Linguistics Ideophones
Kimi Akita
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0236


Ideophones are words that vividly depict sensory experience with marked forms. They abound in many languages of the world, including Niger-Congo, Afro-Asiatic, Dravidian, Austroasiatic, and Quechuan languages as well as Japanese, Korean, Turkish, and Basque. The term “ideophone” originates in Bantu linguistics but is applied across languages. Ideophones are also known as “mimetics” in Japanese linguistics and “expressives” in South and Southeast Asian linguistics. Arguably all spoken languages have onomatopoeic (sound-imitative) ideophones (e.g., woof-woof, wham), and many languages also have ideophones for non-auditory information, such as motion (e.g., plisti-plasta ‘walking in water’ (Basque)), shine (e.g., ɡéɡéréré ‘shining brightly’ (Chewa)), shape (e.g., tíɡhí-tìɡhì-tíɡhí ‘twisted’ (Edo)), and texture (e.g., lip rip ‘smooth, flat’ (Hausa)). Ideophones in some languages further depict color (e.g., yibɔɔ ‘black’ (Ewe)), taste and smell (e.g., thuu ‘smelling horribly’ (Venda)), proprioceptive sensations (e.g., rupax ‘intensely warm or burning’ (Pastaza Quichua)), and emotion (e.g., zokuzoku ‘thrilled’ (Japanese)). These sensory meanings are often iconically represented by some marked morphophonological features, such as unusual phonotactics (e.g., /ɡb/ (Kisi)), vowel or tonal harmony (e.g., ɡbànɡbàlànɡ ‘long pole falling down’ (Dagaare)), and total or partial reduplication (e.g., tʃoɭtʃoɭ ‘in continuous flow’ (Korean), kananaa ‘silent’ (Siwu)). The formal markedness of ideophones may be further emphasized by lengthening (e.g., baaaang), prominent intonation, special phonation (e.g., falsetto, creaky voice), distinct speech rate, and syntactic isolation (e.g., holophrastic realization). Moreover, as a nonverbal manifestation of their performative nature, ideophones often synchronize with iconic gestures. Ideophones constitute a prototype category for which none of these features are either necessary or sufficient, and often, one cannot decide clearly whether a word is an ideophone or not. Furthermore, ideophones are integrated with the linguistic system to varying degrees both within and across languages. For example, holophrastic ideophones tend to have expressive prosody and be accompanied by iconic gestures, whereas predicative ideophones tend to be plain. Reflecting this behavioral diversity of ideophones, earlier studies focused on sound-symbolic generalizations and categorial definitions in individual languages, notably Asian and African languages. However, a growing body of research from the 1990s onward has sought the theoretical and typological significance of this word class.

General Overviews

Several informative reviews and overviews are available. Hinton, et al. 1994 and Nuckolls 1999 discuss ideophones within the general context of sound symbolism, suggesting their significance in linguistics and other disciplines. Samarin 1971, Childs 1994, Kulemeka 1995, Ameka 2001, and Bodomo 2006 pay special attention to African ideophones but have some typological implications. Dingemanse 2018 presents more comprehensive overviews of ideophone research, considering its contributions to linguistic typology and linguistic theory (see also Dingemanse 2012 under Distribution). Dingemanse, et al. 2015 reviews the study of iconicity and related concepts and gives further insights into how ideophones participate in vocabulary structuring.

  • Ameka, Felix K. 2001. Ideophones and the nature of the adjective word class in Ewe. In Ideophones. Edited by Friedrich K. Erhard Voeltz and Christa Kilian-Hatz, 25–48. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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    An overview of the phonological, morphological, and morphosyntactic properties of ideophonic adjectives in a Niger-Congo language. The author concludes that “ideophones are an integral part of the languages in which they occur” (p. 45), stressing the importance of typological investigations into ideophony.

  • Bodomo, Adams B. 2006. The structure of ideophones in African and Asian languages: The case of Dagaare and Cantonese. In Selected proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference on African Linguistics: African languages and linguistics in broad perspectives. Edited by John Mugane, John P. Hutchison, and Dee A. Worman, 203–213. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.

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    Brief overviews of ideophonic elements in Dagaare (Niger-Congo) and Cantonese (Sino-Tibetan). The author observes that ideophones in both languages exhibit phonological, morphological, and pragmatic uniqueness, but they have different syntactic statuses.

  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1994. African ideophones. In Sound symbolism. Edited by Leanne Hinton, Johanna Nichols, and John J. Ohala, 178–204. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A broad overview of the formal and functional characteristics of African ideophones. This is among the earliest proposals for a prototype definition of ideophones.

  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2018. Redrawing the margins of language: Lessons from research on ideophones. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics 3.1: 1–30, article 4.

    DOI: 10.5334/gjgl.444E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive review of the research history of ideophones, noting their theoretical and typological significance.

  • Dingemanse, Mark, Damián E. Blasi, Gary Lupyan, Morton H. Christiansen, and Padraic Monaghan. 2015. Arbitrariness, iconicity, and systematicity in language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 19.10: 603–615.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2015.07.013E-mail Citation »

    An interdisciplinary review of the accumulating studies of vocabulary structure, noting the division of labor among arbitrariness, iconicity, and systematicity (language-specific statistical regularity). It also discusses the semiotic limitations of ideophones as icon signs using the auditory modality.

  • Hinton, Leanne, Johanna Nichols, and John J. Ohala. 1994. Introduction: Sound-symbolic processes. In Sound symbolism. Edited by Leanne Hinton, Johanna Nichols, and John J. Ohala, 1–12. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A brief overview of sound-symbolic phenomena. Its four-way classification of sound symbolism (corporeal, imitative, synesthetic, and conventional) is widely cited.

  • Kulemeka, A. T. 1995. Sound symbolic and grammatical frameworks: A typology of ideophones in Asian and African languages. South African Journal of African Languages 15.2: 73–84.

    DOI: 10.1080/02572117.1995.10587062E-mail Citation »

    A review of earlier studies on ideophones in Asian and African languages. It argues that Asian linguistics tended to focus on the sound-symbolic paradigms of ideophones, whereas African linguistics tended to debate their grammatical-categorial definitions. The author attributes this difference to the different lexical statuses of Asian and African ideophones.

  • Nuckolls, Janis B. 1999. The case for sound symbolism. Annual Review of Anthropology 28:225–252.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.28.1.225E-mail Citation »

    A widely referenced review of linguistic and psychological studies on sound-symbolic phenomena, including ideophones.

  • Samarin, William J. 1971. Survey of Bantu ideophones. African Language Studies 12:130–168.

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    An extensive review of early ideophone studies in Bantu languages, dealing with various issues, including derivations and geographical variations. As he does in his other studies, the author notes the importance of morphology, syntax, and semantics, as well as phonology, in describing ideophones.

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