Farewell, Mr. Ideophone: William J. Samarin (1926-2020)

William John Samarin (photo University of Toronto)

I note with sadness that William J. Samarin has passed away in Toronto on January 16, 2020 at the age of 93. An all too short obituary notes that he was “known for his work on the language of religion and on two Central African languages: Sango and Gbeya”.

In linguistics, Samarin was of course also known for his extensive work on ideophones, playful and evocative words with sensory meanings. Only a few years after his Berkeley PhD he published a short and visionary paper on “African ideophones” (1966) that foreshadowed many of the themes that would occupy him in the next decades. A string of empirical and theoretical papers followed that brought new élan to the study of ideophones by dramatically extending the methodological toolbox and the kinds of topics studied, from lexical semantics to sociolinguistic variation, and from semantic typology to the use of ideophones in insults.

I have worked on the topic of ideophones a little over a decade now, and Samarin was always there in the background. He was there in the form of his formidable oeuvre, but also through active correspondence we kept up until halfway 2018. In this blog I want to share some personal recollections as well as some unpublished notes by Samarin about how he came to the study of ideophones.

Incidentally, we didn’t start off very well. In early 2010, when I first wrote to him as a wide-eyed grad student sharing a half-baked draft of a paper, he wrote back with stern (and justified) advice:

You see that if were your supervisor, I would be giving you a hard time about your generalizations. … Make sure that you are being as hard on yourself as you are (or might be) on others. (Samarin, personal communication, March 2010)

Several of my early interactions with Samarin were like this, and his bluntness was fairly intimidating to a PhD student in love with ideophones. Our exchanges led me to seriously rethink my rhetorical approach, placing more emphasis on theoretical foundations and methodological choices, and being as gentle and constructive as possible — in line with his advice to be “as hard on yourself as you are (or might be) on others”. This is why the acknowledgements of my PhD thesis note that “Samarin in particular has been highly sceptical at one point, and helpfully so”.

In late 2011, I sent him a hard copy of my thesis, a 400 page tome that he received in good spirits. This marked a change in our interactions, as he started to treat me more like a peer than a clueless grad student. In a message acknowledging receipt of the thesis, he fondly recalled how he used to be called “Mr Ideophone” at Leiden University, where he spent part of his sabbatical in 1966-1967:

Considering myself to be one of the pioneers in the study of ideophones (Jan Voorhoeve used to call me Mr Ideophone!), I am so pleased that they finally are getting the attention they deserve. They are the dramatic aspect of everyday speech, and speech should not be reduced to formulas and diagrams. (Samarin, personal communication, October 2011)

In later years, I would send drafts and papers to him knowing that they would get a tough but fair reading; and I would get the occasional email from him asking to look up an academic article not available in his library. His criticism remained as blunt and direct as ever, which made his rare notes of appreciation all the more precious.1

Samarin on ideophones

In one of our exchanges I asked Bill how he got involved in the study of ideophones. He responded, “since you asked me how I got on to studying  ideophones I decided to write a bit of autobiography for my archives.” I don’t know whether this bit of autobiography actually appears in his archives, so I share it here for posterity:

My serious study of ideophones arose from the fact that grammarians were not taking them seriously in African languages. They were even trivialized. This puzzled me because I found that they were used frequently in everyday discourse in all kinds of circumstances in the Gbaya (Gbeya) language which I began to analyze and learn in February 1954. Some of them I heard rather often, others rarely, but I could not ignore them if I wanted to speak the language in the same way Gbayas in northwestern Ubangi-Shari spoke it. I was using the language all day long, almost to the exclusion of Sango, in the Bossangoa district, most of whose population spoke mutually intelligible varieties of Gbaya. … Besides, they were curious words (like kpiti kpiti, with high tones) and hard to define.

But it was after I had written my grammar of the language in 1961 that I undertook to study them as a worthy topic in African linguistics. Naturally, the first thing was to read what had been said about them. This meant perusing grammars. Fortunately, I was a visiting professor at the University of Leiden in 1966-1967. There were plenty of grammars there, also at School of African Studies in London and at the Hartford Seminary Foundation, where I was teaching. (Henry Alan Gleason Jr had been librarian there, making an effort to acquire literature for graduate study in linguistics.)

Following our departure from the Central African Republic in 1960 I made several trips back for further work on Sango. These gave me the opportunity to sneak in some systematic study of Gbaya ideophones, like the one where I tape-recorded descriptions of someone making a clay pot in Sango and in Gbaya. I had more opportunity for study in Leiden, where my assistant was a Gbaya young married man. And in December 1972 my wife and I spent two weeks in the village of Bowai once again working on ideophones.

By this time my focus was on trying to demonstrate that Gbaya ideophones were authentic words that could (and should) be entered in a dictionary, not ephemeral and spontaneous idiolectal creations. And by this time one was able to analyze data with a computer, at that time with punched cards. For a while, therefore, I was working on the origin and development of Sango with my right hand and ideophones with my left one. A fire destroyed my computer data at the university, but there are many tape recordings in my archives at the University of Toronto. (Samarin, personal communication, January 2016)

The papers Samarin published in this period include important methodological contributions (Samarin 1967, 1970a, 1971a), a wide-ranging piece on expressive language (Samarin 1970b), and a comprehensive literature review of work on ideophones in Bantu (Samarin 1971b). I have built on Samarin’s work in several of my papers, but I don’t think a comprehensive appraisal of his methodological and theoretical to the study of ideophones is available. That is beyond the scope of this blog, however.

Rewards beyond words

Samarin and I were last in touch in 2018, when I wrote to him with a note of appreciation about his 1998 autobiographical essay (Samarin 1998). That essay contains the following gem which seemed to me entirely typical of Samarin’s poetic sensibilities and attention to detail:

If you have seen the full moon rising out of the deep sands that surround
Timbuctoo dwarfing the sky as well as earth in its clarity and brilliance while you are drinking mint tea with some Tamachek-speaking ‘Blue People,’ you will have experienced some rewards beyond words and sharing. If you are sensitive to such beauty, of course. It is given to us who study language to have rewarding experiences, sometimes of simple pleasure, sometimes of ‘spiritual’ if not of almost transcendental significance.

I have just teased a young girl going the opposite way by remarking that whereas she had a parasol to protect herself from the sun, what could I do without one. About fifteen feet away from me she stops and says, ‘Kà ga mu ma’, and I am overwhelmed with information and sensations: I hear the first word in a construction where I wouldn’t have expected it; I notice that she does not use the determinant ‘ni’ with the meaning ‘it;’ I enjoy the precise stepping up of pitch from low to mid to high and the abrupt falling to low again as she tells me, with no twinkle of coquetry on her lips, but with the spontaneous generosity of a well-reared African child: ‘So come take it.’ This is an imperishable and complex vignette. It illustrates the reward of being able to talk Sango and use it appropriately with another human being. (Samarin 1998:27)

I wrote to Bill to say I was touched by this vignette — it is such an eloquent representation of that quintessential fieldworkers’ feeling of belonging. It captures something very deep and real about the privilege of taking part in other linguistic and social worlds. It also brings out the always-on analytical mindset of the fieldworker, for whom being in the moment is always puncuated by meta-observations. Field work, for me, is very much about that liminal state between ‘other’ and ‘insider’, never fully one or the other, yet enough of both to feel oddly detached-yet-grounded.

In writing back, Bill shared another biographical fact that few people may know: his involvement as a linguistics expert in an International Criminal Court case about atrocities in Bangui (his expert testimony concerned the possibility of recognizing the Congolese origin of the perpetrators on the basis of their accents). He ended his message, characteristically, with a note of appreciation about field work that will resonate strongly with many linguists and anthropologists.

It was kind of you to comment on my professional memoir. I especially was pleased by your having perceived the emotion I had in recalling that experience with the little girl, which is repeated every time I recall it. She responded to my lighthearted remark with maturity, self-confidence, kindness, and trust, a lot more than many adults would have done. I should have interrupted my walk back home to go with her in the opposite direction to continue with a conversation.

You put your finger on the feeling of “belonging.” That’s what brought tears when I was testifying before the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2011. (A Congolese general was being tried for what his soldiers did in Bangui.) The love I have for Central Africans welled up in me. … Field work gives us the opportunity to be enriched and blessed in many ways. (Samarin, personal communication, April 2018)

Besides working on ideophones, Samarin made important contributions to the fields of contact linguistics, field linguistics, and the study of glossolalia. I hope someone more qualified than me will write a comprehensive academic obituary. Here, I have just highlighted some of his pioneering contributions to the study of ideophones, which his work helped make not merely respectable but also exciting and relevant to the broader language sciences.

Samarin prided himself in being nicknamed Mr. Ideophone by Jan Voorhoeve in the 1960s. His lasting intellectual legacy may be that he helped prepare the field for contributions by a much wider range of scholars, so that today there is no longer a single “Mr” or “Ms” or “Mx” Ideophone, but a broad network of diverse researchers working together. Farewell, Mr. Ideophone!

References cited

A good amount of Samarin’s work is available in the University of Toronto’s T-SPACE repository. In 2018, Samarin sent me a overview of his papers, presentations, and research projects which I will publish in a separate post as it provides a good overview of his work from his own point of view. Here are the papers cited above:

  • Samarin, W. J. (1965). Perspective on African ideophones. African Studies, 24(2), 117–121.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1967). Determining the meaning of ideophones. Journal of West African Languages, 4(2), 35–41.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1970a). Field procedures in ideophone research. Journal of African Languages, 9(1), 27–30.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1970b). Inventory and choice in expressive language. Word, 26, 153–169.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1971a). Measuring variation in the use of Gbeya ideophones. Annales de L’Université d’Abidjan, Ser. H, 2, 483–488.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1971b). Survey of Bantu ideophones. African Language Studies, 12, 130–168.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1998). C’est passionnant d’être passionné. In E. F. K. Koerner (Ed.), First person singular III: Autobiographies by North American scholars in the language sciences (pp. 187–226). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  1. About my Glossa review, he wrote: “It was thoughtful of you to inform me of the publication in ‘Glossa’ of your “chronological narrative” about ideophones. But you are being too modest: the essay is much more than that; it’s a ‘white paper’ or template for the study of this phenomenon that you so clearly describe from different points of view. It’s as if you were holding a handful of ore in you palm that contained a lot of gold. (…) Carry on with your good work. Bill.” []

Integrating Iconicity: session at ICLC15

I’m happy to co-convene a session to take place at the International Cognitive Linguistics Conference in Nishinomiya, Japan. The session and general discussion will be chaired by Thomas van Hoey (National Taiwan University) and Jonas Nölle (University of Edinburgh) and has a diverse roster of speakers.

  • Friday August 9, Room 301, 13:15 to 17:25
  • Speakers: Thomas Schwaiger, Thomas van Hoey & Chiarung Lu, Mutsumi Imai & Junko Kimura, Alexandra Ćwiek et al., Andrew Smith & Stefan Hoefler, Jonas Nölle et al., and Irene Mittelberg.
  • Quick overview of the session (PDF) or
  • Full abstracts and author info in the online conference programme

Integrating Iconicity: recent work and future directions

The study of iconicity —the resemblance  or simulation-based mapping of form and meaning— is seeing a renaissance across the language sciences (Perniss et al. 2010; Svantesson 2017). Studies of signed and spoken languages show the importance of iconicity alongside other organizing principles in lexical and grammatical structure, learning experiments shows how iconicity may help word learning and rely on widespread cross-modal associations, the study of natural discourse organization demonstrates how theatrical staging of action plays a fundamental role, and work in experimental semiotics reveals the affordances and limitations of iconicity in the origin and evolution of communication systems (Fay et al. 2014; Perniss & Vigliocco 2014; Winter et al. 2017; Ferrara & Hodge 2018).

With growing interest in iconicity there is also a growing need to clarify its place in the larger  network of the language sciences (Dingemanse et al. 2015). While it may be rhetorically attractive to cast iconicity as slayer of the dogma of arbitrariness or solution to the enigma of language evolution, ultimately its explanatory power must be positioned relative to (and in interaction with) other known principles of linguistic organisation such as frequency, economy, conventionality, or systematicity; and its roles in learning and communication must be understood in relation to factors like multimodality, embodiment, and intersubjectivity.

This session is devoted to the theme of integrating iconicity. It brings together current work on the varied roles of iconicity in linguistic organisation and communication, with a special focus on linking recent findings from iconicity research to insights from comparative and cognitive linguistics. The session features empirical and theoretical contributions from across the language sciences. Themes covered include typology, semiotics, language evolution, reduplication, sensitivity to sound-symbolism, and embodiment.

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!

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):

Ideophones, expressiveness and grammatical integration

Ideophones —vivid sensory words found in many of the world’s languages— are often described as having little or no morphosyntax. That simple statement conceals an interesting puzzle. It is not often that we can define a word class across languages in terms of its syntax (or lack thereof). After all, most major types of word classes show intriguing patterns of cross-linguistic variation. There is no particular reason to expect that the morphosyntactic position or degree of embedding of, say, noun-like or verb-like words will be similar across unrelated languages. Indeed that is why typologists define comparative concepts primarily by reference to semantic rather than grammatical or morphosyntactic properties (Croft 2003; Haspelmath 2007).  Continue reading

Sound symbolism boosts novel word learning: comparing ideophones and adjectives

We have a new paper out. It’s actually been available since February in an online-first version, but for those of us who love page numbers and dead trees, the journal has now printed it in its August issue on pages 1274-1281. Citation:

Lockwood, G., Dingemanse, M., & Hagoort, P. (2016). Sound-symbolism boosts novel word learning (PDF). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42(8), 1274-1281. doi:10.1037/xlm0000235

This is another one for which we’ve made available the stimuli —word lists and sound files— through OSF, contributing to our mission to make research from our lab replicable. Also, we have since replicated the results in a follow-up study where we also took EEG and individual difference measures.

I provide a quick summary in 2×3 points below. For a write-up that’s much more fun and has great illustrations, check out Gwilym Lockwood’s Sound symbolism boosts novel word learning: the MS Paint version. Continue reading

What sound symbolism can and cannot do: new paper in Language

What sound symbolism can and cannot doWe have a new paper out in Language:

Dingemanse, Mark, Will Schuerman, Eva Reinisch, Sylvia Tufvesson, and Holger Mitterer. 2016. “What Sound Symbolism Can and Cannot Do: Testing the Iconicity of Ideophones from Five Languages.” Language 92 (2): e117–33. doi:10.1353/lan.2016.0034

The basic finding is this: people are sensitive to the meaning of ideophones they’ve never heard, even when they are produced out of context by a computer voice in a difficult forced choice task. Yet there is also reason for caution: the effect is not nearly as strong as what people have found for pseudowords like bouba and kiki.

As we note in the introduction, “there appears to be a tendency to either underplay or exaggerate the significance of iconicity in the study of language and mind”. In this paper we chart a middle way between these extremes. Here’s a quick summary in 3×3 points:

What we did:

  1. Sound symbolism (iconicity in spoken language) is usually studied using hand-crafted pseudowords in binary forced choice experiments (think bouba and kiki, as reviewed here), but there are three problems with such experimental designs: (i) they run the risk of inflating effect sizes, (ii) it is unclear how they relate to natural languages, and (iii) they usually don’t control for prosody.
  2. We designed a study to tackle these problems by (i) adjusting the binary choice task to be more realistic and harder, (ii) using real words and meanings from natural languages, and (iii) teasing apart prosody and segmental features. Essentially, we bring linguistic insights to bear on the psychological study of sound symbolism.
  3. We take 203 ideophones —lexical sound-symbolic words— from 5 languages and 5 semantic domains and present them to 80 participants in 4 versions: (i) full original recording, (ii) full speech synthesized version, (iii) prosody-only condition and (iv) phonemes-only condition. The versions help us control for variation due to different speakers and help us examine the contributions of prosody and segmental features.

What we found:

  1. People can choose the correct translation of ideophones at a level significantly above chance. So ideophones in Japanese, Korean, Semai, Ewe and Siwu are not fully arbitrary, as is normally assumed of words; they contain iconic cues that even people who don’t speak these languages can pick up.
  2. Sound ideophones are easiest to guess, but the other semantic domains (movement, texture, color/visual appearance, and shape) come out significantly above chance as well. However, the effect is much more modest than most bouba/kiki studies: in the best versions, people score 57.2% on average (where 50% would be chance level) — quite different from the 95% that has sometimes been claimed for pseudoword studies.
  3. Performance for the original and resynthesised stimuli is indistinguishable, so our speech synthesis method works. Performance is significantly better for the full versions (i-ii) than for the reduced versions (iii-iv), so both prosody and phonemes contribute to the effect (and neither alone is sufficient).

What we conclude:

  1. Findings based on pseudowords like bouba/kiki cannot be automatically translated into claims about natural languages. Ideophones combine iconicity and arbitrariness, and lexical iconicity in ideophones is best characterised as a weak bias, which is supported by multimodal performances in actual use and which may be amplified in cultural evolution (cf our TiCS paper).
  2. Prosody is just as important as segmental information in supporting iconic interpretations (as predicted here). Prior work, which has rarely controlled for prosody, likely overestimates the role of speech sounds and underestimates the role of intonation, duration and other prosodic cues.
  3. Speech synthesis offers a viable way to achieve experimental control in the study of sound symbolism. To stimulate its wider use we’re making available all stimulus materials, including the diphone synthesis source files we used to create them. Get them at MUSE or OSF.
Here’s the abstract:

Sound symbolism is a phenomenon with broad relevance to the study of language and mind, but there has been a disconnect between its investigations in linguistics and psychology. This study tests the sound-symbolic potential of ideophones—words described as iconic—in an experimental task that improves over prior work in terms of ecological validity and experimental control. We presented 203 ideophones from five languages to eighty-two Dutch listeners in a binary-choice task, in four versions: original recording, full diphone resynthesis, segments-only resynthesis, and prosody-only resynthesis. Listeners guessed the meaning of all four versions above chance, confirming the iconicity of ideophones and showing the viability of speech synthesis as a way of controlling for segmental and suprasegmental properties in experimental studies of sound symbolism. The success rate was more modest than prior studies using pseudowords like bouba/kiki, implying that assumptions based on such words cannot simply be transferred to natural languages. Prosody and segments together drive the effect: neither alone is sufficient, showing that segments and prosody work together as cues supporting iconic interpretations. The findings cast doubt on attempts to ascribe iconic meanings to segments alone and support a view of ideophones as words that combine arbitrariness and iconicity. We discuss the implications for theory and methods in the empirical study of sound symbolism and iconicity.

Arbitrariness, iconicity and systematicity in language

arbicosysJust out in Trends in Cognitive Sciences: a review paper by yours truly with Damián Blasi, Gary Lupyan, Morten Christiansen and Padraic Monaghan. It is titled “Arbitrariness, iconicity and systematicity in language”. You can download it here (PDF). Here is a simple summary:

An important principle in linguistics is that words show no predictable relation between their form and their meaning (arbitrariness). Yet this principle does not have exclusive reign. Some words have forms that suggest aspects of their meaning (iconicity). Some groups of words have subtle statistical properties that give away something about their grammatical function (systematicity). To fully explain how words work, we need to recognise that the principle of arbitrariness is not the whole story, and that words can additionally show degrees of iconicity and systematicity.

Here is are six take-away points:

  1. Often, arbitrariness is thought to be not just necessary but also sufficient to explain how words work. We show this is not the case: non-arbitrary patterns in language are more common than assumed, and they have implications for how we learn, process and use language.
  2. Often, arbitrariness and iconicity are pitted against each other. We show this is an oversimplification: iconic words have a degree of arbitrariness and the two do not exclude each other.
  3. Often, the role of iconicity in language is thought to be minimal. We show that it can differ dramatically across languages and also varies as a function of meaning and modality (e.g. signed or spoken).
  4. Sometimes, iconicity and systematicity have been confused. We show that distinguishing them helps us to better understand vocabulary structure, by showing why we may expect iconicity to show certain universal patterns while systematicity allows more language-specific patterns.
  5. Sometimes, we may forget that words are not abstract ideas but tools that have their own history. We argue that the way words are learned and used influences their form, and that this may help explain how arbitrariness, iconicity and systematicity pattern the way they do.
  6. Sometimes, language scientists make far-reaching claims based on studying a small portion of the vocabulary, or a small number of (typically Western) languages. We argue that we can get a better picture of language by looking at a wider range of evidence.
Dingemanse, Mark, Damián E. Blasi, Gary Lupyan, Morten H. Christiansen, and Padraic Monaghan. 2015. “Arbitrariness, Iconicity and Systematicity in Language.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 19 (10): 603–15. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.07.013.