What is ‘non-lexical’? Notes on non-lexical vocalisations, II

This is part II of my notes on the “Ideophones and non-lexical vocalisations” workshop. Part I is here.

Order at all points

One of the nice features of the workshop was the “rapid data session” format, which enabled analysts to make available one or two data extracts (often with audio, video and transcripts) for repeated inspection, allowing everyone in the audience to study them and make observations or ask questions. In this way we discussed data featuring vocalisations including ermmmnrrrnuh::, ʔouiʔ, ha:i: (sighed), du du ka du du du ka, k’hohhh, zuppum, hop-paa, and many more.

But there is method to the madness. For instance, talking on the topic of “How to audibly not say something with clicks”, Richard Ogden (York) showed how English speakers use various click sounds for double entendres, collusions and in general things that are treated as best left off the record. He also made a convincing case for a systematic, conventionalised contrast between lateral and central click sounds, which maps onto a contrast in social actions. Despite English not being generally known as a click language, English speakers have no trouble mastering this contrast and use it in everday interaction (some details are in Richard’s 2013 paper on clicks).

When speech sounds are distinctive in this way, linguists often use that as evidence to argue for phonemic status: the contrastive sounds earn their place in the phonology of the language. These conversational clicks form an interesting test case. Is a single systematic contrast, or even a small number of similarly contrasting items, sufficient for admission to the phoneme inventory, or is there some kind of threshold we use to determine this?

I think it is fair to point out that the majority of English words don’t feature contrastive click phonemes, and so this could be a reason to say they are not part of English phonology. But such frequency-based arguments can be slippery. Given that phonemes show a Zipfian distribution, we expect there to be relatively rare phonemes. Are clicks simply one extreme of this continuum? I can’t bring myself to agree with this either, if only because their distribution (in terms of places where they occur) seems quite different. Most importantly, in English, these click sounds don’t seem to be contrastive within words the way p/t or k/g are, but instead are contrastive as stand alone items.

Which is to say, on one generous reading of ‘word’, these items are words, or at least lexical items, or at least conventionalised linguistic items. Which brings me to the key question I was left with after the workshop.

What, if anything, is “non-lexical”?

Throughout the workshop we faced the challenge of how exactly to refer to the various things we studied. One term used widely, mostly for want of a better one, was non-lexical vocalisations. While it may be the best we have currently, there are several issues with it.

First, it’s never a great idea to define by negation. Is not being lexical the key feature setting apart these vocalisations as a phenomenon? What would lexical vocalisations be, anyway? We have the term ‘word’, so using an alternative (like ‘vocalisation’) already implies some relevant difference to run-of-the-mill words like ‘cat’ or ‘mat’. And as we saw above for the clicks, a case could be made that even these phonologically outlandish items have some recognised (or at least recognisable) status as conventionalised items in a larger system of practices or even a lexicon.

Second, calling them “non-lexical” implies that the lexicality of these items is somehow lacking or in doubt. True, these items are unlikely to be found in traditional lexicons; but the arbitrary constraints of printed dictionaries will never be a reliable guide for linguistic questions. Anyway this doesn’t help if we want to argue (as several of us did during the workshop) that the shape of these items can to an important degree be conventionalised, or that they may draw on partly conventionalised inventories of depictive practices, or that they are used in systematic ways, or that they form paradigmatic relations within larger systems of practices. All of these point to a conventionalised, and therefore possibly lexicalised, status of these things.

Depictions and displays

Before we worry about lexicality, it’s worth asking whether there is a unified phenomenon here in need of a single label like “non-lexical vocalisations”, or whether there are multiple distinct phenomena. I think there may be at least two clear groups of phenomena worth distinguishing:

1. Vocal depictions (≈ Clark’s ‘demonstrations’, Güldemann’s ‘mimesis’)

These are vocalisations typically presented as depictions of sensory scenes that enable others to perceive for themselves the scene depicted. Examples include ideophones, creative vocal imitations of sounds, movements and other sensory scenes. In Peircean terms, their mode of signification is primarily iconic. For example, a vocalisation like wop pa da PUM can iconically depict aspects of the temporal and kinetic dynamics of a sequence of dance moves (Keevallik 2010). Like all signs, vocal depictions may also have symbolic and indexical properties.

While most English speakers won’t feel that wop or pa da PUM are words, one could make a case for a degree of conventionalisation in particular communities of practice. For instance, dancers or musicians who work closely together likely converge on a small set of vocalisations they use in this way (Sundberg’s 1994 syllabling). From here it’s not far at all to the larger inventories of conventionalised vocal depictions we call ideophones. Indeed one place where we find ideophones is precisely in situations where there is a premium on sharing and calibrating sensory perceptions and achieving bodily coordination, as Elena Mihas (2013) has shown for ideophones in Ashenika Perene. (Some of these uses of ideophones are reviewed in a forthcoming article for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics; preprint here.) So I see vocal depictions as an overarching category that includes creative vocalisations as well as conventionalised ideophones, and everything in between.

2. Vocal displays (≈ Goffman’s ‘response cries’, Kockelman’s ‘interjections’ — I’m not sure whether ‘display’ is the best term here)

These are vocalisations typically produced as indexical signs of emotion, effort, evaluation. They are presented not so much depictions of events as responses to events. Examples include strain grunts, pain cries, yawns, interjections of disgust, vocal signs of cognitive effort, etc. For Goffman these would present themselves more as “giving off” than “giving” information, though of course precisely this opens up the possibility for people to use them to do other things ostensibly off record. In Peircean terms, their mode of signification is primarily indexical. For instance, the phonetic form of a strain grunt does not itself present a resemblance to its ascribed meaning of ‘effort’ — it indexically shows that effort. Like all signs, vocal displays may also have symbolic and iconic properties.

I’m trying to be careful here in saying that vocal displays are “typically produced as indexical signs”. An inbreath or a click sound can be ‘merely’ an index of the physical process of preparing to speak, involuntarily produced; but that it regularly occurs in this indexical relationship means that we can also use it in a more controlled way to display imminent speakership, and therefore do interactional work. Likewise, something like um can be ‘merely’ an index of the cognitive process of starting to formulate a turn but not being ready to speak yet; but that it regularly occurs in this function makes it possible for us to do interactional work with it, for instance, buy ourselves time at interactionally fraught moments (Clark & Fox Tree 2003).

(Non)lexicality is an orthogonal issue

These two groups, vocal depictions and vocal displays, are united at least in being treated as marginalia in the subjective sense (Dingemanse 2017). They are also less word-like than run-of-the-mill lexical items, which may justify grouping them together as “vocalisations”. But I wouldn’t want to call them “non-lexical” across the board.

The reason is that lexicality is an orthogonal matter. Lexicality is a graded property (something can be more or less lexical) and it runs through both groups: in both, we have fully conventionalised lexical items like ideophones or the word “um” ; and items that are less clearly conventionalised and linguistically integrated, like the vocal depiction “pa da PUM” or a vocal display like an inbreath. And there are going to be lots of intermediate forms as well.

A final point. There are yet other things that have been called “nonlexical” or variations thereof, that may or may not be groupable with either of these two broad categories. For instance, Schegloff has described the interjection Huh?, used to initiate repair, as a “virtually pre-lexical grunt” (Schegloff 1997). Comparative interactional linguistic research has since shown that many languages have an interjection of this kind, and while it may not be the most prototypical lexical item, it certainly is a word rather than a grunt: it is integrated in terms of phonology and interrogative prosody, and despite strong commonalities, its form is language-specific enough that it has to be learned. Likewise, Nigel Ward has an interesting line of work on continuers, backchannels and the like, which he calls “nonlexical conversational sounds”. Here, too, I think the claim of nonlexicality is too strong.

Some of these items may be close to the vocal displays above, a link that is alluring because they don’t sound like many other words. But I would hesitate to identify them with response cries, exclamations or grunts; as I have argued elsewhere, perhaps their peculiar shapes are not so much because they originate as involuntary grunts, but because they are optimally adapted to the exigencies of conversation (as we have argued in detail for “Huh?”). That topic is at the core of my newest research project on Elementary particles of conversation. More about that on some other occassion.


  • Akita, Kimi, and Mark Dingemanse. 2019. “Ideophones (Mimetics, Expressives).” In: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Preprint: https://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/004347
  • Clark, Herbert H., and Jean E. Fox Tree. 2002. “Using Uh and Um in Spontaneous Speaking.” Cognition 84: 73–111.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2014. “Making New Ideophones in Siwu: Creative Depiction in Conversation.” Pragmatics and Society 5 (3): 384–405. https://doi.org/10.1075/ps.5.3.04din.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2010. “Bodily Quoting in Dance Correction.” Research on Language & Social Interaction 43 (4): 401–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/08351813.2010.518065.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2014. “Turn Organization and Bodily-Vocal Demonstrations.” Journal of Pragmatics, A body of resources – CA studies of social conduct, 65 (May): 103–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2014.01.008.
  • Kockelman, Paul. 2003. “The Meanings of Interjections in Q’eqchi’ Maya: From Emotive Reaction to Social and Discursive Action.” Current Anthropology 44 (4): 467–97.
  • Mihas, Elena. 2013. “Composite Ideophone-Gesture Utterances in the Ashéninka Perené ‘Community of Practice’, an Amazonian Arawak Society from Central-Eastern Peru.” Gesture 13 (1): 28–62. https://doi.org/10.1075/gest.13.1.02mih.
  • Ogden, Richard. 2013. “Clicks and Percussives in English Conversation.” Journal of the International Phonetic Association 43 (3): 299–320. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0025100313000224.

A variety of vocal depictions: Notes on non-lexical vocalisations, I

Last week I was happy to present my work at a workshop on Ideophones and nonlexical vocalisations in Linköping, Sweden, organised by Leelo Keevallik and Emily Hofstetter. This was the kick-off for a new project on “Non-lexical vocalisations“. It was my first time in Linköping and it was great getting to know the vibrant community of interaction researchers from across departments. Also, I kind of fell in love with the Key Huset building and its light-flooded wood toned spaces.

The workshop was thought-provoking in many ways. This is the first of two posts in which I share some of my notes. It’s a personal take, not at all intended as a comprehensive summary, if only because I had to leave early to pick up my daughter from daycare back in Nijmegen and therefore missed the last third of the workshop, which (judging from Emily Hofstetter’s live tweeting) was just as interesting as the first two thirds. A central concern of the larger project hosting the workshop is to “problematise the traditional boundaries of linguistics”. This is something I’m sympathetic to, if only because my own work on ideophones and interjections has made me acutely aware of the subjectiveness of our notions of what is marginal and what is core in language.

Rara versus marginalia

In thinking about marginality, I find it useful to distinguish two ways in which things may be peripheral: rara and marginalia (see Dingemanse 2017). Rara are truly rare linguistic phenomena that are interesting precisely because they are so out of the ordinary: things like click phonemes, nominal tense, or affixation by place of articulation. Marginalia are common phenomena that just don’t happen to be part of the traditional interests of linguistics: things like gesture, ideophones, or indeed “non-lexical” vocalisations.

The crucial difference between rara and marginalia lies in the subjectivity of the latter. We can objectively tell whether something is truly rare or exceptional. But many classifications of things as peripheral or marginal are much more subjective. What we think of as marginal is determined by our data, methods, and theories; and in addition to that, by our own linguistic experience and language ideologies. There is nothing wrong about declaring some things as peripheral to your current interests: time is limited and we all have to make choices. But it is always useful to be aware of how you come to such choices, and to reflect on whether your interests (or methods, theories, ideologies) might benefit from a bit of recalibration.

Many of the phenomena in focus during the workshop were not rara but marginalia in this subjective sense: they occur all the time in language use and might tell us interesting things about language structure — but they’ve been mostly treated as marginal to the concerns of mainstream linguistics. However, the tide may be turning for at least some marginalia: work on ideophones is clearly on the rise, and initiatives such as Martina Wiltschko’s Eh lab at UBC and this new nonlexical vocalizations project at Linköping University show there is significant interest in this area.

Vocal depiction is rampant

One thing that struck me during the workshop is how common it is to use the voice to depict meaning, often in contexts where other means of communication may be much less efficient or effective. Whether it’s during lindy hop learning sessions (as in Leelo Keevallik‘s work) or band practice (as in Agnes Löfgren‘s data), in professional choreography rehearsals (as in Johanna Skubisz‘ work) or in everyday interaction in Siwu (as in my work on ideophones), people use vocal depictions —often in multimodal ensembles— to evoke perceptual experiences and coordinate bodily behaviour.

One thing all kinds of vocal depictions have in common is that they show rather than tell. It is incredibly hard to tell a dancer to execute a movement in a certain way; it is much easier to show it, either by means of a bodily demonstration or by means of gestural and vocal depictions. Or to take an example from my own research in Ghana, it is quite hard to explain how you can visually tell a real batch of gunpowder from a counterfeit one, but if you manage to depict its particular sheen using using gestures and an ideophone like kɛlɛŋkɛlɛŋkɛlɛŋ (as in example 11.11 here), you can go a long way.

Depictions construe a likeness or a replica of some sensory scene (Clark 2016), making aspects of it more directly accessible and manipulable than would be the case if the scene was merely described in arbitrary words. This is what makes them useful in a wide range of communicative contexts. In my own work on creative vocal depictions (PDF) I mentioned settings as diversified as storytelling, joint work in animation studios, and interaction in music and dance lessons. During the workshop we saw further examples from band practice, choreography rehearsals, multilingual conversations, and doctor-patient interaction. This diversity of contexts brings home the versatility of depiction as a communicative practice.

Versions of the ‘same’ thing are analytical rich points

Some of the richest opportunities for analysis come from cases where the interaction provides multiple versions of some behaviour designed to represent ostensibly the same scene. For instance, in Agnes Löfgren‘s extract from a band rehearsal, we heard a bass player convey (to the drummer) a particular rhythmic structure he had in mind for this piece. The bass player produced at least four versions of ostensibly the same content. The versions can be seen as escalations or upgrades, in part shaped by the drummer’s responses which ranged from ‘isn’t that what I’m doing now’ to ‘alright okay’ to ‘I don’t see it yet’ to ‘like it actually gets kind of cool’:

  1. a prose description (‘so it’s like you play fou- a four against our three’)
  2. a depiction in syllables (du du ka du du ka du ka) with the foot doubling as bass drum
  3. a short rhythmic phrase played on the bass, soon abandoned
  4. an actual demonstration on the drum set

Cases like this raise many intriguing questions, some inspired by Clark & Gerrig’s (1990) classic work on quotations as demonstrations. How do we decide between  modalities (or combinations of modalities) in designing depictions? What determines the ordering of strategies seen in successive pursuits? What is the role of recipient design in choosing one over another strategy? How do we select the aspects of a scene that we are going to depict, and how do we map these to the depictive means at hand? How is the design of our depictions shaped and constrained by the affordances of meaning and modality? And so on.

We saw more examples in Leelo Keevallik’s lindy hop data. In one memorable case, a lindy hop learner asks a question about a possibly problematic element of a dance move, referring to it using the creative vocal depiction “zup↑pum↑”. The teachers decide to show rather than tell by actually executing the moves, and in synchrony with this they produce vocalisations that depict some of the rhythmic and kinetic aspects of the dance — including a piece that structurally is recognisable (for us analysts as well as, presumably, for the learner asking the question) as the relevant referent of “”zup↑pum↑”. Also during the dance, the other teacher produces ‘nonlexical’ syllables like chigi digi digi in sync with the beat and with his movements, and after completing the dance, adds, “So yeah, it’s just a nice little jigijigijigi‘, simultaneously depicting some of the kinetic aspects of the dance in voice and hands.

Versions of ostensibly the same thing are crucial because they give us more material to work with if we want to understand the link between the depiction and the depicted scene — often a challenge not just for the analyst but also for the recipient in interaction. Versions give us analytical purchase in two key ways: they show multiple iterations of ostensibly the same action, and if we’re lucky, they also give us multiple takes on the material by the recipient, providing crucial interactional evidence of the success or failure of depictive stretches of behaviour.

One type of useful interactional evidence is when different participants provide takes on ostensibly the same scene that demonstrate (rather than just claim) their understanding or expertise. With ideophones, I have found that when one participant produces an ideophone evoking a scene (e.g., munyɛmunyɛ ‘sparkling’), in second position another participant may then produce another ideophone (e.g., gelegele ‘shiny’) as if to say, I agree with you, and here is how see it. This is where vocal depictions in interaction touch on matters of epistemics and authority.

A key challenge when working with creative depictions is that it can be hard for the analyst to even know what they are supposed to depict. Here, another type of interactional evidence can be particularly useful: when a recipient formulates their understanding of the depiction. In my talk at the workshop I discussed a case from my study on creative vocal depictions where one person’s creative ideophone kpaw is followed by the other’s interpretation in next turn: “the gun didn’t go off”:

  1. A:  lopɛ↑kpaw↑
         I fired ↑kpaw↑
  2.      (1.2)
  3. B:  kùdu leiba inɔ̀
         the gunpowder didn’t go through
  4. A:  kùdu leiba- kɔ
         the gunpowder didn’t go- gee!

What B does in line 3 is take A’s creative depiction and formulate an understanding of it in descriptive terms. This is analytically very useful, because it saves us the trouble of speculating what the depiction was supposed to evoke. B’s interpretation is ratified by A when he repeats it and continues the telling.

It is kind of wonderful that we can create and interpret vocal depictions just like that.  What cases like this show is that interactional evidence can help us crack some of the most intriguing questions about creative vocal depictions. Their interpretation is scaffolded by context, supported by people’s familiarity with (conventional) depictive strategies, and ratified in interaction by these kinds of understandings.

In closing

One thing that is so fascinating about marginalia is the combination of relatively common occurrence with a striking lack of systematic attention from linguists and interaction researchers. It means that there are lots of things still to find out about some of the most fundamental aspects of how we use language, and how language is shaped by and for social interaction. In the next installment I’ll explore some other themes from the workshop, focusing on the question: what does it mean to call something “non-lexical”?


  • Clark, Herbert H., and Richard J. Gerrig. 1990. “Quotations as Demonstrations.” Language 66 (4): 764–805.
  • Clark, Herbert H. 2016. “Depicting as a Method of Communication.” Psychological Review 123 (3): 324–47. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000026.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2014. “Making New Ideophones in Siwu: Creative Depiction in Conversation.” Pragmatics and Society 5 (3): 384–405. https://doi.org/10.1075/ps.5.3.04din.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2017. “On the Margins of Language: Ideophones, Interjections and Dependencies in Linguistic Theory.” In Dependencies in Language, edited by N. J. Enfield, 195–202. Berlin: Language Science Press. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.573781.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2010. “Bodily Quoting in Dance Correction.” Research on Language & Social Interaction 43 (4): 401–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/08351813.2010.518065.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2014. “Turn Organization and Bodily-Vocal Demonstrations.” Journal of Pragmatics, A body of resources – CA studies of social conduct, 65 (May): 103–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2014.01.008.


John Benjamins collective volumes linguistics CSL style

Linguists will know John Benjamins as one of the nicer academic publishing houses, not quite so terrible as Elsevier or other profiteering behemoths, and one with really good typography to boot. Iconicity afficionados will probably know the Iconicity in Language and Literature series published by Benjamins. One of my first articles on ideophones and iconicity appeared in this series and though since then much of my work has appeared in journals, I’ve just written a contribution for another volume in the series (this one edited by Kimi Akita and Prashant Pardeshi). I’ll share that paper on another occasion; here I just want to share a CSL style I created to make my life easier. If you’re just after the style, download it here (and see instructions for use here). If you want some background, feel free to keep reading.

Continue reading

Slides for a hands-on Zotero workshop

One of the key tasks scientists need to master is how to manage bibliographic information: collecting relevant literature, building a digital library, and handling citations and bibliographies during writing.

This tutorial (last updated March 2018) introduces Zotero (www.zotero.org), an easy to use reference management tool made by scholars for scholars. The tutorial covers the basics of using Zotero for collecting, organizing, citing and sharing research. Zotero automates the tasks of managing bibliographic data, storing and renaming PDFs, and formatting references. It also integrates with widely used text processors, and can synchronize your library across devices. There is no more need to search through disorganized file folders full of inscrutably named PDF files, to copy and paste references across documents, or to manually deal with pointless differences in citation styles. Ultimately, the point of using a reference manager is to free more time for real research.

Note: these are slides made for a hands-on workshop. They may not work well outside the context of a live Zotero demonstration. I share them because they may still contain some useful information.

How often does Google Scholar update citation counts?

TL;DR: every other day. Read on for details.

Many scientists use Google Scholar to find papers, get alerts about new work, and —if they have a profile— display a publication list which tracks citations. What is the Google Scholar update frequency?

It occurred to me that we have a perfect way to check this in the form of the profile of Prof. et al., by some measures the most prolific and influential scientist in history. I made that profile a while back to illustrate some points about the uses and abuses of Google Scholar profiles, and since then it has steadily accumulated citations (2.7 million at the time of writing).

With 333 highly cited publications, Google Scholar will find new citations for et al. any time it updates its index, and so the update frequency of this profile is a good proxy for the update frequency of Google Scholar itself. By setting a web service to take an automatic screenshot of et al.‘s profile every day, I’ve sampled two weeks worth of data. It turns out the update frequency is very regular: I found that et al.‘s citations increase (by about ~1500) exactly every other day.

So that’s the answer to how often Google Scholar updates its citation counts: every other day. The updates I’ve seen happen on days with odd day numbers. In case you’re wondering what time the update happens, stop worrying and go back to writing, you procrastinator!

New paper: Redrawing the margins of language

Just out in Glossa, the premier open access journal of general linguistics:

Dingemanse, Mark. 2018. “Redrawing the Margins of Language: Lessons from Research on Ideophones.” Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics 3 (1): 1–30. doi:10.5334/gjgl.444. (download PDF)

In this paper I take up the theme of marginality (as distinct from rarity) from my 2017 essay, and take it in a different direction. I argue that the narrative of marginalisation, while historically justified, no longer suffices for ideophones, and that it obscures some of the insights from 150 years worth of research on this phenomenon. The paper is openly available so I won’t summarise it fully here; instead I’ll draw up a few of the lessons I learned while writing it.

How things get marginalised

As many have pointed out, ideophones have long been treated as marginal in linguistics. But how does something come to be seen as marginal? For ideophones, I found there are two basic strategies: assimilation and exceptionalism. In assimilation, we explain away a phenomenon by assuming it’s the same as something already familiar (and marginal anyway), giving us a reason to neglect it. In the case of ideophones, this is often done by shelving them away as interjections or as onomatopoeia. Exceptionalism is the reverse: we stress the utter difference of a phenomenon and thereby place it outside the bounds of normal linguistic inquiry — another reason to neglect it (or leave its investigation to scholars happy to work on ‘exotic’ topics).

One of the best examples of how exceptionalism works is Vidal, who in an introduction to a Yoruba dictionary wrote that he considered ideophones a “singularly unique feature” of the language, and continued, “therefore I shall not waste time in comparing it with the adverbial systems, whatever they may be, of other African languages” (Vidal 1852). Ironically, exceptionalism often arises out of a wish to stress the significance of something; but it may have the same effect as assimilation, namely to shield it from broader investigation. A goal of my paper is to walk the fine line between assimilation and exceptionalism: show what’s special about ideophones without losing sight of how they fit into the bigger picture.

Ideophones are a major word class in many languages

If you haven’t worked on or don’t speak a language with a well-developed ideophone system it can be hard to appreciate the sheer scale of ideophone inventories. Here’s a remarkable fact: in some of the most well-documented languages, ideophones are a major word class on the same order of magnitude as nouns or verbs. Would you be able to take a grammar seriously if it didn’t treat verbs? If you encounter a grammar of a Bantu language, or of Basque, Korean or Japanese, that doesn’t treat ideophones in detail, you should look at it with the same suspicion.

Language Reported magnitude of ideophone inventory
Basque “more than 4,500” (Ibarretxe-Antuñano 2006: 150)
Gbeya “over 3,000” (Samarin 1971: 161)
Japanese “4,500” (Ono 2007)
Korean “several thousands” (Sohn 2001: 96)
Semai “same order of magnitude” as nouns and verbs (Diffloth 1976: 249)
Turkish “one to two thousand” (Jendraschek 2001: 39)
Zulu “3,000” (von Staden 1977: 200)

Stress-testing theories

If ideophones indeed are a major word class in some languages, one consequence is that it becomes more urgent to include them in our theorising. What good is a theory of phonological features that can’t deal with the phonosemantic mappings or phonotactic markedness of a major word class? Or a theory of morphology that can’t deal with templatic phenomena? Or a theory of words that can’t deal with gradience in form and meaning? In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the time of the first ‘cross-linguistic encounter’, ideophones played an important role in theory formation in many areas of general linguistics.  Their role was often one of ‘stress-testing’ theories: ideophones provided the kind of boundary phenomena that could make or break generalisations.

For instance, ideophones played a crucial role in McCarthy’s (1983) new theory of nonconcatenative morphology. As he noted, “these exotic phenomena pervade the world’s languages with a regularity and complexity that makes them both essential and ideal for testing any theory of morphology”. By the way, that ideophones could be described as “exotic phenomena” and as “pervading the world’s languages with regularity” in one sentence is a perfect illustration of the viewpoint dependence of notions of marginality

Forgotten classics

Digging up old work on ideophones is very rewarding. It turns out luminaries like Vidal, Junod, and Westermann had lots of interesting stuff to say. One problem is that their work often comes in languages other than English — for instance, Junod wrote in French and Westermann in German. Since it bothered me that so few people had access to their pioneering work, my review presents some of their most insightful comments in the hope that others will benefit from them as well.

I’m particularly fond of Westermann, whose two classic papers on iconic mappings in West-African ideophones I made available for download before. These papers as well as his grammars and dictionaries of Ewe radiate a deep knowledge of the language, and his comments show how he worked closely with native speakers to really understand what ideophones do and how they work.

Diverse voices

Speaking of native speakers, one thing that is striking when you take any reasonably comprehensive bibliography of ideophone studies is the number of contributions by scholars who are also native speakers. It is hard to find other linguistic phenomena that have benefited so much from work by linguists with native speaker sensibilities. Especially in the last decades, this has shaped the course of developments in ideophone studies in important ways.

Here’s why this is important. As we have seen, marginality is to a large degree subjective: what you consider marginal depends on your methodological focus, your theoretical framework, your disciplinary upbringing, but also, importantly, your own native language(s). Scholars with native speaker sensibilities can provide an insider perspective that others may lack. It has been pointed out that having contributions from both native and non-native scholars is one of the most productive ways to do language science (Ameka 2006). Ideophone studies provide a good model for this.

In short

As ideophones are increasingly being brought into the fold of the language sciences,  they make visible our scholarly biases; they help us innovate methods and theories; and they keep giving us reasons to look at language with fresh eyes.

More in the paper: Dingemanse, Mark. 2018. “Redrawing the Margins of Language: Lessons from Research on Ideophones.” Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics 3 (1): 1–30. doi:10.5334/gjgl.444. (download PDF)

When publication lag turns predictions into postdictions

In late 2011, I defended my PhD thesis and submitted two papers on ideophones. One to Language and Linguistics Compass, where it was reviewed, revised and accepted in May 2012. It appeared in late 2012 and against all odds (for a topic so obscure) went on to become the #1 most cited article in that journal of the last 5 years. Around the same time, I submitted another paper to a special issue of STUF – Language typology and universals, where like the first, it was reviewed, revised and accepted in May 2012. That paper finally appeared in… wait for it… August 2017 (!). A preprint has been available for a while, but in linguistics, people generally avoid citing those so it hasn’t really had much of a chance. Anyway, here it finally is!

Old! New! Dingemanse, Mark. 2017. “Expressiveness and system integration. On the typology of ideophones, wish special reference to Siwu .” STUF – Language Typology and Universals 70 (2): 363–84. doi:10.1515/stuf-2017-0018 (PDF).

Postdiction? Prereplication?

This has led to the interesting situation that some predictions made in this paper have become postdictions:

The generality of these proposals predicts that the morphosyntax of ideophones in other languages should pattern in similar ways, at least with respect to grammatical integration and expressiveness. (p. 378)

Indeed, a replication of the main result appeared before the paper itself (Dingemanse & Akita 2016), making it what, a precognitive replication? Pre-replication? Anyway, here’s the call for replication that was the original impetus for my collaboration with Kimi Akita:

We know now that most languages have multiple constructions in which ideophones can be used, and these constructions will in all likelihood differ from each other along the lines sketched here (as well as in other ways). Cataloguing such differences on the basis of evidence from naturally occurring data will contribute to the description of the morphosyntax of ideophone systems in individual languages and will make it possible to refine and replicate the findings here crosslinguistically. (p. 379)

I’m glad to see this paper finally out. Fortunately, it contains some stuff that wasn’t preempted by later papers that appeared earlier. For instance, there are observations on frequency, borrowing, and ideophonisation and deideophonisation that would be worth following up in larger corpora and in other languages. Have a read!

Firth on the analysis of conversation (1935): sequence and social accountability

Here are some insights from J.R. Firth in 1935 that offer an interesting early outlook on language use in social interaction. Firth (1890-1960) was an expert in phonetics and prosody, but always stressed the importance of the larger context in which words and utterances occurred. In this piece, he turns to conversation as a source of insight about language:

Neither linguists nor psychologists have begun the study of conversation; but it is here we shall find the key to a better understanding of what language really is and how it works.

Firth’s observations appear in the course of a methodological commentary on the problem of polysemy in lexicography and in language learning. His proposal is to let context contribute to a solution. As he notes, while “situations are infinitely various”, still “Speech is not the “boundless chaos” Johnson thought it was.” (p. 66). He continues:

Conversation is much more of a roughly prescribed ritual than most people think. Once someone speaks to you, you are in a relatively determined context and you are not free just to say what you please. We are born individuals, but to satisfy our needs we have to become social persons, and every social person is a bundle of rôles or personae

As Firth observes, in conversation, you are not free to say what you please. Instead, what has been said before shapes and constrains your options, and what you say similarly shapes and constrains what happens further on. When conversation analysts today talk about accountability, this is essentially what they mean. Further, an important aspect of constraints on what is said derives from the need to manage social roles and personae: Goffman avant la lettre.

Further on in the paper, Firth foreshadows notions like sequential structure and conditional relevance, which have come to occupy a key place in conversation analysis:

The moment a conversation is started, whatever is said is a determining condition for what, in any reasonable expectation, may follow. What you say raises the threshold against most of the language of your companion, and leaves only a limited opening for a certain likely range of responses. This sort of thing is an aspect of what I have called contextual elimination. There is a positive force in what you say in a given situation, and there is also the negative force of elimination both in the events and circumstances of the situation and in the words employed, which are of course events in the situation.

Again, the words “reasonable expectation” implicitly invoke a notion of accountability. Here Firth goes further into the idea of prior speech providing ‘determining conditions’ for what is sayable next. Take a polar question: it expects, invites (or as conversation analysts say, makes relevant) a limited range of answers, one type of which is preferred. The ‘limited opening for a certain likely range of responses’ is a proto-version of what conversation analysts have come to call conditional relevance and preference.

Firth’s observations on the structuring of conversation go beyond simple behavioristic conceptions like response probability and ‘behavior under the control of some stimulus’ (Skinner). His discussion captures the role of social accountability as well as the probabilistic aspects inherent in language use. His notion of ‘contextual elimination’ captures the sense in which one’s contribution to conversation shape and constrain what happens downstream without uniquely determining it.

While this paper is widely cited in corpus linguistic circles and in the Firth/Halliday tradition, Firth’s observations on conversation have rarely been drawn attention to, and there is as far as I know no direct historical connection between them and later insights developed in the field of conversation analysis, which started a few decades later in California with Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson. So this is likely a case of scholars reaching the same kind of conclusions independently — a powerful reminder of what can happen if we don’t assume conversation is messy and irregular, and instead sit down and take conversation for what it is: the primary ecology of language use, and one of the best places to gain new insights about the nature of language.

Firth, J. R. 1935. “The Technique of Semantics.” Transactions of the Philological Society 34 (1): 36–73. doi:10.1111/j.1467-968X.1935.tb01254.x.

Two classic papers on ideophones and iconicity by Westermann (PDF)

Two duck-related ideophones exist in varieties of Ewe, spoken in Eastern Ghana: a simple kpakpa imitating the sound; and a form dabodabo that seems more mysterious at first sight. In an early paper on ideophones (available below), linguist Diedrich Westermann describes a discussion about these words with his Ewe consultant:

Ewe has two dialectally separated words for duck, kpakpa after its quacking and ɖaboɖabo. When I asked a local whose dialect does not have the latter why it is that other people would say ɖaboɖabo, his answer was, “Well, because…”, and he used his upper body to imitate the waddle of a duck. (Westermann 1937:159)

This nicely brings home the depictive nature of ideophones: when people use ideophones, they use all verbal and visual means available to enable others to imagine what it is like to perceive the scene depicted.

For a forthcoming paper on the research history of ideophones I’ve been re-reading two of Westermann’s papers on West-African ideophones and iconicity (1927, 1937). The papers are full of interesting observations and generalisations. As I write:

In two pioneering studies Westermann (1927; 1937) compared ideophones across a handful of West-African languages and described how acoustic and articulatory factors like reduplication, tone, vowel quantity, vowel quality and muscle tension appeared to be systematically related to some aspects of the meanings of ideophones (Table 2).  This made Westermann one of the first to outline a range of recurrent iconic associations in lexical items across languages.

Westermann’s work on sound-symbolism in ideophones was contemporary with experimental work on sound-symbolism by Köhler (1929) and Sapir (1929). In an allohistory yet to be written, this experimental work would have benefited from Westermann’s observations. Studies of pseudowords like bouba and kiki would have avoided reductive attempts to locate simple meanings in single sounds, and cognitive scientists would have had early access to a wide range of iconic associations attested in natural languages. In reality, ideophone studies and experimental work on sound symbolism continued in splendid isolation for at least another half century, like ships passing in the night.

Westermann’s work on ideophones and iconicity is still not widely known or cited. Two reasons contribute to it: (1) most of his writings are in German; (2) they appeared in pretty obscure places. If you don’t read German you’re out of luck, but at least the other problem can be solved. I’ve scanned the papers and make them available here: Westermann 1927; Westermann 1937. Enjoy!

  • Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1927. “Laut, Ton Und Sinn in Westafrikanischen Sudansprachen.” In Festschrift Meinhof, 315–28. Hamburg: L. Friederichsen. (PDF)
  • Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1937. “Laut Und Sinn in Einigen westafrikanischen Sprachen.” Archiv Für Vergleichende Phonetik 1: 154–72, 193–211. (PDF)

Waarom ik mijn werk als wetenschapper zo leuk vind

Een hele eer: de redactie van New Scientist heeft me geselecteerd voor hun top 25 van talentvolle jonge wetenschappers. Er zit ook nog een populariteitswedstrijd aan vast waarin één ‘winnaar’ aangewezen wordt op grond van een vakjury en publieksstemmen (wat natuurlijk vooral een slimme manier is van New Scientist om aandacht te genereren voor hun merk). Geen stemadvies dus, maar graag gebruik ik deze kans om iets te vertellen over de projecten waar ik me voor inzet en over wat mij enthousiast maakt in mijn werk als wetenschapper.


De MuseumJeugdUniversiteit organiseert interessante collegereeksen voor kinderen van 8 tot 12 oud — een publiek dat uitblinkt in slimme vragen en onverwachte invalshoeken. Dit jaar ben ik ambassadeur voor de MuseumJeugdUniversiteit. Ik heb onder meer het academisch jaar geopend voor een zaal vol kinderen in het Teylers in Haarlem; geholpen in de zoektocht naar jeugdige vloggers; en me ingezet om meer wetenschappers betrokken te krijgen bij de colleges door heel het land. (Ben je wetenschapper en zou je ook wel eens colleges willen geven voor misschien wel het leukste publiek dat je kunt hebben? Kijk dan hier.)

Groot Nationaal Onderzoek

Samen met mijn collega Tessa van Leeuwen zette ik een Groot Nationaal Onderzoek op naar hoe de zintuigen samenwerken. Meer dan 12.000 mensen deden mee, en de eerste resultaten werden bekend gemaakt in een speciale uitzending van De Kennis van Nu. Ook nu nog kun je online uitvinden of jij kleuren ziet bij letters en hoe goed jouw zintuigen samenwerken: ga naar gno.mpi.nl. Dit project vond ik enorm leuk om te doen: het leverde nieuwe wetenschappelijke inzichten op, maar het gaf ons ook de kans om aan heel veel mensen te laten zien hoe de zintuigen samenwerken bij het leren van woorden en het gebruiken van taal.

Ig Nobel Prijs voor onderzoek naar misverstanden

Prijzen zijn altijd leuk, maar de vrolijkste is toch wel de Ig Nobel prijs, die uitgereikt wordt voor wetenschappelijk onderzoek dat je eerst aan het lachen maakt en dan aan het denken zet. Wij kregen hem in 2015 voor onze ontdekking van een universeel woord: ‘Hè?’. Voor ons was die vondst eigenlijk bijvangst in een veel groter onderzoek naar hoe we misverstanden oplossen en hoe we voorkomen dat onze gesprekken telkens vastlopen.

In dat onderzoek vonden we dat bepaalde technieken om misverstanden op te lossen overal voorkomen. We vonden ook dat mensen overal hun best doen de meest efficiente techniek te gebruiken, ook als ze dat zelf iets meer werk kost. Elk gesprek is zo een knap staaltje teamwerk. Ons onderzoek draagt bij aan ons begrip van taal, maar heeft ook bredere toepassingen. Neem Siri, Alexa en andere spraakgestuurde apparaten: één van de grootste ergernissen is dat ze nog niet handig omgaan met misverstanden. Ons werk kan daarbij helpen doordat het principes aan het licht brengt die in alle talen hetzelfde werken.

Over mijn werk als taalkundige

Er zijn ruim 6500 talen op de wereld. Als taalwetenschapper probeer ik uit te vinden waarin talen op elkaar lijken en waarin ze van elkaar verschillen. Daarvoor doe ik veldwerk in Ghana en werk ik samen met collega’s rond de wereld, zodat mijn onderzoek tientallen talen bestrijkt, van groot tot klein en van geschreven tot ongeschreven. Anders dan veel andere taalwetenschappers werk ik vaak met video-opnames van gesprekken. Hoe taal in het alledaagse leven gebruikt wordt is de sleutel tot een beter begrip van waarom talen zijn zoals ze zijn, en wat dat betekent voor mens en maatschappij.

Veel van mijn werk verschijnt eerst in internationale vakbladen. Een volledige lijst met dat soort publicaties kun je vinden op mijn webpagina bij het Max Planck Instituut. Maar taal is relevant voor iedereen, en daarom schrijf ik ook vaak voor een breder publiek. Lees je Engels? Kijk dan eens naar mijn stuk met N.J. Enfield voor Scientific American: Let’s Talk: Universal social rules underlie languages, of bekijk de stukken over ons werk die verschenen in The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, en bij de NPR. Lees je Nederlands? Kijk dan eens naar mijn stukken voor de Taalcanon (Kleurt taal je wereldbeeld?) en voor Onze Taal (Taal als samenspel van de zintuigen). In EOS verscheen ook een vertaling van ons stuk voor Scientific American: Ongeschreven regels van de taal.

Meer weten?