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An example of Japanese sound symbolism, "jaan!"

Ideophones are words that evoke an idea in sound, often a vivid impression of certain sensations or sensory perceptions, e.g. sound (onomatopoeia), movement, color, shape, or action. Ideophones are found in many of the world's languages, though they are claimed to be relatively uncommon in Western languages.[1] In many languages, they are a major lexical class of the same order of magnitude as nouns and verbs:[2] dictionaries of languages like Japanese, Korean, Xhosa and Zulu list thousands of them.[3] 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,[4] though a recent surge of interest in sound symbolism, iconicity and linguistic diversity has brought them renewed attention.[5]


An often-cited definition of the notion of ideophone is the following by Clement Martyn Doke[6]

A vivid representation of an idea in sound. A word, often onomatopoeic, which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, color, sound, smell, action, state or intensity.

Ideophones evoke sensory events. A well known instance of ideophones are onomatopoeic words – words that imitate 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 imitates a brief metallic sound. In many languages, however, ideophones go far beyond onomatopoeia in imitating many things beyond sound.[6] For instance, in Gbaya, kpuk 'a rap on the door' may be onomatopoeic, but other ideophones depict motion and visual scenes: loɓoto-loɓoto 'large animals plodding through mud', kiláŋ-kiláŋ 'in a zigzagging motion', pɛɗɛŋ-pɛɗɛŋ 'razor sharp'.[7]

Ideophones are often characterized as iconic or sound-symbolic words, meaning that there can be a resemblance between their form and their meaning. For instance, in West-African languages, voiced consonants and low tone in ideophones are often connected to large and heavy meanings, whereas voiceless consonants and high tones tend to relate to small and light things.[8] Reduplication figures quite prominently in ideophones, often conveying a sense of repetition or plurality present in the evoked event.[9] The iconicity of ideophones is shown by the fact that people can guess the meanings of ideophones from various languages at a level above chance.[10] However, not everything about the form of ideophones directly relates to their meaning; as conventionalized words, they contain arbitrary, language-specific phonemes just like other parts of the vocabulary.


The grammatical function of ideophones varies by language. In some languages (e.g. Welayta, Yir-Yiront, Semai, Korean), they form a separate word class, while in others, they occur across a number of different word classes (e.g. Mundang, Ewe, Sotho, Hausa).[11]

Despite this diversity, ideophones show a number of robust regularities across languages. One is that they are often marked in the same way as quoted speech and demonstrations.[12] Sometimes ideophones can form a complete utterance on their own, as in English "ta-da!" or Japanese jaan (ジャーン, ta-da).[2] However, ideophones also often occur within utterances, depicting a scene described by other elements of the utterance, as in Japanese Taro wa sutasuta to haya-aruki o shita 'Taro walked hurriedly' (literally 'Taro did haste-walk sutasuta').[13]

Whether they occur as part of other utterances or on their own, ideophones tend show a high degree of grammatical independence. They often occur at the edge of the utterance; they may be syntactically optional; and they tend to carry little inflectional or derivational morphology.[12] Other signs of their relative independence are that they are often produced with higher intonation and expressive lengthening, and set off from the rest of the utterance by a brief pause.[14]

Because of their relative independence, ideophones are sometimes compared to interjections: direct expressions of emotions like "Wow!" or "Ouch!". However, they are distinct in a number of ways.[15] Whereas interjections usually occur on their own, ideophones more often modify other utterances, providing an illustration of a scene the utterance is about. Also, ideophones are more like illustrations of events than responses to events. An ideophone like Gbaya kiláŋ-kiláŋ 'in a zigzagging motion' displays a certain resemblance to the event (for instance, its irregular vowels and tones depicting the irregularity of the motion). An interjection like 'Wow!' indexes someone's response to an event but does not resemble that event itself.


Languages may 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.[7] 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.[14]



True ideophones are few in English: most ideophone-like words are either onomatopoeia like murmur or sound-symbolic ordinary words like pitter-patter, where patter is a normal word but pitter is added to give an impression of lightness and quickness.

  • zigzag; an onomatopoetic impression of sharp edges or angles
  • gaga; unintelligible utterances
  • boing; the sound of a spring being released
  • boom; the sound of an explosion
  • bang; the sound of a gunshot
  • swish; the sound of swift movement
  • splish-splash; the sound of water splashing
  • ta-daa!; the sound of a fanfare
  • thud; the sound of something heavy falling on the ground
  • tick-tock; the sound of time passing
  • zoom; the sound of something rushing past, with doppler effect
  • helter-skelter; hurriedly, recklessly

Other ideophones can appear in cartoons; in particular, the words in jagged balloons usually called sound effects are typically ideophones.


  • Zickzack; (in) a zigzag line or shape
  • ratzfatz; very fast
  • zack, zack!; quickly, immediately, promptly
  • holterdiepolter; helter-skelter, pell-mell
  • pillepalle; pish-posh, petty, irrelevant
  • plemplem; crazy, gaga, cuckoo
  • tick, tack; the sound of time passing by
  • bumm; the sound of an explosion


The Tamil language uses a lot of ideophones, both in spoken (colloquial) and in formal usage. Ideophones are called irattaik kilavi (இரட்டைக் கிளவி) in Tamil grammar.

  • sora sora (சொறசொற) — rough (the sound produced when rubbing back and forth on a rough surface)
  • vazha-vazha (வழவழ) - smooth, slippery
  • mozhu-mozhu (மொழுமொழு) - smooth (surface)
  • kozhu-kozhu (கொழுகொழு) - plump
  • kozha-kozha (கொழகொழ) - slimy, gooey
  • busu-busu (புசுபுசு) - soft and bushy
  • giDu-giDu (கிடுகிடு) - quickly, fast
  • maDa-maDa (மடமட) - quickly, fast
  • masa-masa (மசமச) - sluggish, lethargic
  • viru-viru (விறுவிறு) - energetically (also, spicy)
  • choda-choda (சொதசொத) - marshy, waterlogged
  • paLa-paLa (பளப்பள) - glittering, shiny
  • veDa-veDa (வெடவெட) - shaking, trembling
  • chuDa-chuDa (சுடச்சுட) - piping hot
  • mAngu-mAngu (மாங்கு மாங்கு) - laboriously
  • gara-gara (கரகர) - crunchy, gravely (as in voice)


The Japanese language has thousands of ideophones, often called mimetics. The constructions are quite metrical 2-2, or 3-3, where morae play a role in the symmetry. The first consonant of the second item of the reduplication may become voiced if phonological conditions allow. Japanese ideophones are used extensively in daily conversations as well as in the written language.

  • doki doki (ドキドキ) — heart-pounding
  • kira kira (キラキラ) — glittery
  • shiin (シーン) — silence
  • niko niko (ニコニコ) — smile
  • Jii (じー) — stare
  • run run (ルンルン) — cheerful


In Xhosa, as in closely related Zulu, ideophones can convey very complex experiential impressions or can just strengthen meanings of other words. The ideophone is often introduced using a dummy verb, -thi, which means "say."

Using -thi:

  • cwaka; to be silent

Lixesha lokuthi cwaka. (It is time to be silent [literally: It is time to say cwaka]) - If a non-ideophone was used you could replace cwaka and say "Lixesha lokuthula."

  • gqi; to suddenly appear

Bathi gqi abelungu eAfrika. (The white people suddenly arrived in Africa. [Literally: The white people said gqi in Africa])

Without using -thi:

  • ncam; exact

Andazi ncam. (I don't know exactly. [Literally: I do not know ncam])

  • bhuxe; to stand motionless

Ndime bhuxe phambi kwakhe. (I stood motionless before him. [I stood bhuxe before him])

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nuckolls 2004
  2. ^ a b Diffloth 1972
  3. ^ Akita, Kimi (2009). A Grammar of Sound-Symbolic Words in Japanese: Theoretical Approaches to Iconic and Lexical Properties of Japanese Mimetics. Kobe University.
  4. ^ Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001:2
  5. ^ Imai & Kita 2014, Dingemanse et al. 2015
  6. ^ a b Doke 1935 as cited in Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001
  7. ^ a b Noss in Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001
  8. ^ Westermann 1927
  9. ^ Watson in Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001
  10. ^ Iwasaki et al. 2007, Dingemanse et al. 2015
  11. ^ Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001
  12. ^ a b Samarin, William J. (1971). "Survey of Bantu ideophones". African Language Studies. 12: 130–168.
  13. ^ Kita, Sotaro (1997). "Two-dimensional semantic analysis of Japanese mimetics" (PDF). Linguistics. 35 (2): 379–415. doi:10.1515/ling.1997.35.2.379.
  14. ^ a b Kunene in Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001
  15. ^ Ameka, Felix K. (1992). "Interjections: the universal yet neglected part of speech" (PDF). Journal of Pragmatics. 18 (2–3): 101–118. doi:10.1016/0378-2166(92)90048-g. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-0011-5356-1.


  • Childs, G. Tucker (1994). "African Ideophones". In Leanne Hinton; Johanna Nichols; John J. Ohala (eds.). Sound Symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 178–204. ISBN 0-521-45219-8.
  • Diffloth, Gérard (1972). "Notes on expressive meaning". Chicago Linguistic Society. 8: 440–447.
  • Dingemanse, Mark; Blasi, Damián E.; Lupyan, Gary; Christiansen, Morten H.; Monaghan, Padraic (2015). "Arbitrariness, iconicity and systematicity in language". Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 19 (10): 603–615. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.07.013. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-0028-7AAB-C. PMID 26412098.
  • Dingemanse, Mark; Schuerman, Will; Reinisch, Eva; Tufvesson, Sylvia; Mitterer, Holger (2016). "What sound symbolism can and cannot do: testing the iconicity of ideophones from five languages". Language. 92 (2): e117–e133. doi:10.1353/lan.2016.0034. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-002A-62F0-7.
  • Ido, Shinji (2011). "Vowel alternation in disyllabic reduplicatives: An areal dimension". Eesti ja soome-ugri keeleteaduse ajakiri (Journal of Estonian and Finno-Ugric Linguistics). 2 (1): 185–193.
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  • Iwasaki, Noriko; Vinson, David P.; Vigliocco, Gabriella (2007). "What do English Speakers know about gera-gera and yota-yota?: A Cross-linguistic Investigation of Mimetic Words for Laughing and Walking". Japanese Language Education Around the Globe. 17: 53–78.
  • Nuckolls, Janis B. (2004). "To be or to be not ideophonically impoverished". In Wai Fong Chiang; Elaine Chun; Laura Mahalingappa; Siri Mehus (eds.). SALSA XI: Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Symposium about Language and Society. Texas Linguistic Forum. Austin: University of Texas. pp. 131–142.
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  • Westermann, Diedrich Hermann (1927). "Laut, Ton und Sinn in westafrikanischen Sudansprachen". In Boas, Franz (ed.). Festschrift Meinhof. Hamburg: L. Friederichsen. pp. 315–328.