Firth on the analysis of conversation (1935): sequence and social accountability

Here are some insights from J.R. Firth in 1935 that offer an interesting early outlook on language use in social interaction. Firth (1890-1960) was an expert in phonetics and prosody, but always stressed the importance of the larger context in which words and utterances occurred. In this piece, he turns to conversation as a source of insight about language:

Neither linguists nor psychologists have begun the study of conversation; but it is here we shall find the key to a better understanding of what language really is and how it works.

Firth’s observations appear in the course of a methodological commentary on the problem of polysemy in lexicography and in language learning. His proposal is to let context contribute to a solution. As he notes, while “situations are infinitely various”, still “Speech is not the “boundless chaos” Johnson thought it was.” (p. 66). He continues:

Conversation is much more of a roughly prescribed ritual than most people think. Once someone speaks to you, you are in a relatively determined context and you are not free just to say what you please. We are born individuals, but to satisfy our needs we have to become social persons, and every social person is a bundle of rôles or personae

As Firth observes, in conversation, you are not free to say what you please. Instead, what has been said before shapes and constrains your options, and what you say similarly shapes and constrains what happens further on. When conversation analysts today talk about accountability, this is essentially what they mean. Further, an important aspect of constraints on what is said derives from the need to manage social roles and personae: Goffman avant la lettre.

Further on in the paper, Firth foreshadows notions like sequential structure and conditional relevance, which have come to occupy a key place in conversation analysis:

The moment a conversation is started, whatever is said is a determining condition for what, in any reasonable expectation, may follow. What you say raises the threshold against most of the language of your companion, and leaves only a limited opening for a certain likely range of responses. This sort of thing is an aspect of what I have called contextual elimination. There is a positive force in what you say in a given situation, and there is also the negative force of elimination both in the events and circumstances of the situation and in the words employed, which are of course events in the situation.

Again, the words “reasonable expectation” implicitly invoke a notion of accountability. Here Firth goes further into the idea of prior speech providing ‘determining conditions’ for what is sayable next. Take a polar question: it expects, invites (or as conversation analysts say, makes relevant) a limited range of answers, one type of which is preferred. The ‘limited opening for a certain likely range of responses’ is a proto-version of what conversation analysts have come to call conditional relevance and preference.

Firth’s observations on the structuring of conversation go beyond simple behavioristic conceptions like response probability and ‘behavior under the control of some stimulus’ (Skinner). His discussion captures the role of social accountability as well as the probabilistic aspects inherent in language use. His notion of ‘contextual elimination’ captures the sense in which one’s contribution to conversation shape and constrain what happens downstream without uniquely determining it.

While this paper is widely cited in corpus linguistic circles and in the Firth/Halliday tradition, Firth’s observations on conversation have rarely been drawn attention to, and there is as far as I know no direct historical connection between them and later insights developed in the field of conversation analysis, which started a few decades later in California with Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson. So this is likely a case of scholars reaching the same kind of conclusions independently — a powerful reminder of what can happen if we don’t assume conversation is messy and irregular, and instead sit down and take conversation for what it is: the primary ecology of language use, and one of the best places to gain new insights about the nature of language.

Firth, J. R. 1935. “The Technique of Semantics.” Transactions of the Philological Society 34 (1): 36–73. doi:10.1111/j.1467-968X.1935.tb01254.x.

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!

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.

Folk Definitions in Linguistic Fieldwork

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

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

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

Bruner on language learning


Jerome Bruner (who turns 100 today!) writes in his 1983 autobiography (emphasis in original):

“How puzzling that there should be so much emphasis … on the underlying genetic program that makes language acquisition possible and so little on the ways in which the culture, the parents and more “expert” speakers (including other, older children) help the genetic program to find expression in actual language use. The educational level of parents deeply affects how well, richly and abstractly their children will talk (and listen). It is not just the grammar of sentences that is at issue, but discourse, dialogue, the capacity to interpret spoken and written language.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that the need to use language fully as an instrument for participating in a complex culture (just as the infant uses it to enter the simple culture of his surround) is what provides the engine for language acquisition. The genetic ‘program’ for language is only half the story. The support system is the other half.”

Three decades later, proposals for the other half, what Bruner calls “the engine of language acquisition”, have become increasingly well-articulated and supported by rich empirical data (cf., for instance, all the research reviewed in Tomasello’s (2008) Constructing a language). But the two halves (genetic underpinnings and cultural scaffolding) are still not regularly talking to each other. Indeed they’re frequently pretending that the other half has no story at all… Why?

Bruner, Jerome S. 1983. In Search of Mind: Essays in Autobiography. Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Series. New York u.a: Harper [and] Row.

Pragmatic Typology: invited panel at IPrA 2015 in Antwerp

Together with Giovanni Rossi I’ve organised an invited panel at the 14th International Pragmatic Conference in Antwerp, July 2015. Contributors include Jörg Zinken & Arnulf Deppermann; Sandy Thompson & Yoshi Ono; Stef Spronck; Giovanni Rossi, Simeon Floyd, Julija Baranova, Joe Blythe, Mark Dingemanse, Kobin Kendrick & N.J. Enfield; Ilana Mushin; and Mark Dingemanse. More information here.

IPRA Pragmatic Typology Panel

Hockett on open-mindedness in the language sciences

Hockett's design features (1960 version)Charles F. Hockett (1916-2000) is well-known for his work on the design features of language. Many linguists will know his 1960 article in Scientific American in which thirteen design features are nicely illustrated (though Hockett himself preferred the more developed 1968 version co-authored with Altmann).

Hockett worked in many areas of linguistics, from phonology to morphology and from linguistic anthropology to semantics. One of his later books — which I came across while doing research for our new book series Conceptual Foundations of Language Science — has the intriguing, slightly cumbersome title  “Refurbishing our Foundations: Elementary Linguistics from an Advanced Point of View”.

In this book, written towards the end of a long career, Hockett takes a birds’ eye view of the field of linguistics and presents his own perspective, which is often sensible, sometimes a bit idiosyncratic, and always interesting. The introduction is pleasantly constructive, in contrast to some other approaches (Hornstein, “Against open-mindedness” comes to mind). Hockett’s observations on the “eclipsing stance” are as relevant today as they were three decades ago. So here is Hockett on open-mindedness:

No one in any culture known to us denies the importance of language. Partly because it is important, partly just because, like Mount Everest, it is there, we should like to know how it works. To that end, people from time immemorial have examined it or speculated about it, trying to come up with cogent commentary.

What one sees of language, as of anything, depends on the angle of view, and different explorers approach from different directions. Unfortunately, sometimes they become so enamored of their particular approach that they incline to scoff at any other, so that instead of everybody being the richer for the variety, everybody loses. That attitude has been called the “eclipsing stance.”

The early followers of Noam Chomsky adopted this stance, but they were by no means the first: some of us post-Bloomfieldians came close to it in the 1940s (though Leonard Bloomfield himself never did), and so, apparently, did the Junggrammatiker in the late 1870s. But it is a wrong position to take, even toward those who have themselves assumed it. It is obviously impossible to see all of anything from a single vantage point. So it is never inappropriate to seek new perspectives, and always unseemly to derogate those favored by others. Or, to use a different figure: the blind man touching the tail has reason to say an elephant is like a rope, but no right to claim an elephant is not also like a wall or a tree-trunk or a snake.

I don’t mean we shouldn’t be critical. I do mean we should try to be most wary just of those propositions that we ourselves hold, or have held, closest to our hearts — above all, those we come to realize we have been taking for granted. Scientific hypotheses are formulated not to be protected but to be attacked. The good hypothesis defends itself, needing no help from enthusiastic partisans.


  • Hockett, Charles F. “The Origin of Speech.” Scientific American 203, no. 3 (1960): 89–96.
  • Hockett, Charles F., and Stuart A. Altmann. “A Note on Design Features.” In Animal Communication: Techniques of Study and Results of Research, edited by Thomas Sebeok, 61–72. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.
  • Hockett, 1987, Refurbishing our Foundations. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.