Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How Performative are Ideophones in Pastaza Quichua?

Here is a short description of my intended project this summer:

The aim of this project is to investigate the performative qualities of ideophones, a category of expressions which are central to many linguists’ debates about the nature of language as a system. Ideophones are words that are sound symbolic, meaning the sounds of the words reflect their meaning. They are most similar to onomatopoeias in English, but in Ecuadorian Pastaza Quichua they act differently and play a much more significant role in the language. They play a specific syntactic role and are often performatively emphasized in order to depict an image of an experience for the audience.

Ideophones are linguistically interesting because they challenge one of the basic assumptions of linguistic science, namely that the sign symbol of words is arbitrary. Understanding how ideophones work thus contributes to fundamental knowledge about the diverse ways in which languages are used to communicate.

Specifically, I am interested in gathering data from consultants to measure the performative qualities of ideophone usage. These features have been described qualitatively and impressionistically in previous research by Dr. Janis Nuckolls (1996, 2004, 2006, 2010). I would like to seek empirical evidence for her work using acoustic analysis of sound spectrographic imagery. This work continues my research begun during Spring and Summer terms in 2011 while on BYU's Ecuador Study Abroad Program.

I will be using the linguistic software system Praat, used by many phoneticians, in order to analyze prosodic features of ideophones as used in personal narratives, casual conversation and traditional stories. I'm looking to provide evidence of the performative features described in Dr. Nuckolls' book Sounds Like Life (1996). These features include pitch change (in comparison to other parts of speech), intonation, and lengthening that sets them apart from the rest of an utterance. Nuckolls has argued (2010) that the way Quechua speakers consciously manipulate ideophones in order to simulate experiences for the listener moves these background characteristics to the foreground of their language usage.

I'm still working on how to describe this project as well as the methods I will use to collect and interpret data; largely I will be conducting interviews and trying to participate in regular conversation as well. My knowledge of Praat has increased greatly in the last few months thanks to a linguistic internship I'm working on with English News Broadcasts, and I think that my experience with it will transfer to a better ability to analyze Quichua speech as well.

Questions? I've been working with this idea for a while so it seems clear to me, but I would love to hear feedback and work on describing it more clearly while I'm working on my own questions in relation to the project as well.


  1. Interesting! I know nothing about linguistics, so this is a great introductory course into this subject for me! You said that in Quichua ideophones "act differently and play a much more significant role in the language." Do you think this reflects a certain cultural value or belief that they have which then affects their language and the use of their ideophones? And as I said in class, I don't know anything about the culture into which you will be entering nor the subject of which you will be studying. I found on my own field study that the way people said things often/always came from a common belief that their culture held. I was just curious as to how maybe this use of ideaophones kind of reflects their culture. Does my question make sense or is it totally confusing?

  2. This is absolutely great! In my 2011 dissertation on The Meaning and Use of Ideophones I have devoted some attention to the issue of the performativity. Partly based on Janis Nuckolls claims but also on field research in Ghana. Just search for the title and you'll find the full dissertation. See chapter 7 and especially pp. 174-183. Also check out pp. 34-46 on depiction and performativity.

    I also use a method that you might find useful: a breaching experiment, to address the question whether speakers accountably produce ideophones as performances or whether listeners and analysts just like to hear it that way.

    You might also want to consider gesture. It's not all in the speech signal; ideophones are produced as multimodal acts of performance, in which speech and gesture together do the job of depicting sensory imagery (see my chapters 9 and 13). I would recommend getting all data in HD video and high quality audio -- there is really little excuse today to not consider language in all its multimodal glory.

    I couldn't find an email address on this blog (just stumbled on it accidentally) but I would very much like to learn more about your plans.

    1. Hi Mark,

      I've been reading your thesis and I'm learning a lot from it! Dr. Nuckolls highly recommended it.

      Gestures are so essential; I wanted to record video and study gestures when I was in Ecuador last year but I cut that idea out because I was concerned that it wouldn't be approved by our Institutional Review Board. It's probably worth another try though.

      I'm glad you stumbled upon this little corner of the internet; you can reach me any time at roseannahopper@gmail.com.