Plenary address at the 43rd Annual Conference on African Linguistics, New Orleans, March 2012.
Ideophones, marked words that depict sensory imagery, are found in many of the world’s languages, but they are especially prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. The first recognition of their prominence in African languages dates back to some of the earliest descriptive grammatical work in West-Africa (e.g. Schlegel, Vidal, Koelle, Junod). They were defined as a word class by the Bantuist Doke, and their study has since been “part of the Africanist subtradition in linguistics” (Tedlock 1999). What can we learn from the prominence and ubiquity of ideophones in African languages? In this lecture I focus on some matters that are crucial to understanding ideophones, and, I argue, language at large. The data come from Siwu, a Kwa (GTM) language of Ghana; methods range from traditional pencil and paper fieldwork to video recordings of natural conversation and from stimulus-based elicitation to the collection of folk definitions. An underlying concern is to register some of the challenges that ideophones have posed to scientists of language, and to explore ways in which they can contribute to the ongoing development of theory and methods in (African) linguistics.
The starting point is the relation between language and perception. Perception is our point of contact with the outside world; language is our way of making social sense of it. It is significant then that languages may differ quite radically in the resources they provide for talking about perception; and striking that so many African languages feature large word classes dedicated to evoking sensory imagery. Although the sensory meanings of ideophones have often been regarded as elusive, methods from cognitive anthropology and psychology help chart the lexical domain of ideophones and bring to light the existence of fine-grained semantic-perceptual categories such as in-mouth sensation, surface appearance, firmness, granularity, texture, and spatial extent. Gesture is another important source of information. I show how the iconic gestures that often accompany ideophones help elucidate their meanings; and I argue that the tight coupling of ideophones and gesture is further evidence for the fact that their meanings lie in the domain of sensory imagery. I explore the implications of these points for the language-perception interface.
Ideophones have often been eschewed as exotic words with elusive meanings. I hope to show that once we rise to the challenge by bringing in new methods and adopting a holistic perspective on language, we find that ideophones shed light on many themes that are crucial to our understanding of language. This is what the study of ideophones can contribute to African linguistics in the 21st century: fostering a resolutely interdisciplinary and multimethodological approach to linguistic science, and refreshing our views of what is possible and probable in human language.