I suspect basabasa is an all-time favourite, though.

    The song you’re referring to is the one which has the line Africa money eh, Oga dey chop am fuga fuga, isn’t it? It was a lot on the radio during my last stay in Ghana — in fact I considered connecting it to your piece in this posting because I suspected that your phrasing might be a clever reference to it; but I decided to save it for a future posting (or perhaps a broader study) on ideophones in popular culture.

  6. I love this, especially the connection to a popular song and the religious reference. I haven’t yet noticed ideophones in Ecuador (in Lowland Quechua) being used for persuasive purposes, but I will be watching for them.

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