A sculpture demonstrating an example of Japanese sound symbolism, "jaan!" (ジャーン)

An ideophone is any word in a certain word class evoking ideas in sound imitation (onomatopoeia) to express an action, manner, or property. The class of ideophones is the least common syntactic category cross-linguistically; it occurs mostly in African, Australian, and Amerindian languages, and sporadically elsewhere. It is globally the only known word class exotic to English. Ideophones resemble interjections but are unclassifiable as such owing to their special phonetic or derivational characteristics, and based on their syntactic function within the sentence. They may include sounds that deviate from the language's phonological system, imitating—often in a repetitive manner—sounds of movement, animal noises, bodily sounds, noises made by tools or machines, and the like.[1]

While English does have ideophonic or onomatopoetic expressions, it does not contain a proper class of ideophones because any English onomatopoeic word can be included in one of the classical categories. For example, la-di-da functions as an adjective while others, such as zigzag, may function as a verb, adverb or adjective, depending on the clausal context. In the sentence 'The rabbit zigzagged across the meadow", the verb zigzag takes the past –ed verb ending. In contrast, the reconstructed example *"The rabbit zigzag zigzag across the meadow" emulates an ideophone but is not idiomatic to English.[2]

Dictionaries of languages like Japanese, Korean, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu list thousands of ideophones.[3] Sometimes ideophones are called phonosemantic to indicate that it is not a grammatical word class in the traditional sense of the word (like verb or noun), but rather a lexical class based on the special relationship between form and meaning exhibited by ideophones. In the discipline of linguistics, ideophones have sometimes been overlooked or treated as a subgroup of interjections.[4]


The word ideophone was coined in 1935 by Clement Martyn Doke, who defined it in his Bantu Linguistic Terminology as follows.[5]

A vivid representation of an idea in sound. A word, often onomatopoeic, which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, color, sound, smell, action, state or intensity.

Ideophones evoke sensory events. A well known instance of ideophones are onomatopoeic words—words that imitate the sound (of the event) they refer to. Some ideophones may be derived from onomatopoeic notions. In many languages, however, ideophones do not solely represent sound.[5] For instance, in Gbaya, kpuk 'a rap on the door' may be onomatopoeic, but other ideophones depict motion and visual scenes: loɓoto-loɓoto 'large animals plodding through mud', kiláŋ-kiláŋ 'in a zigzagging motion', pɛɗɛŋ-pɛɗɛŋ 'razor sharp'.[6]

Ideophones are often characterized as iconic or sound-symbolic words, meaning that there can be a resemblance between their form and their meaning. For instance, in West-African languages, voiced consonants and low tone in ideophones are often connected to largeness and heaviness, whereas voiceless consonants and high tones tend to relate to smallness and lightness.[7] Reduplication figures quite prominently in ideophones, often conveying a sense of repetition or plurality present in the evoked event.[8] The iconicity of ideophones is shown by the fact that people can guess the meanings of ideophones from various languages at a level above chance.[9] However, the form of ideophones does not completely relate to their meaning; as conventionalized words, they contain arbitrary, language-specific phonemes just like other parts of the vocabulary.


The grammatical function of ideophones varies by language. In some languages (e.g. Welayta, Yir-Yiront, Semai, Korean), they form a separate word class, while in others, they occur across a number of different word classes (e.g. Mundang, Ewe, Sotho, Hausa).[10]

Despite this diversity, ideophones show a number of robust regularities across languages. One is that they are often marked in the same way as quoted speech and demonstrations.[11] Sometimes ideophones can form a complete utterance on their own, as in English "ta-da!" or Japanese jaan (ジャーン, ta-da).[12] However, in such cases the word ideophone is used as a synonym to interjection. Proper ideophones may occur within utterances, depicting a scene described by other elements of the utterance, as in Japanese Taro wa sutasuta to haya-aruki o shita "Taro walked hurriedly' (literally 'Taro did haste-walk sutasuta').[13] Ideophones are more like illustrations of events than responses to events. An ideophone like Gbaya kiláŋ-kiláŋ 'in a zigzagging motion' displays a certain resemblance to the event (for instance, its irregular vowels and tones depicting the irregularity of the motion).


Languages may differ in the context in which ideophones are used. In some languages, ideophones are primarily used in spoken language (e.g. narrative contexts) and are rarely encountered in written language.[6] In other languages (e.g. Ewe, Japanese), ideophones can be freely used in all registers. In general, however, ideophones tend to occur more extensively in spoken language because of their expressive or dramaturgic function.[14]



Main article: Japanese sound symbolism

The Japanese language has thousands of ideophones, often called mimetics. The constructions are quite metrical 2-2, or 3-3, where morae play a role in the symmetry. The first consonant of the second word of the reduplication may become voiced if phonological conditions allow. Japanese ideophones are used extensively in daily conversations as well as in the written language.


The Tamil language uses many ideophones, both in spoken (colloquial) and in formal usage. Ideophones are called irattaik kilavi (இரட்டைக் கிளவி) in Tamil grammar.


In Xhosa, as in closely related Zulu, ideophones can convey very complex experiential impressions or can just strengthen meanings of other words. The ideophone is often introduced using the verb thi 'say'.

Using thi:

Lixesha lokuthi cwaka. 'It is time to be silent.' [literally: 'It is time to say cwaka.']
Bathi gqi abelungu eAfrika. 'The white people suddenly arrived in Africa.' [Literally: 'The white people said gqi in Africa.'])

Without using thi:


I do not know



Andazi ncam.

{I do not know} ncam

'I do not know exactly.'


I stood







Ndime bhuxe phambi kwakhe.

{I stood} bhuxe before him.

'I stood motionless before him.'

See also


  1. ^ Sasse, Hans-Jürgen (2015). "Syntactic categories and subcategories". In Kiss and Alexiadou (ed.). Syntax--Theory and Analysis: An International Handbook. De Gruyter. pp. 158–217. ISBN 9783110202762.
  2. ^ "Linguistics. How do ideophones and onomatopoeia work in English?". linguistics.stackexchange.com. Retrieved 7 October 2022.
  3. ^ Akita, Kimi (2009). A Grammar of Sound-Symbolic Words in Japanese: Theoretical Approaches to Iconic and Lexical Properties of Japanese Mimetics. Kobe University. Archived from the original on January 4, 2014.
  4. ^ Sasse, Hans-Jürgen (2015). "Syntactic categories and subcategories". In Kiss and Alexiadou (ed.). Syntax--Theory and Analysis: An International Handbook. De Gruyter. pp. 158–217. ISBN 9783110202762.
  5. ^ a b Doke 1935 as cited in Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001
  6. ^ a b Noss in Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001
  7. ^ Westermann 1927
  8. ^ Watson in Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001
  9. ^ Iwasaki et al. 2007, Dingemanse et al. 2015
  10. ^ Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001
  11. ^ Samarin, William J. (1971). "Survey of Bantu ideophones". African Language Studies. 12: 130–168.
  12. ^ Diffloth 1972
  13. ^ Kita, Sotaro (1997). "Two-dimensional semantic analysis of Japanese mimetics" (PDF). Linguistics. 35 (2): 379–415. doi:10.1515/ling.1997.35.2.379. S2CID 144380452.
  14. ^ Kunene in Voeltz & Kilian-Hatz 2001