Structuring sensory imagery: ideophones across languages and cultures
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Structuring sensory imagery:
ideophones across languages and cultures

…The sound must seem an echo to the sense…

Alexander Pope, Sound and Sense, 1718

All languages manifest two kinds of expressions, prosaic and iconic. In the prosaic layer, meaning–sound correspondences are arbitrary; for example, there is nothing in the string of English sounds d-o-g or Lithuanian š-u-o ‘dog’ that would inherently evoke the image of a devoted furry canine. Conversely, the iconic layer manifests sound–meaning correlations that are not arbitrary. There are two varieties of iconic expressions: onomatopoetic and ideophonic. In both varieties, specific sounds evoke specific meanings, although for different reasons. Onomatopoetic expressions directly imitate sound, as exemplified by the English word p-o-p or the Lithuanian word p-o-k-š-t ‘exploding sound’. In contrast, ideophonic expressions do not directly imitate properties of the external world, but they do lead speakers to unconsciously endow particular sounds with specific sensory meanings. Examples of ideophonic manifestations include front vowels that appear in English words (e.g. teeny-weeny) associated with small, thin, light things (Jurafsky 2014:162–164, among many others), or in Lithuanian diminutive suffixes –yt- or –ėl-.

Ideophones are the focus of this issue. We are drawn to them because linguistically, they remain a mystery. In their form, meaning, and distribution, ideophones usually defy grammar canons specific to a particular language. Therefore, they are often brushed aside as ‘extragrammatical’, or labelled as idiosyncratic and set aside in the designated corner of the lexicon. Nevertheless, data confirming their existence – especially from non-Indo-European languages – have been accumulating for decades (for seminal overviews of such data and the question they raise, see Déchaine 2015, Dingemanse 2012, Hinton et al. 1994, Nuckolls 1999, Smolinsky 2001, [End Page 149] and Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001). And yet, ideophonic expressions continue to elude a satisfactory explanation, regardless of one’s theoretical stripes. We hypothe-size that this is due to the analytical challenges of forging a model of grammar that would encompass both the prosaic and iconic layers.

This issue grew out of the workshop Structuring Sensory Imagery: Ideophones Across Languages and Cultures, which took place at the University of Rochester on May 2, 2014.1 The workshop itself emerged from our search for unifying threads within the vastly fragmented subfield of sound-symbolic studies (see the aforementioned seminal works) as we wrestled with our own analysis of Finnish ideophones. We purposely invited experts representing diverse underrepresented languages and theoretical backgrounds. That workshop resulted in the papers in the present issue; these papers convey the breadth and depth of questions that linger in sound-symbolic studies. It is our humble hope that we have succeeded in (i) enriching the dialogue by speaking across theoretical divides and different bodies of data; and (ii) conveying the range of issues specific to various distinct approaches.

In their article, Janis Nuckolls, Tod Swanson, Diana Shelton, Alexander Rice and Sarah Hatton (henceforth Nuckolls et al.) invite us to consider the possibility of an audiovisual corpus, which they call an “anti-dictionary,” as a repository for ideophones. They make their case based on an in-depth analysis of representative ideophones and their uses in Pastaza Quichua (Quechuan). Nuckolls et al. argue that conventional dictionaries are designed to communicate abstract, decontextualized meanings; however, while ideophones can communicate fairly abstract meanings, they are not designed to do so. To really understand the nuances of ideophonic meanings, we need to attend to the details of their performance, much as is the case in signed languages such as ASL. When using ideophones, Pastaza Quichua speakers are capable of taking either a speaker-internal perspective (becoming what she or he is depicting) or a speaker-external perspective (portraying a detached observer). Nuckolls et al. argue that failure to capture these nuances is especially consequential in the context of changes within Pastaza Quichuan society, which are leading to an increased dependence on written forms of communication that “erase” much of the malleability of language.

Anthony Webster focuses on Navajo (from the Athabaskan language family) and immerses us in the seductive ideophony of its poetry. This study straddles the boundaries between linguistics, anthropology, literature...