Waarom roep je ‘au’ bij plotselinge pijn?

Waarom au?

Is het echt “au” en niet iets anders? (illustratie Frank Landsbergen)

Voor het Kennislink Vragenboek beantwoordde ik de vraag: “Waarom roep je ‘au!’ bij plotselinge pijn?”. Dat is kennelijk een vraag die nogal leeft, want vorig jaar stelde Labyrint radio me dezelfde vraag en dit voorjaar was het raak op Hoe?Zo! radio. Daarom hier, als service voor zoekers, tweeters en andere au-gefascineerden, mijn antwoord.

In deze vraag zitten twee vragen verborgen. Voor een helder antwoord kunnen we die het beste opbreken:

(1) Waarom roepen we als we pijn hebben?

(2) Waarom roepen we ‘au!’ en niet iets anders?

Bij de eerste vraag zijn we in het gezelschap van een hoop andere dieren. Kreten van pijn komen door heel het dierenrijk voor. Waarom? Darwin, die in 1872 een boek schreef over emoties in mens en dier, dacht dat het samenhing met de sterke spiersamentrekkingen  die bijna elk dier vertoont bij een pijnscheut — een geritualiseerde versie van het zich bliksemsnel onttrekken aan een pijnlijke stimulus. Maar dat brengt ons nog niet veel verder: waarom zou de mond daarbij open moeten gaan? Onderzoek sindsdien heeft uitgewezen dat kreten in het dierenrijk ook communicatieve functies hebben: bijvoorbeeld om soortgenoten te alarmeren bij gevaar, om hulp te roepen, of om zorgend gedrag op te wekken. Die laatste functie begint al in de eerste seconden van ons leven, wanneer we het op een huilen zetten en onze moeder ons zorgzaam in de armen neemt. Baby’s, en trouwens de jongen van veel dieren, hebben hele repertoires aan verschillende kreten. In die repertoires is de pijnkreet —de uitroep bij een acute pijnbeleving—altijd duidelijk herkenbaar: een plotseling begin, een hoge intensiteit, en een relatief korte duur. Hier zien we al de contouren van ons “au!”. En daarmee komen we aan bij het tweede deel van de vraag.

Waarom au en niet iets anders? Eerst moeten we de vraag kritisch bekijken. Is het echt nooit anders? Zeg je au als je op je duim slaat of is het “aaaah!”? In het echt is er flink wat variatie. Toch is de variatie is niet oneindig. Niemand roept bibibibibi of vuuuuu in plotselinge pijn. Pijnkreten zijn variaties op een thema. Dat thema begint met een “aa” vanwege de vorm van ons spraakkanaal bij wijd open mond, en klinkt als “aau” als de mond daarna weer snel naar een dichte stand beweegt. Het woordje “au” vat dat thema prima samen. Daarmee hebben we meteen een belangrijke functie van taal te pakken. Taal helpt ons om ervaringen die nooit volledig hetzelfde zijn toch als soortgelijk te beoordelen. Dat is handig, want als we het willen hebben over “iemand die au roept” hoeven we niet de kreet precies te imiteren. In die zin is au een talig woord en geen kreet meer. Is au dan ook in alle talen hetzelfde? Bijna, maar niet helemaal, want elke taal gebruikt zijn eigen inventaris van klanken voor het beschrijven van de pijnkreet. In het Duits is het “au!”, een Engelsman zegt “ouch!”, en voor iemand uit Israel “oi!” — althans zo schreef Byington in 1942 in één van de eerste vergelijkende studies van uitroepen van pijn.

Ieder van ons komt ter wereld met een repertoire van kreten, en leert daarbovenop een taal. Die taal maakt dat we meer kunnen dan het uitschreeuwen — we kunnen er ook over praten. Gelukkig maar, want anders was er van dit antwoord niets terecht gekomen.

Dit stukje schreef ik als bijdrage aan het Kennislink Vragenboek, onder redactie van Sanne Deurloo en Anne van Kessel. Je kunt de gepubliceerde versie van het stuk hier lezen (PDF).

On “unwritten” and “oral” languages

The world’s many endangered languages are often characterized as “unwritten” and “oral” languages. Both of these terms reveal the language ideologies still implicit in many academic approaches to language: “unwritten” defines by negation, revealing a bias towards stable, standardized abstractions of communicative behaviour (away from a dynamic conception of situated talk-in-interaction); and “oral” defines by exclusion, revealing a bias towards the vocal-auditory channel (away from the multi-modal, fully embodied nature of face to face interaction). How much of our research today is unwittingly shaped by these implicit biases?

Better science through listening to lay people

Slides for a presentation given at the ECSITE 2013 Annual Conference on science communication. I spoke in a session convened by Alex Verkade (De Praktijk) and Jen Wong (Guerilla Science). The other speakers in the session were Bas Haring on ‘Ignorance is a virtue’, and Jen Wong on ‘Mixing science with art, music and play’.

We all have them: intellectual blind spots. For scientists, one way to become aware of them is to listen to people outside the academic bubble. I discuss examples from social media and serendipitous fieldwork. Social media helps academics to connect to diverse audiences. On my research blog ideophone.org, I have used the interaction with readers to refine research questions, tighten definitions, and explore new directions, but also to connect science and art. In linguistic and ethnographic fieldwork in Ghana, I have let serendipity shape my research. Unexpected questions and bold initiatives from locals led me in directions I would never have anticipated on the basis of expert knowledge. Ultimately the involvement of lay people led to methodological innovations, changes of perspective, and most importantly, a host of new questions.

Hyperlinks for material mentioned

Convenors and speakers

Feedback

Thanks for the wonderful tweets — and feel free to get in touch!

A poster on ideophones

No matter how large or complex a PhD thesis, it should be possible to present an outline of the main argument on a simple poster. On that note, here’s a 1-page summary of some of the key findings from my thesis on the meaning and use of ideophones.

The occassion is a festive one: I’ve been awarded the Otto Hahn Medal from the Max Planck Society at their Annual Meeting in Potsdam. After receiving the medal, laureates were given the opportunity to present a poster summarising their research.

The Meaning and Use of Ideophones (poster)

Poster: The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu (click to enlarge)

Is this really a 1-page summary of a 300+-page thesis? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that the basic argument for ideophones as depictive words, and depiction as a significant strategy in language use, is key to the thesis. No in the sense that the poster makes no mention of the sketch grammar of Siwu or of the chapters on ideophones and iconicity, folk definitions, the language of perception tasks, the use of ideophones in special genres, the creation of ideophones, and the relation between ideophones and gesture.

For this poster I’ve picked the sorting task (diagrams visualise well) and the qualitative corpus analysis. It would be easy to make four different posters all making a similar kind of argument but using different empirical evidence. That is precisely the approach I’ve taken in the thesis: looking at ideophones from different perspectives and using different methods to arrive at a holistic understanding of the phenomenon.

Evolving words — now on DLC

“A struggle for life is constantly going on among quotations in academic writings. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue.”

Sounds familiar? Perhaps because it’s a variation on a bon mot attributed to Charles Darwin that you may have seen in any of a range of recent papers on how language evolves.

Darwin on Müller on Schleicher: "A struggle for life is constantly going on"

Darwin on Müller on Schleicher: “A struggle for life is constantly going on among the words and grammatical forms in each language.”

I just published a brief piece on this mutant quotation over at Diversity Linguistics Comment, the group blog initiated by Martin Haspelmath. Read it here.

*Grammatically judgements

I stumbled on a paper which is titled (according to the journal metadata and countless secondary sources) Grammatically Judgments and Second Language Acquisition. Read again if you didn’t spot the grammatically error in there.

I was just about to add it to my Zotero collection of articles with recursive titles when I decided to check whether it was really true — and alas, it was not. If you open the PDF (or look up the good old printed issue) you find that the title is actually spelt correctly.

*Grammatically judgements

No *grammatically judgements in this title

Dang! Well, good for the author that his title doesn’t feature such an embarrassing error. Even so, in these digital times, a metadata error like this reflects almost just as badly on authors, and may be just as hard to fix when it’s been propagated long enough through official channels (even with the DOI you end up with the wrong title). It’s long been known  that Google Scholar can be hopeless and misleading when it comes to metadata, but where’s our hope if even the journal themselves can make errors like this?

As a typo, “grammatically” for “grammaticality” is common enough, but it occurs mainly in miscitations by others of works like Schütze’s (1996) monograph on methodology. Below I provide the correct references for the studies cited in this posting. Hopefully.

*Edit: Gaston Dorren points out that I introduced another mutation in the title: adding an “e” in judgement. This is due to the fact that I’m most accustomed to British spelling, where judgement is more common than judgment. I’ll leave it like this for posterity.

References

  1. Ellis, Rod. 1991. “Grammaticality Judgments and Second Language Acquisition.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition 13 (02): 161–186. doi:10.1017/S0272263100009931.
  2. Fischer, Carolyn. 2001. “Read this paper later: procrastination with time-consistent preferences.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 46 (3): 249–269. doi:10.1016/S0167-2681(01)00160-3.
  3. Fromkin, Victoria A. 1975. “A linguist looks at ‘a linguist looks at “schizophrenic” language’.” Brain and Language 2: 498–503. doi:10.1016/S0093-934X(75)80087-3.
  4. Schütze, Carson T. 1996. The Empirical Base of Linguistics: Grammaticality Judgments and Linguistic Methodology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Preview: a 1913 map of the Togo Hills

With the help of the Radboud University and MPI Nijmegen librarians I’ve been tracking down an obscure but historically important map of the Togo Hills area in eastern Ghana. It’s a pretty large map, originally made available as an Appendix to a 1913 issue of the Mitteilungen aus den deutschen Schutzgebieten. I plan to make the whole thing available to the broader public in May on the occasion of a workshop celebrating 10 years of research on the GTM languages in Leiden.

But I can’t resist offering a sneak preview to show the amazing level of detail on this map. Here is a cut out showing part of Akpafu, with today’s Akpafu-Todzi on the extreme right (click the map to enlarge).

Part of Akpafu on a 1913 German map

Part of Akpafu on a 1913 German map

Continue reading

Magritte on Words and Images (PDF)

La trahison des images (Magritte 1928-1929)

La trahison des images (René Magritte)

Magritte’s best known work by far is of course his drawing of a pipe with the text Ceci n’est pas une pipe. He made several versions over the years, but the work originated in 1928 or 1929. The title Magritte gave to this painting is La trahison des images — the treachery of images.

Less well known is the fact that in the same year, Magritte published an intriguing article in the surrealist journal La révolution surréaliste, entitled Les mots et les images. This article shows that the phenomenon so playfully taken up in La trahison des images was only one element of a larger set of problems in verbal and visual representation occupying Magritte. Here’s the first page:

Magritte 1929, p. 32

Magritte,  1929, Les mots et les images, p. 32

Magritte’s article offers 18 panels dealing with different aspects of the relation between words, images, and reality. As a succinct overview, it is extremely effective. I have used it in my own work to clarify the distinction between depiction and description.

While Magritte’s 18 sketches have been reproduced in several places (e.g. French version, English version), the original is somewhat hard to find on the interwebs. Which is why I’m sharing it here. Use the JPG versions below, or download the PDF here. Enjoy!

References

Magritte, René. 1929. “Les Mots et les Images.” La Révolution surréaliste 12: 32–33. (PDF)

Description and depiction

Depiction is a technical term used in psychology, philosophy, and art history, but less so in linguistics. One of my claims about ideophones is that they are best understood (typically, canonically, with the customary provisos about the fluid categories of natural language) as depictive words. Do we really need a term like that? Can’t we make do with good old ‘expressive’ or ‘vivid‘? No, I say. But what then is this elusive concept of depiction? How can we tell that something is intended as a depiction? What is depiction, such that we can distinguish it from other modes of representation? In answering these questions, it is useful to make a distinction between the signals that frame something as a depiction on the one hand, and the aspects of depiction as a mode of representation on the other hand. But let’s start with something more basic: words and images.

Words versus images

There is a domain where distinct modes of representation are very important and very clear: that of visual representations, in particular written words versus images. Take the following slide (from one of my presentations), with on the left a sentence involving le soleil “the sun” and on the right an image of the sun. (Bonus points for those who see whose handwriting that is.) The claim here is a simple one: that the left and the right side involve two distinct modes of representation.

Description and depiction

Description and depiction (Mark Dingemanse)

I’m guessing most readers will agree with at least this basic distinction. What we call this distinction doesn’t matter a lot, but I call it, following the literature, “description” versus “depiction”. More important than the labels are the ways in which the phenomena differ. On the slide above, a first opposition is between propositional vs. imagistic. This is in a way restating the same point (see Kosslyn 1980 for more details), so I’ll focus on the remaining three. There are three key differences that help us to deductively distinguish depictions from descriptions: descriptions differ from depictions (1) in terms of symbol system they use (using discrete symbols vs. using gradient markings), (2) in terms of form-meaning mappings (basically arbitrary vs. basically iconic), (3) in terms of how we interpret them (“decode” to interpret vs. “imagine” to interpret).

Words as images

Words can't describe! (toothpaste for dinner)

Words can’t describe! (toothpaste for dinner)

Without even having started worrying about ideophones, this is a distinction that we need to make. It’s a distinction that is motivated on independent grounds. Words are different from images in their mode of representation, and we find a number of clear differences between the descriptive and depictive modes of representation.

The next step of my argument consists simply in noting that precisely those three key ways in which descriptions differ from depictions (in the visual mode) are also ways in which plain words differ from ideophones (in spoken language). Ideophones tend to use more gradient and discrete symbol systems; their form-meaning mappings tend to be more iconic than arbitrary; and to interpret them, we “imagine” more than we “decode” (Dingemanse 2011, 2012). Of course these differences are not absolute; in my thesis I have pointed out, for instance, that convention (and hence decoding) also plays an important role in depiction. After all ideophones are conventionalised words and not creative formations — most of the time.

When I say that ideophones are depictions, this is a statement about their mode of representation. It is more about a way some thing can be than about the thing itself. Take the sun. That’s a pretty good ‘thing’. Now take the two representations of the sun shown above. Even those representations are tangible ‘things’, in the sense that we can talk about them, point at them, isolate them (as I do on the slide above). But the way in which those two representations differ, that is their mode of representation. It is about the way something can represent something else. That is the sense in which I call an image of the sun and an ideophone in spoken language a depiction.  Continue reading

One-click Save as PDF from Word: two useful macros

One of the most common word-processing related task for academics is to generate PDF versions of documents — for sharing with colleagues, for submission to a journal, for uploading to a publication page, et cetera. In LaTex, creating PDFs is a question of one simple command (plus a bit of fiddling with settings). In recent versions of Word, it is also pretty simple: just Save as… and select PDF. But that option is buried in the ribbon interface and involves quite a number of clicks. I generate PDFs practically everyday, so I wanted something easier. Enter Word macros. Continue reading