Sound Symbolism in the Turkish Tongue: Ideophone Identification or the Iconicity of a Myth?

Austin Howard

Ideophones (marked, sound symbolic words depicting sensory imagery) are an increasingly described feature of many languages, across families (Dingemanse, 2019). As many languages lack ideophones as a richly developed word class, researchers are starting to investigate the cross-linguistic iconicity of these words by testing their guessability. Theoretically, cross-linguistic guessability could serve as some measure of iconicity, resemblance of form and meaning. If their meanings are only accessible to those who have learnt the language, there is no distinction between ideophones and other words in any given language, in terms of iconic properties. In Dingemanse et al.(2016), native Dutch speakers were asked to guess ideophones in one or several ideophone-rich languages in an experimental setting. Using two-way forced choice experiments where in participants heard ideophones from various languages, participants guessed their meanings slightly above chance. Thereby they were able to find evidence for weak cross-linguistic iconicity.
Here, I continue this line of enquiry by using a four-way forced-choice task using ideophones gathered from a list of Turkish ideophones (Baturay, 2010). 200 native English-speakers completed a 20 question experiment, administered online via Qualtrics, in which they were told to guess which of four definitions matched the Turkish word with which they were presented. One of the four options was correct, accompanied by three foil options. These incorrect options consisted of the ‘opposite’ meaning of the correct one (e.g. the correct meaning is ‘something blazing’ and one foil would be ‘something freezing’). The other two foils consisted of a semantically unrelated meaning (‘a gentles mile’) and its opposite (‘a harsh frown’). All ideophones were played once and participants could only hear the word and were not exposed to any items in written form. The preliminary results indicate that some ideophones were highly guessable whilst others were not. This calls into question whether iconicity is a necessary property of an ideophone or whether or not ‘ideophones’ are a word-class, but a word-class with a diverse cognitive profile. These preliminary results also question whether there are multiple levels of iconicity within and amongst language systems.


Baturay, S.(2010). Apophony in Turkish Onomatopoeic Reduplications. Boğaziçi University, MA Thesis. International Periodical For the Languages, Literature.

Dingemanse, Mark. 2019. “Ideophone” as a comparative concept. In Kimi Akita & Prashant Pardeshi (eds.), Ideophones, mimetics, and expressives, 13–33. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Dingemanse, M. (2018). Redrawing the margins of language: Lessons from research on ideophones. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 3(1).

Dingemanse, M., Schuerman, W., Reinisch, E., Tufvesson, S., & Mitterer, H.(2016). What sound symbolism can and cannot do: testing the iconicity of ideophones from five languages. Language, 92(2), e117-e133.