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.


  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!


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

A Mawu community in Sefwi, Western Region, Ghana

In Kawu on the very final day of my 2012 fieldtrip, I heard something unusual. Some people talked about a community of Mawu people, speakers of Siwu, living in Sefwi. Now Kawu, as you know, is in the east of Ghana, close to the border with Togo. Sefwi on the other hand is all the way in Western Region, some 500 kilometres away from Kawu as the crow flies. How did they get there?  Continue reading

AVT/Anéla Dissertation Award 2012

The Meaning and Use of Ideophones (2011)

The Meaning and Use of Ideophones (2011)

This weekend, at the annual Taalgala ceremony in Utrecht, I was awarded the AVT/Anéla Dissertatieprijs 2012 for my dissertation The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu. For this prize, jointly presented by the Dutch Society for General Linguistics and the Dutch Association for Applied Linguistics, an independent jury selects the best dissertation in linguistics in The Netherlands in 2011.

Competition was fierce, and I feel greatly honoured that the jury unanimously choose my thesis on account of its “high scores in terms of methodology, crafsmanship, originality and clarity of reporting”. They also wrote of the thesis that it is “an exceptionally thorough piece of work, very well written and accessible to a degree rarely exhibited in dissertations in linguistics”. Whew!  Continue reading


Welkom Quest-lezers! Je komt hier misschien via het stukje in de Quest van januari 2013. Als taalwetenschapper bestudeer ik het Siwu (spreek uit: “Siwoe”), gesproken in het zuidoosten van Ghana. Eén van de dingen die ik onderzocht heb zijn de vele klankwoorden van het Siwu.

Dolf JansenWil je meer weten over mijn taalonderzoek in Ghana? Beluister dan het volgende korte interview door Dolf Jansen. Daarin vertel ik over mijn veldwerk in Ghana en hoor je ook geluidsopnames van ideofonen in het Siwu. (Ideofonen, zo noemen we “klankwoorden” in de taalkunde.)

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Het stukje in de Quest is gebaseerd op een interview in NRC Handelsblad. Als je wilt kun je dat hier nalezen.

Een taal vol klankwoorden?

In een kort stukje over “rare taal” is het belangrijk om te laten zien hoe anders het Siwu is dan het Nederlands. En Quest heeft volkomen gelijk: het Siwu is een taal die heel mooi klinkt en die hardstikke interessant is om te onderzoeken. De klankwoorden van het Siwu zijn zo interessant dat ik er een heel proefschrift aan gewijd heb.

Bij het artikel in de Quest staat een plaatje van een auto met een kapotte motor waarbij iemand “bedoembedoembedoem… kgggg” zegt. Een Siwu-spreker zou gewoon zeggen: Kaa ɔ kpì. ‘De auto is kapot.’ De monteur zou zeggen: Aa, tã mɛ lo nyɔ. Lo bu sɔ ìyèbi ìitere kukaakɔ. ‘Oh, even kijken. Ik denk dat de motor niet goed loopt.’ Heel misschien, als er een raar tikje in de motor zou zitten of als de motor tijdens het rijden schokkerig loopt, zouden ze een ideofoon gebruiken. Net zoals wij misschien een gebaar zouden gebruiken om het uit te beelden. De onderstaande versie van het plaatje past misschien beter bij het artikel…

Quest auto

Communiceren de Mawu —de sprekers van het Siwu— alleen in klankwoorden? Natuurlijk niet. Het Siwu heeft ook heel veel gewone woorden. Naamwoorden zoals ɔ̀bi ‘kind’, ndu ‘water’, kàmɔ ‘rijst’, en kàsukutu ‘werktuig om palmolie mee te maken’. Werkwoorden zoals we ‘kauwen’, tere ‘rennen’,  ‘zeggen’, fudza ‘wit zijn’. Bijvoegelijke naamwoorden zoals yɛtɛ ‘nieuw’ en siarè ‘groot’. Bijwoorden zoals gbidii ‘heel erg’,  kukaakɔ ‘supergoed’.

Waarvoor gebruik je ideofonen in het Siwu?

Waarom heeft het Siwu dan zoveel ideofonen? Dat is precies wat ik in mijn proefschrift onderzocht heb. Niet om alle communicatie mee te doen. Maar om heel precies te communiceren op momenten dat het er echt toe doet. Als ik wil laten zien dat ik kan bogen op persoonlijke ervaring bijvoorbeeld. (Eigenwijze klant: ‘Maar is het niet gewoon de afstelling van de kleppen? De monteur: ‘Moet u horen meneer. Als de zuiger aanloopt doet ‘ie ketetoeng ketetoeng; maar als het de klepstoters zijn klinkt het meer van gnn-tata-gnn-tata-gnn. Ik hoor het eerste.’) Of als ik samen met iemand een ervaring wil herbeleven. (Weet je nog toen we met die kapotte knalpijp door de Gotthardtunnel reden?) Dán gebruik ik ideofonen. Met gewone woorden kan ik praten, maar met ideofonen kan ik een gebeurtenis tot leven brengen. Continue reading