Friday, May 4, 2012

Half-baked Ideas

(disclaimer--This is not a fully developed idea, despite how long it's been rattling around my brain now. I just have to put it out there anyway. Suggestions/criticisms/encouragement of this sort of musing are welcome.)

I was reading an article by Mark Dingemanse the other week that describes current ideophone research and semantic typology and it sparked my thoughts on ideophones in English again...

So my mentor Dr. Nuckolls has written about the ideophonically impoverished state of English (2004), being that it only contains ideophones that mimic sound (onomatopoeia) and relegates them to contexts of juvenile literature or connotations of whimsy (2010). However I recently noticed several ideophone-like performances by native English speaking friends of mine that were definitely not depictions of sound. I would also argue that they were creative and original expressions worthy of more than a whimsical status.

I'll share just one example because it's the one I can most clearly remember. My roommate was asking to borrow a sweater that's sort of a faux wrap. In other words it has two parts and looks as if it wraps around to close; in fact it's sewn together so it's not a genuine wrap but rather a pullover. (See picture below.) The difficulty of describing this or coming up with a precise term for it is pointing out to me why my roommate may have chosen to use a sound effect (ideophone?) + gesture combination to portray the image of the sweater to me. So there's the setting. What she said to me was, "do you know where that shoop shoop* sweater is? can I borrow it?" And while saying shoop shoop she gestured with each hand down and across her body in the way that the sweater wraps (one swoop** of the hand for each word).

(Neiman Marcus faux-wrap cashmere sweater)

It feels like a stretch to call this an ideophonic performance, per se, but maybe that's just because my English-speaking mind wants to dismiss it as a "shortcut" description. I think this comes from the Western tradition of careful and extensive categorization of the world around us, where each object or concept has a name specifically applied to it in an attempt to craft a perfectly accurate, no-context-necessary language. (Kind of like in Tyler Gibb's "Specificity Specifically" Inquiry Conference presentation, or the whole practice of binomial nomenclature.) From this point of view, my roommate's use of an ideophone is imprecise and almost lazy. I think that might point to the problem with exhaustive categorization though, it puts the burden on the speaker to keep track of labels and requires tremendous memorization, as anyone who has tried to learn a professional or academic jargon can attest.

Anyway back to the ideophone. Ideophones have been said to occur in an "informal language register" in order to "dramatize a narration" (Doke, as cited by Dingemanse). While the former is true in my example, the latter does not apply and it seems more along the lines of usages reported by both Nuckolls (1996, etc) and Dingemanse (2011). I can't quite put my finger on the name for it, but this was a high-context communication situation (we live together) and the function of the ideophone was to facilitate the creation of an image in my mind, which it did successfully.

This "ideophone" is not conventionalized, which argues against true ideophone status. But it does potentially draw on a conventional English adjective (swoop), and it's fun to think that maybe this sort of performance could become more common in English. Certainly Nuckolls' use of the adjective "impoverished" (2004) indicates a potential richness or valuable quality that ideophones contribute to a language, so a development of English ideophones could be desirable.

In terms of describing the full meaning of the word I'm still struggling. I don't know whether to call this a depiction of movement or of visual perception; it's something like a visual depiction of lines along with the suggestion of wrapping. So in terms of the hierarchy of ideophone depiction proposed by Dingemanse (in press): there is some movement involved, and potentially a visual sensory element as well. Much more thought to be done here. But again, it's exciting for me to look at the possibility of English ideophones moving further along the ideophone hierarchy, with the use of ideohpone and gesture in English conversation occurring on a level closer to depictions of movement or other sensory perceptions than previously thought. (I haven't copied Dingemanse's exact hierarchy here but the idea is that languages with more developed ideophonic systems will move beyond depictions of sound to those of movement, visual images, and other sensory perceptions.)

* this is an approximate spelling of the pronunciation. I would say there was an accompanying rise in pitch for each word but I can't remember for sure.
** notice how the word "swoop" is close to her utterance, possibly an inspiration? that's the image/word association that came to my mind anyway.

1.Dingemanse, Mark. “Advances in the Cross-Linguistic Study of Ideophones.” (will be in Language & Linguistics Compass 2012)
2.Nuckolls, Janis B. Lessons from a Quechua Strongwoman: Ideophony, Dialogue, and Perspective. Tucson: University of Arizona, 2010. Print.
3.Nuckolls, Janis B. Sounds like Life: Sound-symbolic Grammar, Performance, and Cognition in Pastaza Quechua. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
4.Nuckolls, Janis B. “To Be or Not To Be Ideophonically Impoverished.” Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Symposium about Language and Society — Austin, Texas Linguistic Forum, 2004. 131-142. Austin.


  1. ...You wrote like a research paper blog entry thing. I am so amazed, haha. This is awesome.

    Could it be an issue not whether they are ideophones or not, but of the uncertain place of ideophones in English? Like the fact that we don't really have them officially, generally, so that any usage of them is incredibly informal and entirely context based? Like they vary not only by region, but even as far down to individual family "dialects" or even between just two people?

    You might want to look around to see how contextualized the meaning of "shoop shoop" is. Is it something that only you and your room mate would understand? Could you go to Neimans and find the sweater by shooping? How does that dovetail into body language? Is it not a true ideophone because it is dependent on body motion?

    Is there something official to say about the fact that ideophones in English generally are not conventionalized? Which is to say, that their generally non-conventional status makes them conventional in English because that is generally how they operate?

    I know nothing about linguistics, haha.

  2. ...If only I could turn them out faster and better, ha. Thanks though!

    I don't know much about what has been said about ideophones in English already, there are a few articles out there but I haven't been able to access them yet. And individual ways of speaking are definitely a factor, the word for that is "idiolect" actually. :) I'd like to do a little more research on that.

    I love the idea of walking in to Neiman Marcus and asking for a "shoop shoop" sweater, haha. The context there seems like it would be too formal for it to work, but it could prove interesting precisely because of that.

    Shoot, I know hardly anything about linguistics myself at this point. There is a lot to explore here that I haven't gotten into yet. Thanks for the useful insights; I appreciate that you took the time to read this and contribute to my thought process.