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Expressiveness and system integration: On the typology of ideophones, with special reference to Siwu

  • Mark Dingemanse EMAIL logo


Ideophones are often described as words that are highly expressive and morphosyntactically marginal. A study of ideophones in everyday conversations in Siwu (Kwa, eastern Ghana) reveals a landscape of variation and change that sheds light on some larger questions in the morphosyntactic typology of ideophones. This article documents a trade-off between expressiveness and morphosyntactic integration, with high expressiveness linked to low integration and vice versa. It also describes a pathway for deideophonization and finds that frequency of use influences the degree to which ideophones can come to be more like ordinary words. The findings have implications for processes of (de)ideophonization, ideophone borrowing, and ideophone typology. A key point is that the internal diversity we find in naturally occurring data, far from being mere noise, is patterned variation that can help us to get a handle on the factors shaping ideophone systems within and across languages.


I am grateful to Nick Enfield, Kimi Akita, Steve Levinson, Lila San Roque, Felix Ameka, Eva van Lier, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on earlier versions. Special thanks go to Rev. A.Y. Wurapa, Ɔdimɛ Kanairo, and the wider Mawu community of Akpafu-Mempeasem, Ghana, for supporting this research. Funding has come from the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, the European Research Council (grant 240853), and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (Veni 016.154.087). This paper incorporates and revises some work reported in an unpublished dissertation by the author. The bulk of the paper dates from 2012. After a publishing delay due to circumstances beyond the control of the author, it has been updated in early 2016 to incorporate some references to work that appeared since.


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Published Online: 2017-7-14
Published in Print: 2017-7-26

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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