The question of what constitutes an ideophone in a particular language is not always very clear. Dingemanse’s definition of “marked words that depict sensory imagery” (2011; 2012), which “belong to an open class of lexical words” (2019), serves as a great aid to dissect the canonical idea of the cross-linguistic ideophone, and helps to analytically place related phenomena (e.g. phonesthemes) nearer or farther away from this core. However, this definition can also be ‘translated’ to the language-particular level, and have most recently been instrumental in deciding which words to include in CHIDEOD, the Chinese Ideophone Database (Van Hoey & Thompson 2019; under review), but more importantly, which to exclude.
This paper will first outline previous lines of research on Chinese ideophones from three perspectives: (a) Chinese sources, most of which focus solely on onomatopoeia (e.g. Zhao 2008), (b) Japanese studies which compare Chinese to Japanese (Lu 2006; You 2015), and © Western sources that place most attention on formal aspects (e.g. Sun 1999; Mok 2001 a.o.).
Next, Dingemanse’s definition will be used to qualitatively categorize different groups of words as ideophone or not; thus, this will effectively exclude: words that have a referential function, rather than a qualificative one (Newman 1968); repetitions rather than reduplications (Dingemanse 2015); or unmarked prosaic words which do fit the description of “sensory imagery” (Winter 2019).
Finally, the type frequencies available from CHIDEOD will be analysed using Multiple Correspondence Analysis (e.g. Glynn 2014), in order to shed light on the prototypical structure of ideophones in Chinese. Rather than one unitary prototypical core, it is found that a number of variables cluster in two big groups, dividing SOUND ideophones from most other ideophones (VISUAL, TACTILE, INNER STATES etc.). This approach thus acknowledges traditional treatments of onomatopoeia, but further provides solid quantitative reasoning to include the remaining senses under the umbrella term of ‘Chinese ideophones’ as well, since it can be shown that they may be grouped into a single family of constructions.