[Lingtyp] A "Swadesh List" of Ideophone semantic categories

Dingemanse, Mark Mark.Dingemanse at mpi.nl
Thu Mar 21 22:14:02 UTC 2019

This is a very useful contribution that inspires me to list some of the known crosslinguistic generalisations suggesting the utility of a comparative concept of ideophones:

1. In a maximally diverse sample of 39 African languages, items from a certain lexical class show strong isomorphism with morphosyntactic features of direct reported discourse (Kunene 1965, Güldemann 2008)

2. In Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Shona, and Siwu, items from a certain lexical class are tighly coupled with iconic gestures such that when a composite utterance includes both a gesture and an item from this class, they are time-aligned and co-produced (Kita 1997, Klassen 1999, Dingemanse 2013)
3. In Semai, Pacoh, Hixkaryna, and Bantu, items from a certain lexical class act as attractors for exuberant expressive morphology, i.e. playful word formation processes like reduplication and lengthening (Diffloth 1972, Zwicky & Pullum 1987)
4. In Japanese, Siwu, and 8 other geographically disparate and phylogenetically unrelated languages, items from a certain lexical class exhibit an inverse relation between expressiveness and morphosyntactic integration, such that when items from this class are maximally expressive they are minimally integrated in terms of morphosyntax (Dingemanse & Akita 2017)
5. Items from a certain lexical class are more likely than other major word classes to feature marginal, infrequent, or phonotactically deviant phonemes. As citations I offer countless grammars and all papers in the Journal of the IPA featuring the phrase "except in [a certain lexical class] and loan words".

While I have mentioned only a few specific languages here, the generalisations above appear to hold for any language in which that class is an open lexical class of marked words depictive of sensory imagery. E.g. even though I'm not aware of an investigation of Pacoh multimodal interaction, it is highly likely that #2 will also hold in that language. And even though #4 hasn't been tested yet for Korean, we can expect it to hold there, too (indeed, that particular generalisation has seen replication in at least 5 further unrelated languages since the original publication). And so on.

All of these generalisations can be linked to a key feature of ideophones that has been recognised by early luminaries like Westermann 1927, Doke 1935 and Kunene 1965, and that has been preserved in most subsequent definitions: the fact that they are lexicalised depictions, i.e. expressions that use the iconic affordances of speech to enable others to imagine what it is like to perceive the scene depicted. From this fact it is possible to derive their appearance in quotative constructions, their co-occurrence with iconic gestures, their susceptibility to gradient modification, their morphosyntactic profile, and their phonological markedness.

With thanks to Ian Joo for starting this thread and apologies for helping to derail it!


Mark Dingemanse
Centre for Language Studies, Radboud University
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

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Today's Topics:

   1. Re: A "Swadesh List" of Ideophone semantic categories
      (Edith A Moravcsik)


Message: 1
Date: Thu, 21 Mar 2019 19:14:16 +0000
From: Edith A Moravcsik <edith at uwm.edu>
To: Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>,
        "lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org"
        <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] A "Swadesh List" of Ideophone semantic
        <DM6PR16MB3067AAEA94D49DFE588D37F1BB420 at DM6PR16MB3067.namprd16.prod.outlook.com>

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This has been an interesting discussion showing how differently ideophones can be construed and raising the question of what might be their best definition as a comparative concept.

It is important not to lose sight of the single mission of categories. “Grammatical categories are justified if grammatical rules… make reference to them; or rather, if such rules can be best state by reference to them.” (translation from Frans Plank 1984: 49) While this is stated for grammatical categories of individual languages, the same logic holds for comparative concepts: they “exist” if they are instrumental in formulating crosslinguistic generalizations. This was in fact Joo Ian’s original question: he was looking to see if ideophones referring brightness show any similarities across languages.

Crosslingustic generalizations justifying categories may of course be of different kinds. They may be EXISTENTIAL, such as that “ideophones defined by such-and-such properties occur in SOME languages”. Or they may be UNIVERSAL, such as “ideophones defined by such-and-such properties occur in ALL languages (sampled)”. Or they may be DISTRIBUTIONAL IMPLICATIONS,  such as “ideophones defined by such-and-such properties occur in ALL those languages (sampled) that ALSO have property X”. Property X may be genetic (belonging to a particular language family), or areal (spoken in a particular area), cultural (spoken in certain cultures) or grammatical (having particular grammatical properties).  That such correlations do exist is shown by some of the examples that cropped up in the discussion. Jeffrey Heath noted that expressivity (perhaps reflected in ideophones) is more prevalent in some cultures (Western European, Arabic, West-Coast Amerind); and Mark Dingemanse stated that open-class-type ideophones occur in Basque, Japanese, Zulu, Siwu, Gbaya and other languages.

(The implications may be in reverse, with ideophones being predicted rather than functioning as predictors.)

The definitions that are useful as correlating in some way with genetic, areal, cultural, or grammatical properties are likely not to be the same: we need to define ideophones alternatively for the purposes of the different kinds of generalizations. This means that, rather than zeroing in on a single best definition of ideophones, we may end up with different definitions of ideophones depending on the purposes they serve.

If all of this is correct, the only way to argue in favor of a crosslinguistically useful definition of ideophones is by demonstrating that it facilitates one or the other of the types of crosslinguistic statements mentioned above. We may hypothesize alternative definitions but the crucial criterion for adopting one or the other is empirical: testing their helpfulness in stating crosslinguistic generalizations.

Edith Moravcsik

Frans Plank 1984. 24 grundsätzliche Bemerkungen zur Wortarten-Frage.
Leuvense Bijdragen 73: 489-520.
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