Is djuḏum an ideophone?


The Shower (1984), Brett Whiteley.

The Shower 1984, Brett Whiteley


Expressive phonology. Is cool. I am trying to understand a little bit more about ideophones today. I’m not completely sure how far this understanding has progressed, but I am certainly charmed.



Ideophones are words that ‘evoke a vivid impression of certain sensations or sensory perceptions, e.g. sound, movement, color, shape, or action.’ They can be nouns, adjectives, adverbs or verbs. They are kind of mimetic. Of a sensory experience. Or something.

Onomatopoeic words are ideophones, for example, because ‘they imitate the sound of the event that they refer to.’ Then there are ideophones that (kind of) seem onomatopoeic but are not, like the English verb ‘[to] tinkle,’ which is associated with a metallic sound, or the word ‘gong’ which refers to an instrument that (kind of) makes that sound when you strike it.

Examples, speculative examples and thoughts . . . or questions, rather.

‘Badonkadonk’ is a large, voluptuous female buttocks in English, apparently. In Portuguese, a person’s buttocks is bum-bum. The Yolŋu-matha word for bottom or buttocks is dhuḏi. These are all ideophones I think, though how or why is hard to say. Do they sound like the experience of watching a person’s bottom? One of the wiki-examples given is ‘hippetyhop’ as in ‘the rabbit goes hippetyhop.’ How might one describe the relationship between the sound of this word and the event it refers to, though? Our house-guest offered rangichangi as an example – the Nepali word for ‘colourful.’ Also mentioned was farfalla, which is the Italian word for butterfly.

Some speculative examples from Yolŋu-matha include things like ḏukṯuk (‘[to] love, want, desire’), which sounds like a heartbeat – or gitkit (‘laughter’) and gitkitthun (‘[to] laugh’). Then there are words like djuḏum (‘mud’), which evokes the sensation or experience of pulling one’s feet out of mud as one walks . . . but is this an ideophone? I’m not sure. It would seem to be quite subjective. What if, for example, djuḏum evokes the sensation or experience of pulling one’s feet out of the mud for me but not for others? Similarly, the verb gakthun (‘[to] vomit, spew, puke’) seems like an ideophone to me, but is it? Can we say definitively? Perhaps one need hear these words uttered to experience the relationship between the sound of the word and (one’s own experience of) whatever it is that they are referring to. I’m not sure. And what about languages that are ‘more phonetic’ than others, are they likely to have more ideophones? I don’t know. So many questions (she says as she falls further down the rabbit-hole of I don’t nose). Maybe I should download a linguistics paper or something.





Thanks to Peter Vanessen for introducing me to the world of ideophones and to Stan Carey for the useful links.


Filed under Incidental

6 responses to “Is djuḏum an ideophone?

  1. petervanessen

    I had the same when I first learned about ideophones (and I’m still not without confusion about the topic). These are my thoughts & improvisations, I’m not a trained linguist..:
    I think the linguist-term ‘ideophone’ covers only the adverb, easy to recognize in a written sentence : it has often a different,striking look and it doesn’t change with plurality or tense. In a spoken sentence it often has a change of tone,pitch.
    Then there are words,lexicalised ideophones,verbs,nouns, with stronger or less stronger traces of the original ideophone in them.

    Anyway,grammar is not language,it is just a grid put over language,which is fluent, to get some order in it,understand it. And what is order.And is there a different order possible? And in fact it is strange to talk about exceptions in a language (majority rules?)
    And that’s the beauty of the ideophone :it doesn’t fit quite into (our) grammar.
    So it makes us think.
    So it defies (our) science.
    So it keeps us alert.
    So it makes us lucid.
    So it makes us happy.
    The voice of the narrator touches us directly through the ideophone,even if the narrator is far away or 4500 years dead.
    So it is very human!

    There is also a volatile ideophone,I think :
    The spider is big.
    The spider is biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig.
    In fact in the second sentence big is an ideophone.Or has a ideophonic quality?

    The ideophone is a kind of Languageplatypus,a Systemoverthrower 🙂

  2. petervanessen

    P.S :

    About words like dhudi and bum : it has also to do with the physics of pronounciation,phonology. I read an article about it once,from Gérard Diffloth. When i googled it I saw it is online, just google:
    “Diffloth,Gérard i:big a:small”
    Actually, the whole book in which it appeared is online to be read(!) : SOUND SYMBOLISM ,ed. Hinton e.a 2006.

    Another enlightening book :
    IDEOPHONES, ed. Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz,2001
    And a beautifull article:

    hippetyhop is the feltfooted clippetyclop

  3. To the degree that ideophones don’t fit into (our) grammar, I love them all the more. Thank you for the references too, I’m going to do some reading up on them this afternoon.

    Oh, and “hippetyhop is the feltfooted clippetyclop” !!!!!!!!!!!!!! so sweeet!

  4. mark

    If you don’t want to wrestle through a whole book, here’s a survey of recent cross-linguistic research on ideophones:

    You can also find sound samples and video clips here:

  5. Thanks so much Mark. I found the paper (via the first link) particularly clear and useful, especially as regards the criteria for the definition/definitions of ideophone/s. Thanks again!

  6. Vaudeville Baghwan

    The prosody of Indiginous languages – including Aboriginal English is full of these, probably to a greater degree that English eg “Loooong time I been frightened for ngandu” (I was anxious about she/he for a long time’, “He been properly really ‘hot’ one (where ‘hot’ is proununced with a deflated sigh) and these are found in the original language.Of course there is an infinite number of examples. Ideophones are ‘signs’ which undermine what was long thought, in Saussure’s semiology, to be an arbitary relationship between signified and signifier, but I think that there is a ‘grammar’ to them. As with any grammatic element in a phrase you can’t arbitarily create intonation etc and expect the meaning to be felicitous.

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