Alexandre Kimenyi

Iconicity of Ideophones in Kinyarwanda:
Form, Function, Content and Context

Alexandre Kimenyi
California State University at Sacramento
Sacramento, California 95819

In this study, ideophones are shown not to be as idiosyncratic as was previously
believed. They seem to have their own morphological rules. It is also argued that
since they are expressive and have multiple interpretations and their exact meaning
would be missed out of proper context, that they be examined at four separate levels
namely: form, function, context and content.

Ideophone , a concept studied by Welmers (1973) in different African languages, is a term coined by C.M.Doke (1935) to mean "a vivid representation of an idea in sound". This linguistic item which conveys "a picturesque connotation" or "a word which describes a predicate, qualificative or adverb in respect to manner, colour, smell, action, state or intensity" refers in Kinyarwanda to what has been tradionally labeled onomatopeias and interjections. This distinction doesn't need to be made, however, because formally and functionally speaking, onomatopeias and interjections are identical. They have the same phonetic, morphological and syntactic properties. They are both expressive and iconic. The only slight difference between the two is that interjections tend to be the speaker's spontaneous sounds of emotions (surprise, astonishment, fear, pain, joy, excitment...).
Ideophones are not as idionsycratic as has previously been believed. They have specific rules which affect both the form and the content or the signans and the signatum. Being expressive, however, some of them are ambiguous and only the context can give their correct interpretations. An adequate treatment of ideophones will thus have to examine them at four levels namely, form, function, content and context.

1. Formal properties of ideophones.

One of the main characteristics of ideophones in this language is that they don't have class markers. Nouns in Kinyarwanda like in other Bantu languages belong to specific classes and consequently carry appropriate class markers or prefixes preceding the stem. Verbs and other modifiers agree with the head noun by being prefixed with their class markers. Ideophones consist thus of only one single unit or morpheme without prefixes or suffixes as illustrated by the last two examples in (1):

(1). ku-bn-a [kuna] 'to see'
u-mu-gabo [umugao] 'main'
h 'sound of barking dog'
pyii 'sound of a hot object in contact with liquid'

Another important feature of ideophones is that they use a lot of reduplication, triplication and quadriplication. Reduplication is also very much used in other aspects of the language namely nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives (Kimenyi, 1988) but the other two are not found. Reduplication is productive with disyllabic ideophones as seen in (2) and triplication and quadrisyllabic ideophones are found in those which have the same syllable as (3) shows:


yuguyugu 'very fast'
tsiritsiri 'very dark'
mpyoompy/ntyoonty 'very miserable'
tukutuku 'very red'
kugucikuguci/kugucukugucu 'sound of chewing'
boomboriboombori'sound of an object falling in a hollow container'
nugunugu 'noise made in sucking'
kacikaci 'noise of hand clapping'
jugujugu 'rapid repetitive movement/sound of something cast or moving in the air'
kabkab 'sound used to provoke somebody to do something wrong'
jagajaga/jagarijagari 'sound of grass or leaves agitated by the wind'
jegejege/jegerijegeri 'sound of something moving inside another object'
jabjab/jaburijaburi 'sound of something hiting water'
gogagoga 'sound made by a mute person'
bibiribibiri 'rhythmic drum beats'
buguribuguri 'sound made by clothes or dry leaves'
cukucuku 'movement of many objects such insects getting out of a hole'
geregere 'echo of war cry'
gutgut 'sound of swallowing a drink'
diridiri 'sound of steps'
ragaraga 'sound of dried grains falling on the floor' (kuragara: to fall on the floor making noises)


yuyuyuyu 'sound which expresses pain or astonishment'
yiyiyiyi 'ideophone expressing pain or astonishment'
popopopo 'ideophone expressing astonishment'
pupupupu 'ideophone expressing astonishment'
papapapa/pipipipi 'sound made by an engine'
kokokoko 'sound made by a frightened chicken'
kakakaka 'sound made by a falling tree'
tatatata 'sound of something tearing up'
hihihihi 'ideophone expressing joy'
gurgurgurgur: sound made to call chickens
hhhh/huhuhuhu/yayayaya 'ideophone expressing astonishment'
gigigigi 'rhythm of drums'
dudududu 'sound of liquid coming out of a jar'
dodododo/yayayaya 'ideophone expressing surprise'
mpyiimpyiimpyimpyi 'word used to excite children to fight'

Note also in (4) that in some cases like in tonology, when reduplication, triplication or quadriplication takes place, sometimes the first syllable behaves as if it were not part of the ideophone. The first vowel or the first syllable of the ideophone is not repeated. To use the autosegmental and metrical phonology terminology it seems "as if it were outside the metrical domain".


[ye]rrrr 'sound which expresses astonishment or pain'
[ye]rererere 'sound expressing astonishment or pain'
[yi]riririri 'sound of astonishment or pain'
[yi]rrrr 'astonishment or pain'
[yo]bbbb 'sound for astonishment or pain'
[yo]bobobobo 'sound used in sight of something big or a large quantity of objects
[yu]rurururu 'sound for pain or astonishment'
[yu]rurururu 'sound for pain or astonishment'
[yu]rrrr 'sound for pain or astonishment'
[yo]rorororo 'sound for pain or astonishment'
[yo]rrrr 'sound for pain or astonishment'
[yu]bbbb 'sound to express pain or astonishment'
[ya]rrrr 'sound for pain or astonishment'
[ya]rararara 'sound for pain or astonishment'
[yu]bubububu 'sound of war cry'
[u]nnnn 'sound used when ones sees small objects'
[o]dddd 'sound which is made in the sight of small objects'/'sound which expresses pain or astonishment'
[u]dddd 'sound used in the sight of small things'/'sound used to express astonishment or pain'
[u]nynynyny 'sound used in the sight of small objects'
[a]rrrr 'sound for pain or astonishment'
[e]rrrr 'sound expressing pain or astonishment'
[u]rurururu 'sound used in the sight of a big of object or a large quantity of objects'
[tu]rurururu 'sound of something which strikes the air running or flying'
[i]rrrr 'sound which expresses pain or astonishment'/'sound which marks that one feels cold'
[ya]babababa 'sound used to express pain or astonishment'
[i]shshshsh: sound made to show that one is cold
As the above examples show, the initial vowel or syllable of the ideophone is in some cases extrametrical.

The other main characteristics of ideophones is phonetic variation which Coupez (1980) calls lexical variation. Lexical variation is not restricted to ideophones but is again very active in Kinyarwanda and affects all lexical categories. But it is mostly productive with expressive lexical items especially ideophones. These phonetic changes are vowel quality, vowel lengthening, tone, the addition of the syllable -ri and reduplication.

This phonetic change or lexical variation doesn't affect in any way the meaning or the function of the ideophones. Examples in (5) show vowel and tone changes and those in (8) the addition of the syllable -ri.


arrrr/errrr/irrrr/orrrr/urrrr: sound used to express pain, surprise or astonishment
pupupupu/pupupupu/popopopo: interjection for astonishment
papapapa/pipipipi: sound of engine
h/h: sound of a barking dog
ho/hu: sound made to hoo somebody
ooho/uuhu: sound made to hoo somebody
pa/pi/po/pu: sound of beat, strike, hit or fall
mbaa/mbuu: sound of a cow
kugucikuguci/kugucukugucu 'sound of munching'
yohooho/yuhuuhu: surprise at hearing or seeing what is not convenient
yoo/yuu: constant fear
yo/yu: surprise, pain, pity, sudden fear
uhh/ahh: sound used to show approval

Vowel spread, repetition or copy in the same ideophone is also a feature of all Kinyarwanda words in which the same morpheme, stem or affix, has the same vowel in all its structure (Kimenyi, 1988) as the following examples attest:


uku-bko 'arm'
igi-kok 'animal'
umu-gongo 'back'
uru-ddo 'thread'
iki-reenge 'foot'
umu-reenge 'hill'
igi-seke 'reed basket'
igi-sebe 'wound'
uku-guru 'leg'
ibi-tgu 'shoulders'
umu-tuku 'red'
im-vub 'hippo'
iki-gaanza 'palm'
igi-hanga 'skull'
ibi-haha 'lungs'
ama-gaanga 'cow's urine'
umu-biri 'body'
ubu-riri 'bed'
ubu-hiri 'club'
uru-nig 'necklace'

The fact that lexical variation doesn't affect the meaning or the function of the ideophone is not in contradiction with the iconicity principle of isomorphism - one meaning one form.
Ideophones can afford to have a phonetic change without the meaning being affected because one word is supposed to be associated with only one concept.

Some ideophones have -ri as a final syllable in which case it acts as a phenostheme or have it added to the original form without affecting their function or their meanings.


a. jagajaga >jagarijagari 'sound of leaves or grass shaken by wind'
jabjab >jaburijaburi 'sound of something hitting water'
tsiitsi >tsiri/tsiritsiri/tsiriri 'very dark'
gi(gi) >girigiri 'rhythm of drum beats'
jegejege >jegerijegeri 'sound of a repetitive noise inside an object'
pyii >pyiriri 'sound of liquid in contact with a hot object'
b. papari 'sound made by something falling or rolling'
boombori 'dull repetitive noise'
taritari 'fast or running steps'
diridiri 'sound of footsteps'/'very dark'
bibiribibiri 'sound of drum beats'
caburicaburi (syn.bugutibuguti) 'sound made by clothes of a walking person'
jabjab >jaburijaburi sound of fast movement of an object hitting water'
duumburi 'sound of something falling in the water'

Sometimes the ideophone consists of a triplication or quadriplication of a liquid which takes the vowel of the initial syllable as examples which follow indicate.


turururu /
bararara /ba.ra.ra.ra./
pararara /pa.ra.ra.ra./
jorororo /
shwaararara /shwaa.ra.ra.ra./
hrrr/hurururu /

To a certain extent, ideophones in Kinyarwanda are less iconic than languages such as Yoruba (Couternay, 1969) in which change of vowel quality, vowel length or tone, automatically changes meaning or function, thus obeying the isomorphic principle of iconicity of the one meaning one form. Another important note is that ideophones have kept the voiceless bilabial stop "p" which has been lost in all instances of native words by becoming h and has come back in loan-words only.



The same phenomenon is also found in Japanese, a non-related language, in which also the sound p has been retained in all expressive words such as onomatopeias and interjections but disappeared in other native words becoming also h, b or v.

Finally, ideophones always occur in three structures: (i) after the reporting expressions: -ti
or ngo as shown in (11); (ii) independent clauses (12) or (iii) modifiers of nouns or verbs as seen in (13).


N haas ngo: paaa! 'When it reached the floor, it made a big noise'!
and on-the-floor it-said: paaa!
Bmuboonye amashyi ngo: kacikaci. 'When they saw him they started clapping'
they-him-saw hands they-said: kacikaci
Umurbyo uti: pya! 'The thunder struck.
thunderstrike said: pya!
Urukwavu rrabutswe imbw ruti: pyo! 'When the rabbit saw the dog it ran.
rabbit it-saw dog said: pyo!


Imbw irakomeza iriruka, tururururu, tururururu, ariko urukwavu ruraysiga. dog it-kept it-ran tururururu tururururu but rabbit it-it-distanced 'The dog kept running but the rabbit outdistanced it'.


shyashya 'not correct'
mpyoompy 'very miserable'
ntyoonty 'very miserable'
tukutuku 'very red'
tsiri/tsiriri/tsiritsiri/tsiitsi 'very dark'
jerere example umutbe jerere 'very diluted juice
' shyuugri > gushy shyuugri 'to act by bad habit'
daaga > gushiinga daaga 'to stand up for a long time'
mushyootori > gushy mushyootori 'to rejoice'
se-doondi > guheeka se-doondi 'to jump one leg around the neck (in children's game) '
cu/cucu > kunuuka cu/cucu 'to smell very bad'
se-ntiri > gutera se-ntiri 'to push somebody'
hama > umutbe hama 'pure juice'
cush > guhiinduka cush 'to be an outcast'
se-kadgeri > guhiinda se-kadgeri 'to chiver'
diridiri > ijoro diridiri 'very dark night'
diindri > umusaza diindri '
tiriri > umupf tiriri 'a very stupid person'
debedebe > umuntu debedebe 'mute person'
gereri > amazi gereri 'diluted beer or milk'
de > kwera de 'to be very clean'
hubu > kugira igitma hubu 'to act without thinking'
shyoshyoori/shyashyaari > guteemba shyoshyoori/shyashyaari 'to flow easily'
mbuu > ikijbwe mbuu 'a very stupid person'
kon > gutera kon 'to have a lion portion when sharing with others'

In some cases ideophones can be replaced by verbs derived from the same ideophones:


Abaantu bose ngo: ce! >Abaantu bose baracceka 'Everybody became silent'
people all said: ce! people all they-stopped-talking
Umugor afata inkoni n ku mwana ngo: nyat! >Umugor afata inkoni anyatura umwana.
woman grabbed stick and on child it said: nyat
'The woman grabbed a cane and hit the child'

There are thus a lot of verbs derived from ideophones in Kinyarwanda as seen below:


vut > kuvtura 'to hit'
tik > gutikura 'to spank'
boombori >kubomborekana 'to make muffy noise'
turururu > guturubika 'to run very fast'/guturuumbika 'to chase'/guturubuza 'to chase from bed'
kokokoko > gukkoza 'noise of a frighened or horny chicken'
shwaarararara > gushwaararaza 'to urinate profusely'
tab > gutabuka 'to tear up'
nugunugu > kunuguna 'to munch'
not > kuntora 'to slap'
mec > kumca/kumcura/kumcaanga 'to chew'
kwee > gukwekweza 'to produce a big a big laughter'
dudududu > kududubiza
jwii > kujwigiira 'to make the sound of cricket'
jah/jay 'sound made when one catches something' > kujhura/kujyura 'to catch'
tatatata 'sound of something tearing up repetitively' > gutatamura
guruguruguru 'sound of a big fire' > kugurumana 'to burn very fast'
nob 'sound of hit on the ear' > kunba
tsib 'sound of hitting' > gutsibura
hub > guhubuka '
gut > kugduka
deenderi > kudendera '
shishishishi > gushshira 'to shiver'
tetetete > guteteza 'to 'to clap
' tur > gutrika 'to explode'
ririri >kuririma 'to fall profusely (rain)/to blow heavily (wind)'
tse > kwitsaamura /ku--tse-amur-a/ 'to sneeze'
umujgujgu 'cast of' > kujgunya 'to throw away'

Welmers (1973) has suggested that whenever there is both an ideophone and a corresponding verb, the ideophone derives from that same verb. This sounds counterintuitive, however. It is, as the Kinyarwanda data show, the other way around. Ideophones are "firsts" in Peirce's semiotic terminology. They are spontaneous linguistic creations and other related words derive from them.

II. Content and context

Most of the ideophones express "natural" sounds made by animals such as birds, wild animals, domestic animals such as chickens, pigs, cows, goats, sheep, noises made by falling water, leaves, trees, noises of streams, thunderstrikes, wind, rain, noises made by humans to express emotions: pain, joy, excitment, etc.

Sounds of Animals:


mbaa/mbuu/mbuuu/baaa/buuu: sound made by cows
maaa: sound made by sheep
mee: sound made by ibis bronz/sound made by goat
guguhugu/gugurigugu: sound made by a rooster
huuham 'sound of crested crane'
huuh: 'sound of owl'
gugu: 'sound of pidgeon'
nyaanwun: 'sound of a cat'
go: 'sound of frog'
aa: sound of ibis
ayyyy interj. which is used to excite a bull to mate
abgbg: sound used to excite a he-goat to mate
ahhh: sound used to call a dog
hehehe: sound made by a hunting dog when it catches its prey
grgrgrgr: sound used to call chickens
w/w: sound made by a barking dog
nkanka: sound of barking
ishiyeeyeeeeee/ngoyeeeee: sound used to call a cow which is too far
jorororo: sound of gurgling
dwi: sound of movement and bite of an insect

Sounds of Human beings:


ce/cwe: sudden sound of silence (when people stop speaking)
mbwi/bwi: sound of fart
nyaatinyaati: sound made by the behind of a walking fat person '
(kunyaata: to walk the behinds rubbing each other)
kwe/kwee: sound of a big laughter
tse! : sound of sneezing

Sounds of Natural phenomena:


Sound combined with movement:
barari/bararara: sound made by something falling or rolling
fafari: sound of dry leaves agitated by wind
gigi;gigigigi;girigiri: sound or runners' steps
gugugu: sound of something which falls or rolls
gut (kugduka)/vut: dry sound or strike
gutgut: sound of swallowing a liquid
turururu (guturubika): sound of something running or flying
shwaa/shwaarararara: sound of liquid rolling under pressure
(gushwararaza 'to urinate profusely)
paparipapari/babari/bararara: sound of something falling or rolling
tab: (gutbuka) sound of something tearing up.
taritari : sound of racing steps
hrrr : fast movement
hub (guhubuka): sound made by something out of a container
hwaa:sound of a light wind
huu: sound of wind
waaa: sound of wind
ririri/giririri: sound of violent wind or heavy rain
jabjab/jaburijaburi (kujbura) onom.sound of something which hits water
jagari/fafari;jagajaga;jagarijagari onom. sound of leaves or grass shaken by wind
jah/jay/jway (kujhura/kujyura/): sound of fast movement of something which
catches something else
jegeri/jegejege/jegerijegeri: 'sound of something which is playing inside
something else
jugujugu: sound of rapid movement
duu : sound of flies
dubu: sound of something which falls in the water
dudududu: sound of liquid coming out of container with a small mouth;
sound of a horn
duumburi: sound of something which falls in the water
dee: imitation of the sound of a bell
diridiri : 'sound of steps'
bibiribibiri/gigigigi: sound of rhythmic drum beats
buguribuguri: imitation of sound made by clothes or dry leaves
cukucuku: movement of objects getting out of a hole
pyat: fast sound
pyii/pyiriri: sound of liquid on a hot object
pyo/pya/pyom/pyor: fast sound/movement
mcu/muguci (kumca/kumcura/kumcaanga): 'sound of munching'
pwa: coming of clouds
nob (kunba): sound by something hitting on the ear
nog :sound made by a liquid sucked from a container/sound made
not/zib/nyat : sound of a hitting stick
nugunugu onom.sound of a sucking baby or animal from breasts which
don't have enough milk
not: sound made by something extracted from something else
papapapa/pipipipi/tukutuku: sound of engine
pfum: sound of a sharp object which pierces something else and comes out
' (gupfmura: to pierce)
kirigiti: sound of a used hoe tilling soil
mati: sound of something which falls and sticks on some other thing (v.kumta)
mat: sound of something which pulls from something else (v. kumtura)

III. Polysemy or homonymy

The same ideophone can have different or opposite meanings:


aa: sound used to show disgust; dissatisfaction; contempt or disapproval
ahe-he: sound used to express pain or surprise asyi: sound used to show disapproval or boredom
uu: sound which expresses pain, astonishment, pity or surprise
mba: categorical no, sound of something falling down
shh: sound used to show that one is cold, command to be quiet; sound used to chase birds.
nnhn: sound used to mean no or to hoo somebody.
yee: reply to a call/constant fear
e:silence!/sound showing hesitation
n:here it is/a sound that a sick person makes/what?
mee: sound of goat/sound of brown ibis
not: sound made by something extracted from something else/sound made by hitting on the ear

These ideophones which have multiple meanings are not homonymous (words which happen to look the same by accident) but polysemous (same words with multiple meanings). The same words with opposite meanings are found in other languages such as English (examples: dust :1. 'to cover with dust'; 2. 'to remove dust'; weed: 1. 'to put weed'; 2. 'to remove weed'), or French (examples: louer 'rent to/rent from'; sanction 'reward/punishment'; hte 'host/guest'...) whereas the other meanings are derived from the basic ones metaphorically (similarity between the referent in the primary plane of expression) or metonymically (association between the referent in the primary plane of expression and the second plane of expression).


The same idea can be referred to by different ideophones.


pain: a, , u, ahe-he, arrrr, n, errrr, yeyeyeye, yobobobobo,
joy: hiiii, hihihihi,
pain or astonishment: yerrrr/yerererere/yeyeyeye/yeyeyeye/yirrrr/yiririri/
yiyiyiyi /yiyiyiyi/yobbbb/yobobobobo/yurrrr/ yururururu/yururururu/yubbbb/yorrrr/yororororo/yo/
hit/strike/fall : vut/git/gut/kaci/koc/mat/not/pa/pi/po/pu/tik/tsibyapo/yawi yawi/
sudden fear: y/yaa/hoo/huu/yoo/yuu/ye/u/nnhnhnn/
dissatisfaction: pu/apu/atu/syi/ha/ha/a/aa/da/
sound used to hoo: nnhn/nhnhnn/nnhnn/yoo/yo/yooho/yoohoo/yuu/yohohoo/yee/uuhu/
war cry: jyorororo/yorororo/geregere/yororo/yububububu/
sound expressing surprise at the sight of a big object or a lot of things: urrrr/ururururu/yobobobobo/
sound expressing surprise at the sight of a small object or many tiny things: unnnn/odddd/ododododo/udddd/ungng/unynynyny
astonishment: yo/papapapa/papapapa/eego ewe/yeego k/emwe;yemwe/
sound used to mock: aa/maaa/
completely: me/meme/pe

The fact that the same concept may be expressed by different ideophones is also expected in the iconicity view of sign genesis, creativity and dynamism. Once a concept has been created or a sign has come into existence, it can die or grow. When it grows, it can partipate in the creation of other signantia or signata.

IV. The use of ideophones in riddles:

Ideophones in riddles also refer to sounds of humans, animals and natural phenomena. The structure of the ideophonic riddle is of four types: (i) regular ideophones without any modifier or accompaniment, (ii) ideophones after reporting quasi-verbs -ti or ngo, (iii) verbless structures, and (iv) ideophones modifying nouns, verbs or adjectives.
Riddling in Kinyarwanda uses formulaic expressions that both the challenger and challengee have to use. To start the challenger says: Sakwe! Sakwe! 'Riddle! Riddle!'. The challengee replies by:
Soma! 'Go ahead! or Ready!' (Literary: Drink!). The challenger says the riddle and the challengee solves it. If s/he cannot, he says: Cyende! 'Take it (back)'! or Cyice! 'Kill it'! and the challenger gives the answer.


(i). irengerenge: 'bell'
dadaridadari: 'a flea on a bald head'
bugutibuguti: 'a hyena munching a dead body'
bomboribombori:'a gourd cup in a clay jar'
bibiribibiri: 'a fart from a young woman'
barubaru: 'thunder'
behubehu: 'flute'
nyira-gipirigipiri:'pig's noise/motorcycle'
nyira-mpyimpyiri mamyori:'dog's tears'
nyira-didiri: 'a mud in the road'
nyira-mpyorongo:'dog in a bushy plantation'
inyegerinyegeri: 'urine in the sand'
(ii).kati fafari kati fa: 'a leaf falling on a banana leaf'
karagi ati pfiii: 'a moulder in the clay'
kati mati: 'a child's hand in the sorghum grains'
kati ce kati pa: 'a hawk terrorizing chickens'
kati bombori kati beregeshi: 'a mouse in an old clay pot'
kati pfoo: 'lightening'
kati po kati borogoshi: 'an antilope's paw on the rocks'
kati pa kati bambaribambari: 'a gourd cup in a clay pot'
biti kaci biti po: 'rams fighting'
kiti hi kiti hi: 'an old woman who has hot dough falling on her; an old woman who cannot
find her pipe, an old woman who cannot find her sewing needle; an old woman who
cannot find her loin-cloth'
Butimba na Mwendo ngo mati: 'a jigger in the toe or fingernail'
between Butimba hill and Mwendo hill it-says mati
hakurya ngo po hakuno ngo po: 'tillers and breakers'
the older side it-says po this side it says po
Imwonga ngo mati:
in the walley it says mati
Some ideophonic phrases have a commentary added:
shyuhuhu, ndamaze. 'A man caught urinating on the sidewalk'
shyuhuhu I-don't-care
kiti tiku kiti dumburi - kiti databuja nkumbuye u Rwanda. 'a falling object'
it-says tiku it-says dumburi it-says my lord I miss Rwanda
kati papari kati pa - gatabaza benewabo. 'a spoon on the plate'
it-says papari it-says pa - it-asks-for-help-from relatives
kati po kati pa - inzibukira nayikuye kwa Rwamugenzi.
it-says po it-says pa - the-side-effect I-got-it from He-who-has-friends
kati barararara kati ba - nkazasubirayo mba nambuye uwambyaye.
it-says barararara it-says ba - there-is-no-way-I-can-go-back may I-undress she-who-gave-me-
'a leaf falling on the floor/a plate falling at the bottom of a storehouse'
(iii).verbless ideophonic riddle phrases:
mu kabande kacikaci: 'a hailstom in the cuscus yam plantation'
in the valley kacikaci
mu kabande bahubahu: 'wind in the cuscus yam plantation'
mu gakombe hubika: 'a stick cast in a herd of goats'
hakurya dondidondi hakuno dondidondi: 'Sound produced by makers of grinding stones'
over there dondidondi this side dondidondi
barubaru haruguru aha barubaru: 'beans drying on the sun'
barubaru at the top here barubaru
gipiri igipipi: 'pipe'
gikirigiti ikinotori: 'a used hoe in a virgin soil'
dimba idori: 'a dough in a sauce pan'
dimba ikwege: 'a pile of grass'
(iv).ideophones modifying verbs:
karagira derere: 'the palm of a baby'
it-does derere
karatemba shyashyari: 'blood flowing on the leg/water on cuscus yam leaf/water on a banana
it-falls shyashyari leaf'
karatemba shoshori: 'a weed growing on a banana tree'

Ideophones used in riddles have the same semantic properties as other ideophones: imitation of natural sounds, movement or emotions.

V. The ambiguous nature of ideophones

Like other Kinyarwanda expressive words, ideophones are ambiguous. Only the right context or extralinguistic factors can indicate their exact true meanings. They behave like words which are in the derivative noun classes, mostly classes 7&11 (pejorative, augmentative, ameriolative) and 12&14 (diminutive, pejorative)


igikobwa (class 7 -ki-): good looking girl/big girl/ugly girl
ikigabo (class 7 -ki-): big man/ugly man
urukobwa (class 11 -ru-): big girl/ugly girl
urugabo (class 11 -ru-): big man/ugly man
agakobwa (class 12:-ka): small girl/good looking girl/very courageous girl/despicable girl
akagabo (class 12 -ka-): very courageous man/tiny man/despisable man/likeable man
ubukobwa (class 14 -bu-): girlhood/naught girls/small girls/
ubugabo (class 14 -bu-): manhood/naughty men/small men/

The study of ideophones in Kinyarwanda has shown that eventhough they exhibit lexical variation, iconicity is very much at play at both levels, the signans and the signatum. The referent which has an ideophonic form can acquire multiple ideophonic signantia (synonymy) and at the formal level, the sounds which are used to create ideophones such as the syllable suffix -ri, vowel repetition or vowel harmony, the use of reduplication, triplication, or quadriplication are very productive. It was also shown that regular words such as verbs or nouns use the same strategy found in ideophones such as vowel copy or syllable or stem reduplication which is very productive in this language. In this sense then, Kinyarwanda seems to be a very iconic language. The strength of the semiotic theory outlined by Peirce is the discovery of iconicity in language, a phenomenon which was ignored by previous linguistic scholarship. Some languages might be more iconic than others in all respects. It is also possible for a language to be symbolic in one area and iconic in another.


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