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

A working definition of ideophones

N.B. Want to cite this definition? Don’t cite this page — it could change or disappear, making your reference look funny. Here’s a peer-reviewed paper with the definition:

Dingemanse, M. (2019). “Ideophone” as a comparative concept. In K. Akita & P. Pardeshi (Eds.), Ideophones, Mimetics, Expressives (pp. 13–33). doi: 10.1075/ill.16.02din (download PDF)

Ideophone. A member of an open lexical class of marked words that depict sensory imagery. (Dingemanse 2019:16)

This definition is general by design, capturing the fundamental cross-linguistic characteristics of ideophones while leaving room for the details to be spelled out for individual languages (see Dingemanse 2011:21-32 for extensive discussion and comparison with other definitions).

Ideophones are MARKED in the sense that they stand out from other words. Claims about the marked nature of ideophones abound in the literature: ideophones are “very striking” (Vidal 1852:15 on Yoruba), “distinguished by their aberrant phonology” (Kruspe 2004:102 on Semelai), “structurally marked” (Klamer 2002:263 on Kambera), “phonologically peculiar” (Newman 1968:107 on Hausa), and show “distinctive phonology, involving special rules of length, tone, and stress” (Epps 2005:869 on Hup), to take just five typologically divergent languages. Of course, what is marked in one phonological system may not be marked in another. Exactly how the structural markedness of ideophones works out in a given language is a fact that belongs to the description of that language.

Ideophones are WORDS, that is, conventionalised minimal free forms with specifiable meanings. As such, they have been documented in dictionaries from early on (Crowther 1852; Westermann 1905; Doke and Vilakazi 1953; Blanchard and Noss 1982; Asano 1978), and although their meanings are notoriously difficult to describe, they have been successfully studied using a variety of methods (Samarin 1967; 1970; Diffloth 1972; Nuckolls 1996; Dingemanse 2010).

Ideophones are DEPICTIONS, that is, they are special in the way they signify their referents. This property can best be illustrated by comparing two ways of representing a certain way of walking. Consider the description “be walking unevenly and out of balance” and the ideophone gbadara-gbadara, with roughly the same meaning. The former DESCRIBES the gait whereas the latter DEPICTS it. The description consists of arbitrary signs, interpreted according to a conventional symbol system. The depiction gbadara-gbadara —an existing Siwu ideophone— is a little performance, inviting us to “look” in such a way that we make believe we are actually experiencing the scene depicted. In depictive signs, In the ideophone literature, the special mode of signification of ideophones has been captured by many terms, the most prominent of which are “expressive” (Diffloth 1972), “affecto-imagistic” (Kita 1997), “performative” (Nuckolls 1995), and “mimesis” (Güldemann 2008). The term depiction is adopted here as it is used in wide range of approaches, including studies of visual arts (Goodman 1968), philosophy (Walton 1973; Zemach 1975), psychology (Kosslyn 1980; Bloom and Markson 1998) and linguistics (Clark and Gerrig 1990).

Ideophones depict SENSORY IMAGERY. “Sensory imagery” is perceptual knowledge that derives from sensory perception of the environment and the body (Paivio 1986; Barsalou 1999). That ideophones have close ties sensory perception has been recognised commonly and from early on in ideophone research (Koelle 1854:283; Junod 1896:196; Westermann 1907:129; Fortune 1962:5; Noss 1986:243; Nuckolls 1995:146; Kita 1997:381). It is worth dwelling briefly on the range of sensory imagery evoked by ideophones. A common Western folk model of sensory perception has it that perception is about taking in information from the outside world through sensory modalities, of which (in this model) there are five: vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Twentieth century scientific taxonomies are more inclusive, including not just extero-receptors (the traditional five) but also intero-receptors and proprio-receptors (Geurts 2002 and references therein). The semantic range covered by ideophones points to this more inclusive view of perception: they evoke not just perceptions of the external world, but also kinaesthetic sensations, interoceptive experience and balance. “Sensory imagery” is intended to capture all of this.

A note on terminology: “ideophone” is the most widespread name for this type of words, in use both within and outside African linguistics since Doke (1935). Two other common terms are “expressive” (e.g. Carr 1966; Diffloth 1972; Wayland 1996) and “mimetic” (e.g. Mester and Itô 1989; Kita 1997; Akita 2009), which have their roots in the prolific research traditions of South-East Asian and Japanese linguistics, resprectively. The first world congress on ideophones (Köln, 1999) and the subsequent publication of an edited volume bringing together research traditions from all continents (Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001) established “ideophone” as the de facto cross-linguistic designation of the phenomenon.


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8 responses to “A working definition of ideophones”

  1. 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?

  2. Hi Mark,

    I’ve been admiring your fascinating website for some time now, and I wanted to thank you for the many “aha!” moments I’ve had while reading it.

    Do you know of any work on tense and aspect of ideophonic verbs? I can imagine there may not be a lot to say on tense, but ideophones so often seem to be about bringing event structure to life.

    Many thanks,

  3. Hi Antonio,

    Thanks for stopping by! Janis Nuckolls has done great work on ideophones and aspect in Pastaza Quechua, especially in her 1996 book Sounds Like Life. In my own work I’ve been looking at what I have called GESTALT ICONICITY — the various ways in which ideophonic words (both speech sound and articulatory gesture) can suggest the aspectual unfolding of sensory events. I’m in the process of writing this up and hope to post a draft sometime in the future.

  4. Thanks for the reference! I’ll check it out at the library tomorrow. I look forward to seeing your work on this topic too, and I’ll post any decent ideas I have (not making any promises!).

  5. Mark your work is fantastic and oh so helpful

    I and a former student of mine (now Phd) are working on ideophones in the Kru language family…it is all very exciting if as you note, very hard to work on because of the socio cultural linguistic contextual contraints, hard to elicit….etc. My own husband who speaks a Kru language is usually very helpful supplying with info on Bete his mother tongue and try as I would, he would not produce ideophones….he could just DESCRIBE not react/ perform ha ha

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