I was reading about ideophones on Wikipedia, and the way it was described seemed like it was describing onomatopoeia. Apparently the claim is that onomatopoeia is a sub-class of ideophone. In the main description it only lists onomatopoeia, and in the list of examples in English I think they're all onomatopoeia except for two. Here's the list:

boing; the sound of a spring being released
boom; the sound of an explosion
bang; the sound of a gunshot
bling-bling; glitter, sparkle - not onomatopoeia?
pitter-patter; the sound of rain drops
swish; the sound of swift movement
splish-splash; the sound of water splashing
ta-daa!; the sound of a fanfare
thud; the sound of something heavy falling on the ground
tick-tock; the sound of time passing
twinkle; the glow of something sparkling or shiny - not onomatopoeia?


So the only ones that I would venture to say aren't onomatopoeia are twinkle and bling-bling because I don't think they make a sound. So I can understand why the word "ding" is onomatopoeic, because when spoken it kind of sounds like a bell ringing. But I don't understand how the word "tinkle" can reflect shimmering or glimmering for example.

Question 1: Are there ideophones in English that aren't onomatopoeia?

Question 2: If so, is the criterion that what the word describes doesn't make a sound? And how does a word like "tinkle" reflect how an object shimmers, glimmers, or shines.

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    Are you asking for an explanation of ideophones, or examples of onomatopoeic words of English that are not about sound? – user6726 Apr 2 '18 at 15:32
  • @user6726 No, not really examples, because I believe there are two already in that list, "bling-bling" and "twinkle". Correct me if I'm wrong. I don't understand how ideophones that aren't onomatopoeia work. I can understand a word like "ding" to denote a bell ringing, because it sounds like it, and so it's onomatopoeia. But something like twinkle for example, how does the word "twinkle" in any way reflect the act of shimmering or glimmering? – Zebrafish Apr 2 '18 at 15:37
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    Is this a question about English words, or about ideophones? – user6726 Apr 2 '18 at 15:40
  • @Zebrafish, please make sure to add all clarifications straight into the body of your question; comments are intended to ask for clarification and will eventually be removed once the question is perfectly clear. – bytebuster Apr 2 '18 at 15:49
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    @Greg Lee What's unhealthy about wanting to get your terminology right? – Zebrafish Apr 3 '18 at 3:32

Onomatopoeia is strictly about lexical imitation of sounds. Animal noises are a simple example.

Ideophone is a term that refers only to a limited number of languages where it identifies some special morphological or lexical peculiarity, often associated with onomatopoeia. Strictly speaking, English doesn't have ideophones, though there is certainly plenty of onomatopoeia.

I think that what you're looking for is a more general category, which is Sound Symbolism.
That term describes any situation in which the appearance of a particular sound (consonant, vowel, syllable, cluster, etc.) in a lexical item correlates systematically with the meaning of the lexical item. This includes onomatopoeia, generally, but it's not the most common case. English does have plenty of sound symbolism, mostly centered around monosyllabic word roots ("simplex words") broken up into Assonance (initial cluster, e.g, st- in stump) and Rime (nucleus plus coda, e.g, -ump in stump).

An example is the set of simplex words with the KL- assonance, which are displayed as a Venn diagram here. Note, first, that the semantics of this assonance has to do with connection or contact of one sort or another. There are plenty of words that have to do with ballistic contact -- Impact on the diagram -- and of those there are many that also indicate the noise made by solid things hitting each other. There's your onomatopoeic function; whenever there is a meaning that refers to things that can make noise, the noises made will often have the same symbolic mark as the event or thing that produces them.

If you'd like to follow this up, here's a bibliography on the phonosemantics of Assonance and Rime.

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    Another famous sound-symbolic cluster is /sl/; consider words like: slack, sleaze, slide, slime, slink, slip, slither, sloth, slouch, sloppy, slow, sludge, slug, sluice, slunk, slur, slurp, slush, sly… – melissa_boiko Apr 2 '18 at 23:00
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    See umich.edu/~jlawler/sl.pdf – jlawler Apr 3 '18 at 0:06
  • So are words like "slide", "slink", "slip", "slither", "slouch" "slink", "slush" ideophones because they mean movement of one kind or another? – Zebrafish Apr 3 '18 at 3:44
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    I wouldn't call them ideophones. They're words that display sound symbolism, in particular a phonosemantic assonance. "Ideophone" is not a well-defined term, as you have found out. – jlawler Apr 3 '18 at 14:26

Ideophones are a word class that are understudied by linguists and not well understood. I think I can clarify a few things though. From my understanding, ideophones are a word class especially prevalent in African and indigenous American languages that depict a sensory scene. The sounds of the words somehow depict a visual, audio, smell based, touch based, etc. scene in a listeners mind. For example, dabodabo (this is transliterated without the accents) is a word in an African language that speakers of that language, upon hearing the word, can intimately picture a duck waddling and the sound associated with a duck at the same time. The sounds of the word literally evoke a strong scene in the mind that cannot be described simply as "a waddle". (The word itself means duck. In one of Dingemanse's papers on ideophones, he describes a language as having two dialectal terms for a duck: one is along the lines of quakquak (I forget the precise word) and the other is dabodabo; both imitate the movement/noise of a duck.) Linguists aren't sure why this is, but is believed to be a cross modal effect in the brain.

One thing we know is that ideophones are overwhelmingly duplicative--pikapika in Japanese means sparkle, and English speakers might associate the sounds in pikapika as being bright; I definitely do. Dabodabo is duplicative, pikapika is, and nurunuru (a Japanese word for slimy) is duplicative. When I see/hear this word nurunuru, I do get a sense of sliminess. Basically, the sounds in the words depict a scene that doesn't have to be audio based. Even though duplication isn't a factor in strictly all ideophones, I do think its a good litmus test. Onomatopoetic sounds, a subset of ideophones that strictly represent noises, are duplicative. It is natural for English speakers to say "oink oink" or "quack quack". In a similar fashion, gobble gobble is a very duplicative word. I'm not sure if it counts as an ideophone, but it definitely evokes a stronger image in my mind than, say, a word like crouch. I would never say crouch crouch because it just comes across as weird; and the word itself doesn't evoke a strong image of someone crouching. The word gobble does; in addition to this, gobble sounds similar to wobble and waddle, which while they aren't inherently duplicative, can be duplicated. They also make great sensory words in poems, and their connection to gobble makes me think they might be at least partially ideophonic. In this way, duplication might be a strong indicator of being ideophonic.

Addendum: words like neigh neigh cant be duplicated (at least it sounds weird to me personally), but this might be because the word neigh no longer sounds as close to a horses neiiigh as it did before historical sound change occurred. This is just a personal theory, but as it is a less onomatopoetic word, it may be less ideophonic, as seen by the fact it isn't natural to duplicate it.

  • "When I see/hear this word nurunuru, I do get a sense of sliminess" - and when I see bullshit, I can already smell it. What's your point, other than that all words evoke learned memories? – vectory Mar 25 '19 at 10:32
  • "and when I see bullshit i can smell it." What you are describing there is visual and auditory stimulations; 1 does not cause the other. In ideophones, the physical sound stimulates another sense. "Other than that all words evoke learned memories?" What Im describing isnt arbitrary learned meanings. In the word dabodabo to a native speaker, they intimately experience a duck waddling. I recommend this source on the topic as Im not the most concise explainer: ideophone.org/papers/ "Redrawing the margins of language" is excellent--its what convinced me that the idea of ideophones has great merit. – Derek Wagher Apr 27 '19 at 0:15

There is no way to answer the first question, primarily because there is no independent test for whether a word is onomatopoeia or not. You can find claims that "boff", "bump", "cry", "gallop" are examples. Opinion polls might reveal a sliding scale of onomatopoeticity where "wham" is most often judged to be onomatopoeia, "boff" is rarely so judged, and "house" is never. In English, correlation between "onomatopoeia" and sound is virtually guaranteed because that is how the concept is taught in schools (and "ideophone" is never taught).

There is also hardly any way to independently distinguish onomatopoeia from ideophone. One structural property can be often used to diagnose ideophonicity, namely use in light verb constructions like "Subj. went 'bang/wham/woof/crash...". In other languages, those with rich ideophonic vocabulary, it's fairly easy to show that ideophones are not limited to sound relations (they can indicate sharpness, dullness, darkness, sweetness etc.).

There being no reason to distinguish ideophone and onomatopoeia, and no objective test or criterion for onomatopoeia classification in English. One can maintain that "twinkle" is not onomatopoetic, and you probably would not be contradicted by an opinion poll.

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    I agree when you say there's no definitive litmus test for judging whether something is onomatopoetic in a sense, because people have different opinions as to whether words sound like particular things. But I have a feeling I can say "twinkle" isn't onomatopoeic because a star or a reflection doesn't make a sound, and so can't be onomatopoeic. Unfortunately I still don't understand the idea behind non-onomatopoeic ideophones. I remember reading that other languages have thousands, whereas there are few in English, maybe this is why I can't understand. – Zebrafish Apr 2 '18 at 17:20
  • I hope you don't misunderstand, I'm saying I'm confident in ruling out "twinkle" as onomatopoeic because a star or reflection doesn't make a sound, but I agree with you that no one can decide whether the examples you gave: "boff", "bump", "cry", "gallop" are onomatopoeic. – Zebrafish Apr 2 '18 at 17:23

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