The sound of rain, softly falling (Tucker Childs, 1948-2021)

News just reached me that we have lost a dear colleague and one of the people responsible for introducing the world of linguistics to African ideophones: George Tucker Childs, 1948-2021.

Tucker was a cheerful presence in the field of African linguistics and a towering figure in the subfield that he and I had in common, ideophone studies. His groundbreaking PhD dissertation on Kisi in 1988 was chock-full of these sparkling words evocative of sensory imagery, and the topic would never lose his interest. He was one of the pioneers of the sociolinguistic study of ideophones and his 1994 review of African ideophones remains one of the most cited chapters of a famed volume on Sound Symbolism. One of his last academic publications was a chapter in the 2019 proceedings of an international workshop on ideophones in which he, characteristically, combined acute fieldwork-based observations with perceptive questions for future research.

We met several times over the years and corresponded quite a bit, sometimes about new work, sometimes about the future of African linguistics and how to ensure better representation of its diversity. “This is an issue I wrestle with all the time, how best to encourage young [authors], especially African, to submit”, he wrote to me in his capacity as the editor of one of the specialist journals in the field. In Tucker we have lost an adventurous colleague driven by a sense of wonder and by a passion for the documentation and revitalization of endangered languages.

Tucker’s emails often started with a salutation that included a description of his location and the weather conditions — which, when they came from Portland, often meant rain. I enclose a rendition by artist Joanna Taylor of an evocative Kisi ideophone that appears in Tucker’s PhD thesis: bíààà ‘the sound of rain, softly falling’. Words are a poor substitute for human contact, but I wish his loved ones the serenity evoked by the sound of nourishing rain.

Note: If you want to write your condolences or share your memories of Tucker, his family set up a special website here.

Bibliography of Tucker Child’s ideophone-related publications (see Google Scholar)

  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1988a. The phonology and morphology of Kisi. University of California, Berkeley. (PhD dissertation.)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1988b. The phonology of Kisi ideophones. Journal of African Languages and Linguistics 10(2). 165–190. (doi:10.1515/jall.1988.10.2.165)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1989. Where do ideophones come from? Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 19(2). 55–76.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1994a. African Ideophones. In Hinton, Leanne & Nichols, Johanna & Ohala, John J. (eds.), Sound Symbolism, 178–204. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1994b. Expressiveness in contact situations: the fate of African ideophones. Journal of Pidgin and Creole languages 9(2). 257–282.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 1996. Where have all the ideophones gone? The death of a word category in Zulu. Toronto Working Papers in Linguistics 15. 81–103.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2001. Research on Ideophones, Whither Hence? The Need for a Social Theory of Ideophones. In Voeltz, F. K. Erhard & Kilian-Hatz, Christa (eds.), Ideophones, 63–73. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2003. An Introduction to African Languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2014. Constraints on violating constraints: How languages reconcile the twin dicta of “Be different” and “Be recognizably language.” Pragmatics and Society 5(3). 341–354. (doi:10.1075/ps.5.3.02chi)
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2018. Forty-plus years before the mast: My experiences as a field linguist. In Sarvasy, Hannah & Forker, Diana (eds.), Word Hunters: Field linguists on fieldwork. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Childs, G. Tucker. 2019. Ideophones as a measure of multilingualism. In Akita, Kimi & Pardeshi, Prashant (eds.), Iconicity in Language and Literature, vol. 16, 303–322. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company. (doi:10.1075/ill.16.13tuc)

APA but without auto-sorting of in-text citations: easy CSL fix

For better or worse, APA is one of the most widely used citation styles in the cognitive sciences. One aspect of it that always bugs me is that it prescribes alphabetical sorting of in-text citations. I’m not talking about the bibliography; of course that should be alphabetical. I’m talking about the order of names when you cite multiple sources in one citation statement, as in “(Harris 1952; Chomsky 1957)” — or, as APA would have it, “(Chomsky 1957; Harris 1952)”.

My own strong preference is to have the order determined by priority and relevance. For instance, if I were writing about transformations in early generative syntax, I might want to cite both Chomsky and Harris, but I feel it would be useful to cite them in chronological order. Of course if I wanted to highlight Chomsky’s original contributions I could also do sth. like “(Chomsky 1957; and see Harris 1952 for a precursor)” — but the point is, in neither case would I want the ordering to be determined by a meaningless style prescription. The order of in-text citations is meaningful.

Now, if you’re using Zotero like me, you can already manually drag citations in any order you want. But still the APA default will hit you every now and then. Fortunately, this is really easy to fix in the CSL style, so I’m using a version of APA in which this is fixed. You can use my file, which is based on APA 7, currently the latest version.

I’m posting this for my future self as much as for others, so let me just note the utterly trivial single change you need to make in CSL terms. All you need to do is find the <citation> block and remove the <sort> statement inside it. That’s it. You can do this on your own system or in the online CSL code editor; or if you are more comfortable with the Visual Editor, you can also do it there. Save your adjusted style under a custom name to use it in Zotero.

Team science is slow science

With Times Higher Education writing about citation gaming and hyperprolific authors (surely not unrelated) I hope we can save some of our attention for what Uta Frith and others have called slow science. On that note, consider this: Team science is (often) slow science.

Recently two team science projects I’ve been involved in since the early 2010s resulted in publications: a book on recruitments, edited by Simeon Floyd, Giovanni Rossi en Nick Enfield; and a paper on sequence organization led by Kobin Kendrick. Some of the first results for both projects were presented at the 2014 International Conference on Conversation Analysis (ICCA) at UCLA, and it is so great to see them out now.

The Recruitments volume address the question of how we use language to get others to do things. It presents the results of collaborative research on 8 languages around the world and is published as an open access book by Language Science Press, linguistics’ most visionary open access publisher. This volume has a long history, and we’ve written about the background and methods of the project for the ROLSI blog. In a thread on Twitter, Nick Enfield sets out some of the key findings:

The sequence organization paper studies a basic aspect of how social action is organized in everyday language use in 12 languages around the world. It is published in Journal of Pragmatics, and first author Kobin Kendrick sets out the main findings in his own Twitter thread:

Our team work on repair —as part of Nick Enfield’s ERC grant— was similarly systematic and slow-paced; the special issue of Open Linguistics we edited is in many ways the sister to the recruitments book now out. From the start in 2010 it took us several years of intensive work before the first publications started coming out. The recruitment and sequence organization projects, which got off the ground a little later, had the additional challenge of an increasingly distributed team of collaborators (to the point that no one currently has the same affilation they had when the projects started).

This kind of systematic comparative work, which takes years to carry out and bring to fruition, is perhaps the antithesis of the hyperprolific output valued by bean counters. In this lies both a risk and a reward. The risk is that contributions can take years to become visible, which is especially tricky for early career researchers. The reward is that results tend to be solid and substantial. We need institutions & funders that don’t reduce us to output counts, and instead help us manage the risks and reap the long-term rewards of team science and slow science.


This post originated as a Twitter thread. The Frith paper mentioned in the first paragraph is:

New personal site

Almost 13 years ago, in 2007, this blog started as a sub-site on my personal web page. It soon took over most of my online presence and I moved it to its own domain. Now that I blog much less regularly, and have moved institutions, it’s useful again to have a personal academic web page. So I made one:

This is also fitting because I have, over the past decade, developed a line of research on social interaction that doesn’t really fit what I’ve mostly blogged about on The Ideophone (which is topics around iconicity, ideophones, perception, and the senses). I will probably always keep working on ideophones, and I may well keep blogging here on various topics; but it was high time to have a web presence separate from this that more fully represents my scholarship and science communication work.

I used to have a really useful page at the MPI for Psycholinguistics, but an institutional move to Radboud University and a site redesign make the publication list there a little harder to navigate than it used to be. The neat thing is that Zotero (with ZotPress) makes it really easy to display full publication lists on my new site, even organised by topic:

Give it a gander, a glimpse or a glance —!

Liminal signs

I have a new paper out as part of a special issue filled to the brim with things on the border of language if not beyond it. There are seven empirical articles on response cries, “moans”, clicks, sighs, sniffs, & whistles, flanked by an intro (by editors Leelo Keevallik and Richard Ogden) and a commentary (by me). It was truly a privilege to sit down and spend time with this collection of papers to write a commentary; and quite the challenge to formulate a coherent take on phenomena so diverse in form and function, and so neglected in the language sciences.

Why are these things neglected? As I note in my commentary, there are at least three reasons: we’ve not been able to capture them until recently; some quarters of linguistics have been actively disinterested in them; but most intriguingly, they may be designed to be overlooked, or at least overlookable.

One challenge I set myself was to come up with a characterisation of these items that doesn’t focus on what they are not. “Non”-labels like non-lexical, non-linguistics, non-conventional, non-phonemic, non-committal et cetera buy into the framing that these things are not language, and imply that they have no qualities of their own worth mentioning. However, there is at least one thing that unites them: their in-betweenness. Are they lexical or not? Conventional or not? Phonemic or not? Intentional or not? They seem to skirt these issues — and derive interactional utility from that very ambiguity. Hence: liminal signs.

Many liminal signs originate in bodily conduct with non-interactional functions: sighing, sniffing, moaning, etc. This lends them an air of plausible deniablity and makes them off the record. It also makes them awesome cases of exaptation and ritualisation. Speaking of which: when Darwin wrote about whistles and clicks, he had to rely on anecdotal reports from around the world. The papers in this issue showcase the power of sequential analysis to bring to light the workings of liminal signs in interaction.

Inspired by Harvey Sacks, the commentary also aims to highlight the methodological and conceptual contributions of this special issue — from transcriptional innovations like >.nh< to interdisciplinary connections. As Sacks wrote:

[I]t would be nice if things were ripe so that any question you wanted to ask, you could ask. But there are all sorts of problems that we know in the history of any field that can’t be asked at a given time. They don’t have the technology, they don’t have the conceptual apparatus, etc. We just have to live with that, and find what we can ask and what we can handle.”

(Spring 1966 Lecture, in Sacks, 1992, vol. I:427)

The papers in this issue are part of a wave of new research into multimodal talk-in-interaction that is making remarkable progress in just what the study of talk-in-interaction can handle.

Looking for something to read? Dip into this special issue and prepare to have your sense of the boundaries of language subtly shifted — one sniff, click, or whistle at a time. My commentary (short and open access) is here:

Dingemanse, M. (2020). Between Sound and Speech: Liminal Signs in Interaction. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 53(1), 188–196. doi: 10.1080/08351813.2020.1712967

Farewell, Mr. Ideophone: William J. Samarin (1926-2020)

William John Samarin (photo University of Toronto)

I note with sadness that William J. Samarin has passed away in Toronto on January 16, 2020 at the age of 93. An all too short obituary notes that he was “known for his work on the language of religion and on two Central African languages: Sango and Gbeya”.

In linguistics, Samarin was of course also known for his extensive work on ideophones, playful and evocative words with sensory meanings. Only a few years after his Berkeley PhD he published a short and visionary paper on “African ideophones” (1966) that foreshadowed many of the themes that would occupy him in the next decades. A string of empirical and theoretical papers followed that brought new élan to the study of ideophones by dramatically extending the methodological toolbox and the kinds of topics studied, from lexical semantics to sociolinguistic variation, and from semantic typology to the use of ideophones in insults.

I have worked on the topic of ideophones a little over a decade now, and Samarin was always there in the background. He was there in the form of his formidable oeuvre, but also through active correspondence we kept up until halfway 2018. In this blog I want to share some personal recollections as well as some unpublished notes by Samarin about how he came to the study of ideophones.

Incidentally, we didn’t start off very well. In early 2010, when I first wrote to him as a wide-eyed grad student sharing a half-baked draft of a paper, he wrote back with stern (and justified) advice:

You see that if were your supervisor, I would be giving you a hard time about your generalizations. … Make sure that you are being as hard on yourself as you are (or might be) on others. (Samarin, personal communication, March 2010)

Several of my early interactions with Samarin were like this, and his bluntness was fairly intimidating to a PhD student in love with ideophones. Our exchanges led me to seriously rethink my rhetorical approach, placing more emphasis on theoretical foundations and methodological choices, and being as gentle and constructive as possible — in line with his advice to be “as hard on yourself as you are (or might be) on others”. This is why the acknowledgements of my PhD thesis note that “Samarin in particular has been highly sceptical at one point, and helpfully so”.

In late 2011, I sent him a hard copy of my thesis, a 400 page tome that he received in good spirits. This marked a change in our interactions, as he started to treat me more like a peer than a clueless grad student. In a message acknowledging receipt of the thesis, he fondly recalled how he used to be called “Mr Ideophone” at Leiden University, where he spent part of his sabbatical in 1966-1967:

Considering myself to be one of the pioneers in the study of ideophones (Jan Voorhoeve used to call me Mr Ideophone!), I am so pleased that they finally are getting the attention they deserve. They are the dramatic aspect of everyday speech, and speech should not be reduced to formulas and diagrams. (Samarin, personal communication, October 2011)

In later years, I would send drafts and papers to him knowing that they would get a tough but fair reading; and I would get the occasional email from him asking to look up an academic article not available in his library. His criticism remained as blunt and direct as ever, which made his rare notes of appreciation all the more precious.1

Samarin on ideophones

In one of our exchanges I asked Bill how he got involved in the study of ideophones. He responded, “since you asked me how I got on to studying  ideophones I decided to write a bit of autobiography for my archives.” I don’t know whether this bit of autobiography actually appears in his archives, so I share it here for posterity:

My serious study of ideophones arose from the fact that grammarians were not taking them seriously in African languages. They were even trivialized. This puzzled me because I found that they were used frequently in everyday discourse in all kinds of circumstances in the Gbaya (Gbeya) language which I began to analyze and learn in February 1954. Some of them I heard rather often, others rarely, but I could not ignore them if I wanted to speak the language in the same way Gbayas in northwestern Ubangi-Shari spoke it. I was using the language all day long, almost to the exclusion of Sango, in the Bossangoa district, most of whose population spoke mutually intelligible varieties of Gbaya. … Besides, they were curious words (like kpiti kpiti, with high tones) and hard to define.

But it was after I had written my grammar of the language in 1961 that I undertook to study them as a worthy topic in African linguistics. Naturally, the first thing was to read what had been said about them. This meant perusing grammars. Fortunately, I was a visiting professor at the University of Leiden in 1966-1967. There were plenty of grammars there, also at School of African Studies in London and at the Hartford Seminary Foundation, where I was teaching. (Henry Alan Gleason Jr had been librarian there, making an effort to acquire literature for graduate study in linguistics.)

Following our departure from the Central African Republic in 1960 I made several trips back for further work on Sango. These gave me the opportunity to sneak in some systematic study of Gbaya ideophones, like the one where I tape-recorded descriptions of someone making a clay pot in Sango and in Gbaya. I had more opportunity for study in Leiden, where my assistant was a Gbaya young married man. And in December 1972 my wife and I spent two weeks in the village of Bowai once again working on ideophones.

By this time my focus was on trying to demonstrate that Gbaya ideophones were authentic words that could (and should) be entered in a dictionary, not ephemeral and spontaneous idiolectal creations. And by this time one was able to analyze data with a computer, at that time with punched cards. For a while, therefore, I was working on the origin and development of Sango with my right hand and ideophones with my left one. A fire destroyed my computer data at the university, but there are many tape recordings in my archives at the University of Toronto. (Samarin, personal communication, January 2016)

The papers Samarin published in this period include important methodological contributions (Samarin 1967, 1970a, 1971a), a wide-ranging piece on expressive language (Samarin 1970b), and a comprehensive literature review of work on ideophones in Bantu (Samarin 1971b). I have built on Samarin’s work in several of my papers, but I don’t think a comprehensive appraisal of his methodological and theoretical to the study of ideophones is available. That is beyond the scope of this blog, however.

Rewards beyond words

Samarin and I were last in touch in 2018, when I wrote to him with a note of appreciation about his 1998 autobiographical essay (Samarin 1998). That essay contains the following gem which seemed to me entirely typical of Samarin’s poetic sensibilities and attention to detail:

If you have seen the full moon rising out of the deep sands that surround
Timbuctoo dwarfing the sky as well as earth in its clarity and brilliance while you are drinking mint tea with some Tamachek-speaking ‘Blue People,’ you will have experienced some rewards beyond words and sharing. If you are sensitive to such beauty, of course. It is given to us who study language to have rewarding experiences, sometimes of simple pleasure, sometimes of ‘spiritual’ if not of almost transcendental significance.

I have just teased a young girl going the opposite way by remarking that whereas she had a parasol to protect herself from the sun, what could I do without one. About fifteen feet away from me she stops and says, ‘Kà ga mu ma’, and I am overwhelmed with information and sensations: I hear the first word in a construction where I wouldn’t have expected it; I notice that she does not use the determinant ‘ni’ with the meaning ‘it;’ I enjoy the precise stepping up of pitch from low to mid to high and the abrupt falling to low again as she tells me, with no twinkle of coquetry on her lips, but with the spontaneous generosity of a well-reared African child: ‘So come take it.’ This is an imperishable and complex vignette. It illustrates the reward of being able to talk Sango and use it appropriately with another human being. (Samarin 1998:27)

I wrote to Bill to say I was touched by this vignette — it is such an eloquent representation of that quintessential fieldworkers’ feeling of belonging. It captures something very deep and real about the privilege of taking part in other linguistic and social worlds. It also brings out the always-on analytical mindset of the fieldworker, for whom being in the moment is always puncuated by meta-observations. Field work, for me, is very much about that liminal state between ‘other’ and ‘insider’, never fully one or the other, yet enough of both to feel oddly detached-yet-grounded.

In writing back, Bill shared another biographical fact that few people may know: his involvement as a linguistics expert in an International Criminal Court case about atrocities in Bangui (his expert testimony concerned the possibility of recognizing the Congolese origin of the perpetrators on the basis of their accents). He ended his message, characteristically, with a note of appreciation about field work that will resonate strongly with many linguists and anthropologists.

It was kind of you to comment on my professional memoir. I especially was pleased by your having perceived the emotion I had in recalling that experience with the little girl, which is repeated every time I recall it. She responded to my lighthearted remark with maturity, self-confidence, kindness, and trust, a lot more than many adults would have done. I should have interrupted my walk back home to go with her in the opposite direction to continue with a conversation.

You put your finger on the feeling of “belonging.” That’s what brought tears when I was testifying before the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2011. (A Congolese general was being tried for what his soldiers did in Bangui.) The love I have for Central Africans welled up in me. … Field work gives us the opportunity to be enriched and blessed in many ways. (Samarin, personal communication, April 2018)

Besides working on ideophones, Samarin made important contributions to the fields of contact linguistics, field linguistics, and the study of glossolalia. I hope someone more qualified than me will write a comprehensive academic obituary. Here, I have just highlighted some of his pioneering contributions to the study of ideophones, which his work helped make not merely respectable but also exciting and relevant to the broader language sciences.

Samarin prided himself in being nicknamed Mr. Ideophone by Jan Voorhoeve in the 1960s. His lasting intellectual legacy may be that he helped prepare the field for contributions by a much wider range of scholars, so that today there is no longer a single “Mr” or “Ms” or “Mx” Ideophone, but a broad network of diverse researchers working together. Farewell, Mr. Ideophone!

References cited

A good amount of Samarin’s work is available in the University of Toronto’s T-SPACE repository. In 2018, Samarin sent me a overview of his papers, presentations, and research projects which I will publish in a separate post as it provides a good overview of his work from his own point of view. Here are the papers cited above:

  • Samarin, W. J. (1965). Perspective on African ideophones. African Studies, 24(2), 117–121.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1967). Determining the meaning of ideophones. Journal of West African Languages, 4(2), 35–41.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1970a). Field procedures in ideophone research. Journal of African Languages, 9(1), 27–30.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1970b). Inventory and choice in expressive language. Word, 26, 153–169.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1971a). Measuring variation in the use of Gbeya ideophones. Annales de L’Université d’Abidjan, Ser. H, 2, 483–488.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1971b). Survey of Bantu ideophones. African Language Studies, 12, 130–168.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1998). C’est passionnant d’être passionné. In E. F. K. Koerner (Ed.), First person singular III: Autobiographies by North American scholars in the language sciences (pp. 187–226). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  1. About my Glossa review, he wrote: “It was thoughtful of you to inform me of the publication in ‘Glossa’ of your “chronological narrative” about ideophones. But you are being too modest: the essay is much more than that; it’s a ‘white paper’ or template for the study of this phenomenon that you so clearly describe from different points of view. It’s as if you were holding a handful of ore in you palm that contained a lot of gold. (…) Carry on with your good work. Bill.” []

Playful iconicity: Having fun with words

What do words like waddleslobbertingleoink, and zigzag have in common? These words sound funny, but they are also iconic, with forms that resemble aspects of their meanings. In a new paper we investigate the link between funniness and iconicity in 70,000 English words.

“This is play”

The starting point is a theory about metacommunication: some words (or signs) are more striking than others in terms of their form, which means they draw more attention to themselves and signal “this is play”. We think this explains the first finding of the paper: words that people rate as highly funny are also often rated as highly iconic.

Relations between funniness and iconicity after controlling for word frequency, in: A words with human ratings; B words with human funniness ratings and imputed iconicity ratings; C words for which we only have imputed ratings.

To test how general this finding is we developed a way to predict funniness and iconicity ratings for new words. Based on semantic relationships between millions of English words, we trained an algorithm to predict the iconicity (or funniness) of words that have already been rated by people, and then asked that algorithm to predict iconicity (or funniness) for new words.

For example, say the new word is ‘waggle’. First the algorithm learned that ‘waggle’ occurs in similar contexts to ‘wiggle’ and ‘wobble’. Then it learned that ‘wiggle’ and ‘wobble’ were rated as highly iconic by participants. As a result, it predicts that ‘waggle’ will be highly iconic too. Applying this method to ~70,000 words, we find that the relation between funniness and iconicity holds even for predicted ratings.

But what is it about some words that makes them both funny and iconic? Analysing the words that people rated as most funny and iconic, we found a number of recurring features: complex sequences of sounds at the start like str- and cl- or at the end like -nk and -mp, and an ending -le in verbs that contributes an element of movement and playfulness (as in ‘waggle’ and ‘wobble’).

These structural features, we propose, act as metacommunicative signals that help words stand out as playful, performative, and even poetic. They occur disproportionally in highly rated words. When we combined these cues in an overall structural markedness score, we found structural markedness predicts the iconicity and funniness ratings much better than other measures.

The relation between structural markedness and A funniness ratings, B iconicity ratings, and C funniness and iconicity together. Each dot represents 14 or 15 words. Solid lines and shading represent a loess function of cumulative markedness with 95% confidence intervals. Other lines show relative prevalence of complex onsets, codas, and verbal diminutives.

So our three main findings are:

  1. Words that are rated as highly iconic also tend to be rated as highly funny (in the few thousand words for which we have such ratings)
  2. This relation holds even in for ratings predicted based on semantic relationships (in ~65.000 words for which we have done this)
  3. The highly rated words tend to have special forms: they sound different from other words, which invites people to treat them as playful and performative

Making sense of apparent exceptions

We also found some other things. First, funniness and iconicity ratings do not always go hand in hand. There are highly iconic words like ‘roar’ and ‘scratch’ that people don’t feel are funny because they have to do with negative events. There are also words that are rated as very funny like ‘blonde’ and ‘buttocks’ mainly because they tend to be used in jokes; these are not rated as iconic and they are not relevant for our theory.

Another thing we found is that human ratings are far from perfect. As it turns out, for the data we used, the people who rated words for how much they “sound like what they mean” gave high ratings to words like ‘whoosh’ (where the sound of the word resembles aspects of its meaning) but also to words like ‘bedroom’ (which are built by combining meaningful parts).

Only words of the first type are really iconic; the others are merely analysable. Our theory holds only for the first, which means that the 10-15% of analysable words with high iconicity ratings are probably diluting the effects we find. Indeed, when we control for this issue by looking only at words of one piece, the relation between iconicity and funniness comes out a little stronger.

We included this analysis not just to show the subtleties of the effects, but also because we believe lexical ratings (whether done by people or by machines) should never be taken at face value. Now that there are so many types of ratings available, it’s tempting to just throw together a bunch of them and have a look at correlations. But to avoid cherry-picking or reporting false positives, it is important to start with a theoretical question, and to always control the findings with other methods.

Having fun with linguistics

While the study is based on English, its questions are inspired by work on ideophones, highly evocative words found in many languages around the world. And the theory put forward in the paper is general enough to help account for many other examples of playful language described in the literature, and to guide future investigations of the relation between playfulness and iconicity in spoken and signed languages.

Our study also contributes to broadening the perspective of linguistics. While anecdotal reports about perceptions of funniness and iconicity abound, our study is the first to investigate this relation on a large scale in English, and perhaps in any language. That this hasn’t been done before is partly because linguistics has long preferred to focus on “serious” matters. However, we argue that there is nothing frivolous about studying playful language.

Cybernetician Gregory Bateson argued that the very notion of play represents a fundamental transition in the evolution of communication. This is because play requires a form of metacommunication, a way of saying “What I do now is special”. Human language has perfected such forms of metacommunication, and in our paper we trace its influence in the very texture of the lexicon.

To enable others to build on our work we’ve made sure it is open science all the way: all primary data as well as our new predicted iconicity and funniness ratings are publicly available. We also share the Python code for our prediction algorithm and the R code for all of the analyses and figures. And last but not least, the paper itself is also published open access.

  • All data and code is in our GitHub repository
  • Dingemanse, M., & Thompson, B. (2020). Playful iconicity: Structural markedness underlies the relation between funniness and iconicity. Language and Cognition, 1-22. doi:10.1017/langcog.2019.49

Een week @NL_Wetenschap

In voorjaar 2019 mocht ik een week twitteren in naam der wetenschap voor het wissel-account @NL_Wetenschap (10-17 februari 2019). Omdat het account steeds rouleert van wetenschapper naar wetenschapper en omdat Twitter natuurlijk altijd in beweging blijft is het moeilijk om achteraf een goede indruk te krijgen van zo’n week. Daarom hier een overzichtje in blog-vorm.

De tweets van die week werden meer dan 250.000 keer gezien, wat lang niet gek is voor een account dat op dat moment een paar duizend volgens had. Het leverde ook veel interacties op, zowel met geïnteresseerde leken als met collega-wetenschappers uit andere disciplines. Ik werd op 15 februari ook geïnterviewd door Steven Smit in het programma NPO Focus Wetenschap op NPO Radio 1.

Hieronder een paar highlights. Veel van mijn tweets vormden ‘draadjes’, een soort aaneenschakeling van korte berichten die samen een mini-essay vormen. Dat zorgt voor samenhang en voor behapbare stukken. Klik op de datum of een foto in een individuele tweet om het draadje als geheel te lezen.

Taalkunde: alfa, beta, gamma? All of the above.

Eén van de aantrekkelijkste dingen van mijn vakgebied is dat het zich bevindt op het kruisvlak van zoveel wetenschapsgebieden. Daarover schreef ik twee draadjes. Het eerste begint met een beroemd diagram uit een rapport van toen de cognitiewetenschappen net in bloei waren gekomen.

In het tweede ga ik kritisch in op de populaire, maar misleidende alfa versus beta-indeling. Die werkt van geen meter voor taal of voor taalwetenschappers, en hier leg ik uit waarom de werkelijkheid veel te interessant is om in tweeën te delen.

Alice in Taalland

Elke werkdag plaatste ik een draadje met inzichten over taalwetenschap aan de hand van Alice in Wonderland, dat ik op dat moment aan mijn dochter aan het voorlezen was. N.B. de profielfoto van de tweet is dus de huidige tweeter, niet ik.

Alice in Taalland #1: over taal en sociale interactie
Alice in Taalland #2: over klanksymboliek
Alice in Taalland #3: over ongeschreven regels van de taal
Alice in Taalland #4: over betekenis, taalgebruik en pragmatiek
Alice in Taalland #5: over vlechtwoorden en waantaal


Er kwamen mooie reacties en discussies.

En had Bart Braun een gouden tip over het Taverne-amendement in antwoord op een opmerking over het delen van publicaties:

Integrating Iconicity: session at ICLC15

I’m happy to co-convene a session to take place at the International Cognitive Linguistics Conference in Nishinomiya, Japan. The session and general discussion will be chaired by Thomas van Hoey (National Taiwan University) and Jonas Nölle (University of Edinburgh) and has a diverse roster of speakers.

  • Friday August 9, Room 301, 13:15 to 17:25
  • Speakers: Thomas Schwaiger, Thomas van Hoey & Chiarung Lu, Mutsumi Imai & Junko Kimura, Alexandra Ćwiek et al., Andrew Smith & Stefan Hoefler, Jonas Nölle et al., and Irene Mittelberg.
  • Quick overview of the session (PDF) or
  • Full abstracts and author info in the online conference programme

Integrating Iconicity: recent work and future directions

The study of iconicity —the resemblance  or simulation-based mapping of form and meaning— is seeing a renaissance across the language sciences (Perniss et al. 2010; Svantesson 2017). Studies of signed and spoken languages show the importance of iconicity alongside other organizing principles in lexical and grammatical structure, learning experiments shows how iconicity may help word learning and rely on widespread cross-modal associations, the study of natural discourse organization demonstrates how theatrical staging of action plays a fundamental role, and work in experimental semiotics reveals the affordances and limitations of iconicity in the origin and evolution of communication systems (Fay et al. 2014; Perniss & Vigliocco 2014; Winter et al. 2017; Ferrara & Hodge 2018).

With growing interest in iconicity there is also a growing need to clarify its place in the larger  network of the language sciences (Dingemanse et al. 2015). While it may be rhetorically attractive to cast iconicity as slayer of the dogma of arbitrariness or solution to the enigma of language evolution, ultimately its explanatory power must be positioned relative to (and in interaction with) other known principles of linguistic organisation such as frequency, economy, conventionality, or systematicity; and its roles in learning and communication must be understood in relation to factors like multimodality, embodiment, and intersubjectivity.

This session is devoted to the theme of integrating iconicity. It brings together current work on the varied roles of iconicity in linguistic organisation and communication, with a special focus on linking recent findings from iconicity research to insights from comparative and cognitive linguistics. The session features empirical and theoretical contributions from across the language sciences. Themes covered include typology, semiotics, language evolution, reduplication, sensitivity to sound-symbolism, and embodiment.

Rethinking Marginality: panel on interjections & interaction at IPRA

We’re convening a panel at the 16th International Pragmatics Conference in Hong Kong next week. This doubles as the inaugural workshop of my VIDI project Elementary Particles of Conversation. The workshop ties into the overall theme of the conference, which is “Pragmatics at the Margins”. Have a look at the panel programme & abstracts (PDF), or check out the overview below (? links go to the abstracts in the IPRA programme):

Tuesday June 11, room TU107, 13:30-17:00 (including break)

1330 Intro | Negotiating mutual understanding in multimodal interaction: a comparative and experimental approach
Marlou Rasenberg & Mark Dingemanse
1400 Interjection as coordination device: feedback relevance spaces
Christine Howes & Arash Eshghi
1430 Probabilistic Pragmatic Inference of Communicative Feedback Meaning
Hendrik Buschmeier & Stefan Kopp
1500 break (30min)—  
1530 Turn structure & interjections
Christoph Rühlemann
1600 Hebrew clicks: From the periphery of language to the heart of grammar
Yotam Ben Moshe & Yael Maschler
1630 Interjections in Action
Isabel Ward & Nigel Ward

Here’s the panel session abstract:

Rethinking Marginality: Interjections as the beating heart of language

Mark Dingemanse & Marlou Rasenberg
Radboud University & Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Oxford linguist Max Müller once pontificated that “Language begins where interjections end”. Work in pragmatics turns this view on its head by studying language in its natural habitat of face-to-face interaction, where interjections help us every moment to calibrate understanding and use complex language efficiently. A guiding hypothesis for this panel is that at least some interjections are highly adaptive communicative tools, culturally evolved for the job of keeping our social interactional machinery in good repair (Yngve, 1970; Dingemanse 2017). Far from being marginal grunts, words like ‘oh!’, ‘mm’, ‘um’ and ‘huh?’ play central roles in the most sophisticated uses of language. As metacommunicative signals, they are one of the places where theories of mind and pragmatic reasoning come to the surface, and they afford human language a degree of flexibility, robustness and error-tolerance unmatched in other known communication systems.

This session brings together new research on the centrality of pragmatic interjections in language, with a special focus on items and interactional practices that play crucial roles in managing the back and forth of everyday interaction. These phenomena have been studied in disparate disciplines, as seen by the proliferation of available labels, including back channels, discourse markers, phatic interjections, collateral signals, response tokens and non-lexical conversational sounds. In this lies both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to formulate a unified perspective that can provide conceptual foundations and ensure cumulative progress. The opportunity lies in the disciplinary diversity, which provides us with complementary methods that can deliver converging evidence on open questions.

Topics covered in the session include: the central roles of ‘marginal’ items in the pragmatics of human interaction; their linguistic status as lexical or nonlexical items; their multimodal composition, as items combining verbal and visual cues; their semiotic status, combining indexical, iconic and symbolic properties; their cross-linguistic attestations, including patterns of universality and diversity; the paths of semantic and pragmatic change leading to and from them; and their implementation in models of language processing, dialogue systems and conversational agents.