What is ‘non-lexical’? Notes on non-lexical vocalisations, II

This is part II of my notes on the “Ideophones and non-lexical vocalisations” workshop. Part I is here. Note: the conceptual distinctions set out here represent work in progress and may be published at some point. I will update these posts with the reference if that happens.

Order at all points

One of the nice features of the workshop was the “rapid data session” format, which enabled analysts to make available one or two data extracts (often with audio, video and transcripts) for repeated inspection, allowing everyone in the audience to study them and make observations or ask questions. In this way we discussed data featuring vocalisations including ermmmnrrrnuh::, ʔouiʔ, ha:i: (sighed), du du ka du du du ka, k’hohhh, zuppum, hop-paa, and many more.

But there is method to the madness. For instance, talking on the topic of “How to audibly not say something with clicks”, Richard Ogden (York) showed how English speakers use various click sounds for double entendres, collusions and in general things that are treated as best left off the record. He also made a convincing case for a systematic, conventionalised contrast between lateral and central click sounds, which maps onto a contrast in social actions. Despite English not being generally known as a click language, English speakers have no trouble mastering this contrast and use it in everday interaction (some details are in Richard’s 2013 paper on clicks).

When speech sounds are distinctive in this way, linguists often use that as evidence to argue for phonemic status: the contrastive sounds earn their place in the phonology of the language. These conversational clicks form an interesting test case. Is a single systematic contrast, or even a small number of similarly contrasting items, sufficient for admission to the phoneme inventory, or is there some kind of threshold we use to determine this?

I think it is fair to point out that the majority of English words don’t feature contrastive click phonemes, and so this could be a reason to say they are not part of English phonology. But such frequency-based arguments can be slippery. Given that phonemes show a Zipfian distribution, we expect there to be relatively rare phonemes. Are clicks simply one extreme of this continuum? I can’t bring myself to agree with this either, if only because their distribution (in terms of places where they occur) seems quite different.

Most importantly, in English, these click sounds don’t seem to be contrastive within words the way p/t or k/g are, but instead are contrastive as stand alone items. So on a generous reading of ‘word’, these items are words, or at least lexical items, or at least conventionalised linguistic items. Which brings me to the key question I was left with after the workshop.

What, if anything, is “non-lexical”?

Throughout the workshop we faced the challenge of how exactly to refer to the various things we studied. One term used widely, mostly for want of a better one, was non-lexical vocalisations. While it may be the best we have currently, there are several issues with it.

First, it’s never great to define by negation. Is not being lexical the key feature setting apart these vocalisations as a phenomenon? What would lexical vocalisations be, anyway? We have the term ‘word’, so using an alternative like ‘vocalisation’ already implies some relevant difference between the items in focus and run-of-the-mill words like ‘cat’ or ‘mat’. And as we saw above for the clicks, a case could be made that even these phonologically outlandish items have some recognised (or at least recognisable) status as conventionalised items in a larger system of practices, i.e., a lexicon.

Second, calling them “non-lexical” implies that the lexicality of these items is somehow lacking or in doubt. True, these items are unlikely to be found in traditional lexicons; but the arbitrary constraints of printed dictionaries will never be a reliable guide for linguistic questions. Anyway this doesn’t help if we want to argue (as several of us did during the workshop) that the shape of these items can to an important degree be conventionalised, or that they may draw on partly conventionalised inventories of depictive practices, or that they are used in systematic ways, or that they form paradigmatic relations within larger systems of practices. All of these point to a conventionalised, and therefore possibly lexicalised, status of these things.

Depictions and displays

Before we worry about lexicality, it’s worth asking whether there is a unified phenomenon here in need of a single label like “non-lexical vocalisations”, or whether there are multiple distinct phenomena. I think there may be at least two clear groups of phenomena worth distinguishing:

1. Vocal depictions (≈ Clark’s ‘demonstrations’, Güldemann’s ‘mimesis’)

These are vocalisations typically presented as depictions of sensory scenes that enable others to perceive for themselves the scene depicted. Examples include ideophones, creative vocal imitations of sounds, movements and other sensory scenes. In Peircean terms, their mode of signification is primarily iconic. For example, a vocalisation like wop pa da PUM can iconically depict aspects of the temporal and kinetic dynamics of a sequence of dance moves (Keevallik 2010). Like all signs, vocal depictions may also have symbolic and indexical properties.

While most English speakers won’t feel that wop or pa da PUM are words, one could make a case for a degree of conventionalisation in particular communities of practice. For instance, dancers or musicians who work closely together likely converge on a small set of vocalisations they use in this way (Sundberg’s 1994 syllabling). From here it’s not far at all to the larger inventories of conventionalised vocal depictions we call ideophones. Indeed one place where we find ideophones is precisely in situations where there is a premium on sharing and calibrating sensory perceptions and achieving bodily coordination, as Elena Mihas (2013) has shown for ideophones in Ashenika Perene. (Some of these uses of ideophones are reviewed in a forthcoming article for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics; preprint here.) So I see vocal depictions as an overarching category that includes creative vocalisations as well as conventionalised ideophones, and everything in between.

2. Vocal displays (≈ Goffman’s ‘response cries’, Kockelman’s ‘interjections’ — I’m not sure whether ‘display’ is the best term here)

These are vocalisations typically produced as indexical signs of emotion, effort, evaluation. They are presented not so much depictions of events as responses to events. Examples include strain grunts, pain cries, yawns, interjections of disgust, vocal signs of cognitive effort, etc. For Goffman these would present themselves more as “giving off” than “giving” information, though of course precisely this opens up the possibility for people to use them to do other things ostensibly off record. In Peircean terms, their mode of signification is primarily indexical. For instance, the phonetic form of a strain grunt does not itself present a resemblance to its ascribed meaning of ‘effort’ — it indexically shows that effort. Like all signs, vocal displays may also have symbolic and iconic properties.

I’m trying to be careful here in saying that vocal displays are “typically produced as indexical signs”. An inbreath or a click sound can be ‘merely’ an index of the physical process of preparing to speak, involuntarily produced; but that it regularly occurs in this indexical relationship means that we can also use it in a more controlled way to display imminent speakership, and therefore do interactional work. Likewise, something like um can be ‘merely’ an index of the cognitive process of starting to formulate a turn but not being ready to speak yet; but that it regularly occurs in this function makes it possible for us to do interactional work with it, for instance, buy ourselves time at interactionally fraught moments (Clark & Fox Tree 2003).

(Non)lexicality is an orthogonal issue

The two groups, vocal depictions and vocal displays, are united at least in being commonly treated as marginalia in the subjective sense (Dingemanse 2017). Further, vocal depictions and vocal displays are both more ‘showing’ than ‘telling’, though for different reasons: depictions because they iconically create a likeness (Donald 1998), displays because they indexically provide evidence of some inner feeling or state (Wharton 2003). Both groups also appear to allow a degree of gradience that seems to be less typical for more descriptive vocabulary: depictions because modifications in form analogically correspond to modifications in meaning, and displays because they are productively combined with a wide range of prosodic resources in the service of showing stance and streamlining interaction. All of these things may justify grouping them together as “vocalisations”. But I wouldn’t want to call them “non-lexical” across the board.

The reason is that lexicality is an orthogonal matter. Lexicality is a graded property (something can be more or less lexical) and it runs through both groups: in both, we have fully conventionalised lexical items like ideophones or the word “um” ; and items that are less clearly conventionalised and linguistically integrated, like the vocal depiction “pa da PUM” or a vocal display like an inbreath. And there are going to be lots of intermediate forms as well.

There are yet other things that have been called “nonlexical” or variations thereof, that may or may not be groupable with either of these two broad categories. For instance, Nigel Ward has an interesting line of work on continuers, backchannels and the like, which he calls “nonlexical conversational sounds” (Ward 2006). Despite an interesting degree of formal gradience, I think the claim of nonlexicality here is premature, and may be too strong. Likewise, Schegloff has described the interjection Huh?, used to initiate repair, as a “virtually pre-lexical grunt” (Schegloff 1997). Comparative interactional linguistic research has since shown that many languages have an interjection of this kind, and while it may not be the most prototypical lexical item, it certainly is a word rather than a grunt: it is integrated in terms of phonology and interrogative prosody, and its cross-linguistic commonalities notwithstanding, the actual realisations show enough language-specificity that they have to be learned.

Some of these items may be close to the vocal displays above, a link that is alluring because they don’t sound like many other words. But I would hesitate to identify them with response cries, exclamations or grunts; as I have argued elsewhere, perhaps their peculiar shapes are not so much because they originate as involuntary grunts, but because they are optimally adapted to the exigencies of conversation (as we have argued in detail for “Huh?”). That topic is at the core of my newest research project on Elementary particles of conversation. More about that on some other occassion.


  • Akita, Kimi, and Mark Dingemanse. 2019. “Ideophones (Mimetics, Expressives).” In: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Preprint: https://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/004347
  • Clark, Herbert H., and Jean E. Fox Tree. 2002. “Using Uh and Um in Spontaneous Speaking.” Cognition 84: 73–111.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2014. “Making New Ideophones in Siwu: Creative Depiction in Conversation.” Pragmatics and Society 5 (3): 384–405. https://doi.org/10.1075/ps.5.3.04din.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2017. “On the Margins of Language: Ideophones, Interjections and Dependencies in Linguistic Theory.” In Dependencies in Language, edited by N. J. Enfield, 195–202. Berlin: Language Science Press. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.573781.
  • Donald, Merlin. 1998. “Mimesis and the Executive Suite: Missing Links in Language Evolution.” In Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases, edited by James R. Hurford, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, and Chris Knight, 44–67. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Goffman, Erving. 1978. “Response Cries.” Language 54 (4): 787–815.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2010. “Bodily Quoting in Dance Correction.” Research on Language & Social Interaction 43 (4): 401–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/08351813.2010.518065.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2014. “Turn Organization and Bodily-Vocal Demonstrations.” Journal of Pragmatics, A body of resources – CA studies of social conduct, 65 (May): 103–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2014.01.008.
  • Kockelman, Paul. 2003. “The Meanings of Interjections in Q’eqchi’ Maya: From Emotive Reaction to Social and Discursive Action.” Current Anthropology 44 (4): 467–97.
  • Mihas, Elena. 2013. “Composite Ideophone-Gesture Utterances in the Ashéninka Perené ‘Community of Practice’, an Amazonian Arawak Society from Central-Eastern Peru.” Gesture 13 (1): 28–62. https://doi.org/10.1075/gest.13.1.02mih.
  • Ogden, Richard. 2013. “Clicks and Percussives in English Conversation.” Journal of the International Phonetic Association 43 (3): 299–320. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0025100313000224.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1997. “Practices and Actions: Boundary Cases of Other-Initiated Repair.” Discourse Processes 23 (3): 499–545. https://doi.org/10.1080/01638539709545001.
  • Ward, Nigel. 2006. “Non-Lexical Conversational Sounds in American English.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14: 129–82. https://doi.org/10.1075/pc.14.1.08war.
  • Wharton, Tim. 2003. “Interjections, Language, and the `showing/Saying’ Continuum.” Pragmatics & Cognition 11: 39–91. https://doi.org/10.1075/pc.11.1.04wha.

A variety of vocal depictions: Notes on non-lexical vocalisations, I

Last week I was happy to present my work at a workshop on Ideophones and nonlexical vocalisations in Linköping, Sweden, organised by Leelo Keevallik and Emily Hofstetter. This was the kick-off for a new project on “Non-lexical vocalisations“. It was my first time in Linköping and it was great getting to know the vibrant community of interaction researchers from across departments. Also, I kind of fell in love with the Key Huset building and its light-flooded wood toned spaces.

The workshop was thought-provoking in many ways. This is the first of two posts in which I share some of my notes. It’s a personal take, not at all intended as a comprehensive summary, if only because I had to leave early to pick up my daughter from daycare back in Nijmegen and therefore missed the last third of the workshop, which (judging from Emily Hofstetter’s live tweeting) was just as interesting as the first two thirds. A central concern of the larger project hosting the workshop is to “problematise the traditional boundaries of linguistics”. This is something I’m sympathetic to, if only because my own work on ideophones and interjections has made me acutely aware of the subjectiveness of our notions of what is marginal and what is core in language.

Rara versus marginalia

In thinking about marginality, I find it useful to distinguish two ways in which things may be peripheral: rara and marginalia (see Dingemanse 2017). Rara are truly rare linguistic phenomena that are interesting precisely because they are so out of the ordinary: things like click phonemes, nominal tense, or affixation by place of articulation. Marginalia are common phenomena that just don’t happen to be part of the traditional interests of linguistics: things like gesture, ideophones, or indeed “non-lexical” vocalisations.

The crucial difference between rara and marginalia lies in the subjectivity of the latter. We can objectively tell whether something is truly rare or exceptional. But many classifications of things as peripheral or marginal are much more subjective. What we think of as marginal is determined by our data, methods, and theories; and in addition to that, by our own linguistic experience and language ideologies. There is nothing wrong about declaring some things as peripheral to your current interests: time is limited and we all have to make choices. But it is always useful to be aware of how you come to such choices, and to reflect on whether your interests (or methods, theories, ideologies) might benefit from a bit of recalibration.

Many of the phenomena in focus during the workshop were not rara but marginalia in this subjective sense: they occur all the time in language use and might tell us interesting things about language structure — but they’ve been mostly treated as marginal to the concerns of mainstream linguistics. However, the tide may be turning for at least some marginalia: work on ideophones is clearly on the rise, and initiatives such as Martina Wiltschko’s Eh lab at UBC and this new nonlexical vocalizations project at Linköping University show there is significant interest in this area.

Vocal depiction is rampant

One thing that struck me during the workshop is how common it is to use the voice to depict meaning, often in contexts where other means of communication may be much less efficient or effective. Whether it’s during lindy hop learning sessions (as in Leelo Keevallik‘s work) or band practice (as in Agnes Löfgren‘s data), in professional choreography rehearsals (as in Johanna Skubisz‘ work) or in everyday interaction in Siwu (as in my work on ideophones), people use vocal depictions —often in multimodal ensembles— to evoke perceptual experiences and coordinate bodily behaviour.

One thing all kinds of vocal depictions have in common is that they show rather than tell. It is incredibly hard to tell a dancer to execute a movement in a certain way; it is much easier to show it, either by means of a bodily demonstration or by means of gestural and vocal depictions. Or to take an example from my own research in Ghana, it is quite hard to explain how you can visually tell a real batch of gunpowder from a counterfeit one, but if you manage to depict its particular sheen using using gestures and an ideophone like kɛlɛŋkɛlɛŋkɛlɛŋ (as in example 11.11 here), you can go a long way.

Depictions construe a likeness or a replica of some sensory scene (Clark 2016), making aspects of it more directly accessible and manipulable than would be the case if the scene was merely described in arbitrary words. This is what makes them useful in a wide range of communicative contexts. In my own work on creative vocal depictions (PDF) I mentioned settings as diversified as storytelling, joint work in animation studios, and interaction in music and dance lessons. During the workshop we saw further examples from band practice, choreography rehearsals, multilingual conversations, and doctor-patient interaction. This diversity of contexts brings home the versatility of depiction as a communicative practice.

Versions of the ‘same’ thing are analytical rich points

Some of the richest opportunities for analysis come from cases where the interaction provides multiple versions of some behaviour designed to represent ostensibly the same scene. For instance, in Agnes Löfgren‘s extract from a band rehearsal, we heard a bass player convey (to the drummer) a particular rhythmic structure he had in mind for this piece. The bass player produced at least four versions of ostensibly the same content. The versions can be seen as escalations or upgrades, in part shaped by the drummer’s responses which ranged from ‘isn’t that what I’m doing now’ to ‘alright okay’ to ‘I don’t see it yet’ to ‘like it actually gets kind of cool’:

  1. a prose description (‘so it’s like you play fou- a four against our three’)
  2. a depiction in syllables (du du ka du du ka du ka) with the foot doubling as bass drum
  3. a short rhythmic phrase played on the bass, soon abandoned
  4. an actual demonstration on the drum set

Cases like this raise many intriguing questions, some inspired by Clark & Gerrig’s (1990) classic work on quotations as demonstrations. How do we decide between  modalities (or combinations of modalities) in designing depictions? What determines the ordering of strategies seen in successive pursuits? What is the role of recipient design in choosing one over another strategy? How do we select the aspects of a scene that we are going to depict, and how do we map these to the depictive means at hand? How is the design of our depictions shaped and constrained by the affordances of meaning and modality? And so on.

We saw more examples in Leelo Keevallik’s lindy hop data. In one memorable case, a lindy hop learner asks a question about a possibly problematic element of a dance move, referring to it using the creative vocal depiction “zup↑pum↑”. The teachers decide to show rather than tell by actually executing the moves, and in synchrony with this they produce vocalisations that depict some of the rhythmic and kinetic aspects of the dance — including a piece that structurally is recognisable (for us analysts as well as, presumably, for the learner asking the question) as the relevant referent of “”zup↑pum↑”. Also during the dance, the other teacher produces ‘nonlexical’ syllables like chigi digi digi in sync with the beat and with his movements, and after completing the dance, adds, “So yeah, it’s just a nice little jigijigijigi‘, simultaneously depicting some of the kinetic aspects of the dance in voice and hands.

Versions of ostensibly the same thing are crucial because they give us more material to work with if we want to understand the link between the depiction and the depicted scene — often a challenge not just for the analyst but also for the recipient in interaction. Versions give us analytical purchase in two key ways: they show multiple iterations of ostensibly the same action, and if we’re lucky, they also give us multiple takes on the material by the recipient, providing crucial interactional evidence of the success or failure of depictive stretches of behaviour.

One type of useful interactional evidence is when different participants provide takes on ostensibly the same scene that demonstrate (rather than just claim) their understanding or expertise. With ideophones, I have found that when one participant produces an ideophone evoking a scene (e.g., munyɛmunyɛ ‘sparkling’), in second position another participant may then produce another ideophone (e.g., gelegele ‘shiny’) as if to say, I agree with you, and here is how see it. This is where vocal depictions in interaction touch on matters of epistemics and authority.

A key challenge when working with creative depictions is that it can be hard for the analyst to even know what they are supposed to depict. Here, another type of interactional evidence can be particularly useful: when a recipient formulates their understanding of the depiction. In my talk at the workshop I discussed a case from my study on creative vocal depictions where one person’s creative ideophone kpaw is followed by the other’s interpretation in next turn: “the gun didn’t go off”:

  1. A:  lopɛ↑kpaw↑
         I fired ↑kpaw↑
  2.      (1.2)
  3. B:  kùdu leiba inɔ̀
         the gunpowder didn’t go through
  4. A:  kùdu leiba- kɔ
         the gunpowder didn’t go- gee!

What B does in line 3 is take A’s creative depiction and formulate an understanding of it in descriptive terms. This is analytically very useful, because it saves us the trouble of speculating what the depiction was supposed to evoke. B’s interpretation is ratified by A when he repeats it and continues the telling.

It is kind of wonderful that we can create and interpret vocal depictions just like that.  What cases like this show is that interactional evidence can help us crack some of the most intriguing questions about creative vocal depictions. Their interpretation is scaffolded by context, supported by people’s familiarity with (conventional) depictive strategies, and ratified in interaction by these kinds of understandings.

(An interesting boundary case comes from Hannah Pelikan‘s work on interaction with a Nao robot. She recorded games of charades. Nao would produce a pre-programmed ‘depiction’ (e.g. playing a plane sound and visually imitating wings with arms) and a participant would produce a verbal guess, which was then treated as right or wrong by Nao depending on a pre-programmed set of answers. Hannah’s data shows that people
are pretty graceful even when perfectly reasonable guesses are dismissed by Nao, and rapidly adapt to the limited agency displayed by the robot. What’s potentially interesting here is that we could get multiple takes on what is guaranteed to be the exact same depiction. Holding one side of the equation still, as it were, to see what the other, more flexible human side makes of it. However, due to the restricted format of the charades game, usually there was only one guess and no opportunities for redress.)

In closing

One thing that is so fascinating about marginalia is the combination of relatively common occurrence with a striking lack of systematic attention from linguists and interaction researchers. It means that there are lots of things still to find out about some of the most fundamental aspects of how we use language, and how language is shaped by and for social interaction. In the next installment I’ll explore some other themes from the workshop, focusing on the question: what does it mean to call something “non-lexical”?


  • Clark, Herbert H., and Richard J. Gerrig. 1990. “Quotations as Demonstrations.” Language 66 (4): 764–805.
  • Clark, Herbert H. 2016. “Depicting as a Method of Communication.” Psychological Review 123 (3): 324–47. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000026.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2014. “Making New Ideophones in Siwu: Creative Depiction in Conversation.” Pragmatics and Society 5 (3): 384–405. https://doi.org/10.1075/ps.5.3.04din.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2017. “On the Margins of Language: Ideophones, Interjections and Dependencies in Linguistic Theory.” In Dependencies in Language, edited by N. J. Enfield, 195–202. Berlin: Language Science Press. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.573781.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2010. “Bodily Quoting in Dance Correction.” Research on Language & Social Interaction 43 (4): 401–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/08351813.2010.518065.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2014. “Turn Organization and Bodily-Vocal Demonstrations.” Journal of Pragmatics, A body of resources – CA studies of social conduct, 65 (May): 103–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2014.01.008.

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!

Making and breaking iconicity

Making and breaking iconicity was the theme of a plenary lecture I gave at the 6th conference of the Scandinavian Association for Language and Cognition (SALC VI) in Lund. Here’s the opening slide:

Research on iconicity and sound symbolism has long focused on how iconic associations are made — finding universal crossmodal associations using pseudowords like bouba and kiki, and trying to understand what makes ideophones (and aspects of sign language) iconic and how they may help learning. This is great, but to understand underlying processes, we also need to understand what happens when we break iconicity. When you break a system (carefully, in a controlled way), you can get a new view of its internals. We need more work on breaking iconicity. What makes it dissipate from the lexicon? Which cues do we need to remove to make ideophones harder to guess? What happens to learning if we mess with the link between form and meaning? Under which circumstances is iconic sensitivity disrupted? Is iconicity more ‘broken’ in some people than in others, and what can we learn from individual differences? If we want to understand the linguistic mechanisms and cognitive processes involved in lexical iconicity, breaking iconicity is as important methodologically as making it.

When preparing this lecture, I noticed my own destructive streak: a lot of recent work by me and collaborators can be construed as focusing not just on making, but also breaking iconicity to understand underlying processes and mechanisms. A selection (bibliographic details and more papers here):

  1. In a corpus study of Japanese, we found that ideophones lose their prosodic foregrounding (and thereby a significant part of their iconic cues) when they become more deeply integrated in the utterance.
    (Akita & Dingemanse 2016 Journal of Linguistics PDF)
  2. In a corpus study of Siwu, I found that frequently used ideophones are more likely to lose their expressive prosody, syntactic independence, and iconic features, essentially turning into ordinary words over time
    (Dingemanse 2017 STUF — Language Typology and Universals PDF)
  3.  In a forced choice task with 203 ideophones from 5 languages, we found that iconicity in ideophones becomes nearly impossible to detect when you remove either segmental or prosodic cues, showing it relies on both. We basically tried to see how much was left of iconicity when you strip away various features of the signal. (Dingemanse, Schuerman, Reinisch, Tufvesson, Mitterer 2016 Language PDF)
  4. In a bouba/kiki task comparing people with and without dyslexia, we found that dyslexia disrupts sound-symbolic sensitivity, implicating cross-modal abstraction processes. (Drijvers, Zaadnoordijk & Dingemanse 2015 CogSci Proceedings PDF)
  5. In a learning study, we found that Japanese ideophones become harder to learn when you present them with their opposite meanings, breaking iconic links. This was not the case for adjectives, supporting their arbitrariness and by implication the iconicity of ideophones (Lockwood, Dingemanse & Hagoort 2016 JEP:LMC PDF)
  6. In a replication of the learning study with added EEG measures, we found consistent differences in the time course of neural signatures that fit with what others have found for multisensory integration, and that co-varied with independently assessed sound-symbolic sensitivity. I personally think that tapping into individual differences to find out what makes and breaks iconicity is one of the most promising ways forward for studies of iconicity. (Lockwood, Hagoort & Dingemanse 2016 Collabra PDF)

Here’s to more work trying to break iconicity!