This paper combines insights from two fields – research on the typology of parts of speech systems and on mimetic language use – to argue that mimesis should be recognized as one of the major syntactic-pragmatic functions, on a par with reference, predication and attribution. Data supporting the argument come from the published literature and from corpora of Germanic and Australian languages.
It has long been recognized that speakers in spontaneous interactions do not restrict themselves to authorial descriptions of events, but frequently switch into what has been termed the “mimetic mode” (Güldemann 2008: 289), “expressive mode” (Mithun 1982), “demonstration” (Clark & Gerrig 1990; Clark 2004), and “depiction” (Dingemanse 2011:156). In (1), the mimetic mode is illustrated by wham, bam; a plausible descriptive counterpart would be I crashed into the door.
(1) I came up, didn't see his door, went through the gap and .. wham, bam.
In spoken language, a correlate of the mimetic mode is what Nuckolls (1992: 53) terms “performative foregrounding”, e.g. interruption of rhythmic flow, higher intensity, or a noticeable change in pitch. While nonlinguistic vocalizations, direct quotations and representational gestures also serve the function of mimesis, we will focus on conventionalized single-word expressions of the type often labelled “ideophones”, such as English wham (1), German zack (2), and Siwu tsintsintsintsintsin (3).
(2) zack (.) legt man los.
IDEOPH:swift start:PRS:3SG one off
‘(When one has a spontaneous idea,) whoosh, one starts off (implementing it)’ (Mannheim DGD corpus)
(3) Alɛ Kàntɔ kùgɔ ɔ̀-sɛ ɔ̀-bara ũ ara lo. ↑Tsintsintsintsintsin!↑
like [name] how 3SG-HAB 3SG-do his things PARTICLE IDEOPH.neatly
‘Just like Kàntɔ, the way he does his stuff. Tsintsintsintsintsin! [neatly]’ (Dingemanse 2017: 124)
The status of ideophones as a cross-linguistic category is controversial. It has variously been argued, for specific languages, that ideophones are a distinct part of speech (e.g. Childs 1988; Creissels 2001; Klamer 2002; Amha 2010) or a phonologically defined subset of adverbs or adjectives (e.g. Kulemeka 1995; Ameka 2001; Beck 2008). This variation is partly due to the lack of an agreed definition based on distributional rather than phonological and semantic criteria, but partly what is expected from a typological point of view.
Building on a typological approach where the association of part of speech and function is regarded as a prototypical one (Hopper & Thompson 1984; Hengeveld 1992; Sasse 1993; Croft 2000, 2001), we propose to define ideophones as lexemes which, without further measures being taken, can serve the function of mimesis. Distributionally, this means that they can appear in syntactic isolation as in (3), but also in specialized mimetic constructions, e.g. in quotative constructions or prosodically marked utterance-peripheral positions. For example, in German, ideophones are conventionally associated with a prosodically foregrounded clause-initial position which is syntactically integrated into the clause by V2 word order (2).
However, in line with the prototype approach, ideophones can also be employed in other, non-mimetic functions in many languages, e.g. as predicates using a light verb strategy (Amha 2001; Franco 2017); this multifunctionality of ideophones is a cross-linguistically recurrent phenomenon which has been described as a trade-off between expressiveness and syntactic integration (Dingemanse & Akita 2016; Dingemanse 2017). Moreover, just like adjectives (Dixon 1977), the ideophone class can be small or even absent in a given language. Conversely, members of other parts of speech can be recruited for the mimetic function. These findings not only underline the linguistic relevance of the mimetic mode but also its close integration with the descriptive mode in language use.