Can Visual Perceptions be Expressed by Sounds?
The Buli Ideophones
It is well known that many languages of the world feature the phenomenon of sounds being represented by words in the respective language. In linguistics this phenomenon is called onomatopoeia. Many examples of this can be found in English. For example:
whizz v. (to move with a whistling sound),
hum v. (to make a low, steady, continuous sound),
thump v. (to knock heavily)
howl v. (e.g. the howling of a wolf)
rumble v. (to make a deep, continuous sound)
snap v. (e.g. fingers)
Onomatopoeic expressions are very typical in comic books where interjections like: “Bang! Ouch! Boom! Crack! Blah!Blah! Takkatakk! (gun) Gah! Ooof! and KrkrkFafa!” accentuate the actions and substitute the uttered sounds. They can even be applied to certain situations as neologisms.
In different languages, the same sounds can be expressed using very similar words without borrowing, but they can also be quite different. The ticking of a watch is described as “tick tock” in English, “tic-tac” in Italian and Spanish but as “katchin katchin” in Japanese (Wikipedia: “Onomatopoeia”).
The linguistic term “Ideophone(s)”, also called “expressives” and “mimetics” (Dingemanse 2019: 13) is explained by Doke (1935) as the “reproduction of an idea in sound” and by Dingmanse (2019:16) as “a member of an open lexical class of marked words that depict sensory images”. The Wikipedia entry on the term describes it as “words that evoke an idea in sound, often a vivid impression of certain sensations or sensory perceptions, e.g. sound (onomatopoeia), movement, colour, shape or action”. Ideophones differ from “onomatopoeic lexemes” in one essential characteristic. While onomatopoeic words denote acoustic impressions made by words that are similar in pronunciation to the described sound, an ideophone can also express non-acoustic phenomena in word forms, as will be demonstrated in our list below. In European languages, ideophones are almost non-existent, whereas they are very common in African languages.
In Buli (endnote 1), ideophones often bear some resemblance to modal adverbs in describing the manner, mode or procedure of an action, e.g. in sentences such as:
N nye chorototo. I am (lit. make) quiet.
Maa cheng bora-bora. I walk about aimlessly.
Mi va fara-fara. I followed close behind.
Mi bob keng-keng. I attached (it) firmly.
However, ideophones are separate parts of speech with particularities of tone, sound, syntactic position, etc. The following five features characterize Buli ideophones:
1. Ideophones may be and are often introduced by nna [l m] “like this” (endnote 2):
Ku kum nna gbiti-gbiti. It (he) cried like this: gbiti-gbiti (i.e. he cried in a loud voice).
2. Nearly all Buli ideophones consist of reduplicated syllables. There is no set number of syllables, and the final syllables may be repeated as often as the speaker finds it appropriate, e.g.:
chorototototo… [l l l l l l…] quiet(ly)
ngmikikikikiki… [l l l l l l…] cool
saratatatata… [l l l l l l…] rushing
3. Several Buli informants explained that these words try to describe the action mentioned before in an “onomatopoeic” fashion. This holds true only if the word onomatopoeic is interpreted in the widest sense of its meaning, since most of the ideophones do not describe a sound but refer to a whole range of qualities, types of procedures, emotions, visual impressions, etc. Examples of these ideophones include words such as: aimless(ly), shocked, deaf, surprised, confused, rough, little (by little), easy, nearby, etc.
4. Most ideophones have a low tone. I could find only one example with a high tone:
Mi te wa lam nna fii-fiik. I gave him a little meat.
[h h h m l m h h ]
According to one informant, the high tone of fii-fiik may result from the high tone of the adjective fiik. D. Westermann’s (1927, p. 321) statement about Ewe ideophones, namely that “a high tone, short vowel, clear vowel and voiceless consonant refer to something small, fine, hard, solid… and a low tone refers to something big, plump, soft and slack” (translation F.K.), may give another explanation for the tone of the Buli ideophone fii-fiik.
5. Buli ideophones are mostly used in the final position of the sentence, even when not introduced by nna but preceded by the verbal predicate (e.g. nye, to make).
Some Buli ideophones do not seem to be known in the entire Bulsa area. This may be due to the fact that some are neologisms that were coined in special situations and perhaps adopted only by a small group of speakers.
Buli ideophones may express phenomena and aspects relating to different spheres of life:
1) Sound, noise, absence of sound:
chim or chim-chim, quietly, silently, without a word, motionless – Wa nye chim a kum. He is (lit. makes) quiet and is sobbing. – Wa yaa kuli chim. He went home without a word.
chorototototo...(cf. syn. adverbal ideophones: chorr, ngmikikikiki…, sikikikiki…, yirititititi…) quiet(ly), silent(ly), still – Ti guuk-yeni a yaa nye ka nna chorotototo. At our abandoned house, it is now very quiet.
giri-giri imitates a low rumbling noise (e.g. of thunder) – Weni a kum nna giri-giri. The sky cried like this: giri-giri (there was thunder).
gbiti-gbiti, in a loud voice, loudly – Ku a kum ka nna gbiti-gbiti. It makes a loud noise (lit.: cries like this: gbiti-gbiti).
kuri-kuri, rustling noise, e.g. produced by a mouse in a cupboard – (Prov.) Kuri-kuri kan wari vori(b) po. Noise never remains in the hole (i.e. most things become public).
kpo, kpong, sound of sth. falling down, bump! bang! – Mi lo nna kpo. (Lit.) I fell like kpo(ng) (I fell down with a bump).
puong, kpong, sound of something falling down. – Ako a lo nna puong. Ako fell down like puong.
saa or siaa, gently, softly, noiselessly – Duerowa jam a jo nna siaa. The suitor came and entered noiselessly.
saratata (cf. syn. sasa), describes the sound and behaviour of running animals (leaving a trail of dust in the air) – Biaka a nye nna saratata, a ga yig kpiaka. The dog rushed (lit. did like this: saratata) and caught the hen.
sasa or sasasa (syn. saratata), describes the sound and behaviour of running animals – Biaka va suomu nna sasasa. The dog chased the hare (lit. followed like this: sasasa).
siki or (more emphaticly) sikikiki (cf. sina, v.), 1. quiet(ly), calm(ly), silent(ly), still (syn. chorotototo… , ngmikikiki… and yiritititi… ), cool – Ba dan le fu, nye siki. If they insult you, keep quiet (cool).
warr, sound of knocking the head with knuckles or a dry stick. – Wa gbe biika zuk po nna warr. He knocked the child’s head (like) warr.
yirititi¹… quiet(ly), silent(ly), still, in silence, dead, asleep, in peace (cf. chorotototo, sikikiki, ngmikikiki), astonished – Mi ale ga dari kuumu la, ba kali ka nna yiritititi. When I went and announced the funeral, they were astonished (lit. awere sitting like yiritititi).
yirititi² (cf. yiri to fly) describes the sound of flying – Nuinsanga boro a de zaanga, ate mi chiena ate si nye yirititi. The birds were eating the millet, and I came, and they flew away (lit. made yirititi).
More ideophones of this group have a strong onomatopoeic character.
2) Visual phenomena, state or qualities of things and persons
berima-berima (cf. beruk n., madman), fickle, not constant, confused (like a madman) – Wa biisi nna berima-berima. He speaks confused like a madman.
bogdololo… or boglololo, fine-grained, powdery, smooth – Nipoowa num zomu nna boglolololo... The woman ground the millet to very fine-grained flour.
boglogi, fat, plump – Nipoowa biika nala yoo, wa miena nna boglogi. The lady’s baby is cute, she is so plump (fatness is regarded as beautiful with babies).
chik-chik, very dry, completely dry – Duoku ko nna chik-chik. The wood is completely dry (has dried completely).
choali or choal, small and slim – Wa ka nipok-bili a soa nna choal. She was a girl (like this): small and slim.
faala, easy, light, cool, lazy – Mi nye (ka nna) faala. I feel (like this:) easy.
fati-fati or fata (cf. fifauk n., fatim v.), muddy, swampy, covered or smeared with mud or a slimy substance – Biika lo nambenta po a yiti zu nna fata. The child fell in cow dung and got up all covered with it.
jama-jama, jaga-jaga (cf. ja v.), carelessly, arbitrarily, without control – Mi nye nna jama-jama. I have no control of myself. I am careless.
kirim or kerim, rigid, stiff (e.g. after electrocution or death) – N ko-kpiengka kpi ka diem, ate ban gu ya ate wa nye (nna) kirim. My grandfather died yesterday, and they did not bury him, and he is stiff (now).
kpirim, deaf (also figuratively) – Wa nye nna kpirim. He is deaf.
lim, dark, dim, gloomy (e.g. under a bridge, under trees; not used for the whole sky) – Ku nye nna lim. It is dark.
log-log, smooth(ly), fine-grained (particularly used for the grinding process) – Num zomu te bu be nna log-log. Grind the flour so that it becomes very fine-grained.
ngmikikiki…, cool, cold, silent, quiet (often used for dead persons; cf. sikikiki and dikikiki) – Kpiowa nyingka a yogi nna ngmikikiki. The dead person’s body is very cold.
ngmin-ngmiri, (cf. ngmin-ngmirik adj., ngmirisi v.), decorated, variegated, many-coloured, spotted – Naawa po-bini derisi nna ngmin-ngmiri. The chief’s junior wife dressed using many colours.
paana-paana, at random, aimlessly, without a decision – Toalingka za a nya nna paana-paana. The Tallensi (-man) is standing there looking aimless.
pel, full, overflowing – Nyiamu sueri liika (nna) pel. The vessel is full of water.
piina (cf. pina worms that make the stomach swell), big, swollen (only used for stomach or belly) – Biika a nya ale wa logi nna piina. The child’s stomach is swollen (lit. the child looks with his stomach like piina).
poli-poli (cf. polisi v.), very sharp – N gebka a de poli-poli. My knife is (lit. eats) very sharp.
tati, unsteadily, loosely, without support – Wa za nna tati. He was standing there unsteadily (could be pushed down easily).
wenleng (cf. woling v.), bright, light – Vani nye ka nna wenleng. Darkness is over (lit. the dawn is bright).
3) Quantifying aspects
biri-biri, in great numbers, numerously – Nurba a jam nna biri-biri. Men were coming in great numbers.
miri-miri, (cf. miri v. to be congested), in large numbers, in crowds – Sienga a nyini nna miri-miri jam jo yeni. The bees came in large swarms into the house.
ngusi, in large numbers, in crowds, in swarms or flocks – Sienga a nyini nna ngusi. The bees came out in swarms.
waabi, completely, all, everything – Mi de nna waabi. I have eaten everything.
ziri-ziri or zigi-zigi (cf. zirini n.), in great numbers, in a swarm, continuously, without interruption (esp. used for bees) – Sienga a va biika nna ziri-ziri. The bees are following the child in a swarm.
4) Intensifying and abating aspects
bag-bag, much, high(ly), intensively – Ku nye bag-bag. It is (lit. makes) very much.
boli-boli, (syn. chesi-chesi) completely, thoroughly, seriously – Nipoowa a sugri nuruwa boli-boli. The woman insulted the man seriously.
dutibi, completely, without an exception – Ba kpi yeni po miena nna dutibi. Everyone in the house died (without exception).
fii-fiik (cf. fiik adj.), a little – Wa tom tuima nna fii-fiik. He works (only) a little.
yega-yega or yeg-yega, (very) much, many, a lot, very, enough, sufficiently, used for expressing a superlative – Wa yaali nyiam yega-yega. He likes water very much.
5) Local aspects
kpang-kpanga close (by), near (by), not far away, at a short distance – Mi yeni ale ba yeni moati ka nna kpang-kpanga. My house and their house are very close to each other.
liirik-liirik or leeri-leeriga, diagonally – Ba yog gbalini (nna) liirik–liirik. They wove the gbali-mat using the “diagonal” technique.
muri (cf. muuri v., to be abundant), up to the edge, up to the brim, brimful – Nyiamu a sue nna muri. The water is up to the brim (e.g. in a pot, river…).
yari-yari, without any order or plan, irregularly, at random, haphazardly, all over the place, abnormally, generously – Wa de ka nna yari-yari. He lives from hand to mouth (lit. he eats without a plan).
6) Temporal aspects, movement
filim, quickly, like a flash – Ngmani nna ká filim. Return quickly (like a flash).
lengti, quickly, swiftly (cannot be used for all activities) – Wa biisi (nna) lengti. He talked (like this): quickly.
mirr (very) fast, quickly – Wa nye nna mirr taam nyin. He left very quickly (lit.: he did like “mirr“) and went out.
ngwuli or a wuli, quickly, fast, in time, early (i.e. without hesitating or without losing time), punctually, in time – Kpagni jam ngwuli. The elder came in time.
7) Emotion, mental condition
buta-buta, in a confused way, in confusion, upset – Nurwa ale kpang la, wa ka nna buta-buta. As the man is old, he behaves in a confused way.
fa(a)siya, relaxed, relaxing – Wa kal nna faasiya. He is sitting there relaxed.
kau, surprised, astonished – Mi za nna kau. I am standing here surprised.
legi or legi-legi (describes the reaction after being pricked suddenly or doused with cold water, for example), startled, shocked – Asuom a chub Akpakuri bitag-fiik ate wa nye legi-legi. The hare pricked the tortoise’s anus and he (the tortoise) was startled (lit. made legi-legi).
tanglang, aimless(ly), idling, listless(ly), inactive(ly) – Fi nyiem nyiem a jam za nna tanglang. You walk about, come back and stand there aimlessly (insult!).
yerim (cf. ye, yerim v., yerini adj.), perplexed, amazed, confused, in consternation, in a foolish way – Mi nya nna yerim. I looked perplexed.
As indicated, in some entries of the above list, there are sometimes linguistic similarities between ideophones and other word classes, e.g.:
fata, cf. fatim (verb) and fifauk (noun)
fii-fiik, cf. fiik (adjective)
miri-miri, cf. miri (verb)
yirititi, cf. yiri (verb)
In these cases the ideophone was probably influenced in its phonetic form by a noun, adjective or verb which also possesses onomatopoeic qualities.
Möhlig (in Jungraithmayr 1983: 113) notes in his article on the ideophone that it will probably largely disappear when African languages are written down.
Dingmanse, Mark (2019): ‘Ideophone’ as a comparative concept. Radboud University / Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, John Benjamins Publishing Company, https://doi.org/10.1075/ill.16.02din
Doke, C.M. (1935): Bantu Linguistic Terminology. London, New York and Toronto.
Jungraithmayr, Herrmann and Wilhelm J.G. Möhlig, eds. (1983): Lexikon der Afrikanistik. Afrikanische Sprachen und ihre Erforschung, pp. 112-113. Berlin: Reimer.
Kröger, Franz (1992): Buli-English Dictionary. With an Introduction into Buli Grammar and an Index English-Buli. Münster and Hamburg: Lit Verlag.
Westermann, Dietrich (1927): Laut, Ton und Sinn in westafrikanischen Sudansprachen, in: Festschrift Meinhof, Hamburg, 315-328 [quoted after J.G. Möhlig].
Wikipedia: “Onomatopoeia”, retrieved July 2020,
Wikipedia: “Ideophone”, retrieved July 2020,
1 The examples (1.-5.) are adopted (with only small changes) from the Buli-English Dictionary (Kröger 1992: 34)
2 [l] = low tone; [m] = middle tone; [h] = high tone
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