Universal Social Rules Underlie Languages

Illustration by James Yang

© James Yang

The September/October issue of Scientific American MIND features an article written by me and N.J. Enfield entitled “Universal Social Rules Underlie Languages”. We review recent research on conversation across cultures, including work on turn-taking, timing, and other-initiated repair.

Scientific American MIND is a psychology/brain-themed offshoot of the well-known Scientific American magazine. We’re proud to publish in the pages of this journal!

If you are a SciAm subscriber, you can find our article online here. If you’re at a university or a research institution, you can probably also access it via the DOI. And if you’re neither of those, check out our author’s offprint (PDF).

Abercrombie on ‘paralanguage’


David_T._AbercrombieThere is an urgent need for the comparative study, over as much of the world as possible, of the full range of paralinguistic phenomena — the kind of thing for which the linguistic field-worker is best fitted. Fact-finding, not theorising, is what is wanted at this present juncture.

Abercrombie, David. 1968. “Paralanguage.” International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders 3 (1): 55–59. doi:10.3109/13682826809011441.

That was almost half a century ago. Yet apart from some striking exceptions like Adam Kendon and David Wilkins, it is only since the last decade that fieldworkers have begun to collect multi-modal data in earnest.

Media als middel

Veel wetenschappers onderhouden een haat-liefde verhouding met de media. Media-aandacht is moeilijk te krijgen en als je het eenmaal hebt nog moeilijker te controleren. Wanneer zet je door en wanneer zeg je nee? Hoe vind je de balans tussen bijsturen en meebewegen? Deze en andere vragen bespreek ik aan de hand van een concreet voorbeeld: de wereldwijde mediastorm rond ons onderzoek naar misverstanden en hoe ze opgelost worden. Aan bod komen onderwerpen als slim gebruik maken van sociale media, samenwerken met WTC-experts en inzien wanneer je geen controle hebt.

De rode draad is media als middel, niet als doel. Anders dan professionele wetenschapscommunicatoren is het wetenschappers niet te doen om media-aandacht per se. We willen overtuigd worden van het nut voordat we erin springen. We zijn bovendien heel realistisch over de nieuwswaarde van ons onderzoek: het meeste dat we doen gaat in kleine stapjes en is irrelevant voor de zevenmijlslaarzen van de media. Maar als er dan iets is dat meer aandacht verdient moet je weten wat je doet. Daarover gaat mijn presentatie. In de voorbereiding moet je een confucianist zijn: gedreven, conscientieus en met aandacht voor alle details. Als de mediastorm (of bries) eenmaal begonnen is word je een taoist: beweeg mee, laat los, en gebruik het momentum voor nieuwe dingen.

Hier zijn mijn slides:

De sessie

Andere sprekers in de sessie waren Chris Jacobs, promovendus in de biologie aan de Universiteit Leiden, en Fred Balvert, wetenschapscommunicator van het Erasmus MC. Chris heeft een hele leuke website, science-explained.com, waarop hij uitlegt hoe zijn vakgebied werkt; en Fred heeft net een boekje uitgebracht met daarin tips voor wetenschappers die in contact treden met de media.

Dat deed me overigens denken aan de NWO mediagids, die ik alweer een paar jaar geleden kreeg op een voorlichtingsdag van NWO: kort en goed, vol met praktische tips, en hier gratis als PDF te downloaden.

Zbikowski on music and social interaction


Instead of probing the cultural or historical context for musical utterances, or the complex networks of social interaction that give rise to musical behavior, music theory continues to focus on details of musical discourse with an obsessiveness that is both maddening and quixotic to cultural and social theorists.

Zbikowski, Lawrence Michael. 2002. Conceptualizing music : cognitive structure, theory, and analysis. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Von Humboldt on depiction in speech


Wilhelm-von-HumboldtWhere moderation is not utterly overstepped, the wealth of sound in languages can be compared to coloration in painting. The impression of both evokes a similar feeling; and even thought reacts differently if, like a mere outline, it emerges in greater nakedness, or appears, if we may so put it, more coloured by language.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, On language, page 80. Originally published in 1836.

Von Humboldt, Wilhelm. 2000. On language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species. Trans by. Peter Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Malinowski on observing ‘performance’


There is no doubt, from all points of sociological, or psychological analysis, and in any question of theory, the manner and type of behaviour observed in the performance of an act is of the highest importance. Indeed behaviour is a fact, a relevant fact, and one that can be recorded. And foolish indeed and short-sighted would be the man of science who would pass by a whole class of phenomena, ready to be garnered, and leave them to waste, even though he did not see at the moment to what theoretical use they might be put!

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts Of The Western Pacific. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Malinowski in a carefully staged photograph (see here for an insightful analysis)

Malinowski in a carefully staged photograph (see here for an insightful analysis)


Sound symbolism in language: Does nurunuru mean dry or slimy?

Guest posting by Gwilym Lockwood, PhD student in the Neurobiology of Language Department at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Also see papers for more info and scientific results.

Picture taken from Gomi 1989 ‘An illustrated dictionary of Japanese onomatopoeic expressions’

Picture taken from Gomi 1989 ‘An illustrated dictionary of Japanese onomatopoeic expressions’

When you hear the word dog, you understand it because you have learned that meaningless individual sounds mean dog when arranged in a specific order into a word – it’s not like d means “fluffy”, o means “four legs”, and g means “enjoys rolling in smelly things”. The sound of the word dog is unrelated to the thing it means – it just so happens that the combination of d, o, and g in English mean dog. The same concept in other languages is expressed with very different sounds; hond in Dutch, inu in Japanese, sobaka in Russian. The idea that the individual sounds which make up words are unrelated to the meaning of the word that those sounds express is called arbitrariness in linguistics.

Arbitrariness seems to make sense; if the sounds of language did have specific meanings, if the sounds of words were related to the things they mean, then surely all languages would sound quite similar. Given that they rather obviously do not (for example, Hawaiian has only eight consonants, while Georgian has 28, and !Xóõ, spoken in Botswana, has at least 58), it is safe to say that there is little or no relation between sound and meaning.

However, researchers have recently started to investigate this assumption. Several languages around the world use sound symbolic words called ideophones, which are used to talk about sensory imagery. Interestingly, these words seem to be directly related to their meaning (i.e. the sounds of the words are symbolic of their meaning), and even more interestingly, there seems to be something universal about these words – several experiments have shown that people who don’t speak these languages can still understand (or accurately guess) the meanings of ideophones.

We can try that out now. See if you can guess the meanings of these Japanese ideophones (answers below):

  1. nurunuru – dry or slimy?
  2. pikapika – bright or dark?
  3. wakuwaku – excited or bored?
  4. iraira – happy or angry?
  5. guzuguzu – moving quickly or moving slowly?
  6. kurukuru – spinning around or moving up and down?
  7. kosokoso – walking quietly or walking loudly?
  8. gochagocha – tidy or messy?
  9. garagara – crowded or empty?
  10. tsurutsuru – smooth or rough?
Click here to see the answers to the quiz
  1. nurunuru – slimy
  2. pikapika – bright
  3. wakuwaku – excited
  4. iraira – angry
  5. guzuguzu – moving slowly
  6. kurukuru – spinning around
  7. kosokoso – walking quietly
  8. gochagocha – messy
  9. garagara – empty
  10. tsurutsuru – smooth


Did you guess the meanings of these words better than you would expect? Unlike the word dog, it seems that the individual sounds in these words actually do contribute to the meaning of the words, and this is called sound symbolism. Sound symbolism is the opposite of arbitrariness, but the two can coexist perfectly happily within language.

Speakers of languages with sound symbolic ideophones, such as Japanese, often talk about how the ideophones create a very vivid image or feeling in their minds, whereas normal words don’t. When a Japanese person hears the word kirakira, meaning sparkly, it is like they can actually see the thing that is sparkly. How sound symbolism works, however, is not quite clear, and there have not yet been many neuroscience studies on it, but the research so far suggests that hearing sound symbolic words might involve other forms of sensory perception in a similar way to how people with synaesthesia associate colours to letters. My research at MPI is to investigate why certain sounds appear to be related to certain meanings across languages and how the brain processes these sounds.

Read more

How to paint with language

Words evolve not as blobs of ink on paper but in face to face interaction. The nature of language as fundamentally interactive and multimodal is shown by the study of ideophones, vivid sensory words that thrive in conversations around the world. The ways in which these “Lautbilder” enable precise communication about sensory knowledge has now for the first time been studied in detail. It turns out that we can paint with language, and that the onomatopoeia we sometimes classify as childish might be a subset of a much richer toolkit for depiction in speech, available to us all and in common use around the globe.

[Written for the Max Planck Jahrbuch 2013. A German version, translated by Gunter Senft, appeared here and in Scinexx Magazine.]


Few professions should be more familiar with the nature of words than academia. Words are the currency of our trade. They record our cumulative progress, and they measure our productivity as we disperse our ideas through articles and books. How easy is it to fall in love with the printed word, black symbols on a white page, tidy spaces separating units of thought like stars dotting the skies of conceptual clarity!

How different are our everyday ways with words. We roll them on our tongues as we speak, whisper, or exclaim. They become pliable as we perform, prolong, and repeat them. We colour them with fine shades of meaning as we exert control over pitch, intensity, and duration. We masterfully integrate them with gestures and facial expressions into what linguists call composite utterances (Enfield 2009). For a long time all of these things were cordoned off as paralanguage: not the real thing, but a side show detracting us from the incisiveness of an idealised formal language. In the philosopher Frege’s musings on language, aesthetic delight and the striving for truth are in direct opposition.

However, this view is fast becoming outdated as linguists increasingly realise that the written word is a poor model for our true communicative competence. Language evolved in a much richer environment, and it has always done more for us than just deliver disembodied information. We use language to build social relations, to relate our experiences and to express our stances. We do not just inform, we also perform. This calls for a renewed study of how words work.


Often the best way to develop a fresh view of one’s field of study is to radically change one’s starting point. Linguists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics do this by collecting new data on languages far afield. In the Language & Cognition Department, researchers carry out sustained fieldwork in over twenty locations across the globe. Over the last few years, there have been several in-depth studies of a type of words known as ideophones. Characterised as “vocal images”, these words are probably the best approximations of painting in speech. They were long seen as exotic, out-of-the-way words, but new research shows that they are ubiquitous in conversations across the globe, and used in unforeseen ways.

Ideophones are words whose form is suggestive of their meaning. Familiar examples include English kerplop and boom or German holterdipolter and tick-tack. But whereas in European languages, these words tend to be small in number and limited mainly to imitating sound, many of the world’s languages have hundreds or even thousands of ideophones, covering a much broader range of sensory meanings. Take tuŋjil-tuŋjil ‘bobbing, floating’, ulakpulak ‘unbalanced scary appearance’ and c’onc’on ‘woven tightly’ from Korean; or dhdŋɔh ‘appearance of nodding constantly’, praduk pradɛk ‘noises of scattered small drops of rain’ and grɛ:p ‘crispy sound’ from Semai, a language of peninsular Malaysia; or mukumuku ‘mumbling mouth movements’, fũɛ̃fũɛ̃ ‘elastic, flexible’ and kpɔtɔrɔ-kpɔtɔrɔ ‘walking like a tortoise’ from Siwu, a language of eastern Ghana (Dingemanse 2012).

Durch Video-Aufnahmen fremder Sprachen – hier Unterhaltung beim Herstellen von Palmöl in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Ghana, – analysieren die Wissenschaftler alltägliche Gespräche, in denen Lautmalereien vorkommen.

Linguists investigate the communicative uses of ideophones and gestures by making video-recordings of everyday social interaction — here, conversations during the making of palm-oil in Akpafu, Ghana. (Photo: Mark Dingemanse)

When studying video recordings of conversations in such languages, one sees that these words, with their peculiar forms and colourful meanings, are not spoken like ordinary words. They are delivered as performances. They bring to life the events in ways that ordinary words never do. Observing them in use, we get a sense of what the linguist and psychologist Karl Bühler meant when he wrote, “If there were to be a vote on who is more richly equipped with resources, the painter with colours or the painter with the voice, I would not hesitate to give the second my vote” (Bühler 1934).


How can we paint with speech? In the ideophone systems of the world’s languages, there are three basic ways in which speech is used to depict sensory imagery — three types of iconicity (Dingemanse 2012). The first is to imitate sound with sound, as in English boom ‘sound of explosion’. This is called direct iconicity. It is the most simple way, but also the most limited. After all, not all events involve sound. What all events do have is internal temporal structure. This is where the second method comes in: the structure of words may resemble the structure of events. Bühler recognised this when he noted that words may be “Gestalt faithful” to the events they represent. Therefore we call this type Gestalt iconicity. For instance, words can be prolonged to evoke duration, closed syllables can evoke end points, and repeated syllables can evoke repetition — as in several of the examples given above. Third, and finally, sometimes similar words are used for similar events. Take the three Semai words grɛ:p ‘of chewing fruit’, gra:p ‘of chewing crisps’, grɨ:p ‘of chewing cassava’. They share a common template gr_p which we can characterise as ‘crispy sound’ (Tufvesson 2011). Because related words map onto related meanings, we call this type relative iconicity. Together, these three ways of suggesting meaning are part of the word painter’s toolkit. They allow depictive words like ideophones to form perceptual analogies of events.

But how does one know that some stretch of speech is intended as an ideophone —a vocal image— rather than an ordinary word? Comparative research shows that languages converge on remarkably similar ways to do this. For instance, across languages, ideophones sound special because they exhibit certain liberties relative to other words. They have a wider range of possible syllable structures and word forms, and they are remarkably susceptible to playful word formation processes like reduplication and lengthening. In spoken utterances, they stand out because they show a great measure of syntactic independence and they tend to be delivered as an intonation unit of their own. Last but not least, in many languages, ideophones are introduced by quotative markers or “say” or “do” verbs, emphasizing their performative nature. All of these features work together to mark ideophones as depictions, much as the frame around a painting tells us to interpret it as a painting and not as the wallpaper.


Researchers of the Language & Cognition Department are studying ideophones in a number of fieldsites. They use specially designed stimulus materials to study how these words encode sensory perceptions (Majid and Levinson 2011). They make high quality video and audio recordings of everyday conversations to understand how people use these words in face to face interaction — the kind of setting in which language evolved and keeps evolving. In the course of this research it has become clear that ideophones are far from the stylistic flourishes that people once took them to be. They are dedicated sensory words, on a par with industry-designed sensory vocabularies in terms of their structure and coverage of sensory spaces (Dingemanse and Majid 2012). They are used to communicate expert knowledge during joint work and to share and interpret experiences in storytelling. In languages which have thousands of ideophones, they are seen as the ultimate sign of eloquence.

Every challenge represents an opportunity. Ideophones challenge us to innovate theory and methods, encouraging us to move away from a view of language limited by ideologies or traditions to a perspective that is informed by as wide a range of data as possible. In the end, it should come as no great surprise that depiction may be just as important as description in linguistic life. Even our own findings are not communicated just in abstract words. We illustrate them with gestures and visualise them in figures and diagrams. There is truth, then, to the saying that an image says more than a thousand words. But what we may have overlooked was that our words have been peppered with images all along.

Speech tends to come together with gesture. Here, a speaker clearly makes a point.

Speech tends to come together with gesture. Here, a speaker clearly makes a point. (Photo: Mark Dingemanse)


  • Bühler, Karl. 1934. Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: G. Fischer.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2012. “Advances in the cross-linguistic study of ideophones.” Language and Linguistics Compass 6 (10): 654–672. doi:10.1002/lnc3.361.
  • Dingemanse, Mark, and Asifa Majid. 2012. The semantic structure of sensory vocabulary in an African language. In Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, ed. N. Miyake, D. Peebles, and R. P. Cooper, 300–305. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
  • Enfield, N. J. 2009. The Anatomy of Meaning: Speech, Gesture, and Composite Utterances. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Majid, Asifa, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2011. “The Senses in Language and Culture.” The Senses and Society 6 (1): 5–18.
  • Tufvesson, Sylvia. 2011. “Analogy-making in the Semai Sensory World.” The Senses and Society 6 (1): 86–95. doi:10.2752/174589311X12893982233876.

An ode to Narita Airport Resthouse

I just got back from Japan. Because of an early flight out, I booked an overnight stay at Narita Airport Resthouse, a hotel located —as the name suggests— right at the airport. My booking website asked me to review the hotel; here’s what I wrote.

Narita Airport Resthouse review

Great if you like dilapidated buildings, rooms with actual keys, antique light switches and printed signs featuring Screen Beans characters, revealing the last update to have been over a decade ago.

The place is perfect for an overnight stay prior to departure from Japan. The room has plenty of power outlets to charge your gadgets for a long haul flight, and when you wake up, the breakfast is reasonable and the coffee is dark and fresh.

But the true charm of this place lies in its ramshackle state. You go up with an ageing, heaving elevator and pass through long hallways with water-stained khaki carpeting. The metal door of your room closes behind you with a satisfying clang.

On the bathroom door, a screen bean character warns you that “the steam from the shower can operate the fire alarm”. That steam seems quite versatile, as it is also responsible for executing a wall mold in the bathroom that puts Jackson Pollock to shame.

None of this is to detract from the virtues of this hotel. It is a more than welcome change after the sterile high tech modernity of Tokyo and Osaka. Narita Airport Resthouse is the liminal space that helps you get back from the future to the present — from Japan to your own shabby country of origin.


Gisteren was ik op de eerste vakconferentie Wetenschapscommunicatie in de Van Nelle Ontwerpfabriek in Rotterdam. Samen met een aantal collega’s sprak ik in een sessie over ‘wat motiveert wetenschappers?’. Mjin bijdrage ging over Wetenschapper + Weblog. Hier is mijn boodschap in 79 woorden:

Bloggen is geweldig, roept de technofetisjist. Zonde van de tijd, bromt de technopessimist. Als bloggende wetenschapper laveer ik tussen beide extremen door. Ik geef een eerlijk overzicht van de kosten en baten van zes jaar onregelmatig bloggen. Hoe schrijf je over onderzoek, wie wil je bereiken, en wat kun je leren van je lezers? Uiteindelijk komt het neer op mindful gebruik van technologie: wie snapt hoe bloggen werkt kan er zijn voordeel mee doen — als wetenschapper en als communicator.

Continue reading