Language Charade?

Marcus Perlman (a lecturer in English language and linguistics at the University of Birmingham) writes for Psyche about a dubious idea with some interesting stuff attached:

Language gives us the power to describe, virtually without limit, the countless entities, actions, properties and relations that compose our experience, real and imagined. But what is the origin of this power? What gave rise to humankind’s ability to use words to convey meanings?

Traditionally, scholars interested in this question have focused on trying to explain language as an arbitrary symbolic code. If you take an introductory course in linguistics, you are certain to learn the foundational doctrine known as ‘the arbitrariness of the sign’, laid out in the early 20th century by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. This principle states that words are meaningful simply as a matter of convention. […] But this raises a conundrum – what is known in philosophy as ‘the symbol grounding problem’. If words are arbitrary and purely a matter of convention, then how did they come to be established in the first place? In practical terms: how did our ancestors create the original words? This is a challenging question to answer. Scientists have little direct knowledge of the prehistoric origins of today’s approximately 7,000 spoken languages, at least tens of thousands of years ago. We do, however, know an increasing amount about how people create and develop new sign languages.

Sign languages – which are articulated primarily by visible gestures of the hands, body and face – turn out to be far more common than previously realised, with a roughly estimated 200 such languages used by Deaf and hearing people around the globe. Crucially, sign languages are, absolutely, languages, every bit as complex and expressive as their spoken counterparts. And many sign languages are much younger than spoken languages, making their origins more transparent. Indeed, within just the past few decades, scientists have actually observed the early formation of entirely new sign languages – a process that happens spontaneously when Deaf people who are deprived of a sign language have the opportunity to live together and communicate freely with each other.

So how do they do it? How do Deaf people first establish a shared set of meaningful signs? Their solution is an intuitive one. Without access to a sign language, Deaf people communicate in essentially the same way that people do when they travel to a place where they don’t speak any of the local languages, or when they play a game of ‘charades’. Tasked to communicate without words, the human strategy is universal: we act out our meaning, pantomiming actions and using our hands and bodies to depict the sizes, shapes and spatial relationships of referents. […] Key to this process of forming new symbols is the use of iconicity – the creation of signs that are intrinsically meaningful because they somehow resemble what they are intended to mean. Iconicity, that connection between form and meaning, is a powerful force for communication, enabling people to understand each other across linguistic divides.

He goes on to investigate studies of iconicity in speech showing that “iconic vocalisations can be a powerful way for people to communicate when they lack a common language.” Which is all very well, and the studies are interesting, but we then get “there is at least a possibility that the forms of many spoken words began – like the symbols of sign languages – as iconic representations of their meanings.” Sure, fine, I can go along with “at least a possibility,” though I don’t know about “many,” but that gets us no closer to the origin of language, which continues to be a mystery. Anyway, like I say, interesting stuff there; thanks, Jack!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Interesting, but hardly iconoclastic: cross-linguistiic correlations between sound and reference are old news. Edward Sapir had a paper about the “big/small” one some time ago …

    It’s the reason why more words than one might naively think are actually no use at all in long-range (or come to that, short-range) comparative work: it’s not just obvious miscreants like “blow” or “tweet.” For example, in Oti-Volta languages – and far beyond – “round” is nearly always something like “bil-” or “gbil-” or “bul-“, but sadly, no amount of linguistic ingenuity can derive all the various words regularly from the same protoform; evidently the words all just sound round to people. There are even less obvious cases, like “lab-” for “lurk behind something” …

    And the conclusion doesn’t really follow: it might “explain” why “big” words tend to have more open vowels than “little” words, for example, but it can’t possibly account for the whole form of such words, even in some hypothetical protolanguage, even in principle, unless that protolanguage altogether lacked familiar features like a difference between vowels and consonants.

    Africa is the place to investigate ideophones. European languages are pretty third-division stuff when it comes to phonaesthetic words. Hausa has hundreds: and they are not arbitrary, and this is not at all the same thing as onomatopoeia; though some ideophones are onomatopoeic, most are not. Some words evidently just sound “black” or “white”* or “red” … (Kusaal, I’m sorry to say, is relatively poorly endowed on this front for an African language.)

    *Fasss in Kusaal …

  2. Stu Clayton says

    If words are arbitrary and purely a matter of convention, then how did they come to be established in the first place?

    By arbitrarily setting conventions.

    In practical terms: how did our ancestors create the original words?

    By creating them.

    The very first paragraph of the article is much too easy to “understand” – and that’s a big problem, but not the problem it purports to summarize:

    Language gives us the power to describe, virtually without limit, the countless entities, actions, properties and relations that compose our experience, real and imagined. But what is the origin of this power? What gave rise to humankind’s ability to use words to convey meanings?

    I have seen such extremely vague claims of all kinds countless times, and am none the wiser. It’s full of words your average intellectual feels he “understands”, and off we go on another roller-coaster of talk.

    At least two people, a speaker and a hearer, are required for “descriptions” and “conveying” to occur.

    If I don’t understand what that paragraph is “conveying”, what’s the point in calling it a description ? The word “description” is being used in a power play. Anyone who doesn’t understand it is just being difficult, right ?

    My description here may not “convey” anything to a casual reader, although it is clear to me. Is he being difficult ?

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    John Haiman (whose expertise is primarily in Cambodian, which evidently can give African languages a run for their money in this) actually wrote a whole book very much apropos to this, essentially suggesting that ideophones are a sort of linguistic coelacanth:

    It’s enjoyable but not very convincing.

  4. It’s enjoyable but not very convincing.

    That description covers a lot of what I’ve seen on this topic.

  5. David Marjanović says

    suggesting that ideophones are a sort of linguistic coelacanth

    That’s particularly unlikely given languages where ideophones have a larger inventory of consonants and/or consonant clusters than the rest of the vocabulary – but they still relate to the normal inventory in unremarkable ways, unlike paralinguistic effects that come out of nowhere in that regard.

  6. For ideophones in African languages (and beyond), I’d recommend Mark Dingmanse’s blog Ideophone.
    I understand that many ideophones in African languages have gestural correlates.

    At least two languages in the Huon Gulf region of Papua New Guinea have grammatically marked ideophones: Jabêm and Numbami. But I’m not aware of any documentation in neighboring languages.
    It’s much easier to elicit ideophones once you have discover such a grammatical marker to play with. Hardly any basic documentary sketch grammars chance upon them.

    Japanese and Korean also have very large inventories of ideophones, richly covered in linguistic literature, but I’m not aware of research on gestural correlates.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Thanks, Joel!
    (I’d forgotten about Japanese …)

    You’re right about the gesture-correlate thing, though I can’t come up with any very good examples (and anyway this margin is too narrow for me to be able to make the gestures in …)

    The best account I have come across so far of ideophones in an African language is in the late Stefan Elders’ admirable grammar of Kulango. Even quite detailed and otherwise very good grammars usually only give them a walk-on part, I think from a combination of them not turning up so much in more formal contexts and their not fitting neatly into the grammatical categories we’ve been brought up to know and love (Jaggar’s excellent Hausa grammar treats them – quite extensively – under “adverbs.” Cop-out …) And they are not easy to gloss in dictionaries, either …

    There do seem to be considerable differences in how large a part they play in languages even from the same areas. And they surely aren’t all the same thing even within a single language. In Kusaal there seems to be no lexical overlap at all between (at least) adjective/stative-verb intensifiers, quasi-onomatopoeics of the “rat-tat-tat” type, and those that function as predicative complements, though all three groups show the usual “ideophone” things like not (necessarily) conforming to “normal” word structure or morphophonemic constraints, and being rendered in a distinctive kind of “emphatic” (not sure what to call it, exactly) manner in speech.

  8. Stu would appreciate the definition of ideophones in Haiman.
    Depict vs. describe.
    Show vs. tell.

    Are пиздых and хуяк ideophones?

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    “Depict vs. describe” certainly does not work as a way of distinguishing ideophones from other words. What does “the” describe? What does “you” describe? And, as I say, ideophones are not necessarily (or even typically) onomatopoeic, even if you interpret “onomatopoeia” very liberally indeed.

    The usual way to say “Make it straight” in Kusaal is

    Maalimi li sapi
    make.IMPERATIVE it straight

    where sapi is an ideophone. It doesn’t “depict” anything.
    To say “It’s very white”, you might say

    Li anɛ pielig fass fass.
    It be.focus white IDEOPHONE IDEOPHONE

    (Fass is not a possible shape for a “normal” Kusaal word: Kusaal has no word-final consonant clusters except /mm/. Except when it does, as here …)
    If fass “depicts” white, I’m a Dutchman. (Fass is possibly borrowed from the synonymous Hausa ideophone fat, though it’s hard to know with words of this kind, which are widely shared in the area anyway; however, in Hausa it is at least more obviously connected with the relevant adjective, fari “white.”)

  10. зырк-зырк по сторонам

  11. One can equally well ask, it seems to me, how birdsong originated. Or the elaborate mating behaviors that various animals display. Presumably these are phenomena that were elaborated over many eons from simpler sounds and behaviors, but that doesn’t help much in explaining how raptors roaring in the jungle (so accurately depicted in Jurassic Park) eventually turned into the trilling of larks and wrens.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Hausa fari “white” invariably reminds me of the earworm “Jesus loves the little children”, which in Hausa goes

    Yesu yana ƙaunar yara,
    Dukan yaran duniya!
    Baƙi, fari ko kuwa ja,
    Duka ɗaya wurinsa,
    Yesu yana ƙaunar yaran duniya!

    “Jesus loves the children/All the children of the world/Black, white and red too/All one with him/Jesus loves the children of the world.”

    The expression of this admirable sentiment has fallen foul of political correctness in the UK, but the song remains popular among Hausaphone Christians. I cite it as illustrating nicely that Hausa is a three-colour language, like many in West Africa. All of us are black, white or red. Like everything else …

  13. Telling that a phenomenon X (iconism or what ever) observed in contemporary languages has contributed into formation of language is basically telling that the phenomonen is observed. It does contribute, then it has contributed.

    If one wants to formulate a historical hypothesis, one either needs to postulate a point of “origin” of langauge in time (and accordingly “early” period) and it is not clear how you choose this hypothetical point, especially when you know nothing — or try something else, e.g. “there was a period when iconism played much larger role than today” [and possibly before].
    I guess this does not sound attractive to many.

    But then you can hypothesize that
    (1) for each individual word there is a tree of its protoforms.
    (2) “tree”, because several different protoforms may have contributed in its shape and meaning. Contributions can be weighted.
    (3) the tree has finite size and depth in time
    (4) all or most of its leaves (corresponding to real-life situation when someone uttered something for the first time in history) are instances of X (iconism, onomatopoeia, or whatever).

    Still not neat enough to be hypothetically testable, but what I mean, one can say “most our words (or most of their “mass”) originated as X” without saying “our language originated as X”.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    “tree”, because several different protoforms may have contributed in its shape and meaning. Contributions can be weighted

    I’m pretty sure this is has always been a marginal case (even in creoles), though sporadic examples do occur (like Kusaal lɔmbɔn’ɔg “garden”, the love child of Hausa lambu “garden” and Kusaal bɔn’ɔg “ricefield.”) I can’t even imagine how you’d weight it.

  15. If red predates yellow in European classification (does it?) then there could be a moment when in Europe races were RWB too…. There was a book Becoming Yellow by Keevak about the history of the concept of yellow race. I do not know if it is good or not, but it is in the pitate libraries online. I haven’t seen anything similar for red.

  16. January First-of-May says

    I’m pretty sure this is has always been a marginal case

    Not that marginal, at least if it means what I think it means. A nice well-attested example is English every, which goes back to something like half a dozen words in Proto-Germanic (and maybe even more further up).

    I agree that I have very little idea how you’d weight it. By contributing phonemes?

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Mostly marginal …

  18. Peter Erwin says

    It’s my understanding that there are a number of different species of mammals (especially monkeys) and birds which can use several different warning sounds to signal the possible presence of different sorts of predators (e.g., leopard versus eagle versus snake). These sounds seem to be pretty arbitrary.

    Obviously, I’m not trying to say something silly like “And this is where human words come from!” And animal alarm calls are not like words in human languages, since they’re instinctual and not learned culture. I’m more thinking that the (acoustic) “symbol grounding problem” is a bit more general than Perlman suggests, and that “iconicity” is not the only logically plausible mechanism. (In that it would make no sense to argue that the different sorts of monkey alarm calls meaning “leopard” must have started as monkeys trying to imitate the sound of leopards…)

  19. Stu Clayton says

    it would make no sense to argue that the different sorts of monkey alarm calls meaning “leopard” must have started as monkeys trying to imitate the sound of leopards…

    Well, that would be nonsense, but nonsense makes sense. That’s why I know what you mean.

    Monkeys can repeat themselves and imitate each other, though. Once a monkey has screamed in a certain way at the sight of a leopard slinking up, he (or she!) can easily repeat it come the next leopard. Other monkeys hear each scream, see each leopard. Some will imitate this scream (but after that, they can only repeat it). The “I’m in a leopard funk” meme is born by association and repetition.

    A similar phenomenon is the air-guitar playing of Beavis and Butthead.

    How easy it is to make up stories !

    I still have hopes, every time I try to read it, that Répétition et différence will some day make sense. The title is prometteur. In that book Deleuze goes full tilt with posturing French intellectual airy-fairyness. It is so annoying. And he let his fingernails grow till they were in se ipsos incurvati. You know what Augustine thought about that.

  20. “Scientists have little direct knowledge of the prehistoric origins of today’s approximately 7,000 spoken languages, at least tens of thousands of years ago.”

    In fact, they have none.

  21. Exactly.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    I see that Out There on the internet you can find an allegedly “inclusive” variant English-language version of “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” where the catalog of various skin colors is replaced by “Every color, every race” thus conveniently avoiding the need to specify any particular color or race. This also means that for the sake of rhyme it became necessary to assert that all of these children are “covered by His grace” rather than “precious in His sight.”

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s better in the original Hausa.

  24. What about covering every religion? :-E

    Or is it:

    ….Buddha loves little Buddists, a whole pantheon loves little pagans, parents love little Jews (it is not Semitism, it is just that Jews and atheists do not have an appropriate venerable figure and I am not going to write “no one loves…”…)

  25. David Eddyshaw says

    Buddha loves little Buddhists

    Avalokitesvara seems to be pretty well disposed to just about everybody, as far as I can make out. Difficult to work him/her into the metrical scheme, though. Kannon might be easier …

  26. Well, my former boss saw a crow who hid and barked at a cat (teasing her).

    Crows do that, tease other animals.

  27. JJM:

    > “Scientists have little direct knowledge of the prehistoric origins of today’s approximately 7,000 spoken languages, at least tens of thousands of years ago.”

    > In fact, they have none.

    It’s really strange, that construction — but quite common. Why say “little direct knowledge” when you mean “no knowledge”. That’s not restricted to language. “Little direct knowledge” means what it means literally. “No knowledge” also means what it means in non-technical language.

  28. Some scientists are clearer on that, e.g. Eric Idle (about halfway through the clip).

  29. Y: That’s behind an ad-wall.

  30. I (even I) like “I’m afraid even I really just don’t know”.

  31. If the author has little direct knowlege of what “scientists” know, a change in register (“they have no idea” etc.) can help with hedging. No need to sound precise when you can’t be precise.

    I, in turn have little knowlege of what “direct” and “knowlege” mean:(

  32. I’m a complete linguistics amateur, but here is my two-cent hypothesis: Language evolved with the species. There was not, on some prehistoric day, a group of early humans sitting around realizing they could speak, and beginning the process of inventing words for things. Rather, there evolved, somewhere along the evolutionary history of humans, a species that was capable of making a few sounds, not many, for things that were important to them — like the example of the monkeys cited above. Along with warning sounds, these could have been words for various tools (perhaps imitating the sounds they made — maybe “ax” which still sounds like the sound it makes), words for important actions, names for individuals, etc. If they monkeys can make a half dozen distinct sounds, maybe this group could make 50, or a hundred.

    Clearly, this would have provided an evolutionary advantage, and that advantage would have grown with further evolutionary changes to their vocal capability over the millennia that permitted a wider range of sounds and words. Along with this came changes in the brain that allowed these early humans to organize their words to reflect thoughts and concepts, and off we go to the races.

    This means that the creation of spontaneous sign languages among deaf people today is not really instructive of how spoken language arose and developed, because the deaf people in those groups have fully evolved brains capable of invention, which was not [fully] present in the proto-human group I’m positing above.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Language evolved with the species.


    “ax” which still sounds like the sound it makes

    Just 1500 years ago it sounded like [akwizi]…

    names for individuals

    Who knows. In particularly thinly populated places, there are cultures today where people don’t have names – they call and refer to each other by kinship terms.

  34. no identifiers for individual siblings? You just address your brother or daughter as “brother” or “daughter”?

  35. That’s how the people I knew in Taiwan addressed their siblings: “big brother,” “little sister,” etc. They had names, of course, but siblings didn’t often use them.

  36. I thought about a situation when there is a dozen of siblings in the room…

  37. David Marjanović says

    Such large families aren’t common among hunter-gatherers.

  38. There is a song 十一哥. What do 十一 and 哥 mean here?

    I suspect (from this'_Day) that 十一哥 must mean something like “a bachelor”, though the Internet keeps translating it as “eleven brothers” or “eleventh brother”.

  39. Listener 2:” Although this song is an old toothless song, there are many singers, including the famous Teresa Teng, who has sung it. I miss the singing ability, talent and appearance of the Kings of the music industry of the generation. One billion applause is not empty. The lyrics sing out very well, to 11 elder brothers this person I do not want to comment, today’s society 11 elder brothers return a lot of. Women are now fully liberated, not half the sky. Twelve lotus or peacock southeast flying heroine has become history. Women these days fly for money.”十一哥-the-eleventh-brother-lyrics-歌詞-with-pinyin-by-deng-li-jun-邓丽君-teresa-teng/

    “Twelve lotus or peacock southeast flying heroine has become history. ”

  40. What do 十一 and 哥 mean here?


    eleven; 11; one tenth elder brother
    simp. and trad.
    (十一哥) 十一 哥

    Min Nan (POJ): cha̍p-it-ko

    1. (Xiamen and Taiwanese Hokkien) bachelor (usually middle-aged or older)

  41. Wow. Apparently i guessed right!
    But the meaning 11 is unclear:/
    In russian there was (not sure if it is used) an idiom
    добраться на одиннадцатом номере
    lit “to get [somewhere] on 11th number [using tram/bus/… line 11]”.
    “To get on foot”.

    P.S. and I like the section “synonyms”

  42. There seem to be lots of ideophones in Amazon Quechua, which derives from Andean Quechua. Most seem to be accompanied by typical gestures, but some have lost their gestural feature on the way to being grammaticalized. The following website has lots of visual examples.

    Kilian-Hatz has proposed a universal feature of ideophones: that they cannot be negated. This might help distinguish them from nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, but I’m not sure how useful a diagnostic it might otherwise be.

  43. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s true that ideophones cannot be negated in Kusaal, but then nothing can be negated in Kusaal apart from verbs [unless you count some unproductive compound forms like nimpʋnan “disrespectful person” (“person-not-respecter”) or tʋbpʋwʋmnib “deaf people” (“ear-not-hearers”), where in any case the element after “not” seems to have to be a deverbal agent noun.]

    The kind of Kusaal ideophone that functions as a predicative complement can occur under the scope of a negative, e.g. Luke 13:11 in the 2016 Bible translation:

    ka pʋ nyaŋidi duodi o mɛŋi zi’e sappinɛ
    and NEG prevail.IPF [linker] raise.IPF her self [linker] stand straight [NEG]
    “and could not raise herself up and stand straight”

    with the ideophone sapi I mentioned above.
    You could, of course, abolish this exception by declaring that Kusaal ideophones of this kind aren’t really ideophones at all; but that seems pretty unmotivated from the standpoint of Kusaal itself. Like the adjective intensifiers and the manner-adverb-like ideophones, they deviate from normal word structure and even from normal phonotactic constraints; sapi is OK phonologically (though not morphologically), as it happens, but nyain “bright”, which functions in just the same way syntactically, is not: its shape (/j̃ãɪ̃/) is impossible for a Kusaal verb or nominal, or indeed anything but an “ideophone.” (In fact, its spelling in the standard orthography is aberrant too, for this very reason.)

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    Stefan Elders has clearcut ideophones under the scope of a negation in Kulango, too:

    te-ge hɛnɛ̀, hã̀ bii kpɩrɩ kpɩrɩ=yɛ̀ɩ
    “Cette chèvre n’est pas très noire.” (p270)

  45. Like the adjective intensifiers and the manner-adverb-like ideophones, they deviate from normal word structure and even from normal phonotactic constraints

    /p/, a remnant of Old Japanese, now occurs almost always medially in compounds, typically as a result of gemination (as in 切符 kippu, 切腹 seppuku or 北方 hoppō) or after /N/ (as in 音符 onpu), and in a few older compounds as a result of the contractions of pronunciations over time (as in 河童 kappa). It occurs initially or medially in onomatopoeia. Some few non-onomatopoeic exceptions where it occurs initially include 風太郎 pūtarō, although as a personal name it’s still pronounced Fūtarō. As gairaigo, loanwords of non-Middle-Chinese origin (non-Middle-Chinese Chinese borrowings such as パオズ paozu, ペテン peten as well as borrowings from non-Chinese languages such as パーティ pāti, etc.), enter the language, /p/ is increasingly used in transcription, initially or medially.

  46. @DE, why sapi is an ideophone?

    – (mor)phonologically odd?
    – not integrated in syntax (or morphology)?

    – has markers or used/integrated similarly to some other kind of words, say, onomatopoeic interjections?

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s not a possible nominal or verbal form (although some nominals aren’t either – in a sense: although loanword verbs conform to the permitted native verb shapes, loanword nouns don’t always do so.)

    It’s a flexional and derivational orphan, with no Kusaal-internal derivatives or recognisable root (though again, that is true of some borrowed nouns.)

    Syntactically, sapi is confined to the single role of predicative complement. The other possible fillers of that slot are nouns, and (to a rather limited extent) adjectives, all of which can occur in other contexts as well. Unlike nouns or adjectives, it cannot take any dependents or modifiers at all (though this feature is also shared by some “adverbs” – itself a somewhat slippery category in Kusaal, where “adverbs” behave fairly consistently as nouns or NPs.)

    And although sapi itself doesn’t break the usual morphophonemic rules, other words with the same syntactic behaviour do break them, and in the same kind of ways as the adjective/quality-verb intensifiers and dynamic-verb manner-adverb-like modifiers which are the other kinds of ideophone.

    Admittedly, lumping these distinct word categories together on the basis of what are ultimately phonological peculiarities is a bit question-begging; but I strongly suspect that in other languages beside Kusaal, “ideophone”, on closer inspection, would turn out to comprise some pretty distinct subgroups too. (This is certainly the case in Kulango, where we have the benefit of an analysis way above the usual standard for ideophones.) I’m not convinced that “ideophone” is a valid cross-linguistic concept, at least not without a lot of further refinement. Disparate things get lumped together just because they’re all “exotic” from a SAE perspective.

    [The variation sapi/sappi, in case you were wondering, is of no significance: p t k are actually always geminated in this position, and although the standard practice is to write them single, there’s a fair bit of vacillation in texts, and even in the Bible translation. The form sappinɛ reflects the effect on the word of the following negative enclitic, which itself is realised as zero; this is something that pervades the whole language. I refer you to the definitive account, Eddyshaw 2022 …]

  48. Kilian-Hatz has proposed a universal feature of ideophones: that they cannot be negated.




    ごろごろ or ゴロゴロ • (gorogoro)

    1. (onomatopoeia) with the sound of thunder
    2. (onomatopoeia) with a rumble
    3. (onomatopoeia) with a growl
    4. (onomatopoeia) with a purr
    5. (onomatopoeia) rolling
    6. (onomatopoeia) ubiquitously
    7. (onomatopoeia) idly passing the time


    Classical terminal form of the modern adjective 無い (nai).

    無し • (-nashi)
    -less, without …, not having or not being that thing

    1. ルールなし
    rūru nashi
    no rules


    “Seibu Sensen Ijō Nashi”
    There are no abnormalities on the Western Front (the Japanese title of All Quiet on the Western Front)

    […] 私は、ごろごろなしの稲妻、あちこちで、ピピピと光るモチーフのことを考えておりました。
    Watashi wa, gorogoronashi no inazuma, achi kochi de, pipipi to hikaru mochīfu no koto o kangaete orimashita.
    I was thinking of a motif of bolts of lightning without rumbles that produced flashes accompanied by pi pi pi sounds here and there.

    Likewise, I believe there must be forms like girigirinashi, etc.

  49. @DE, thank you! Yes, that is what I meant by “not integrated”.
    two more questions:
    – what do you mean by “not a possible noun or verbal form”?
    – is it accompanied by an unusual intionation?

  50. Maybe one could also say that the class is not integrated in the normal phonology, just as it is not integrated in morphological, derivational systems and syntax (of course it is used in a certain context, so the “syntax” part must be elaborated).

    Which is funny: this way “phonology” becomes a part of the whole language system (langauge systeam, in which something can be integrated or not), and not a dimension distinct from everything. Even etymology becomes a part of this system: I guess such words are isolated of it too, because they are not derivations and do not exactly obey normal phonetical rules (of change).

  51. I am trying to fugure out if various classes of Russian words are ideophones.

    A friend of mine once amused me by responding to an interjection (let it be “bang” – it was a similar word) with “not bang”.
    I do not remember what it was: maybe I commented this way on an action that I was about to initiate, and my firend meant that I should not, or that it did not happen, or maybe it was a proposal for joint action and she disagreed. But I do not think that it is unusual for chidlren’s langauge.

    If you can name an action with a word, then you can negate it, why not.

  52. I would think words like бац could be called ideophones. (Was that the word you and your friend were using?)

  53. David Eddyshaw says

    – is it accompanied by an unusual intonation?

    Not necessarily. On reflection, I don’t think this is actually a distinctive feature of Kusaal ideophones. Some of them do have peculiar tone structure, but that is not really any different in principle from them having peculiar segmental structure, and is of course a separate matter from intonation.

    – what do you mean by “not a possible noun or verbal form”?

    Kusaal verbs conform to a pretty limited set of possible stem templates, basically (C)V(V)(C), (C)VCiC, (C)VVCim, (C)VCCim, (C)VCiCim, where “i” stands for an anaptyctic vowel. Loanwords are brought into conformity, e.g daam “disturb”, from Hausa dama, bʋg “get drunk” from Hausa bugu, pɔtim “denounce to the authorities” from English “report.”

    Nouns are not so constrained as far as stem shapes go, partly because noun stems often have derivational* prefixes of the shape CV or CVn, and loanwords are often remodelled to make it look like the initial syllables are prefixes. However, nouns are constrained by the fact that there are only seven noun classes, and even loans are usually fitted into a noun class by analogy based on its form, e.g. maliak “angel”, plural malia’as “angels”, like zak “compound” plural za’as.

    The only way sapi could be fitted into the class system is as a plural of the fu/i class, which consists of words referring to animals and “small round things” (like seeds.) This is already a problem semantically, but there is the further difficulty that there are no native full word stems in -p-, which represents /pp/ after vowels and in native vocabulary always derives from *bb; this /pp/ turns up only in flexion, when a flexion beginning with /b/ is added to a stem ending in /b/, e.g. the gerund sɔp (*sɔbbʊ) “writing”, formed from sɔb “write” in the same way that e.g. kparib (*kparbʊ) “locking” is formed from kpar “lock.”

    * In the sense that they belong to the stem; but they do not usually have identifiable meanings, and there are no systematic derivational processes involving prefixes, though there are plenty of individual cognate sets, e.g. balɛrʋg “ugly” and lɛr “get ugly”, or dama’a “liar” and ma’ “tell lies.”

  54. “On reflection, I don’t think this is actually a distinctive feature of Kusaal ideophones. ”

    Russian ‘funny words’ are related to baby talk. They usually comment on abrupt action and can be used in storytelling as in “an then she *pryg!* and jumped on the table” < prygat’ ‘to jump”.
    So the intonation is often funny.

    I think I want to illustrate the funny intonation with a Egyptian sound (I learned about the recording from this post by Lameen many years ago).

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    I think there are a number of potential “ideophone” properties, which (as so often in linguistics) don’t always neatly bundle together. Certainly the onomatopoeic and baby-talk types are only a subset of all ideophones in languages where they play a big role; come to that, ideophones are pretty much all conventionalised to some extent, and many (most?) are every bit as conventional and arbitrary as “normal” vocabulary. Sound symbolism (even when it’s not entirely in the mind of the listener or investigating linguist) in no way precludes arbitrariness: it doesn’t even really limit its scope much.

    Even the “onomatopoeics” are conventionalised: as every anime fan knows, Japanese cats don’t go “miaow” …

    And when you get to things like Hausa adjective-intensifying ideophones, a foreign learner could no more guess that the proper intensifier for “black” is ƙirin than they could guess off the top of their heads that the word for “black” itself is baƙi.

  56. How do Miao cats say “miaow”?

  57. January First-of-May says

    which still sounds like the sound it makes

    This can be relatively easily broken both by phonetic change and (even more easily) by semantic change.

    As a nice example, the first syllables of the English words pigeon and pistol both (probably) go back to an onomatopoeia – the same one, in fact: “the thing that goes pee pee“. But of course neither pistols nor pigeons actually go pee pee; this is the power of semantic change.

    a universal feature of ideophones: that they cannot be negated

    Russian не ахти would be (as far as I can tell) an example of an ideophone that can only be negated.

    Even the “onomatopoeics” are conventionalised

    Cats might be a bad example: they say something very much like “miaow” in a lot of languages (and they probably would have in Japanese if the phonology allowed for it). OTOH, onomatopoeias for dog noises are all over the place.
    Nor is Russian хрю very much (or at all) like English oink (or indeed vice versa), even though they’re supposed to depict the sound of the same animal (the pig).

  58. ktschwarz says

    The pig noise is not only different in different languages, it’s recent in English: the OED only takes oink back to 1912. Before then, pigs just grunted, I guess.

  59. I like the first citation:

    1912 New Castle (Pa.) News 15 Oct. 4/4 An Iowa man has been arrested for having six wives. He’s a regular hog. Oink! Oink!

  60. I remember the bang-word to which my friend responded “not bang”. It was not “bang”.
    The dialogue was:
    – мяу
    – не мяу.
    I do not remember who said the first meow, a human or a cat. And what was meant which my friend was disagreeing with…

  61. Is there something like Даль’s dictionary in English? I mean a large dialectal dictionary where a half or most of words are not in use anymore and apart of posing etymological problems can offer solutions too? Of course, in Russian there are modern dialectal dictionaries, but differently organized and with fewer phraseologisms they are less fun to read. Даль’s is popular among both normal people and etymologists…

    Or does OED do this job? (if every second word there makes you giggle, it does).

  62. This -ti in ахти is not productive and I do not understand it. Dal’ has a collection of phrases with ахти, охти, эхти, including охти-мнешеньки and ахтительный (in Ushakov’s dictionary only negated неахтительный). Эхма is in use (today spelled as эх-ма).

  63. drasvi, I don’t know Dal; is Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary something like what you had in mind? It’s in five volumes, available at

  64. A searchable online digitized version of Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary is available here:

  65. Dal’ has
    Sorry, i was sleepy. I think “Dahl” is the simplest solution, but I transliterated his name from Russian.

    @Y, thank you. I used it a few times (and liked it), but I rarely hear about it from speakers, so I do not even know if it is the main dialect dictionary or just one of. Dahl’s dictionary is (1) interesting for both normal people and etymologists, (2) useful for linguists (3) fun (4) documents many words that are not in use anymore. So I think I was asking if there is an English dialect dictionary that is perceived this way.

    @Xerîb, I did not know this site!

  66. Dahl again: Reading it is an immersive experience.

    Words are organized by roots/nests, within an article forms follow each other without structure (other than bold/italic) and order (a good thing, because finding the word you need is still easy, but it provokes you to read the article!), mixed with usage examples and phraseologisms. These “examples” and “phraseologisms” often contain other unexpected words. Definitions also contain new words: the author liked vernacular and never distanced himself from it:)

    And as you are looking up your form, you learn meanings of 1 or 2 modern words. Literary Russian discarded many stems that were still productive in 19th cenutry vernacular, the vernacular itself has been levelled, but the literary language still retains words derived from these stems, which are not transparent for speakers anymore.

    So it is an adventure. Also, I think it is considered the single most important piece of Russian linguistical literature:)

  67. Очеп чапает, положен на перечапе;
    переча́п См. перечапливать

    Перечап м. чебурах, перевес, в обоих знач. равновесие и утрата его (франц. bascule, немецк. die Kippe).
    Очеп перечапился и ушиб девчонку бадьей.

    Чебурах м. точка чебураха, перечап, точка равновесия, опрокидная точка. Вещь на чебурахе, лежит или стоит на перевесе, чуть тронь, так опрокинется.

  68. Is there something like Даль’s dictionary in English?

    No. There are excellent dialect dictionaries and etymological dictionaries and of course the all-time champion OED, but there is nothing like Dahl. Mind you, Dahl has its downsides — it is way out of date and full of misanalyses, so it shouldn’t be relied on for actual linguistic knowledge — but it is, as you say, endlessly fun and educational to read and is a genuine treasure of Russian literature. The only comparably enjoyable English dictionary is Hobson-Jobson, but of course that has a very restricted scope. Russians are lucky to have Dahl and Vasmer, but unlucky not to have anything like the OED.

  69. A friend of mine who used to teach Bulgarian in Ukraine in the Bulgarian community there wants to get some help for her former students. I think she’s got it covered, but… Please help, if you can.

  70. She’s currently organizing Staturday-Sunday school for children coming from Ukraine as refugees, for free.

  71. Stu Clayton says


    Need a link or sommat in order to help.

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