Ideophones are words that evoke an idea in sound, often a vivid impression of certain sensations or sensory perceptions, e.g. sound, movement, color, shape, or action. Ideophones are found in many of the world's languages, though they are relatively uncommon in Western languages (Nuckolls 2004). The word class of ideophones is sometimes called phonosemantic to indicate that it is not a grammatical word class in the traditional sense of the word (like 'verb' or 'noun'), but rather a lexical class based on the special relation between form and meaning exhibited by ideophones. In the discipline of linguistics, ideophones have long been overlooked or treated as mysterious words (Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001:2), though a recent surge of interest in sound symbolism, iconicity and linguistic diversity has brought them renewed attention (Imai et al. 2008, Güldemann 2008, Gasser et al. 2010, Nuckolls 1996).
An oft-cited definition of the notion of ideophone is the one by Doke 1935:118:
- ‘A vivid representation of an idea in sound. A word, often onomatopoeic, which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, colour, sound, smell, action, state or intensity.’
Ideophones evoke sensory events. Reduplication figures quite prominently in ideophones, often conveying a sense of repetition or plurality present in the evoked event. A well known instance of ideophones are onomatopoeic words, i.e., words imitating the sound (of the event) they refer to. Some ideophones may be derived from onomatopoeic notions. A case in point is the English ideophonic verb to tinkle, which is likely to be derived from an imitation of a brief metallic sound.
It is maintained by some (e.g. Kilian-Hatz 2001:157, Kock 1985) that ideophones denote a complete utterance and as such have a sentence-like character. However, reports from other languages (Cantonese, Yoruba, Hausa, Ewe, to name a few) challenge this statement, showing instead that ideophones can be fully integrated into sentences, just like ordinary verbs and nouns. This difference of opinion is attributable to the fact that languages vary in the manner they make use of ideophones. Conversely, this may be evidence that several distinct linguistic phenomena have been called ideophones, and that the concept therefore needs to be better defined to be useful in scientific discourse.
Languages also differ in the context in which ideophones are used. In some languages, ideophones are primarily used in spoken language (e.g. narrative contexts) and are rarely encountered in written language. In other languages (e.g. Ewe, Japanese), ideophones can be freely used in all registers. In general, however, ideophones tend to occur more extensively in spoken language because of their expressive or dramaturgic function.
Ideophones are restricted to certain grammatical classes in some languages (e.g. Welayta, Yir-Yiront, Finnish). In others, ideophones pervade many different word classes and syntactic constructions (e.g. Mundang, Ewe, Siwu, Sotho). A common feature across languages, especially in narrative contexts, is the possibility of introducing ideophones via a verbum dicendi, for example:
- É-ƒú así nu bé bóbóbó (3SG-strike hand mouth like IDEOPHONE) ‘S/He raised an alarm and went “bóbóbó”.’ (Ewe, adapted from Ameka 2001).
- barra-barra — a great deal, a lot, amply, abundantly, plentifully.
- mara-mara — slowly and abundantly (eg. slow falling).
- dir-dir — the sound of something sparkling or shiny.
- gal-gal — boiling, bubbling, gushing out.
嗱 嗱 聲— quickly (as in 嗱 嗱 聲 做, literally meaning "la la sound do" but actually meaning "do [it] quickly")
- bling-bling — glitter, sparkle -> richness, glamour
- badonkadonk — Large, voluptuous female buttocks.
- hippetyhop — ideophonic adverb of manner (as in "The rabbit goes hippetyhop")
- pitter-patter; the sound of rain drops.
- twinkle; the sound of something sparkling or shiny.
- swish; the sound of swift movement.
- splish-splash; the sound of water splashing.
- chop-chop; to be quick, to cut something with quick force (often wood).
- ta-da; represents fanfare.
- gbadzaa — flat, spreading out over a wide area
- Shm-reduplication: The construction "X, shm-X" was transferred from Yiddish into Modern Hebrew as a productive derogatory prefix resulting in an echoic expressive, as in David Ben-Gurion's famous dismissal of the United Nations (UN), um shmum (UN Shm-UN) during a March 29, 1955 government meeting. "When an Israeli speaker would like to express his impatience with or disdain for philosophy, s/he can say filosófya-shmilosófya.
- шмыг (shmyg) — to move swiftly somewhere
- Various expressive loans, e.g. tytinä< Russian stúden "aspic", but also symbolizes "wobbliness"
- Onomatopoetic frequentative and momentane verbs, e.g. momentane-frequentative lätsähdellä "to splat over a larger area, suddenly and repeatedly", from onomatopoeia läts "splat".
- ドキドキ doki doki — heartbeat -> excitement
- キラキラ kira kira — glitter
- シーン shiin — silence
- ニコニコ niko niko — smile
- 두근두근 dugeun dugeun — heartbeat -> excitement
- 오손도손 oson doson — people being warm and friendly to each other
- 초롱초롱 chorong chorong — the way eyes sparkle, the way stars/candles shine, minds being alert
- 반짝반짝 banjjak banjjak — bright, shiny, or twinkle.
- bum-bum — a person's buttocks
- zig-zag — moving on broken lines
- pırıl pırıl/parıl parıl — shiny, sparkling
- paldır küldür — hurriedly, clumsily
- yapış yapış — sticky
- loảng xoảng — sound of glass breaking to pieces or metallic objects falling to the ground
- hớt hơ hớt hải (also hớt ha hớt hải) — hard gasps -> in extreme hurry, in panic, panic-stricken
- lục đục — the sound of hard, blunt (and likely wooden) objects hitting against each other -> disagreements and conflicts inside a group or an organization
- fẹrẹgẹdẹ — big and wide
- róbótó — little and round (object)
- gbẹ̀m$ — round and big
- gbàyàù — open and loose
- dil dil — sound of several people walking
- k'az k'az — sound of shearing sheep
- Chamak chamak — sparkles or glitter
- பட பட (pada pada) — sound of heartbeat when excited/afraid. Also, speaking fast or rapidly. Also, sound of serial firecrackers.
- திரு திரு (thiru thiru) — describes the caught red-handed look.
- கொழு கொழு (kozhu kozhu) — plump.
- புசு புசு (buzu buzu) — furry to touch.
- சொற சொற (sora sora) — rough/grainy to touch; sandpaper-ish.
- சொத சொத (chodha chodha) — squishy. Refers to the sound made by boots when walking in a marsh or on rain-soaked ground.
- பள பள (pala pala) — shiny.
- வழ வழ (vazha vazha) — slippery.
- மொழு மொழு (mozhu mozhu) — smooth to touch (as in surface, bald head, etc.).
- கொழ கொழ (kozha kozha) — gooey, slimy.
- கொள கொள (kola kola) — loose, liquid-like, not solid.
- லொட லொட (loda loda) — describes sound of pebble rattling in a metal container. Used to describe people who can't shut up.
- துரு துரு (thuru thuru) — eager and active; similar to bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
- மச மச (masa masa) — sluggish/phlegmatic.
- கிலுகிலு (kilu kilu) the sound made by a ratte or an ankle bracelet.
- கிலுகிலுகிலுப்பை (kilukiluppai) — noun — baby's rattle, that makes a 'kilu kilu' sound.
- குவா குவா (kuvaa kuvaa) — sound of a baby crying.
- வெட வெட (veda veda) — shivering/trembling.
- விறு விறு (viru viru) — exciting/brisk. As in 'an exciting story', or as in 'walking briskly', or to describe spicy food.♙
- "Kwa Kwa" — sound of someone hitting something
- Ameka, Felix Kofi (2001) ‘Ideophones and the adjective class in Ewe’. In Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001, 25-48.
- Awoyale, Yiowola (1989) ‘Reduplication and the status of ideophones in Yoruba. Journal of West African Languages 19, 1, 15-34. Online article
- Bodomo, Adams. A corpus of Cantonese Ideophones. Online publication (PDF).
- Chevillard, Jean-Luc. ‘Ideophones in Tamil: Historical observations on the morphology of X-eṉal expressives’, in Kolam 9&10, 2004 Online article (HTML).
- Childs, G. Tucker (1994) ‘African Ideophones’. Hinton et al. (eds.) Sound Symbolism, 178-204. Cambridge: CUP.
- Doke, C.M. (1935) Bantu linguistic terminology. London: Longmans, Green.
- Gasser, Michael, Nitya Sethuraman, and Stephen Hockema. 2010. Iconicity in expressives: An empirical investigation. In Experimental and Empirical Methods, ed. Sally Rice and John Newman, 163–180. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
- Güldemann, Tom. 2008. Quotative Indexes in African languages: a synchronic and diachronic survey. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
- Imai, Mutsumi, Sotaro Kita, Miho Nagumo, and Hiroyuki Okada. 2008. “Sound symbolism facilitates early verb learning.” Cognition 109 (1): 54–65. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2008.07.015.
- Kilian-Hatz (2001) ‘Universality and diversity’. In Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001, 155-164.
- Kock, I. (1985) ‘The speech act theory: A preliminary investigation’. In South African Journal of African Languages, 5, 49-53.
- Nuckolls, Janis B. 1996. Sounds Like Life: Sound-Symbolic Grammar, Performance, and Cognition in Pastaza Quechua. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Nuckolls, Janis B. 2004. To be or to be not ideophonically impoverished. In SALSA XI: Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Symposium about Language and Society, ed. Wai Fong Chiang, Elaine Chun, Laura Mahalingappa, and Siri Mehus, 131–142. Austin: University of Texas.
- Voeltz, F. K. Erhard, and Christa Kilian-Hatz, eds. 2001. Ideophones. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2009), Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns. In Journal of Language Contact, Varia 2: 40–67, p. 49, where he also refers to Haig (2001) and Lewis (1967).
- Swiderski, Richard M. (1996). The metamorphosis of English: versions of other languages. New York: Bergin & Garvey. p. 61. ISBN 0-89789-468-5.