Expressiveness and system integration

Just a heads-up to let interested readers know of a newish article on the morphosyntactic typology of ideophones by yours truly: Expressiveness and system integration. On the typology of ideophones, with special reference to Siwu (PDF). Completed in May 2012, it has been peer reviewed and accepted, and is due to appear in a special issue of Language Typology and Universals, though the special issue editor tells me that it may, regrettably, take another while before it actually comes out.

Expressiveness and system integration

Deideophonisation and ideophonisation on the expressiveness and system integration continuum

Anyway because this is now being referred to in numerous places I have decided to make the pre-preprint available here. The basic approach is to exploit corpus data on the morphosyntactic variation of ideophones within a language to shed light on some larger questions in the morphosyntactic typology of ideophones. Some of the proposals of possible interest to typologists include the following:

  • an inverse correlation between morphosyntactic integration and various expressive features (the more syntactically independent an ideophone is, the more susceptible it is to the typical processes of expressive morphology and prosodic foregrounding)
  • a functional explanation of the inverse correlation (ideophones are prototypically syntactically independent to help signal their status as depictions of sensory imagery; this also explains their common occurrence at utterance edge)
  • a generalisation about ideophone morphosyntax in relation to frequency (higher frequency ideophones tend to be easier to integrate into morphosyntax, a Zipfian effect that may have to do with the erosive role of frequency)
  • a prediction with regard to the areal diffusion of ideophones (to the extent that ideophones are typically characterised by a low degree of morphosyntactic integration, this should increase their borrowability)
  • a scalar conception of the differences between ideophone systems across  languages (looking at morphosyntax and expressive morphology allows us to state more explicitly what makes the ideophone system of Somali different from that of Siwu and these two different again from Semai)

Enjoy. Here’s to hoping the article won’t take too long to appear in print. I’ve already been working with Kimi Akita on an exciting follow-up project testing some of these proposals quantitatively on Japanese corpus data.

  1. Dingemanse, Mark. accepted. “Expressiveness and system integration. On the typology of ideophones, with special reference to Siwu.” STUF – Language Typology and Universals (special issue).

Ideophones in Bakairi, Brasil, 1894

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

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

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

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


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

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, 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!

A poster on ideophones

No matter how large or complex a PhD thesis, it should be possible to present an outline of the main argument on a simple poster. On that note, here’s a 1-page summary of some of the key findings from my thesis on the meaning and use of ideophones.

The occassion is a festive one: I’ve been awarded the Otto Hahn Medal from the Max Planck Society at their Annual Meeting in Potsdam. After receiving the medal, laureates were given the opportunity to present a poster summarising their research.

The Meaning and Use of Ideophones (poster)

Poster: The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu (click to enlarge)

Is this really a 1-page summary of a 300+-page thesis? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that the basic argument for ideophones as depictive words, and depiction as a significant strategy in language use, is key to the thesis. No in the sense that the poster makes no mention of the sketch grammar of Siwu or of the chapters on ideophones and iconicity, folk definitions, the language of perception tasks, the use of ideophones in special genres, the creation of ideophones, and the relation between ideophones and gesture.

For this poster I’ve picked the sorting task (diagrams visualise well) and the qualitative corpus analysis. It would be easy to make four different posters all making a similar kind of argument but using different empirical evidence. That is precisely the approach I’ve taken in the thesis: looking at ideophones from different perspectives and using different methods to arrive at a holistic understanding of the phenomenon.

Description and depiction

Depiction is a technical term used in psychology, philosophy, and art history, but less so in linguistics. One of my claims about ideophones is that they are best understood (typically, canonically, with the customary provisos about the fluid categories of natural language) as depictive words. Do we really need a term like that? Can’t we make do with good old ‘expressive’ or ‘vivid‘? No, I say. But what then is this elusive concept of depiction? How can we tell that something is intended as a depiction? What is depiction, such that we can distinguish it from other modes of representation? In answering these questions, it is useful to make a distinction between the signals that frame something as a depiction on the one hand, and the aspects of depiction as a mode of representation on the other hand. But let’s start with something more basic: words and images.

Words versus images

There is a domain where distinct modes of representation are very important and very clear: that of visual representations, in particular written words versus images. Take the following slide (from one of my presentations), with on the left a sentence involving le soleil “the sun” and on the right an image of the sun. (Bonus points for those who see whose handwriting that is.) The claim here is a simple one: that the left and the right side involve two distinct modes of representation.

Description and depiction

Description and depiction (Mark Dingemanse)

I’m guessing most readers will agree with at least this basic distinction. What we call this distinction doesn’t matter a lot, but I call it, following the literature, “description” versus “depiction”. More important than the labels are the ways in which the phenomena differ. On the slide above, a first opposition is between propositional vs. imagistic. This is in a way restating the same point (see Kosslyn 1980 for more details), so I’ll focus on the remaining three. There are three key differences that help us to deductively distinguish depictions from descriptions: descriptions differ from depictions (1) in terms of symbol system they use (using discrete symbols vs. using gradient markings), (2) in terms of form-meaning mappings (basically arbitrary vs. basically iconic), (3) in terms of how we interpret them (“decode” to interpret vs. “imagine” to interpret).

Words as images

Words can't describe! (toothpaste for dinner)

Words can’t describe! (toothpaste for dinner)

Without even having started worrying about ideophones, this is a distinction that we need to make. It’s a distinction that is motivated on independent grounds. Words are different from images in their mode of representation, and we find a number of clear differences between the descriptive and depictive modes of representation.

The next step of my argument consists simply in noting that precisely those three key ways in which descriptions differ from depictions (in the visual mode) are also ways in which plain words differ from ideophones (in spoken language). Ideophones tend to use more gradient and discrete symbol systems; their form-meaning mappings tend to be more iconic than arbitrary; and to interpret them, we “imagine” more than we “decode” (Dingemanse 2011, 2012). Of course these differences are not absolute; in my thesis I have pointed out, for instance, that convention (and hence decoding) also plays an important role in depiction. After all ideophones are conventionalised words and not creative formations — most of the time.

When I say that ideophones are depictions, this is a statement about their mode of representation. It is more about a way some thing can be than about the thing itself. Take the sun. That’s a pretty good ‘thing’. Now take the two representations of the sun shown above. Even those representations are tangible ‘things’, in the sense that we can talk about them, point at them, isolate them (as I do on the slide above). But the way in which those two representations differ, that is their mode of representation. It is about the way something can represent something else. That is the sense in which I call an image of the sun and an ideophone in spoken language a depiction.  Continue reading

AVT/Anéla Dissertation Award 2012

The Meaning and Use of Ideophones (2011)

The Meaning and Use of Ideophones (2011)

This weekend, at the annual Taalgala ceremony in Utrecht, I was awarded the AVT/Anéla Dissertatieprijs 2012 for my dissertation The Meaning and Use of Ideophones in Siwu. For this prize, jointly presented by the Dutch Society for General Linguistics and the Dutch Association for Applied Linguistics, an independent jury selects the best dissertation in linguistics in The Netherlands in 2011.

Competition was fierce, and I feel greatly honoured that the jury unanimously choose my thesis on account of its “high scores in terms of methodology, crafsmanship, originality and clarity of reporting”. They also wrote of the thesis that it is “an exceptionally thorough piece of work, very well written and accessible to a degree rarely exhibited in dissertations in linguistics”. Whew!  Continue reading

Two recent studies of ideophones in the Americas

Asheninka Perene speaker (from the ELAR archive)

A quick heads up to note the publication of two nice studies of ideophones by Americanists Janis Nuckolls (BYU) and Elena Mihas (James Cook University).

The first, by Janis Nuckolls, is “Ideophones in Bodily Experiences in Pastaza Quichua (Ecuador)“. It appeared in the proceedings of STLILLA 2011. The latest iteration in a long and fruitful line of work on ideophones by Janis Nuckolls, it analyses verb-ideophone collocations with a special emphasis on embodied meaning.

The second, by Elena Mihas, is “Ideophones in Alto Perené (Arawak) from Eastern Peru“, published in Studies in Language. I’m very excited about this study because it presents a lot of brand new data, both on the ideophone system of Alto Perené and on the ideophone systems of a couple of closely related languages.

  1. Nuckolls, Janis B. 2012. “Ideophones in Bodily Experiences in Pastaza Quichua (Ecuador).” Proceedings of STLILLA 2011. (PDF)
  2. Mihas, Elena I. 2012. “Ideophones in Alto Perene (Arawak) from Eastern Peru.” Studies in Language 36 (2): 300–344. doi:10.1075/sl.36.2.04mih

Advances in the cross-linguistic study of ideophones

Just out: a review of ideophone research by yours truly, titled Advances in the cross-linguistic study of ideophones, published in Language and Linguistics Compass. This article focuses on some recent developments in ideophone research. Some of the things it offers include a cross-linguistically viable definition of ideophones; an argument for why ideophones are structurally marked; a review of how ideophones depict sensory imagery; some tools for developing a semantic typology of ideophones; an implicational hierarchy of ideophone systems; and an argument for studying ideophones in actual use rather than just in narratives.

The review doesn’t say much about the morphosyntactic typology of ideophones because there will be another publication coming out on precisely that topic (‘Expressiveness and system integration‘, in STUF – Language Typology and Universals); and it doesn’t say much about ideophones and gesture because there is a chapter on that in my thesis (as well as forthcoming publications).

What’s wrong with “vivid”? The evolution of a definition

A "vivid" butterflyIdeophones, like so many things in life, are easy to identify but hard to define. Many researchers have grumbled about the shortcomings of Doke’s descriptive characterization of ideophones (see discussion here), but few have attempted to formulate an alternative. For better or worse, I did, but it took me a few iterations to arrive at something that I felt worked well enough to be useful in cross-linguistic research. One of these iterations featured the word “vivid”, but I’ve since dropped it. Why? Continue reading