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.

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.

MuseumJeugdUniversiteit

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 gno.mpi.nl. 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?

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):

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 (www.zotero.org), 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 Academia.edu 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 xyz@ab.edu” and it was hard find actual bibliographic metadata. Google Scholar seemed to have scraped random PDFs uploaded on Academia.edu 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 Academia.edu 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 without checking and cleaning up regularly. 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 duplicate entries or weird citation distributions indicate that it is being automatically updated.  Continue reading

Pragmatic Typology: invited panel at IPrA 2015 in Antwerp

Together with Giovanni Rossi I’ve organised an invited panel at the 14th International Pragmatic Conference in Antwerp, July 2015. Contributors include Jörg Zinken & Arnulf Deppermann; Sandy Thompson & Yoshi Ono; Stef Spronck; Giovanni Rossi, Simeon Floyd, Julija Baranova, Joe Blythe, Mark Dingemanse, Kobin Kendrick & N.J. Enfield; Ilana Mushin; and Mark Dingemanse. More information here.

IPRA Pragmatic Typology Panel

Conceptual Foundations of Language Science publishes its first book

Two months ago we started a new book series with the innovative open access publisher Language Science Press: Conceptual Foundations of Language Science. We’re proud to announce that the series published its first book this week. The book, Natural causes of language is introduced here by Nick Enfield:

You can download your own copy of the book directly from Language Science Press: http://langsci-press.org/catalog/book/48. If you prefer a print copy, you can order one through Amazon.

About the series

Conceptual Foundations of Language Science publishes short and accessible books that explore well-defined topics in the conceptual foundations of language science. The series provides a venue for conceptual arguments and explorations that do not require the traditional book-length treatment, yet that demand more space than a typical journal article allows. Books in the series are peer-reviewed, ensuring high scholarly quality; and they are open access, ensuring universal availability.

The editorial board of the series spans the full diversity of the language sciences, from phonology to syntax and semantics, from grammar to discourse, and from generative to functional and typological approaches to language: Balthasar Bickel (University of Zürich), Claire Bowern (Yale University), Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen (University of Helsinki), William Croft (University of New Mexico), Rose-Marie Déchaine (University of British Columbia), William A. Foley (University of Sydney), William F. Hanks (University of California at Berkeley), Paul Kockelman (Yale University), Keren Rice (University of Toronto), Sharon Rose (University of California at San Diego), Frederick J. Newmeyer (University of Washington), Wendy Sandler (University of Haifa), and Dan Sperber (Central European University, Budapest).

Two basic ideas underlie the series. The first is that in times of empirical advances and methodological innovations, it is especially important to be clear and explicit about conceptual foundations. As we write in the series blurb, “In language science, our concepts about language underlie our thinking and organize our work. They determine our assumptions, direct our attention, and guide our hypotheses and our reasoning. Only with clarity about conceptual foundations can we pose coherent research questions, design critical experiments, and collect crucial data.”

The second idea is to take advantage of the affordances of open access publishing and step in a market gap left by commercial publishers. As we explain: “Traditional publishers tend not to publish very short books. The reasons are economic. With open-access, the problem does not arise. One benefit of the short format is that the book is accessible and quickly readable. Another is that authors will find writing such a book attractive because it is manageable, given the usual time constraints, especially for more senior authors.”

Do you have an idea for a book, or do you have a manuscript which would fit the goals of the series? Consider submitting it to Conceptual Foundations of Language Science. You’ll find further information on the website. Also check out Language Science Press, the visionary open access publishing house that hosts our series as well as a dozen others.

Wetenschapper+Weblog

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.

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