[Lingtyp] Ideophones and morphosyntax

Jess Tauber tetrahedralpt at gmail.com
Mon Mar 27 23:16:18 UTC 2023

In my long term (nearly 45 years) crosslinguistic comparative analysis of
segmental phonosemantics of languages that have large numbers (more than
300) ideophones, I've been finding that apparently phonosemantic mappings
can be reversed or variable depending on the basic constituent order of the
language possessing them.

I'd noticed early on that when such a language has ideophones with closed
syllables, that the developmental sense of a phoneme reversed at the
opposite ends of the form. So for instance, in many Asian languages initial
labial stop phonemes will normally connote, in initial position, the notion
of 'containment failure' (for you Star Trek fans who know about what can
befall a warp core), or threat of same. Containers of various sorts,
concrete or abstract, that can no longer hold (at least easily) what they
possess. The contents will not be suppressed. So various types of
explosions, popping, bursting, etc. And the surface of the container,
having lost its contents, often collapses (the way a bubble will, or a
pimple or pustule, swelling, and so forth). But in
ideophone-FINAL position, such labial stop has the opposite developmental
sense. Rather than being on or over the limit of containment/confinement,
here the container has further holding capacity, and the ideophone sense
will be about ingathering, collecting, or maintaining one's possessions
here. The entire system of phonemes used semantically will show this
symmetry if the units can be used at both ends of the form.

But verb-initial languages, such as Tzotzil (Mayan) seem to invert the
developmental scheme- that is an initial labial will connot extra holding
capacity, while the finals will connote loss of containment.

Verb medial languages (such as Gbaya) appear to be ambivalent in this
regard. Some ideophones will be oriented as those in verb-final forms, and
others as in verb-initial forms. These opposite orientations don't seem to
be in equal measure- perhaps a reflection of the morphosyntax of their
ancestor languages?

In Korean (SOV), initial dental/alveolar stops connote dull impacts (like
hitting someone with a heavy baton, or the clapper of a bell the walls of
said bell). But in Gbaya a number of forms with initial alveolar stops deal
with a selective container direction of receptivity. Think of tumbler in an
old fashioned combination lock, which has a slot into which a tooth on
another rotary element fits. They will only engage when properly oriented.
In these Gbaya ideophones, it seems to be the choice of the RECEPTIVE
container to receive the trajector (a sort of analogue to sexual selection
where females decide who will be their mates). Generally verb-final
languages don't show such mappings.

It will be interesting to see how all this pans out. Any initial thoughts?

Jess Tauber
tetrahedralpt at gmail com
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