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):

1

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

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

2

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

3

MD
What about hiriririri
SA
Oh… no… [doesn’t recognize the word]
MD
ki … rotate [points to the fan in the background]
SA
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]
MD
yes, yeah
SA
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.

References

  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.

Footnotes

  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.[]

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