Ideophones, also termed mimetics or expressives, are marked words that depict sensory imagery. They are found in many of the world’s languages, and sizable lexical classes of ideophones are particularly well-documented in the languages of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Ideophones are not limited to onomatopoeia like meow and smack but cover a wide range of sensory domains, such as manner of motion (e.g., plisti plasta ‘splish-splash’ in Basque), texture (e.g., tsaklii ‘rough’ in Ewe), and psychological states (e.g., wakuwaku ‘excited’ in Japanese). Across languages, ideophones stand out as marked words due to special phonotactics, expressive morphology including certain types of reduplication, and relative syntactic independence, in addition to production features like prosodic foregrounding and common co-occurrence with iconic gestures. Three intertwined issues have been repeatedly debated in the century-long literature on ideophones. (a) Definition: Isolated descriptive traditions and cross-linguistic variation have sometimes obscured a typologically unified view of ideophones, but recent advances show the promise of a prototype definition of ideophones as conventionalized depictions in speech, with room for language-specific nuances. (b) Integration: The variable integration of ideophones across linguistic levels reveals an interaction between expressiveness and grammatical integration, and has important implications for how to conceive of dependencies between linguistic systems. (c) Iconicity: Ideophones form a natural laboratory for the study of iconic form-meaning associations in natural languages, and converging evidence from corpus and experimental studies suggests important developmental, evolutionary, and communicative advantages of ideophones.
Kimi Akita and Mark Dingemanse
Irit Meir and Oksana Tkachman
Iconicity is a relationship of resemblance or similarity between the two aspects of a sign: its form and its meaning. An iconic sign is one whose form resembles its meaning in some way. The opposite of iconicity is arbitrariness. In an arbitrary sign, the association between form and meaning is based solely on convention; there is nothing in the form of the sign that resembles aspects of its meaning. The Hindu-Arabic numerals 1, 2, 3 are arbitrary, because their current form does not correlate to any aspect of their meaning. In contrast, the Roman numerals I, II, III are iconic, because the number of occurrences of the sign I correlates with the quantity that the numerals represent. Because iconicity has to do with the properties of signs in general and not only those of linguistic signs, it plays an important role in the field of semiotics—the study of signs and signaling. However, language is the most pervasive symbolic communicative system used by humans, and the notion of iconicity plays an important role in characterizing the linguistic sign and linguistic systems. Iconicity is also central to the study of literary uses of language, such as prose and poetry. There are various types of iconicity: the form of a sign may resemble aspects of its meaning in several ways: it may create a mental image of the concept (imagic iconicity), or its structure and the arrangement of its elements may resemble the structural relationship between components of the concept represented (diagrammatic iconicity). An example of the first type is the word cuckoo, whose sounds resemble the call of the bird, or a sign such as RABBIT in Israeli Sign Language, whose form—the hands representing the rabbit's long ears—resembles a visual property of that animal. An example of diagrammatic iconicity is vēnī, vīdī, vīcī, where the order of clauses in a discourse is understood as reflecting the sequence of events in the world. Iconicity is found on all linguistic levels: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse. It is found both in spoken languages and in sign languages. However, sign languages, because of the visual-gestural modality through which they are transmitted, are much richer in iconic devices, and therefore offer a rich array of topics and perspectives for investigating iconicity, and the interaction between iconicity and language structure.