Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ideophone Infiltration

I'm a fan of ideophones. I think the aesthetic, social and cultural functions of these expressive words makes them fascinating (see writings of Nuckolls, Dingemanse, Doke and others for more information on their form and functions since I don't have the eloquence or brainpower to get into it now). I also have a sort of aspirational attitude about ideophones; I like the idea of ideophones being more widely and productively used in Western languages. This is partly because the eventual demise of many languages worldwide seems inevitable at this point (a prophecy which just about makes me hyperventilate)--so any way humanity might retain some of the unique knowledge and beauty of fated languages is a welcome idea to me. Also I would love them to appear more in English just for the fun of it. Ideophones are a prime area for the creativity of the individual speaker to shine, and for the conversation participants to interact in a vivid experience created by language.

The biggest obstacle to ideophones becoming more productive in languages like English and Spanish is probably that they don't thrive well on paper. Writing is a huge portion of the communicative use of these languages, and often their most highly regarded form. But if they got to be a part of colloquial language, they would creep into movies, right? And lots of dialectal speech variations have been recorded both in print and on film, first in Pygmalion then My Fair Lady, also Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, parts of Faulkner's works and many of the Coen brothers' films, just to name a few. Anyway my point is that film is a great resource for the preservation and distribution of language as it is spoken, so I would love to see ideophones occurring in film even more than in everyday conversation. And I think this would happen if they were to become a common conversational occurrence.

Enough wishing though. I mostly just wanted to write this post because I have seen more Western language ideophone usage on the ground, this time in Spanish. I wasn't good about writing down the specifics the first couple of times I heard them, and even now I don't have everything verbatim, but I have a few actual examples now that I would like to share.

(1) tarararara, imitation of the phone ringing. In this case there was no Spanish verb to indicate that the phone rang, such as sonar, but the ideophone was incorporated basically as it would have been in a Kichwa conversation, indicating the ringing by its appearance and the context. This isn't an actual Kichwa ideophone that I recognize, but there seems to be a lot of room for creation in the realm of onomatopoeic ideophones in Kichwa so I expect it would be accepted if it had occurred in a Kichwa conversation instead.

(2) pag, in reference to a cashier being caught for stealing from the register. This same ideophone occurred again just a bit later in the conversation, used by someone else to refer to the act of stealing. Unfortunately I didn't get to write this down until well after the conversation so the context is mostly lost, but pag (also pronounced with a devoiced or even fricative final consonant) is a common ideophone in Kichwa. It might or might not be used by Kichwa speakers in this context, since its usual sense has to do with a falling object, but I have also heard it used in a few other ways and it might be broad enough to be acceptable here as well. If I were to guess, tak would be the best Kichwa ideophone for the idea of grabbing something, which was the context here. (3) tas, to describe the act of relocating a joint that is out of place. Two speakers used this one several times in a conversation, in place of a verb but with accompanying gestures and expressive force. It took me a minute to figure out what they meant by it actually, since they didn't use any Spanish words for "joint" or "relocate," I had to derive it from the context of two different stories.
First, a woman expressing concern about an injury to her hand, planning to go to a doctor but worried that the doctor would go tas to fix it and it would hurt. Then her friend told a story of seeing a boy fall on his bike, comforting him and then going tas without warning him, which both frightened and essentially fixed his problem.
In this case, tas would absolutely be an acceptable ideophone in Kichwa to describe the action of popping a joint back into place, since it describes "an action... considered as accomplished and complete... in space" (Nuckolls 1996). That is an abstract (and partial) definition, because it's a rather broad and abstract ideophone. It's also a very common one from what I have heard.

I have heard a few other uses of Kichwa-style ideophones in Spanish conversation, but unfortunately my observational energies aren't turned up to 11 in Spanish conversation like they are when I'm listening to and speaking Kichwa. Luckily my comprehension is at least ten times better. It's frustrating to me how much I feel like I'm guessing here, especially since I'm just transferring notes from after the conversation and I don't have a recorded version to refer to again. But I think even these poor examples are enough to point out a trend that deserves some more attention, and I will try to continue to pay attention and make notes on this... Even though it has nothing to do with any of my projects directly.

It's also worth noting that all three of these examples come from native Spanish speakers, people who don't speak Kichwa fluently and have no inherited ties to the language or indigenous culture. They are Ecuadoreans who interact with Kichwa speakers occasionally, sometimes professionally, and who most likely have picked up Kichwa phrases here and there (like US citizens often do with Spanish).

So it looks like overall, there is some evidence for my hope of ideophone infiltration in Ecuadorean Spanish. Now if only it would occur more reliably, and spread to other dialects of Spanish as well. I don't know much about language contact, but I would not be surprised to hear that this sort of thing is happening in other regions near ideophonic languages as well, at least a little.


  1. This is awesome--I loved this post. I had to look up what ideophones were, since it's a piece of information I can't seem to retain no matter how often you explain it. But now I know for myself. This is fascinating, and I'm so glad you took notes of the instances you heard these ideophones being used. Well I at least feel your pain on the comprehension front, since I understand about 20-60% of what's being said to me depending on who is speaking when I want to be understanding 150%. Which is possible you know, understanding not just what someone is saying but what they MEAN. It's a frustrating road-block. [Insert motivational (but not patronizing) encouragement here.] Can't wait to hear more about your studies!

  2. Thanks for the support Jen. Been really enjoying your posts too. See you again in the states, or will you be long gone?

  3. Cool to read these updates. I blogged about ideophones being used in writing (a newspaper) and in a "Western" language (Ghanaian English) a while back — see "Under the spell of ideophones".

  4. To be honest, I read your post because I misread "ideophone" as "idiophone," which is an instrument that uses vibrations of its body to generate sound... But, that aside, I'm glad I stumbled across your blog. Ideophones are all over the place in India - it can even be argued that much of the Vedic scripture and mantra recitation is ideophonic, as by their own attestation they contain the sound-essence of religious truths. Many mantras have no direct meaning or translation, but are thought to sonically invoke the deity or cosmic force. I'll be paying more attention to everyday colloquial ideophone usage now...

  5. Hello, I came across your blog when googling some Amazonian Quichua references, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts about learning to speak the language - they reminded me of my first months of fieldwork with highland Quichua. I was also glad to see your interest in the great topic of ideophones, and I was going to mention that there was a student working with Quichua ideophones to my colleague Mark Dingemanse (he's three offices down from me) until I saw on the comments that you two have already discovered your shared mutual love of ideophony. Anyway, on one of the posts you mention that you missed talking to other research-minded folks while in the field - there is a handful of linguists/anthropologists working with Ecuadorian indigenous languages and we sometimes meet up in Ecuador (or elsewhere, at conferences and such) so if you are going ahead with more research you might find some of that kind of networking useful.