Voeltz, F. K. Erhard, and Christa Kilian-Hatz, ed. (2001)
Ideophones. John Benjamins Publishing Company, vii+434pp,
hardback ISBN 1-58811-019-2, USD 114.00, EUR 125.00,
Typological Studies in Language 44
Announced in http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-323.html
Nilson Gabas, Jr., MCT-Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi (Brazil)
and University of Antwerp-CGCT (Belgium)
INTRODUCTION (Description of the book's purpose and contents)
The book embodies a selection of papers presented at the
International Symposium on Ideophones, held in January of
1999 in St. Augustin, Germany.
It contains twenty-seven papers written by researchers whose
main concern was to describe, compare or typologize an
aspect of the field of Linguistics which has been relegated
to a second (sometimes third) plan: the phenomenon of
ideophones. The papers all have in common the characteristic
of being written in a descriptive, comparative and/or
typologically oriented way, so they are driven by language
facts, not by theoretical approaches. As a result, the book
will serve linguists from different backgrounds and with
different interests as well.
Even though the order of presentation of the papers is by
author's last name, with no grouping by topic, language
area, language family, etc., we will see below in the
discussion that the papers could be classified according to
Besides the collection of papers, the book also contains an
introduction by the editors where they give an overview of
each paper and discuss the overall results of the Symposium.
At the end of the book there is also a good, solid and
thoughtful bibliography for those interested to research on
A short description of each paper is given below. These
descriptions are taken (with a few modifications) from the
editor's own descriptions provided in the Introduction of
the book (p.4-7).
Berry Alpher compares the syntactic and semantic properties
of ideophones in the Australian languages Yir-Yoront, Yirrk-
Mel, and the Wik-languages. He shows that ideophones are ''a
matter of presentation of new information''.
Describing some properties of ideophones in Ewe (Togo),
Felix K. Ameka points out the relevance of understanding
ideophones as a phonosemantic class, in order to
characterize the close relationship between ideophones and
ideophonic adjectives in African languages.
Azeb Amha distinguishes the ideophones in Wolaitta (Omotic)
into two groups. Group I ideophones typically involve
reduplication and are syntactically and semantically similar
to adjectives. Ideophones of group II behave semantically
and syntactically like converbs.
Based on his earlier works Tucker Childs points out the
''quintessential'' social value of ideophones that he sees
grounded in communicative interaction.
Denis Creissels recognizes two types of predicates in
Tswana: an inflected predicate and a predicate consisting of
the verb 'to say' and an ideophone. From a historical point
of view, these ideophonic constructions are interesting
because they could reflect a word order change from SVOX to
Francis O. Egbokhare's contribution deals with sound-
symbolism of ideophones in Emai (Edo). By contrasting sound-
meaning minimal pairs he manages to establish iconic
correlations underlying the formation of ideophones.
For Stefan Elders, ideophones do not present a syntactical
definable separate class in Mundang, but are found in all
lexical classes. They are, nevertheless, different from
other word classes with respect to their phonological
structure and the phonesthetic associations they evoke.
Vesa Jarva presents a class of words called 'expressives' in
Finnish, but which correspond to the word class 'ideophone'
known in African languages. He describes the diachronic
process of how borrowed Russian words became expressives in
Finnish, and reconstructs how this process has been
triggered by phonetic resemblance and semantic motivation.
Nicky de Jong gives a detailed overview of formal properties
of ideophones in the Eastern Sudanic language Didinga. Based
on their phonotactics and syntactic behavior, he concludes
that ideophones must be considered a subclass of adverbs.
N. S. Kabuta describes the phonology, morphology, syntax and
meaning of ideophones in Ciluba (Bantu). Their formal
properties lead him to define ideophones as a separate class
that differs from other ''ideophonic words'' that share some
phonological and semantic features with ideophones, but are
nouns, verbs and adverbs.
Christa Kilian-Hatz describes several formal universal as
well as language specific properties of ideophones, based on
the data from Kxoe (Khoisan) and Baka (Ubangi). She also
suggests that formal differences of ideophones in different
languages can be regarded as a reflex of different stages of
a common historical development.
Using three criteria, form markedness, meaning markedness
and function markedness, Marian Klamer argues that
onomatopes and ideophones in Kambera, Balinese and West
Tarangan, belong to the peripheral part of the lexicon, not
Daniel P. Kunene describes the ideophones of Sotho (Bantu)
as ''linguistic rebels'' because they are ''the closest
substitute for a non-verbal physical act''. Because of this
unique dramaturgic function, ideophones seem to be ''aloof''
from the grammatical system, while at the same time
fulfilling special performative function in oral discourse.
Omen Maduka-Durunze analyses ideophones as composed of three
different kinds of phonosemantic units that are combined
following a specific, two-dimensional hierarchies which,
associated to sets of rules allow the assignment of semantic
values such as 'roundness', 'largeness', 'straightness', for
ideophones of Nembe, Hausa, Igbo and others.
William McGregor points out the relevance of ideophones as a
word class for the verbal system in the Northern Australian
languages. These languages use compound verb constructions
that consist of an uninflected particle and an inflected
verb. He suggests that ideophones are the ''major historical
source for these uninflected parts'' and explains this
process as an instance of a wider cycle of grammatical
C. T. Msimang and G. Poulos re-examine the status of
ideophones in Zulu (Bantu) as compared to other Bantu
languages. Their main concern is to show that ideophones are
a separate category which shows ''no derivation from other
word classes'', like other lexical items do.
For Paul Newman, the treatment of ideophones as a formal
aberrant group of words seems exaggerated and over
interpreted. He shows that ideophones in Hausa (Chadic) are
phonologically normal, and concludes by recognizing that if
some unusual phonological features exist, they are not so
apart from the language as not to fit into the general
Eve Mikone characterizes the properties of ideophones in
Finnish and Estonian (Balto-Finnic) as syntactically verbs
and substantives, but phonologically, morphologically, and
semantically as a class apart from other word classes.
Phillip A. Noss examines the use of Gbaya ideophones in
(Ubangian) folktales and poetry, showing how creatively they
are employed and how stylistically relevant they are for
Janis B. Nuckolls lines out the semantic functions of
adverbial ideophones in Pastaza Quechua as acting like
manner adverbs, co-verbs, verbal gesture or adverbs that add
punctual or completive information to the predicates.
Paulette Roulon-Doko investigates the status of ideophones
in Gbaya vis-ï¿½-vis other grammatical categories, coming to
the conclusion that ideophones occupy a very high status, as
indicated by their frequency in discourse.
Carl Rubino describes ideophones referring to sounds of
Ilocano (Northern Philippine). Ideophones are roots that
show elaborate and productive derivational morphology. Of
particular importance is the observation that the Ilocano
lexicon displays recurrent patterns of onomatopoeic
sequences that have iconic values.
A list of 23 observations about ideophones is presented in
William J. Samarin's paper. These observations should be
regarded not only as help for fieldwork on ideophones, but
also as an outline for further investigation on ideophones
for typological studies.
Ronald Schaefer's paper has a twofold contribution. First,
he shortly describes syntactic and semantic properties of
ideophones in Emai (Edo), concluding that they are a
subclass of adverbs. Then, he elaborates a 'finely-grained'
semantic analysis of ideophones on the basis of
typologically oriented comparative studies.
Eva Schultze-Berndt examines 'coverbs' in Australian
Jaminjung (Yirram). She provides detailed information about
their morphology, syntax, phonology and phonotactics, as
well as instances of sound-symbolism, concluding that these
uninflected coverbs share many features with ideophones
known in African languages. Similar to McGregor's
contribution, she reckons that the ideophone-like behavior
of coverbs may have arisen diachronically through the
incorporation of ''true'' ideophones into the verbal system.
Okombe-Lukumbu Tassa describes two derivational processes
with ideophones in Tetela (Bantu). On the one hand, verbs
can be derived from ideophones through the addition of de-
ideophonizing suffixes, whereas on the other hand, there are
ideophones that derive from verbs by suffixation of an
In the last paper of the book, Richard L. Watson compares
the structure of ideophones in Southeast Asian and African
languages in respect to their phonology, morphology, syntax,
semantics, iconicity, and pragmatics. He not only outlines
many cross-language similarities on all these linguistic
levels, but also identifies some areal or language family
DISCUSSION (Critical evaluation)
The book gathers papers from a number of known researchers
on the subject and is a estimable contribution to the field.
It provides the reader with good descriptions of ideophone
systems in a large number of languages, and it will
certainly serve to call the attention of linguists to a
phenomenon still poorly understood.
The twenty-seven papers it contains cover the levels of
description, comparison and typological analysis of
ideophone systems, and could be divided, accordingly, into
three categories: language specific papers, historical-
comparative papers, and typologically oriented papers. This
categorization, instead of the categorization by author's
last name, would have the effect of guiding the reader
more easily through the reading of the book.
Of the twenty-seven papers in the book, sixteen fall into
the first category (Alpher, Amha, Creissels, Doko,
Egbokhare, Elders, Jarva, de Jong, Kabuta, Kunene, Mikone,
Newman, Noss, Nuckols, Rubino, and Tassa); seven papers can
be placed under the second category (Kilian-Hatz, Maduka-
Durunze, McGregor, Msimang and Poulos, Samarin, Schulze-
Berndt, and Watson); and four papers belong to the third
category (Ameka, Childs, Klamer, and Schaefer).
The overall quality of the papers is fairly good, and
certainly will please any researcher interested on the
subject. Nevertheless, I found two pitfalls in the book that
might call the attention of the reader.
Firstly, there is only one description of (South) American
Indian languages present in the book, in spite of the good
number of these languages attested to contain (quite
intricate) ideophone systems and have well qualified
linguists working with them. A few examples are Kamayurï¿½
(Luci Seki); Karo (Nilson Gabas Jr.); Munduruku (Marjorie
Crofts); Suruï¿½ (Tine van der Meer), etc.
Secondly, there is an issue related to some of the final
results of the Symposium, as stated by the editors in the
Introduction of the book. Their statements are as follows
1. Ideophones are present in all languages of the world:
''They are a universal category.'';
2. Ideophones have the special dramaturgic function of
simulating an event, an emotion, a perception through
3. Some morphological parallels (derivational processes)
can be found among different ideophone systems;
4. Ideophones are generally introduced via a verbum
dicendi or a complementizer;
5. Ideophones have a tendency for iconicity and sound-
6. Ideophones are part of spoken language, not of written
Although it is clear from the readings that statements 2-5
hold for the ideophone systems described in the book,
statements 1 and 6 seem not seem to hold. If we take
statement 1 seriously, we would have to believe that
English, for example, has an ideophone system that is
comparable (somehow) to the ideophone systems of African
languages, and this is clearly not the case. The fact that
English (and maybe all languages of the world) has
onomatopoeic words does not mean that these words can be
categorized as ideophones or as part of an ideophone system.
It should be made clear from the results of the symposium
(as it is clear from the reading of the particular papers)
that ideophones, just like adjectives, are not a universal
category, and that they have quite specific sets of
parameters (phonetic, phonological, morphological,
syntactic, semantic and discoursive) which can be used to
determine its status as a linguistic entity.
As for statement 6, it also does not seem to be legitimated
by the papers in the book. Kunene (p-190), for example,
describes clearly the occurrence of ideophones in written
language; Noss (p-264-266) dedicates an entire section of
his paper to describe written poetry in Gbaya; and Watson
(p-401), while specifically discussing the problem of the
lack of ideophones in African literature, cites Mphande's
article which charges Western civilization for influencing
African authors not to include ideophones in their writings.
Consequently, the apparent lack of ideophones in written
texts, if it exists, could be explained in extra-linguistic
terms rather than in terms of an intrinsic property of the
The publication of the book opens up an avenue for future
research on ideophones which is comparable to the
publication of two other books dealing with unrelated but
just as important linguistic phenomena: Evidentiality (Chafe
and Nichols, 1987) and Noun Classes and Categorization
(Craig 1986). It is a landmark which will hopefully put
ideophones on the mainstream of linguistic research.
Chafe, Wallace and Johanna Nichols (eds.). 1987.
Evidentiality: The Linguistic Coding of Epistemology
(Advances in Discourse Processes, Vol 20). Ablex Publishing
Craig, Colette (ed.). 1986. Noun Classes and Categorization
(Typological Studies in Language, Vol 7). John Benjamins
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Nilson Gabas Jr. received his Ph.D. at UC-Santa Barbara, in
1999 and works with Brazilian Indian languages (especially
Karo, Tupï¿½) since 1987. He is currently doing his Post-Doc
studies at the Center for Grammar, Cognition and Typology at
the University of Antwerp, with a research project on