Words that sound their meanings

It’s the weekend, and time to have some fun with language in today’s post honouring African indigenous languages. Words that add expressiveness to utterances exist in all languages, (‘vroum vroum‘, ‘nee-no-nee-no‘, ‘zack‘…), but they are extremely widespread in African languages, to the extent that the term ‘ideophone’ (according to Welmers 1973 “a vivid representation of an idea in a sound”) was coined by the Africanist Clement Doke in 1935 to designate sound-symbolic words that convey in iconic fashion properties of objects and actions. Ideophones can add meaning on sound, colour, size, shape, pattern of movement, texture, intensity and much more. The Mande language Bambara of Mali has its own word class of expressive adverbs that are all ideophonic. Some ideophones in Bambara are very specialized and only occur with one single notion, for instance with colours. Po, pyan, pye, pas, pa, pelepele, poro and puli (pronounced with extra high pitch) all combine with the colour term ‘white’ and only with it to give rise to the meaning ‘very white’. Other ideophones occur with several notions and receive their contextual meaning from the combination with a verb or noun. To these belong bagibagi, which describes boiling water, high fever and generally high temperatures, kolokoto ‘totally’, used with expressions of failure, or burututu‘ ceaseless’. One of my all-time favourites is fugubɛfugubɛ, which combines with motion verbs to give an impression of quick, agitated motion. If you know Malian sartorial style, you can hear flapping robes trailing in the tailwind of a person taking great strides!

You can read more on ideophones in Bambara in this article:

Dumestre Gérard. Les idéophones : le cas du bambara. In: Faits de langues, n°11-12, Octobre 1998. Les langues d’Afrique subsaharienne. pp. 321-334

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