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Ideophones are words that evoke an idea in sound, often a vivid impression of certain sensations or sensory perceptions, e.g. sound, movement, color, shape, or action. Ideophones are found in many of the world's languages, though they are relatively uncommon in Western languages.[1] 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,[2] though a recent surge of interest in sound symbolism, iconicity and linguistic diversity has brought them renewed attention.[3]

File:Jaan! in Hakui.jpg
An example of Japanese sound symbolism jaan!


An often-cited definition of the notion of ideophone is the one by Doke 1935:118:

‘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. Reduplication figures quite prominently in ideophones, often conveying a sense of repetition or plurality[citation needed] present in the evoked event. 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 is likely to be derived from an imitation of a brief metallic sound.


The grammatical function of ideophones varies by language – in some cases, such as Hausa, they do not form a separate word category, while in other cases their classification is debated and they may be spread across multiple classes. "[I]n the vast majority of cases, however, ideophones perform an adverbial function and are closely linked with verbs."[4]

It is maintained by some[5] that ideophones denote a complete utterance and as such have a sentence-like character, like interjections. While this is true for some ideophones, such as English "ta-da!" or Japanese jaan (ジャーン?, ta-da), it is false in general. In many languages (Cantonese, Japanese, Yoruba, Hausa, Ewe, to name a few) ideophones often function as parts of sentences, with various grammatical functions, such as adjectives or adverbs, as in Japanese hatto (はっと?, with a start, (be) startled), which is an adverb and verbal noun, as in hatto ki ga tsuita (はっと気が付いた?, I noticed with a start) or hatto shita (はっとした?, I was startled). This difference of opinion is attributable to the fact that languages vary in the manner they make use of ideophones. Conversely, this may be evidence that several distinct linguistic phenomena have been called ideophones, and that the concept therefore needs to be better defined to be useful in scientific discourse.

Ideophones are restricted to certain grammatical classes in some languages (e.g. Welayta, Yir-Yiront, Finnish). In others, ideophones pervade many different word classes and syntactic constructions (e.g. Mundang, Ewe, Siwu, Sotho). A common feature across languages, especially in narrative contexts, is the possibility of introducing ideophones via a verbum dicendi, grammatically often via a quotative complementizer, for example:

  • É-ƒú así nu bóbóbó   (3SG-strike hand mouth like IDEOPHONE)   ‘S/he raised an alarm and went “bóbóbó”.’ (Ewe, adapted from Ameka 2001).


Languages also 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. 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.



  • boing; the sound of a spring being released
  • boom; the sound of an explosion
  • bang; the sound of a gunshot
  • bling-bling; glitter, sparkle
  • doh!; expressing the feeling of having been tricked or a feeling of frustration
  • huh!; expressing that one is not impressed
  • oh-oh!; expressing the feeling that something unfortunate is about to happen
  • ouch! expressing sudden pain
  • phoar!; expressing that a person is attractive
  • pitter-patter; the sound of rain drops
  • 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
  • tsk tsk tsk or tut tut!; the sound of disapproval
  • twinkle; the glow of something sparkling or shiny
  • whoops! or oops!; said when a person realises he has made a mistake
  • wow!; expressing admiration or surprise


The Japanese language has hundreds if not thousands of such constructions. The constructions are quite metrical 2-2, or 3-3, where mora plays a role in the symmetry. The second item of the reduplication may become voiced if phonological conditions allow, rendaku. These original or native expressions are used extensively in daily conversations as well as in the written language.

  • ドキドキ doki doki — heartbeat -> excitement
  • キラキラ kira kira — glitter
  • シーン shiin — silence
  • ニコニコ niko niko — smile

Other languages

See also


  1. Nuckolls 2004
  2. Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001:2
  3. Imai et al. 2008, Güldemann 2008, Gasser et al. 2010, Nuckolls 1996
  4. G. Tucker Childs, "African ideophones", in Sound Symbolism, p. 181
  5. e.g. Kilian-Hatz 2001:157, Kock 1985


  • Ameka, Felix Kofi (2001) "Ideophones and the adjective class in Ewe". In Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001, 25-48.
  • Awoyale, Yiowola (1989) "Reduplication and the status of ideophones in Yoruba". Journal of West African Languages 19, 1, 15-34. Online article
  • Bodomo, Adams. A corpus of Cantonese Ideophones. Online publication (PDF).
  • Chevillard, Jean-Luc. "Ideophones in Tamil: Historical observations on the morphology of X-eṉal expressives", in Kolam 9&10, 2004 Online article (PDF and HTML).
  • Childs, G. Tucker (1994) "African Ideophones". Hinton et al. (eds.) Sound Symbolism, 178-204. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Doke, C.M. (1935) Bantu linguistic terminology. London: Longmans, Green.
  • Gasser, Michael, Nitya Sethuraman, and Stephen Hockema. 2010. "Iconicity in expressives: An empirical investigation". In Experimental and Empirical Methods, ed. Sally Rice and John Newman, 163–180. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.
  • Güldemann, Tom. 2008. Quotative Indexes in African languages: a synchronic and diachronic survey. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Imai, Mutsumi, Sotaro Kita, Miho Nagumo, and Hiroyuki Okada. 2008. "Sound symbolism facilitates early verb learning". Cognition 109 (1): 54–65. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2008.07.015.
  • Kilian-Hatz (2001) "Universality and diversity". In Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001, 155-164.
  • Kock, I. (1985) "The speech act theory: A preliminary investigation". In South African Journal of African Languages, 5, 49-53.
  • Nuckolls, Janis B. 1996. Sounds Like Life: Sound-Symbolic Grammar, Performance, and Cognition in Pastaza Quechua. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Nuckolls, Janis B. 2004. "To be or to be not ideophonically impoverished". In SALSA XI: Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Symposium about Language and Society, ed. Wai Fong Chiang, Elaine Chun, Laura Mahalingappa, and Siri Mehus, 131–142. Austin: University of Texas.
  • Samarin, William, J. 1971. "Survey of Bantu Ideophones" African Language Studies, 12. School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
  • Voeltz, F. K. Erhard, and Christa Kilian-Hatz, eds. 2001. Ideophones. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.