Rethinking Marginality: panel on interjections & interaction at IPRA

We’re convening a panel at the 16th International Pragmatics Conference in Hong Kong next week. This doubles as the inaugural workshop of my VIDI project Elementary Particles of Conversation. The workshop ties into the overall theme of the conference, which is “Pragmatics at the Margins”. Have a look at the panel programme & abstracts (PDF), or check out the overview below (ūüĒó links go to the abstracts in the IPRA programme):

Tuesday June 11, room TU107, 13:30-17:00 (including break)

1330 Intro | Negotiating mutual understanding in multimodal interaction: a comparative and experimental approach
Marlou Rasenberg & Mark Dingemanse
1400 Interjection as coordination device: feedback relevance spaces
Christine Howes & Arash Eshghi
1430 Probabilistic Pragmatic Inference of Communicative Feedback Meaning
Hendrik Buschmeier & Stefan Kopp
1500 ‚ÄĒbreak (30min)‚ÄĒ  
1530 Turn structure & interjections
Christoph R√ľhlemann
1600 Hebrew clicks: From the periphery of language to the heart of grammar
Yotam Ben Moshe & Yael Maschler
1630 Interjections in Action
Isabel Ward & Nigel Ward

Here’s the panel session abstract:

Rethinking Marginality: Interjections as the beating heart of language

Mark Dingemanse & Marlou Rasenberg
Radboud University & Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Oxford linguist Max M√ľller once pontificated that ‚ÄúLanguage begins where interjections end‚ÄĚ. Work in pragmatics turns this view on its head by studying language in its natural habitat of face-to-face interaction, where interjections help us every moment to calibrate understanding and use complex language efficiently. A guiding hypothesis for this panel is that at least some interjections are highly adaptive communicative tools, culturally evolved for the job of keeping our social interactional machinery in good repair (Yngve, 1970; Dingemanse 2017). Far from being marginal grunts, words like ‚Äėoh!‚Äô, ‚Äėmm‚Äô, ‚Äėum‚Äô and ‚Äėhuh?‚Äô play central roles in the most sophisticated uses of language. As metacommunicative signals, they are one of the places where theories of mind and pragmatic reasoning come to the surface, and they afford human language a degree of flexibility, robustness and error-tolerance unmatched in other known communication systems.

This session brings together new research on the centrality of pragmatic interjections in language, with a special focus on items and interactional practices that play crucial roles in managing the back and forth of everyday interaction. These phenomena have been studied in disparate disciplines, as seen by the proliferation of available labels, including back channels, discourse markers, phatic interjections, collateral signals, response tokens and non-lexical conversational sounds. In this lies both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to formulate a unified perspective that can provide conceptual foundations and ensure cumulative progress. The opportunity lies in the disciplinary diversity, which provides us with complementary methods that can deliver converging evidence on open questions.

Topics covered in the session include: the central roles of ‚Äėmarginal‚Äô items in the pragmatics of human interaction; their linguistic status as lexical or nonlexical items; their multimodal composition, as items combining verbal and visual cues; their semiotic status, combining indexical, iconic and symbolic properties; their cross-linguistic attestations, including patterns of universality and diversity; the paths of semantic and pragmatic change leading to and from them; and their implementation in models of language processing, dialogue systems and conversational agents.

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.

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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 (, 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 ‚ÄĒif they have a profile‚ÄĒ 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!

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 r√īles 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 ‚ÄĒ 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. ‚ÄúThe Technique of Semantics.‚ÄĚ Transactions of the Philological Society 34 (1): 36‚Äď73. doi:10.1111/j.1467-968X.1935.tb01254.x.

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 √©√©n ‘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 ‚ÄĒ 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: ‘H√®?’. 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?

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 ‚ÄĒthe primordial ecology of language and verbal art‚ÄĒ 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):

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

Why PLOS ONE needs page proofs

Note: I¬†prepared this posting in August¬†2015, when PLOS ONE was due to publish a paper by us and I wanted to make sure they’d avoid the stupid typesetting errors they made in our 2013 paper.¬†I used the numbers to convince them to show us proofs beforehand. To my surprise, they did, and I never got around to finishing the draft piece¬†I had in the making.¬†This week¬†the issue¬†flared up again following¬†a comment¬†by Dorothy Bishop, so I’ve decided to¬†unearth my draft blog post and put it online.

Update: thanks Retraction Watch for giving some attention to this issue: PLOS ONE’s correction rate is higher than average. Why? Continue reading

Some things you need to know about Google Scholar

Summary: Google Scholar is great, but its inclusiveness and mix of¬†automatically updated and hand-curated profiles means you should never take any of its numbers at face value.¬†Case in point: the power couple Prof. Et Al¬†and¬†Dr. A. Author, whose profiles I created following Scholar’s recommended settings (and a bit of manual embellishment). If you have a Scholar profile, make sure you¬†don’t let Scholar update the¬†publication list automatically.¬†If you’re looking at somebody else’s profile, take it with a big pinch of salt, especially when they have a reasonably common name or when messy entries or weird citation distributions indicate that it is being automatically updated.¬†

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