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.

Ideophones in Bakairi, Brasil, 1894

Last year Sabine Reiter defended an interesting PhD thesis on ideophones in Awetí, a Tupian language spoken in the Upper Xingu area of central Brazil. In the introduction, she mentions an early source on ideophones in this area. It’s a vivid description of a native of Xingu felling a tree, and it’s full of ideophones and gestures:

Wie quält sich der Bakaïrí, um einen Baum zu fällen: frühmorgens, wenn die Sonne tschischi aufgeht, – dort im Osten steigt sie – beginnt er die Steinaxt zu schwingen. Und tschischi wandert aufwärts und der Bakaïrí schlägt wacker immerzu, tsök tsök tsök. Immer mehr ermüden die Arme, sie werden gerieben und sinken schlaff nieder, es wird ein kleiner matter Luftstoss aus dem Mund geblasen und über das erschöpfte Gesicht gestrichen; weiter schlägt er, aber nicht mehr mit tsök tsök, sondern einem aus dem Grunde der Brust geholten Aechzen. Die Sonne steht oben im Zenith; der Leib – die flache Hand reibt darüber und legt sich tief in eine Falte hinein – ist leer; wie hungrig ist der Bakaïrí – das Gesicht wird zu kläglichstem Ausdruck verzogen: endlich, wenn tschischi schon tief unten steht, fällt ein Baum: tokále = 1 zeigt der Kleinfinger. Aber Du, der Karaibe, – plötzlich ist Alles an dem Mimiker Leben und Kraft – der Karaibe nimmt seine Eisenaxt, reisst sie hoch empor, schlägt sie wuchtig nieder, tsök, tsök, pum – ah …, da liegt der Baum, ein fester Fusstritt, schon auf dem Boden. Und da und dort und wieder hier, überall sieht man sie fallen. Schlussfolgerung für den Karaiben: gieb uns Deine Eisenäxte. (Steinen 1894)

Sabine Reiter translates this passage as follows: “How the Bakaïrí struggles with felling a tree: early in the morning, when the sun tschischi rises, – there in the east it rises – he begins to swing his stone axe. And tschischi rises further, and the Bakaïrí – bravely – keeps beating tsök tsök tsök. His arms are getting tired, he rubs them; they drop down. A small and feeble puff of air escapes his mouth, he runs his hand over his exhausted face; he keeps beating, no longer with tsök tsök, but with a groan from deep within his chest. The sun has reached its zenith; the belly – the hand rubs over it and falls into a deep hollow – is empty; how hungry is the Bakaïrí – he shows the most miserable face: finally, when tschischi is already low, falls a tree: tokále = 1 shows the little finger. But you, the caraiba (nonindian), – suddenly everything on the mimic becomes lively and forceful – the caraiba takes his metal axe, swings it high up, strikes it down with force, tsök, tsök, pum – ah …, a last forceful kick, and there lies the tree on the ground. And there and yonder and here again, everywhere one sees them fall. Conclusion for the caraiba: give us your metal axes.”

For African languages, it looks like the earliest clear descriptions of ideophones go back to the 1850’s (Dingemanse 2011:Ch. 3). This particular instance from 1894 is one of the earliest sources I’ve seen yet for the Americas, but it would not surprise me at all to find much earlier descriptions (e.g. of ideophones in Quechua varieties?) given the linguistic interests of early colonisers (e.g. Jesuits) in the New World.


  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2011. “The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu”. PhD dissertation, Nijmegen: Radboud University.
  • Reiter, Sabine (2012). “Ideophones in Awetí”. PhD thesis, Köln: Universität zu Köln.
  • Steinen, Karl von den (1894). Unter den Naturvölkern Zentral-Brasiliens. Reiseschilderung und Ergebnisse der Zweiten Schingú-Expedition 1887-1888. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer.

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.

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

Robertson’s Report on the geology of Western Togoland (1921)

One of the earliest English sources on the geology of what is today the Volta Region in eastern Ghana is a survey report by Thomas Robertson. It was published in 1921 by the Gold Coast Geological Survey in Accra. The economical goals of the survey are clear from Robertson’s repeated examination of rivers for gold (“River X gave black sand but no gold on panning”). Download the report here (20Mb). Continue reading

A visit to Akpafu by Nicolas Clerk, 1889

Travel journals provide some of the first written sources on Akpafu. I have previously posted an excerpt from a 1887 journal by David Asante. This here is an excerpt from a similar journey two years later. The whole journey took three months, but this excerpt relates only a trip to two Akpafu towns on 17-18 December 1889. Nicolas Clerk, an indigenous missionary born in Aburi, was alone during the first part of the journey and accompanied by his colleague Hall from Dec. 30 onwards. Continue reading

H.B.K. Ogbete, A history of the Akpafus

One of the most interesting sources on the history and customs of the Mawu people of eastern Ghana (also known as the Akpafu) is a little book written in 1998 by Rev. H.B.K. Ogbete. This book contains a wealth of material: it records oral traditions, names of ancestors and chiefs, and a lot of background information on the culture of the Mawu. However, it is very difficult to find. Therefore, by popular demand, and with the permission of Prof. Kofi Agawu of Princeton University (who was involved in the publication of the book), I am making available a digital copy of it here.

Download it here: A history of the Akpafus (PDF, 2.5Mb)


  1. Ogbete, H. B. K. 1998. A history of the Akpafus. Onyase Press Limited.  

A visit to Akpafu by David Asante, 1887

This is the first ever published account of a visit to Akpafu. It was written down by David Asante, a Twi pastor who travelled throughout today’s Volta Region in the company of some white missionaries. The journey took place in January 1887; the date of the visit to Akpafu was January 25th, 1887. The account was originally written in Twi, and translated in German in 1889 by the eminent linguist J.G. Christaller, who published it in a German geographical journal. It was translated from German into English by Mark Dingemanse in 2009. Continue reading

Aduerbia sonus: Ideophones in two 17th century grammars of Japanese

One of my projects here at The Ideophone has been to track down early sources on ideophonic phenomena. For example, I have suggested that we may call the 1850’s the decade of the discovery of ideophones in African linguistics. But we can push back the linguistic discovery of ideophones a little further by looking to other traditions. Today we look at Japanese, for which I have found some early 17th century grammatical treatises that offer information on ideophones (nowadays called ‘mimetics’ in Japanese linguistics). Continue reading

Early sources on African ideophones, part IV: S.W. Koelle on Kanuri, 1854

It is high time for a continuation of our series honouring the ancestors of ideophone studies. Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle is one of the founding fathers of African linguistics, and 1854 was one of his more productive years. In the same year, besides his Kanuri grammar (from which the excerpt below is taken), he issued what may be called a corpus of Kanuri folklore, a grammar of Vai, and the first large-scale comparison of some 200 African languages, the famed Polyglotta Africana. Here is what he has to write about ideophones in Kanuri:

§289. The Kanuri language has a peculiar kind of adverbs, which we may call specific or confined adverbs, each being confined in its use to one or a few particular adjectives or their denominative verbs, as illustrated in the following examples. These singular adverbs which seem to be common in African languages, as they exist also in the Aku and Vei, have something in their nature which may be compared to the onomatopoetica, or something in which the immediate, instinctive sense of language particularly manifests itself. They are eminently expressions of feelings (German, Gefühlsworte), or manifestations of vague impressions rather than of clearly defined ideas. (p. 283)

As might be expected from someone who handled so many different languages, Koelle rightly hypothesized that ideophones would be a feature shared by many African languages. Note that Aku is an old term for Yoruba, the language for which Vidal had claimed independently that “This singular feature of the Yoruba language is unique, and therefore I shall not waste time in comparing it with the adverbial systems, whatever they may be, of other African languages.”

As it happens, this singular feature of Yoruba would turn out to be not so unique among African languages. With Kanuri joining Yoruba (Vidal 1852) and Ewe (Schlegel 1857), we now have three independent claims from the 1850’s on the significance of ideophones in three major African languages. Although I do not exclude the possibility of finding yet earlier sources, things are starting to look like we may justifiably call this period the decade of the discovery of ideophones in Africa.


  1. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. Outlines of a grammar of the Vei language, together with a Vei-English vocabulary. And an account of the discovery and nature of the Vei mode of syllabic writing. London: Church Missionary House.
  2. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. Grammar of the Bórnu or Kānurī language. London: Church Missionary House.
  3. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854. African native literature, or Proverbs, tales, fables, & historical fragments in the Kanuri or Bornu language. London: Church Missionary House.
  4. Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm. 1854b. Polyglotta Africana London: Church Missionary House.
  5. Schlegel, Joh. Bernhard. 1857. Schlüssel der Ewesprache, dargeboten in den Grammatischen Grundzügen des Anlodialekts. Stuttgart.
  6. Vidal, Owen Emeric. 1852. Introductory Remarks. In A Vocabulary of the Yoruba language, ed. Samuel Ajayi Crowther. London: Seeleys.