round, fast, spiky, ugly, fat, pleased
February 8, 2019 8:39 AM   Subscribe

In The Beginning Was The Word - David Robson: "A special class of vivid, textural words defy linguistic theory: could ‘ideophones’ unlock the secrets of humans’ first utterances?"

A Working Definition Of Ideophones - "Ideophones are marked words that depict sensory imagery "

Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word?

On the history of the term ‘ideophone’ (cf languagehat

THree Misconceptions About Ideophones

Redrawing the margins of language: Lessons from research on ideophones, Mark Dingemanse, Glossa
Ideophones (also known as expressives, mimetics or onomatopoeia) have been systematically studied in linguistics since the 1850s, when they were first described as a lexical class of vivid sensory words in West-African languages. This paper surveys the research history of ideophones, from its roots in African linguistics to its fruits in language description and linguistic theory around the globe. It shows that despite a recurrent narrative of marginalization, scholars working on ideophones have made important advances in our understanding of sensory language, iconicity, lexical typology, and morphosyntax. Due to their dual nature as vocal gestures that grow roots in linguistic systems, ideophones provide opportunities to reframe typological questions, reconsider the role of language ideology in linguistic scholarship, and rethink the margins of language. With ideophones increasingly being brought into the fold of the language sciences, this review synthesizes past theoretical insights and empirical findings in order to enable future work to build on them.
The Structure of Ideophones in African and Asian Languages: The Case of Dagaare and Cantonese, Adams Bonomo

posted by the man of twists and turns (17 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Hey, my old grad school advisor was doing this research in New Guinea back in the '70s! He'd show them a round squiggle and a sharp-cornered squiggle, and ask which was a "malooma" and which was a "takiti".
posted by Mogur at 8:53 AM on February 8, 2019

Japanese ideophones are wild and fascinating, and I wish I was more fluent with them. Here is an excellent article with dozens of common examples.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 9:04 AM on February 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Animal-sound songs for kids would be strange in Chinese: "The moo says moo. The quack says quack. The oink says oink. The bark says bark. etc."
posted by sjswitzer at 9:53 AM on February 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think it's great that the foundation of human education is learning how to say animal noises.
posted by thelonius at 9:55 AM on February 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

round, fast, spiky, ugly, fat, pleased

posted by Segundus at 10:06 AM on February 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have to admit that I was just a little over 50% with the opening test. I think it would help to see a native speaker say them. Even then, I still believe there's a self-contained logic to languages that makes these work. For instance: To most people, all of German is lugubrious. But from inside of German, a word like 'hübsch' is clearly what it means (neat, pretty).

On the other hand, it's possible that I'm just speaking to a blindness in English speakers, as our mutt of a language (steeped in Latin vs Germanic classicism), gives us at least two conflicting streams of ideophonic suggestion. I say at least two because colonialism and immigration has muddied the water even further.

This is to say that I like the idea these words point us towards protolinguistic aspects, but I don't think it's fair to say these aspects make ideophones more obviously universal in and of the themselves to non-native speakers. Certainly they're extra-memetic, but that this is crucially to do with their memetic 'ecosystem.'

[this is good], by the way. EXCELLENT post.
posted by es_de_bah at 10:14 AM on February 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

When you say the word for cute, pretty-"hübsch," in German; it is like an air kiss.
posted by Oyéah at 10:22 AM on February 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

From the Aeon article:

"For this reason, many theorists have preferred a ‘gesture first’ theory – the idea that language arose first with pantomimed hand gestures that slowly evolved into more conventional signs. "

Is that actually true, because it just sounds bizarre. There are a bunch of primate call systems, at least one of them with the beginnings of a primitive grammar, and very clever scientists have confirmed that when, for example, a vervet monkey hears a 'snake' call that it in fact sees a snake in its head, because it will react to a visual of a snake after hearing the call repeatedly in the same acclimatized way as if it had seen a snake repeatedly.

So it just seems odd that they'd ignore the obvious development path from call system to language and go 'we must have used sign language!'
posted by tavella at 10:22 AM on February 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Here's a bit more on vervet monkey responses to different alarm calls, with sources sited; and another article about more more vervet monkey responses, but without sources. Sadly, neither are about the snake imagery that tavella mentioned, but they do delve into how vervet monkeys react to different calls.

In searching for studies of primitive grammar from primates, I found this fascinating article: Emergence of living language: ontogeny– phylogeny framework and other parallels of linguistics and biology by Michaela Zemková, Charles University in Prague (Volume/Issue: Ahead Of Print; First Online: 07 Dec 2018; DOI:; open access article), which covers both the history of trying to teach chimpanzees language, and the potential origins of human languages.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:13 AM on February 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not having read many of the links yet, I wanted to pop in and say there's a great book called _Gods of the Word_ by Margaret Magnus that makes the case that ideophonism (or "phonosemantics") is pervasive in language, not restricted to a few words but affecting the entire vocabulary, often in subtle and complex ways.

I like a good fringe theory and this is one of my favorite fringe theories. I actually find it pretty convincing.

She has a (very old) web site here.
posted by edheil at 12:36 PM on February 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

It seems to me that I can often guess whether a name in a language I don't understand is coded as male or female with fair reliability, but it's not something I've tested rigorously. (Male names tend to hard consonants and vowels i and e. Female names tend to soft consonants, w, l and vowels a, o and u. Some alignment with kiki and bouba, I think?) I'm probably mostly wrong, but I'm curious if anyone else has wondered the same thing.
posted by sjswitzer at 1:25 PM on February 8, 2019

Yay! I love this article and I love the Kiki/Bouba experiment....when I was teaching general ed. Linguistics at CU Boulder I would always bring up that one. Thanks for posting!
posted by k8bot at 1:32 PM on February 8, 2019

I'll try to dig up the vervet monkey visualization study, couldn't find it on a quick pass, but here's an paper about Campbell's monkeys having the beginning of a grammar, in particular having a general suffix -oo which broadens the meaning of each of the other calls; krak means leopard, while krak-oo means a generalized larger animal or disturbance like a leopard. "Leopard" and "leopard-like".
posted by tavella at 4:06 PM on February 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

i'll admit that I'm just popping in hoping to square these ideas with the proven psychological capital that curse words afford the users. I feel like there should be some overlap. But it's not apparent yet in the thread. SHIT!
I just crumpled up no less than three venn diagrams. fuck
posted by es_de_bah at 4:34 PM on February 8, 2019

Interesting, I got 9 out of 10 of those Japanese ideophones correct despite knowing precisely zero Japanese or any related language, even only seeing them written down rather than spoken or accompanied by gestures. What's up with that? Interesting stuff.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:00 AM on February 9, 2019

I'm just here to tell you not to go to Amazon and search for the book edheil recommends without putting the author's name in the search box as well, or it's impossible to find.

In my defense I've literally just woken up and while my sleep-addled brain was apparently active enough to get all excited by the prospect of linguistic candy, it wasn't active enough to remember how many people want to make sure you've heard "God's Word" and will write books to tell you about it at length. And Amazon search doesn't consider propositions, or, apparently, apostrophes.
posted by seyirci at 5:24 AM on February 9, 2019

Reminds me of this bit from Terry Pratchett's Wee Free Men:
Glint, glisten, glitter, gleam. . .

Tiffany thought a lot about words, in the long hours of churning butter. “Onomatopoeic,” she’d discovered in the dictionary, meant words that sounded like the noise of the thing they were describing, like cuckoo. But she thought there should be a word meaning a word that sounds like the noise a thing would make if that thing made a noise even though, actually, it doesn’t, but would if it did.

Glint, for example. If light made a noise as it reflected off a distant window, it’d go glint! And the light of tinsel, all those little glints chiming together, would make a noise like glitterglitter. Gleam was a clean, smooth noise from a surface that intended to shine all day. And glisten was the soft, almost greasy sound of something rich and oily.
Turns out there is a word for such words, and it is "Ideophone." I wonder if Sir Pterry knew that?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:49 PM on February 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

« Older Hand to hand, toe to toe, the trikitixa's boss in...   |   the best advice we can give you on leftovers is to... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments