New paper: Redrawing the margins of language

Just out in Glossa, the premier open access journal of general linguistics:

Dingemanse, Mark. 2018. “Redrawing the Margins of Language: Lessons from Research on Ideophones.” Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics 3 (1): 1–30. doi:10.5334/gjgl.444. (download PDF)

In this paper I take up the theme of marginality (as distinct from rarity) from my 2017 essay, and take it in a different direction. I argue that the narrative of marginalisation, while historically justified, no longer suffices for ideophones, and that it obscures some of the insights from 150 years worth of research on this phenomenon. The paper is openly available so I won’t summarise it fully here; instead I’ll draw up a few of the lessons I learned while writing it.

How things get marginalised

As many have pointed out, ideophones have long been treated as marginal in linguistics. But how does something come to be seen as marginal? For ideophones, I found there are two basic strategies: assimilation and exceptionalism. In assimilation, we explain away a phenomenon by assuming it’s the same as something already familiar (and marginal anyway), giving us a reason to neglect it. In the case of ideophones, this is often done by shelving them away as interjections or as onomatopoeia. Exceptionalism is the reverse: we stress the utter difference of a phenomenon and thereby place it outside the bounds of normal linguistic inquiry — another reason to neglect it (or leave its investigation to scholars happy to work on ‘exotic’ topics).

One of the best examples of how exceptionalism works is Vidal, who in an introduction to a Yoruba dictionary wrote that he considered ideophones a “singularly unique feature” of the language, and continued, “therefore I shall not waste time in comparing it with the adverbial systems, whatever they may be, of other African languages” (Vidal 1852). Ironically, exceptionalism often arises out of a wish to stress the significance of something; but it may have the same effect as assimilation, namely to shield it from broader investigation. A goal of my paper is to walk the fine line between assimilation and exceptionalism: show what’s special about ideophones without losing sight of how they fit into the bigger picture.

Ideophones are a major word class in many languages

If you haven’t worked on or don’t speak a language with a well-developed ideophone system it can be hard to appreciate the sheer scale of ideophone inventories. Here’s a remarkable fact: in some of the most well-documented languages, ideophones are a major word class on the same order of magnitude as nouns or verbs. Would you be able to take a grammar seriously if it didn’t treat verbs? If you encounter a grammar of a Bantu language, or of Basque, Korean or Japanese, that doesn’t treat ideophones in detail, you should look at it with the same suspicion.

Language Reported magnitude of ideophone inventory
Basque “more than 4,500” (Ibarretxe-Antuñano 2006: 150)
Gbeya “over 3,000” (Samarin 1971: 161)
Japanese “4,500” (Ono 2007)
Korean “several thousands” (Sohn 2001: 96)
Semai “same order of magnitude” as nouns and verbs (Diffloth 1976: 249)
Turkish “one to two thousand” (Jendraschek 2001: 39)
Zulu “3,000” (von Staden 1977: 200)

Stress-testing theories

If ideophones indeed are a major word class in some languages, one consequence is that it becomes more urgent to include them in our theorising. What good is a theory of phonological features that can’t deal with the phonosemantic mappings or phonotactic markedness of a major word class? Or a theory of morphology that can’t deal with templatic phenomena? Or a theory of words that can’t deal with gradience in form and meaning? In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the time of the first ‘cross-linguistic encounter’, ideophones played an important role in theory formation in many areas of general linguistics.  Their role was often one of ‘stress-testing’ theories: ideophones provided the kind of boundary phenomena that could make or break generalisations.

For instance, ideophones played a crucial role in McCarthy’s (1983) new theory of nonconcatenative morphology. As he noted, “these exotic phenomena pervade the world’s languages with a regularity and complexity that makes them both essential and ideal for testing any theory of morphology”. By the way, that ideophones could be described as “exotic phenomena” and as “pervading the world’s languages with regularity” in one sentence is a perfect illustration of the viewpoint dependence of notions of marginality

Forgotten classics

Digging up old work on ideophones is very rewarding. It turns out luminaries like Vidal, Junod, and Westermann had lots of interesting stuff to say. One problem is that their work often comes in languages other than English — for instance, Junod wrote in French and Westermann in German. Since it bothered me that so few people had access to their pioneering work, my review presents some of their most insightful comments in the hope that others will benefit from them as well.

I’m particularly fond of Westermann, whose two classic papers on iconic mappings in West-African ideophones I made available for download before. These papers as well as his grammars and dictionaries of Ewe radiate a deep knowledge of the language, and his comments show how he worked closely with native speakers to really understand what ideophones do and how they work.

Diverse voices

Speaking of native speakers, one thing that is striking when you take any reasonably comprehensive bibliography of ideophone studies is the number of contributions by scholars who are also native speakers. It is hard to find other linguistic phenomena that have benefited so much from work by linguists with native speaker sensibilities. Especially in the last decades, this has shaped the course of developments in ideophone studies in important ways.

Here’s why this is important. As we have seen, marginality is to a large degree subjective: what you consider marginal depends on your methodological focus, your theoretical framework, your disciplinary upbringing, but also, importantly, your own native language(s). Scholars with native speaker sensibilities can provide an insider perspective that others may lack. It has been pointed out that having contributions from both native and non-native scholars is one of the most productive ways to do language science (Ameka 2006). Ideophone studies provide a good model for this.

In short

As ideophones are increasingly being brought into the fold of the language sciences,  they make visible our scholarly biases; they help us innovate methods and theories; and they keep giving us reasons to look at language with fresh eyes.

More in the paper: Dingemanse, Mark. 2018. “Redrawing the Margins of Language: Lessons from Research on Ideophones.” Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics 3 (1): 1–30. doi:10.5334/gjgl.444. (download PDF)

When publication lag turns predictions into postdictions

In late 2011, I defended my PhD thesis and submitted two papers on ideophones. One to Language and Linguistics Compass, where it was reviewed, revised and accepted in May 2012. It appeared in late 2012 and against all odds (for a topic so obscure) went on to become the #1 most cited article in that journal of the last 5 years. Around the same time, I submitted another paper to a special issue of STUF – Language typology and universals, where like the first, it was reviewed, revised and accepted in May 2012. That paper finally appeared in… wait for it… August 2017 (!). A preprint has been available for a while, but in linguistics, people generally avoid citing those so it hasn’t really had much of a chance. Anyway, here it finally is!

Old! New! Dingemanse, Mark. 2017. “Expressiveness and system integration. On the typology of ideophones, wish special reference to Siwu .” STUF – Language Typology and Universals 70 (2): 363–84. doi:10.1515/stuf-2017-0018 (PDF).

Postdiction? Prereplication?

This has led to the interesting situation that some predictions made in this paper have become postdictions:

The generality of these proposals predicts that the morphosyntax of ideophones in other languages should pattern in similar ways, at least with respect to grammatical integration and expressiveness. (p. 378)

Indeed, a replication of the main result appeared before the paper itself (Dingemanse & Akita 2016), making it what, a precognitive replication? Pre-replication? Anyway, here’s the call for replication that was the original impetus for my collaboration with Kimi Akita:

We know now that most languages have multiple constructions in which ideophones can be used, and these constructions will in all likelihood differ from each other along the lines sketched here (as well as in other ways). Cataloguing such differences on the basis of evidence from naturally occurring data will contribute to the description of the morphosyntax of ideophone systems in individual languages and will make it possible to refine and replicate the findings here crosslinguistically. (p. 379)

I’m glad to see this paper finally out. Fortunately, it contains some stuff that wasn’t preempted by later papers that appeared earlier. For instance, there are observations on frequency, borrowing, and ideophonisation and deideophonisation that would be worth following up in larger corpora and in other languages. Have a read!

Two classic papers on ideophones and iconicity by Westermann (PDF)

Two duck-related ideophones exist in varieties of Ewe, spoken in Eastern Ghana: a simple kpakpa imitating the sound; and a form dabodabo that seems more mysterious at first sight. In an early paper on ideophones (available below), linguist Diedrich Westermann describes a discussion about these words with his Ewe consultant:

Ewe has two dialectally separated words for duck, kpakpa after its quacking and ɖaboɖabo. When I asked a local whose dialect does not have the latter why it is that other people would say ɖaboɖabo, his answer was, “Well, because…”, and he used his upper body to imitate the waddle of a duck. (Westermann 1937:159)

This nicely brings home the depictive nature of ideophones: when people use ideophones, they use all verbal and visual means available to enable others to imagine what it is like to perceive the scene depicted.

For a forthcoming paper on the research history of ideophones I’ve been re-reading two of Westermann’s papers on West-African ideophones and iconicity (1927, 1937). The papers are full of interesting observations and generalisations. As I write:

In two pioneering studies Westermann (1927; 1937) compared ideophones across a handful of West-African languages and described how acoustic and articulatory factors like reduplication, tone, vowel quantity, vowel quality and muscle tension appeared to be systematically related to some aspects of the meanings of ideophones (Table 2).  This made Westermann one of the first to outline a range of recurrent iconic associations in lexical items across languages.

Westermann’s work on sound-symbolism in ideophones was contemporary with experimental work on sound-symbolism by Köhler (1929) and Sapir (1929). In an allohistory yet to be written, this experimental work would have benefited from Westermann’s observations. Studies of pseudowords like bouba and kiki would have avoided reductive attempts to locate simple meanings in single sounds, and cognitive scientists would have had early access to a wide range of iconic associations attested in natural languages. In reality, ideophone studies and experimental work on sound symbolism continued in splendid isolation for at least another half century, like ships passing in the night.

Westermann’s work on ideophones and iconicity is still not widely known or cited. Two reasons contribute to it: (1) most of his writings are in German; (2) they appeared in pretty obscure places. If you don’t read German you’re out of luck, but at least the other problem can be solved. I’ve scanned the papers and make them available here: Westermann 1927; Westermann 1937. Enjoy!

  • Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1927. “Laut, Ton Und Sinn in Westafrikanischen Sudansprachen.” In Festschrift Meinhof, 315–28. Hamburg: L. Friederichsen. (PDF)
  • Westermann, Diedrich Hermann. 1937. “Laut Und Sinn in Einigen westafrikanischen Sprachen.” Archiv Für Vergleichende Phonetik 1: 154–72, 193–211. (PDF)

African ideophones and their contribution to linguistics — workshop at WOCAL8 in Kyoto, Aug 2015

Organisers

Dr. Mark Dingemanse (Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen)
Prof. Sharon Rose (University of California, San Diego)

African ideophones and their contribution to linguistics

wocal8 logo

WOCAL8, August 21-24 2015, Kyoto

Africa’s linguistic diversity has impacted the study of language in many ways. The articulatory phonetics of the Khoi and San languages prompted methodological innovations in phonetics, the tonal systems of West-African languages spurred the development of autosegmental phonology, and the ornate morphology of Bantu prompted syntacticians to reconsider the balance between transformational rules and lexical elaboration. In this workshop we consider how the study of ideophones can contribute to theory and methods in linguistics.

Ideophones (also known as mimetics or expressives) are marked words that depict sensory imagery. A major word class in many African languages, they are somewhat of an inconvenient truth for the dogma that spoken languages rarely feature iconicity in the lexicon. Their phonology is marked in a way that bears a clear relation to the broader phonological system of the language, providing for a unique window into phonological structure. Their prosody and morphosyntax set them apart as special words, yet they are more deeply integrated in linguistic subsystems than is often assumed, raising interesting questions about what is in and outside grammar. Their meanings are rich and imagistic, providing unparalleled ways to talk about sensory perceptions. All of these properties represent areas where ideophones can shed light on the design features of language, the iconic affordances of speech, and the nature of human communicative competence.

This workshop gathers international experts to present recent research on ideophones and to put recent developments into theoretical context. Submissions are expected to focus on the connection between ideophone research and foundational issues in linguistics, from phonology to prosody and from syntax to meaning. We encourage papers that show how new approaches can shed light on old questions, and how the systematic study of ideophones can contribute new insights to our understanding of the structure of language and languages. One and a half centuries after the earliest descriptions of ideophones in African languages, the 8th World Congress of African Linguistics in Kyoto offers a unique chance to take stock of what we have learned so far from ideophones, and to explore ways to integrate this knowledge into the broader language sciences.

Important dates

Deadline for abstract submission: October 31, 2014

Notification of acceptance: December 1, 21014

Conference: August 21-24, Kyoto

Abstracts should follow the general guidelines established for the submission of abstracts for WOCAL 8, which can be found here: is.gd/wocal8abstracts

Abercrombie on ‘paralanguage’

Quote

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.

Zbikowski on music and social interaction

Quote

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.

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

On the use of structural criteria in defining ideophones

Recently I’ve been having a conversation with Roger Blench about whether structural markedness should play a role in the definition of a useful cross-linguistic conception of ideophones. Over the last few years, Roger has been producing a steady stream of exciting new data on ideophones, often straight from the field (e.g. handouts and drafts on Nyinkyob ideophones, Ngiemboon ideophones, Kolokuma Ịjọ ideophones, and Bafut ideophones). His most recent position is staked out in a paper on Mwaghavul expressives on his website. Here is a key quote:

“Ideophones not only fall into different word classes, but also into a range of conceptual classes. They may demonstrate a characteristic phonology, morphology or canonical form, but this is absent in some languages, even where the ideas they express are conserved. To characterise this richness, it is helpful to switch to a larger class of ‘expressives’ (a characteristic Asian terminology) to encompass these ideas; ideophones would just be a subset. [emphasis MD]

In this reply (which is an edited version of a document shared with Roger some weeks ago) I raise two problems with this proposal. The first problem is one of definitional criteria: how far can we dilute before we lose substance? The second is one of descriptive choices: does the Mwaghavul case really warrant changing our conception of ideophones, or are there other ways to handle it? Continue reading

The clay tablet tradition of African comparative linguistics

Found this gem in a review of Paul de Wolf’s (1971) The Noun Class System of Proto-Benue-Congo:

This work falls within the ‘clay tablet’ tradition of African comparative linguistics, and, like other things in the same tradition (Meinhof, Greenberg), it has the properties of being inscrutable and yet at the same time, in broad outline, convincing. The two together make an infuriating whole. (Kelly 1973:716)

Continue reading