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Ideophones and iconicity -


Ideophones (also known as expressives or mimetics) are marked words that depict sensory imagery. Ideophones are found abundantly in Asian, African and Amerindian languages but they are rare as a word class in Indo-European languages. Straddling boundaries that have long been considered self-evident in Western thought (such as the traditional model of the five senses, or the rift between arbitrariness and motivation in linguistic signs), ideophones provide a unique view of how linguistic systems can be adapted to give vivid expression to sensory imagery. As words that frequently show iconic links between form and meaning, they offer the opportunity for studying the semantics, pragmatics and neurolinguistics of sound-symbolism in natural languages.

What we do

Work on this project focuses on (1) the typology of ideophones and (2) the processes underlying the use of ideophones, at behavioural and neural levels.

In the typology part, we collect comparative data from languages around the world with the aim to develop a multidimensional characterisation of ideophones, allowing not only a coarse classification of languages as having or not having ideophones, but a multidimensional assessment of each language individually. 

In the processing part, we probe the semantics, pragmatics and psycholinguistics of ideophones and sound-symbolism. We use observational methods to study the role of iconic words in social interaction. We use experimental methods to tease apart generic from language-specific forms of sound-symbolism, and neuroimaging methods to understand how sound-symbolic words are processed in the brain.


Mark Dingemanse and Sylvia Tufvesson

PhD students:

  • Gwilym Lockwood
  • Will Schuermann
  • Linda Drijvers


  • Dan Dediu (Language & Genetics Department)
  • Sean Roberts (Language & Cognition Department)
  • Holger Mitterer (University of Malta) 
  • Eva Reinisch (Ludwig Maximilian University Munich)
  • Kimi Akita (Osaka University)
  • Mutsumi Imai lab (Keio University)
  • Tessa Verhoef (UCSD)

Selected publications

  • Dingemanse, M., Blasi, D. E., Lupyan, G., Christiansen, M. H., & Monaghan, P.(in press). Arbitrariness, iconicity and systematicity in language. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. more >
  • Lockwood, G., & Dingemanse, M. (in press). Iconicity in the lab: A review of behavioural, developmental, and neuroimaging research into sound-symbolism.Frontiers in Psychology.
  • Drijvers, L., Zaadnoordijk, L., & Dingemanse, M. (2015). Sound-symbolism is disrupted in dyslexia: Implications for the role of cross-modal abstraction processes. In Proceedings of the 37th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci 2015) (pp. 602-607). Austin, Tx: Cognitive Science Society. more >
  • Verhoef, T., Roberts, S. G., & Dingemanse, M. (2015). Emergence of systematic iconicity: Transmission, interaction and analogy. In Proceedings of the 37th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci 2015) (pp. 2481-2486). Austin, Tx: Cognitive Science Society.more >
Last checked 2017-12-16 by Mark Dingemanse
Language and Cognition


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Wundtlaan 1
6525 XD Nijmegen
The Netherlands

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6500 AH Nijmegen
The Netherlands

Phone: +31-24-3521276
Fax: +31-24-3521213


Stephen C. Levinson

Edith Sjoerdsma