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 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?

Making and breaking iconicity

Making and breaking iconicity was the theme of a plenary lecture I gave at the 6th conference of the Scandinavian Association for Language and Cognition (SALC VI) in Lund. Here’s the opening slide:

Research on iconicity and sound symbolism has long focused on how iconic associations are made — finding universal crossmodal associations using pseudowords like bouba and kiki, and trying to understand what makes ideophones (and aspects of sign language) iconic and how they may help learning. This is great, but to understand underlying processes, we also need to understand what happens when we break iconicity. When you break a system (carefully, in a controlled way), you can get a new view of its internals. We need more work on breaking iconicity. What makes it dissipate from the lexicon? Which cues do we need to remove to make ideophones harder to guess? What happens to learning if we mess with the link between form and meaning? Under which circumstances is iconic sensitivity disrupted? Is iconicity more ‘broken’ in some people than in others, and what can we learn from individual differences? If we want to understand the linguistic mechanisms and cognitive processes involved in lexical iconicity, breaking iconicity is as important methodologically as making it.

When preparing this lecture, I noticed my own destructive streak: a lot of recent work by me and collaborators can be construed as focusing not just on making, but also breaking iconicity to understand underlying processes and mechanisms. A selection (bibliographic details and more papers here):

  1. In a corpus study of Japanese, we found that ideophones lose their prosodic foregrounding (and thereby a significant part of their iconic cues) when they become more deeply integrated in the utterance.
    (Akita & Dingemanse 2016 Journal of Linguistics PDF)
  2. In a corpus study of Siwu, I found that frequently used ideophones are more likely to lose their expressive prosody, syntactic independence, and iconic features, essentially turning into ordinary words over time
    (Dingemanse 2017 STUF — Language Typology and Universals PDF)
  3.  In a forced choice task with 203 ideophones from 5 languages, we found that iconicity in ideophones becomes nearly impossible to detect when you remove either segmental or prosodic cues, showing it relies on both. We basically tried to see how much was left of iconicity when you strip away various features of the signal. (Dingemanse, Schuerman, Reinisch, Tufvesson, Mitterer 2016 Language PDF)
  4. In a bouba/kiki task comparing people with and without dyslexia, we found that dyslexia disrupts sound-symbolic sensitivity, implicating cross-modal abstraction processes. (Drijvers, Zaadnoordijk & Dingemanse 2015 CogSci Proceedings PDF)
  5. In a learning study, we found that Japanese ideophones become harder to learn when you present them with their opposite meanings, breaking iconic links. This was not the case for adjectives, supporting their arbitrariness and by implication the iconicity of ideophones (Lockwood, Dingemanse & Hagoort 2016 JEP:LMC PDF)
  6. In a replication of the learning study with added EEG measures, we found consistent differences in the time course of neural signatures that fit with what others have found for multisensory integration, and that co-varied with independently assessed sound-symbolic sensitivity. I personally think that tapping into individual differences to find out what makes and breaks iconicity is one of the most promising ways forward for studies of iconicity. (Lockwood, Hagoort & Dingemanse 2016 Collabra PDF)

Here’s to more work trying to break iconicity!

Facts and and fiction about iconicity: the story of ideophones

Here’s the abstract for the keynote lecture I’ll be giving at the 11th Symposium on Iconicity in Language and Literature in Brighton, April 6-8, 2017 (site).

The notion of iconicity has seen a remarkable increase in prominence in recent years. No longer the marginal phenomenon it once was, it has become a canvas upon which we paint our wildest dreams about lexical structure, language learning, and the evolution of communication. Amid the flurry of exciting work it is sometimes hard to see what exactly iconicity is. Some divide it into subtypes, treating it as a semiotic relationship that comes in kinds. Others measure it by graded judgements, treating it as a substance that comes in degrees. Yet others use it as a predictor variable in experimental work, treating it as a property that can be present or absent. These diverse operationalizations point to a need for clarity about the empirical foundations of iconicity. Here I approach this goal from the perspective of research on ideophones, vivid sensory words found in many of the world’s spoken languages. Studies of ideophones have it all: daring claims of pervasive iconicity down to the level of speech sounds, counterarguments positing the utter irrelevance of anything iconic, and a variety of approaches trying to chart a middle way between these extremes. I report on a series of linguistic and experimental investigations of iconicity in ideophones. Starting from the use of ideophones in conversation —the primordial ecology of language and verbal art— I show that they are best understood as multimodal depictions: communicative acts that invite us to imagine what it is like to perceive the scene depicted. This basic fact helps explain a range of cross-linguistic observations about ideophones: from their marked forms to their special morphosyntax, and from their sensory semantics to their uses as direct appeals to experience. Careful psycholinguistic experimentation allows us to see how phonemes and prosody can come to function as iconic cues, why iconic ideophones are easier to learn than arbitrary adjectives, and how the cross-modal associations they thrive on may be related to synaesthesia. Ideophones challenge us to take a fresh look at language and consider how it is that our communication system combines multiple modes of representation.

Some relevant readings (a larger selection of papers is here):

Ideophones, expressiveness and grammatical integration

Ideophones —vivid sensory words found in many of the world’s languages— are often described as having little or no morphosyntax. That simple statement conceals an interesting puzzle. It is not often that we can define a word class across languages in terms of its syntax (or lack thereof). After all, most major types of word classes show intriguing patterns of cross-linguistic variation. There is no particular reason to expect that the morphosyntactic position or degree of embedding of, say, noun-like or verb-like words will be similar across unrelated languages. Indeed that is why typologists define comparative concepts primarily by reference to semantic rather than grammatical or morphosyntactic properties (Croft 2003; Haspelmath 2007).  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 introduces Zotero (, 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.

What do you really need on this earth?

Natural conversations are a great source of data for all sorts of linguistic research. Linguists and conversation analysts usually study them primarily for their structure, not their content. This is not out of disinterest, but out of empirical prudence. Talk tends to support a wide range of interpretations. It is empirically safest to stick to observable structures and practices, or at most to interpretations furnished by the interlocutors themselves.

The excerpt below is translated from a corpus of natural conversations in Siwu, a language spoken in Ghana. Two elderly men are sitting in front of their house and chatting. They’ve just been talking about a fellow villager whose children are “giving him problems”. The long silence before Adom’s “So now.” signifies, among other things, that what comes now is likely a new topic. The exchange that follows is beautifully poetic both in terms of structure and topic.

Adom So now.
You have a keyboard.
Ben Mm.
A You have an uh. (1.5) this thing
B Mm.
A You have uh (0.8) radio.
B Mm.
A You have electricity.
B Mm.
A You have water.
B Mm.
A So then what really- what do you really need on this earth?
B What I need?
As for me, I don’t need anything except-
Except my bodily health.
A Just your bodily health.
B Mm.

One is tempted to talk about Maslow’s pyramid, material culture, and a whole lot of other things — but it is probably best to let the exchange speak for itself. (Translated from Siwu.)

Morning clouds in Akpafu-Mempeasem, 2009


How promotes poor metadata and plays to our vanity

giphyA while back some low quality citations started showing up on Google Scholar. They had titles like “CHAPTER 2 draft — email” and it was hard find actual bibliographic metadata. Google Scholar seemed to have scraped random PDFs uploaded on and decided it was worth counting the citations in them even in the absence of proper metadata. I shared this on Twitter and promptly forgot about it.

Then I got an email from someone asking me to say a bit more about my concerns with poor metadata. I decided to write it up in a blog post. I’m afraid it turned into a a bit of rant about how seems built not so much for sharing scientific information as for playing to our vanity. Sorry about that. Let’s start with the poor metadata issue, which turns out to be rather pervasive. Continue reading

Sound symbolism boosts novel word learning: comparing ideophones and adjectives

We have a new paper out. It’s actually been available since February in an online-first version, but for those of us who love page numbers and dead trees, the journal has now printed it in its August issue on pages 1274-1281. Citation:

Lockwood, G., Dingemanse, M., & Hagoort, P. (2016). Sound-symbolism boosts novel word learning (PDF). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42(8), 1274-1281. doi:10.1037/xlm0000235

This is another one for which we’ve made available the stimuli —word lists and sound files— through OSF, contributing to our mission to make research from our lab replicable. Also, we have since replicated the results in a follow-up study where we also took EEG and individual difference measures.

I provide a quick summary in 2×3 points below. For a write-up that’s much more fun and has great illustrations, check out Gwilym Lockwood’s Sound symbolism boosts novel word learning: the MS Paint version. Continue reading