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PhD Defence Mark Dingemanse on October 24

Ideophones are words like kerplop or hippety-hoppety in English or sinisinisini ‘closely woven’, nyɛnɛnɛ ‘sensation of shivering’, and gelegelegele ‘shiny appearance’ in Siwu. They can be recognised by their marked forms and vivid sensory meanings. While in English they are marginal and low in number, some languages have hundreds or thousands of them, says Mark Dingemanse, MPI researcher at the Language and Cognition department. He studied these sensory words in Siwu, a language spoken in Ghana. On October 24 at 15:30, in the Radboud University aula, Dingemanse will defend his thesis 'The meaning and use of ideophones in Siwu'.
PhD Defence Mark Dingemanse on October 24

October 21, 2011

Previous research on ideophones has often focused on form rather than function, taking the words out of their natural context to describe their structural features. “Very little is known about the rich sensory meanings of ideophones, and even less about how they are actually used,” says Dingemanse. “My thesis addresses that imbalance and contributes to a more holistic perspective on ideophones.” Dingemanse found that ideophones are very common in everyday conversations in Siwu; in his corpus, about 1 in 12 utterances contains one. (Want to know what they sound like? Audio clips here.)

Everyday social interaction

Dingemanse defines ideophones as “marked words that depict sensory imagery”. As depictions, they enable others to experience what it is like to perceive the scene depicted — much like physical demonstrations, paintings, or gestures. Dingemanse: “This is what makes them so useful in everyday social interaction: people use them to demonstrate their expertise or to share in sensory experiences. They are the next best thing to having been there.”

Siwu country

Kawu, Eastern Ghana.

Multi-methods approach

There has been a lot of pessimism about researching ideophones, with people declaring them “elusive” and ”unpredictable”, Dingemanse notes. "But careful study of their meaning and use reveals that they are not the erratic stylistic flourishes they were thought to be. I found that their meanings were highly specific, and that they are used in ways that entirely make sense given their depictive nature.”

Dingemanse collected the data for his thesis in Ghana during five field trips between 2007 and 2011. "It took quite some experimenting before I found ways to reliably capture and study ideophones in the field. The pencil and paper methods of traditional linguistic fieldwork are not sufficient to capture them. The methods I eventually settled on included video-recordings of everyday social interaction to see how people actually use ideophones, folk definitions to study how people talk about them, and typological methods such as stimulus-based elicitation and a sorting task to enable comparative work in the future."

Siwu people Ideophones turn out to be a vivid and versatile communicative tool. To ignore them is to miss out on an intriguing linguistic device that is just as much part of linguistic competence as words that are more familiar to Western ears. “This is what is so exciting about ideophones,” says Dingemanse. “They represent one of the many trajectories of language evolution — one in which depiction gains upper hand, recruiting a whole word class to do the work that in other languages is done by a range of devices. More work is needed to chart this diversity. Our understanding of language will be much the richer for it.”

Dingemanse’s thesis comes with a website which contains audio and video clips of the data cited in the thesis.

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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