An Appreciation for Wonder-Driven Research

This post was written by Janis Nuckolls, HC Faculty Fellow

As this is my last official post as a member of the first Humanities Center executive committee, I want to publicly thank (even though thanking seems paltry and inadequate) our founding director Matt Wickman, whose vision, wit, energy, eloquence, and excitement for ALL THINGS has helped to infuse my thinking and energy with a certain scintillation, which I do not expect that anyone but me has noticed, but yeah, it’s been happening. . .

Our themes and visitors, especially some of our recent guests, like Rita Felski, and her book The Limits of Critique, and our upcoming visit with Jeffrey Kosky to discuss his book Arts of Wonder have injected new life into my already considerable enthusiasm for what I study and why.

My linguistic work has always been indebted to aesthetic concerns that I tried to follow fresh out of high school by attending art schools. My goal was to be an artist of film, but not by using film as a narrative genre, which seemed too theatrical, but instead, to capture images from nature and the world at large, and use them as a new form of language.

However, one day in my film study class, I had a kind of simple-minded epiphany, (which turned out to have positive consequences in the long-run) about what I thought I was doing: If talking about film was all we could ever do, then language must be a more compelling form of expression, I reasoned. I therefore resolved to leave the world of visual art and study language, which is how I discovered linguistics.

Once I began taking classes in linguistics and in a non-Indo-European language called Quichua, spoken in Amazonian Ecuador, it didn’t take me very long to realize that there was a kind of imageic language being used by Quichua speaking people. As a colleague Mark Dingemanse has said somewhere, these image words or ideophones “show rather than tell” about speakers’ vivid sensory experiences. I felt as if I had come full circle, back into images, but with a basis in language.

Ideophones are words that capture the momentary impressions of one’s sensory experiences. I would claim, however, that when Quichua speakers use ideophones they are doing more than simply reporting about sensory experience. They are allowing themselves to express a kind of aesthetic apprehension, which is based in a sense of wonder.

Speaking of wonder, have you ever been curious about why the English language has its own ideophone kerplunk, for the sound of something falling into water, but the opposite phenomenon of something arising from underwater to the surface has no comparable word in our language?

The Quichua language has such an ideophonic word: polang. Polang describes fish coming up to the surface of a river to enjoy the sunlight after a long period of rain. This same word also describes how one may suddenly behold an anaconda rising above water, or of a manatee’s clump of buoyant excrement suddenly breaking the water’s surface. All of these uses of polang, and more, may be enjoyed at the following link:

I am in awe of my ability to share the kinds of images I can share through the miracles of digital technology, and because of the unfailingly generous help from my colleague Dr. Jeremy Browne, who set up this site for me and my students to better understand how these words work.

Studying ideophones has led me to more wonder-driven inquiry than I ever thought would be possible. When Quichua people use them, they vary the sounds of their language in systematically expressive ways. It makes me really curious about how they can do this without being consciously aware of it. They are obeying rules which they do not even realize exist. It’s the same sense of wonder I feel when I ponder how many complex things the human body does without our having to tell it to do anything at all.

Another source of wonder-ment about ideophones is that they do not obey the principle of ‘economy of expression’, which linguists like to use as a guiding principle for describing data, and which is a kind of dominant trope in our speaking culture, more generally. Ideophones are not economical. They are costly. They use sounds that are more complicated to articulate. They are intonationally elaborate. They are often accompanied by energetic gestures which assist speakers in depicting their imageic semantics. And by the way, ideophones prove that language is structured according to principles that are, contradictorily, both digital, discrete, and atomistic, as well as wholistic, analogical, and imageic.

I could go on about other theoretical, cultural, and aesthetically interesting questions arising from the study of ideophones. Better to just end with a few quotes about wonder:

“Philosophy begins in wonder. And at the end when philosophic thought has done its best the wonder remains.” Alfred North Whitehead

“But how can you have a sense of wonder if you’re prepared for everything?” Margaret Atwood

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” Anaïs Nin

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