The semantic structure of sensory vocabulary in an African language


The widespread occurrence of ideophones, large classes of words specialized in evoking sensory imagery, is little known outside linguistics and anthropology. Ideophones are a common feature in many of the world’s languages but are underdeveloped in English and other Indo-European languages. Here we study the meanings of ideophones in Siwu (a Kwa language from Ghana) using a pile-sorting task. The goal was to uncover the underlying structure of the lexical space and to examine the claimed link between ideophones and perception. We found that Siwu ideophones are principally organized around fine-grained aspects of sensory perception, and map onto salient psychophysical dimensions identified in sensory science. The results ratify ideophones as dedicated sensory vocabulary and underline the relevance of ideophones for research on language and perception.

Back to Table of Contents