animacy, Quichua, ideophones, sound symbolism


Several anthropologists of Amazonian societies in Ecuador have claimed that for Achuar [1] and Quichua speaking Runa [2,3,4] there is no fundamental distinction between humans on the one hand, and plants and animals on the other. A related observation is that Runa and Achuar people share an animistic cosmology whereby animals, plants, and even seemingly inert entities such as rocks and stones are believed to have a life force or essence with a subjectivity that can be expressed. This paper will focus on Quichua speaking Runa to seek linguistic evidence for animacy by examining the sound-symbolic properties of a class of expressions called ideophones. I argue that structural features of ideophones such as canonical length and diversity of sound segments as well as type of sound segments, help express the animism of the Runa lifeworld. Moreover, although these features are not indicative of any essential distinctions between plants and animals, they may be indicative of a scalar view of animacy, along the lines suggested by Descola who first proposed a continuum or ‘ladder of animacy’ for the Achuar [1, pp. 321-326]. Ideophones, then, may be understood as one set of linguistic tools for coming to terms with the diversity of their ecological setting, a setting which spans highly animate humans and animals, through less animate plants, trees, and rocks.

Original Publication Citation

“The sound-symbolic expression of animacy in Amazonian Ecuador.” In special issue of Diversity 2,1:353-369, featuring papers concerning "Long-term anthropic influences on Amazonian landscapes and biota".

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date










University Standing at Time of Publication

Assistant Professor

Included in

Linguistics Commons