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. 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, though a recent surge of interest in sound symbolism, iconicity and linguistic diversity has brought them renewed attention.
An often-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  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).
- 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
- ta-da; the sound of a fanfare
- bling-bling; glitter, sparkle
The Japanese language has hundreds if not thousands of such constructions. The constructions are quite metrical 2-2, or 3-3, where mora plays a role in the symmetry. The second item of the reduplication may become voiced if phonological conditions allow, rendaku. These original or native expressions are used extensively in daily conversations as well as in the written language.
- 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
- Sound symbolism (phonosemantics)
- Japanese sound symbolism
- Nuckolls 2004
- Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001:2
- Imai et al. 2008, Güldemann 2008, Gasser et al. 2010, Nuckolls 1996
- e.g. Kilian-Hatz 2001:157, Kock 1985
- 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 (PDF and 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.