What do you really need on this earth?

Natural conversations are a great source of data for all sorts of linguistic research. Linguists and conversation analysts usually study them primarily for their structure, not their content. This is not out of disinterest, but out of empirical prudence. Talk tends to support a wide range of interpretations. It is empirically safest to stick to observable structures and practices, or at most to interpretations furnished by the interlocutors themselves.

The excerpt below is translated from a corpus of natural conversations in Siwu, a language spoken in Ghana. Two elderly men are sitting in front of their house and chatting. They’ve just been talking about a fellow villager whose children are “giving him problems”. The long silence before Adom’s “So now.” signifies, among other things, that what comes now is likely a new topic. The exchange that follows is beautifully poetic both in terms of structure and topic.

Adom So now.
You have a keyboard.
Ben Mm.
A You have an uh. (1.5) this thing
B Mm.
A You have uh (0.8) radio.
B Mm.
A You have electricity.
B Mm.
A You have water.
B Mm.
A So then what really- what do you really need on this earth?
B What I need?
As for me, I don’t need anything except-
Except my bodily health.
A Just your bodily health.
B Mm.

One is tempted to talk about Maslow’s pyramid, material culture, and a whole lot of other things — but it is probably best to let the exchange speak for itself. (Translated from Siwu.)

Morning clouds in Akpafu-Mempeasem, 2009


Folk Definitions in Linguistic Fieldwork

Folk definitionsAnother extensively revised chapter from my thesis sees the light: Folk definitions in linguistic fieldwork. In which I discuss a procedure that is part of many field work routines, but seldomly appreciated as a method of its own. Abstract:

Informal paraphrases by native speaker consultants are crucial tools in linguistic fieldwork. When recorded, archived, and analysed, they offer rich data that can be mined for many purposes, from lexicography to semantic typology and from ethnography to the investigation of gesture and speech. This paper describes a procedure for the collection and analysis of folk definitions that are native (in the language under study rather than the language of analysis), informal (spoken rather than written), and multi-modal (preserving the integrity of gesture-speech composite utterances). The value of folk definitions is demonstrated using the case of ideophones, words that are notoriously hard to study using traditional elicitation methods. Three explanatory strategies used in a set of folk definitions of ideophones are examined: the offering of everyday contexts of use, the use of depictive gestures, and the use of sense relations as semantic anchoring points. Folk definitions help elucidate word meanings that are hard to capture, bring to light cultural background knowledge that often remains implicit, and take seriously the crucial involvement of native speaker consultants in linguistic fieldwork. They provide useful data for language documentation and are an essential element of any toolkit for linguistic and ethnographic field research.

Dingemanse, Mark. 2015. “Folk Definitions in Linguistic Fieldwork.” In Language Documentation and Endangerment in Africa, edited by James Essegbey, Brent Henderson, and Fiona McLaughlin, 215–38. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. (PDF)

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).

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)


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.

Better science through listening to lay people

Slides for a presentation given at the ECSITE 2013 Annual Conference on science communication. I spoke in a session convened by Alex Verkade (De Praktijk) and Jen Wong (Guerilla Science). The other speakers in the session were Bas Haring on ‘Ignorance is a virtue’, and Jen Wong on ‘Mixing science with art, music and play’.

We all have them: intellectual blind spots. For scientists, one way to become aware of them is to listen to people outside the academic bubble. I discuss examples from social media and serendipitous fieldwork. Social media helps academics to connect to diverse audiences. On my research blog ideophone.org, I have used the interaction with readers to refine research questions, tighten definitions, and explore new directions, but also to connect science and art. In linguistic and ethnographic fieldwork in Ghana, I have let serendipity shape my research. Unexpected questions and bold initiatives from locals led me in directions I would never have anticipated on the basis of expert knowledge. Ultimately the involvement of lay people led to methodological innovations, changes of perspective, and most importantly, a host of new questions.

Hyperlinks for material mentioned

Convenors and speakers


Thanks for the wonderful tweets — and feel free to get in touch!

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

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Transcription mode in ELAN

A new version of ELAN, the widely used tool for time-aligned annotation of linguistic data, was released today by the developers, Han Sloetjes and Aarthy Somasundaram. One of its major features is a whole new user interface for high-speed transcription. This interface is the outcome of a process of user consultation and usability testing at the MPI for Psycholinguistics led by Mark Dingemanse, Jeremy Hammond, and Simeon Floyd in close collaboration with the ELAN developers Han Sloetjes and Aarthy Somasundaram. In this post we outline the most important features of Transcription mode. Continue reading

Interrupting everybody

Gérard Diffloth, writing about the paradox of catching ideophones in the wild, notes the following:

Il faut donc guetter les expressifs et les attraper au vol ; mais dans le feu de l’action et de la discussion animée où ils naissent, qui aurait le culot d’interrompre tout le monde afin de pouvoir vérifier une voyelle, un sens, une intention?
— Gérard Diffloth, 2001

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Now online: fieldmanuals.mpi.nl


We’ve been working on this for quite some time, and we’re excited to go live now: the L&C Field Manuals and Stimulus Materials. This is a website providing access to many of the field manuals produced over the years by the Language and Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. As the front page explains:

This site contains a bonanza of material for the field elicitation of semantics and and the field collection of verbal behaviour. These are unique resources that have been compiled over nearly twenty years of investigation of under-studied languages by the Language & Cognition Group at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. During this period we collectively pioneered the field of semantic typology.

Many entries from these manuals have been circulating informally for years and they have been used by field workers all over the globe. With this archive we offer a centralized, easy to use resource. We’ve started by making available the most recent couple of years. Over the coming months, we will be uploading older manuals and materials, but you can start by checking out the wealth of materials already there — from guidelines on Building a Corpus of Multimodal Interaction in your Field Site to our cross-cultural Synaesthesia Pilot, and from the recent Language of Perception project to the classic Put Project: The Cross-Linguistic Encoding of Placement Events.