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

More on bíaàà and other water ideophones

drizzle by +lyn (Flickr)

Without wanting to detract from the supreme rendering of bíààà in the previous post, here is some more linguistic information on the word (as rightly requested by Breffni), with a few other water ideophones added for good measure.

First of all, ààà is simply a mnemonic notation for an extra-long vowel (not just a long vowel — vowel lengthening is a contrastive process in some areas of Kisi grammar1 ). Childs’ way of spelling this ideophone is bíà-à-à (1988:182); the hyphens do not mark syllabification, but rather ‘symbolize that the vowel can be prolonged’ (176).

In general, due to the ‘gradient’ qualities of ideophones (the fact that they easily undergo vowel lengthening2 ), it is difficult to speak about the exact vowel length of the final vowel in such an ideophone as this, except for saying that it is definitely not a single vowel and probably sounds a little longer than a double one. Childs furthermore notes that the vowel is devoiced near the end of the ideophone. Therefore, the pronunciation of this ideophone would be something like [bíààḁ̀]. (The tone pattern is a simple High-Low sequence; í is H, ààà is L).

Cats and dogs

Siwu happens to have a similar set of ideophones evoking watery events which have precisely the same form, e.g. tsoààà ‘the sensation3 of water coming down from a large waterfall’, píààà ‘a splashing sound in the distance’, and wààà ‘the fizz of water at the end of the boiling process [you hear the same sound when you place a cupped hand over your ear]’. All of these, like their Kisi counterparts, are devoiced near the end. All of them are iconic in the sense that their unitary, non-reduplicated form is in agreement with the unitary, non-segmentable event they are evoking.

The nearest Siwu ideophone for the event of ‘rain softly falling’ would be kpɔrɔkpɔrɔ ‘the way drizzling rain comes down’. That is a very different form, and accordingly, its focus is less on the soft sound and more on the iterative nature of the small drops of misty mizzly drizzly rain4 coming down continuously. On the other side of the continuum, we have dzòàdzòà for ‘rain pouring down in buckets’.

That brings us, finally, to another Kisi ideophone: bákàlà-bákàlà ‘the sound of big, fat raindrops.’ Based on Siwu parallels, and on the iconic form-meaning mappings in ideophones in general, I would suspect that this Kisi ideophone is not exclusively about the sound, but that it also tries to evoke something of the massive plurality of big, fat raindrops falling in a showering rain. In short, bákàlà and bákàlà are the cats and dogs of Kisi rain.


  1. Childs, George Tucker. 1988. The phonology and morphology of Kisi. PhD Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
  1. E.g. pronoun vowel lengthening in forming the imperfective, p. 262; or verbal vowel lengthening for a pluractional sense, p. 337 []
  2. As Childs notes: “Vowel-lengthening [in ideophones, MD] seems to be virtually unconstrained, except insofar as the physical limitations of the speaker are concerned.” (1988:193) []
  3. I use ‘sensation’ rather than ‘sound’ because this is not just about the sound but also about the moving image of the falling water. []
  4. This is just to note that English has some nice ideophonic words in this domain too. []
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2 responses to “More on bíaàà and other water ideophones”

  1. Thanks! That gives me a fresh idea for my next ESL lesson. There are enough of these in English to entertain my students for a bit after their text assignment.

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