Friday, November 30: Natalia Bermúdez (UChicago)

Please join us for a meeting of the Language Variation & Change Workshop, this Friday, November 16 at 3:30pm, in Rosenwald 301. A light reception will follow.

Ideophones…beyond expressiveness
Natalia Bermúdez, UChicago

In this talk, I look at the humorous use of ideophones in Naso (Chibchan, Panama) through a social lens, and show what it bears on theory of ideophony in relation to evidentiality (Dingemanse 2012, Michael 2008), intimacy/alignment (Nuckolls 2010, Webster 2015), and expressiveness.

Recent typological literature on ideophones takes an a priori approach to measuring expressiveness in terms of how closely an ideophone deviates from grammatical context (Dingemanse & Akita 2017). However, this approach cannot account for speakers’ naturally occurring humorous expressive productions and interpretations. I show how a social approach, where expressiveness is empirically qualified in terms of speaker intuitions, reactions, and choices, teaches us that speaker competence of expressivity is more complex than physical correlates; ideophones function in ways beyond a scale (“less expressive” to “more expressive”) of expressiveness. In particular, Naso data shows that ideophones are productively and commonly used humorously, and that they index social identifications.

Why are ideophones so effective at deriving humor? I argue that ideophone humor is an effect of first-person perspective alignment with another entity, which creates experiential intimacy and induces humor through contrast with another competing identification (e.g. Naso [vs. Latino]; woman [vs. man]; and proper woman [vs. improper woman]), based on contextual use of the following ideophone data produced by two Naso women in conversation:

[kʰjuk kʰjuk] ‘the controlled sound of a fish biting at a line’
[ʃwap] ‘the sound of pulling a fish out of the water to land’
[pak] ‘the sound of a man kissing his wife, to her misfortune’; ‘the sound of a cow defecating’
[tʃas tʃas] ‘washing clothes in a controlled manner’
[pʰaw pʰaw] ‘washing clothes in a loud, obscene manner’

I analyze that the experiential value that ideophones encode derives from their depiction of sensory information. This perspective, when coupled with the sound symbolic connotations of ideophones, as well as their saliency as a unique lexical resource, creates a strong candidate for social indexicality. Speakers exploit and use ideophones to portray their own social identifications. This analysis predicts it is cross-linguistically common for speakers to use ideophones in socially indexical and humorous ways.

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