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Reviewed by:
  • Ideophones ed. by F. K. Erhard Voeltz, Christa Kilian-Hatz
  • Edward J. Vajda
Ideophones. Ed. by F. K. Erhard Voeltz and Christa Kilian-Hatz. (Typological studies in language 44.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2001. Pp. x, 434. ISBN: 1588110192. $125.00.

The term ‘ideophone’ was coined several decades ago to describe words conveying ‘a vivid representation of an idea in sound’ (C. M. Doke, Bantu linguistic terminology, London: Longmans, 1935, p. 118). Both term and definition have persisted, though a clearer understanding of the phenomenon has been long in arriving. Publication of the 29 contributing articles in this volume grew out of presentations made at the 1st International Symposium on Ideophones (January 1999, St. Augustin, Germany). The editors and conference organizers set as their main purpose ‘to retrieve ideophones from the particularized, language-specialized investigations of researchers here and there’ (2). At the same time, they acknowledge that a more precise syntactic and semantic [End Page 823] definition of the ideophone may not be possible.

While not moving us closer to any universal definition of what does or does not constitute an ideophone, the individual articles do shed important light on several aspects of ideophones crosslinguistically. The contributing articles describe ideophonic words in languages belonging to geographically and genetically disparate families. Africa is the best represented, with sixteen languages from nine separate groups. Also discussed are four Asian and two Australian languages, along with Pastaza Quechua, Finnish, and Estonian. These studies reveal ideophones to be more widespread than previously assumed, though additional examples from Europe and the Americas are needed to support the editors’ suggestion that they are a universal category of human language (2). Many of the articles offer detailed semantic interpretations of ideophones used in context, clearly illustrating them as a functionally unified category helping to vividly dramatize the narrated event. This dramaturgic effect need not reflect direct sound symbolism (true onomatopoeia); in many cases ideophones convey emotive responses to color, smell, or the awareness of intensity, speed, or some other sensory peculiarity of the described event or state. Also explored are various crosslinguistic regularities in the derivation of ideophonic stems as well as their frequent accompaniment during speech by gestures and other paralinguistic phenomena. Of particular interest for an understanding of ‘ideogenesis’ is Vesa Jarva’s account of how certain Russian loan words in Finnish have acquired ideophonic characteristics (111–19). Similar exploration of ideophones in other well-known European languages might have further buttressed claims of the universality of the phenomenon, perhaps also shedding more light on its possible linguistic origins.

This book merely whets the appetite for more information since none of the conclusions actually yields a more rigorous definition of the ideophone. The editors’ greatest contribution is in juxtaposing such a diverse range of new case studies. Still, the really major questions remain. How and why do ideophones develop? What structural types of languages are most likely to evolve a rich array of ideophonic words? What sociolinguistic factors favor the development and maintenance of ideophones? What is the exact relationship between ideophones and onomatopoeia? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do ideophones constitute a separate part of speech or are they best regarded as a special lexical substyle within the conventionally recognized form classes?

If this collection of articles inspires future inquiries into any of these issues, it will have proven a very successful undertaking indeed.

Edward J. Vajda
Western Washington University


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