Hockett on arbitrariness and iconicity


Charles F. HockettCharles Hockett had interesting views on the relation between iconicity and arbitrariness. Here is a key quote:

The difference of dimensionality means that signages can be iconic to an extent to which languages cannot; and they are, even though, as Frishberg (1975) tells us, the trend in Ameslan for over a century has been towards more and more conventionalization.

Now, while arbitrariness has its points (see, e.g., Hockett 1960a, p. 212), it also has drawbacks (Hewes, ANYAS, p. 495), so that it is perhaps more revealing to put the difference the other way around, as a limitation of spoken languages.

Indeed, the dimensionality of signing is that of life itself, and it would be stupid not to resort to picturing, pantomiming, or pointing whenever convenient. (Even when speaking we do this: for example, we utter a demonstrative such as there, which indicates relative distance but not direction, and supplement it by a pointing gesture that indicates direction but not distance.)

But when a representation of some fourdimensional hunk of life has to be compressed into the single dimension of speech, most iconicity is necessarily squeezed out. In one-dimensional projection, an elephant is indistinguishable from a woodshed. Speech perforce is largely arbitrary; if we speakers take pride in that, it is because in 50,000 years or so of talking we have learned to make a virtue of necessity (cf. Hill 1972, pp. 313-15).

Linearity means that single devices must serve multiple functions, whereupon structural ambiguity becomes par for the course (see C. R. Peters, Origins, pp. 83-102). We hear Carbon fourteen, Strontium ninety; out of context, we do not know whether this is mention of two radioactive isotopes, or a roadside marker giving the distance to two towns on the road ahead, or the final score in the game between Carbon Free Academy and Strontium Senior High. 

It is such ambiguities, forced by limited dimensionality if by nothing else, that have given rise to the- notion of “surface versus deep structure,” which Stokoe evokes for the remark of which the present paragraph is an expanded paraphrase-his trenchant observation (ANYAS, p. 510) that in sign, as over against speech, “surface and depth more nearly coincide.” (pp. 264-5)

Hockett, C. F. 1978. “In Search of Jove’s Brow.” American Speech 53 (4): 243–313. doi:10.2307/455140.

Universal Social Rules Underlie Languages

Illustration by James Yang

© James Yang

The September/October issue of Scientific American MIND features an article written by me and N.J. Enfield entitled “Universal Social Rules Underlie Languages”. We review recent research on conversation across cultures, including work on turn-taking, timing, and other-initiated repair.

Scientific American MIND is a psychology/brain-themed offshoot of the well-known Scientific American magazine. We’re proud to publish in the pages of this journal!

If you are a SciAm subscriber, you can find our article online here. If you’re at a university or a research institution, you can probably also access it via the DOI. And if you’re neither of those, check out our author’s offprint (PDF).

Von Humboldt on depiction in speech


Wilhelm-von-HumboldtWhere moderation is not utterly overstepped, the wealth of sound in languages can be compared to coloration in painting. The impression of both evokes a similar feeling; and even thought reacts differently if, like a mere outline, it emerges in greater nakedness, or appears, if we may so put it, more coloured by language.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, On language, page 80. Originally published in 1836.

Von Humboldt, Wilhelm. 2000. On language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species. Trans by. Peter Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Malinowski on observing ‘performance’


There is no doubt, from all points of sociological, or psychological analysis, and in any question of theory, the manner and type of behaviour observed in the performance of an act is of the highest importance. Indeed behaviour is a fact, a relevant fact, and one that can be recorded. And foolish indeed and short-sighted would be the man of science who would pass by a whole class of phenomena, ready to be garnered, and leave them to waste, even though he did not see at the moment to what theoretical use they might be put!

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts Of The Western Pacific. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Malinowski in a carefully staged photograph (see here for an insightful analysis)

Malinowski in a carefully staged photograph (see here for an insightful analysis)


How to paint with language

Words evolve not as blobs of ink on paper but in face to face interaction. The nature of language as fundamentally interactive and multimodal is shown by the study of ideophones, vivid sensory words that thrive in conversations around the world. The ways in which these “Lautbilder” enable precise communication about sensory knowledge has now for the first time been studied in detail. It turns out that we can paint with language, and that the onomatopoeia we sometimes classify as childish might be a subset of a much richer toolkit for depiction in speech, available to us all and in common use around the globe.

[Written for the Max Planck Jahrbuch 2013. A German version, translated by Gunter Senft, appeared here and in Scinexx Magazine.]


Few professions should be more familiar with the nature of words than academia. Words are the currency of our trade. They record our cumulative progress, and they measure our productivity as we disperse our ideas through articles and books. How easy is it to fall in love with the printed word, black symbols on a white page, tidy spaces separating units of thought like stars dotting the skies of conceptual clarity!

How different are our everyday ways with words. We roll them on our tongues as we speak, whisper, or exclaim. They become pliable as we perform, prolong, and repeat them. We colour them with fine shades of meaning as we exert control over pitch, intensity, and duration. We masterfully integrate them with gestures and facial expressions into what linguists call composite utterances (Enfield 2009). For a long time all of these things were cordoned off as paralanguage: not the real thing, but a side show detracting us from the incisiveness of an idealised formal language. In the philosopher Frege’s musings on language, aesthetic delight and the striving for truth are in direct opposition.

However, this view is fast becoming outdated as linguists increasingly realise that the written word is a poor model for our true communicative competence. Language evolved in a much richer environment, and it has always done more for us than just deliver disembodied information. We use language to build social relations, to relate our experiences and to express our stances. We do not just inform, we also perform. This calls for a renewed study of how words work.


Often the best way to develop a fresh view of one’s field of study is to radically change one’s starting point. Linguists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics do this by collecting new data on languages far afield. In the Language & Cognition Department, researchers carry out sustained fieldwork in over twenty locations across the globe. Over the last few years, there have been several in-depth studies of a type of words known as ideophones. Characterised as “vocal images”, these words are probably the best approximations of painting in speech. They were long seen as exotic, out-of-the-way words, but new research shows that they are ubiquitous in conversations across the globe, and used in unforeseen ways.

Ideophones are words whose form is suggestive of their meaning. Familiar examples include English kerplop and boom or German holterdipolter and tick-tack. But whereas in European languages, these words tend to be small in number and limited mainly to imitating sound, many of the world’s languages have hundreds or even thousands of ideophones, covering a much broader range of sensory meanings. Take tuŋjil-tuŋjil ‘bobbing, floating’, ulakpulak ‘unbalanced scary appearance’ and c’onc’on ‘woven tightly’ from Korean; or dhdŋɔh ‘appearance of nodding constantly’, praduk pradɛk ‘noises of scattered small drops of rain’ and grɛ:p ‘crispy sound’ from Semai, a language of peninsular Malaysia; or mukumuku ‘mumbling mouth movements’, fũɛ̃fũɛ̃ ‘elastic, flexible’ and kpɔtɔrɔ-kpɔtɔrɔ ‘walking like a tortoise’ from Siwu, a language of eastern Ghana (Dingemanse 2012).

Durch Video-Aufnahmen fremder Sprachen – hier Unterhaltung beim Herstellen von Palmöl in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Ghana, – analysieren die Wissenschaftler alltägliche Gespräche, in denen Lautmalereien vorkommen.

Linguists investigate the communicative uses of ideophones and gestures by making video-recordings of everyday social interaction — here, conversations during the making of palm-oil in Akpafu, Ghana. (Photo: Mark Dingemanse)

When studying video recordings of conversations in such languages, one sees that these words, with their peculiar forms and colourful meanings, are not spoken like ordinary words. They are delivered as performances. They bring to life the events in ways that ordinary words never do. Observing them in use, we get a sense of what the linguist and psychologist Karl Bühler meant when he wrote, “If there were to be a vote on who is more richly equipped with resources, the painter with colours or the painter with the voice, I would not hesitate to give the second my vote” (Bühler 1934).


How can we paint with speech? In the ideophone systems of the world’s languages, there are three basic ways in which speech is used to depict sensory imagery — three types of iconicity (Dingemanse 2012). The first is to imitate sound with sound, as in English boom ‘sound of explosion’. This is called direct iconicity. It is the most simple way, but also the most limited. After all, not all events involve sound. What all events do have is internal temporal structure. This is where the second method comes in: the structure of words may resemble the structure of events. Bühler recognised this when he noted that words may be “Gestalt faithful” to the events they represent. Therefore we call this type Gestalt iconicity. For instance, words can be prolonged to evoke duration, closed syllables can evoke end points, and repeated syllables can evoke repetition — as in several of the examples given above. Third, and finally, sometimes similar words are used for similar events. Take the three Semai words grɛ:p ‘of chewing fruit’, gra:p ‘of chewing crisps’, grɨ:p ‘of chewing cassava’. They share a common template gr_p which we can characterise as ‘crispy sound’ (Tufvesson 2011). Because related words map onto related meanings, we call this type relative iconicity. Together, these three ways of suggesting meaning are part of the word painter’s toolkit. They allow depictive words like ideophones to form perceptual analogies of events.

But how does one know that some stretch of speech is intended as an ideophone —a vocal image— rather than an ordinary word? Comparative research shows that languages converge on remarkably similar ways to do this. For instance, across languages, ideophones sound special because they exhibit certain liberties relative to other words. They have a wider range of possible syllable structures and word forms, and they are remarkably susceptible to playful word formation processes like reduplication and lengthening. In spoken utterances, they stand out because they show a great measure of syntactic independence and they tend to be delivered as an intonation unit of their own. Last but not least, in many languages, ideophones are introduced by quotative markers or “say” or “do” verbs, emphasizing their performative nature. All of these features work together to mark ideophones as depictions, much as the frame around a painting tells us to interpret it as a painting and not as the wallpaper.


Researchers of the Language & Cognition Department are studying ideophones in a number of fieldsites. They use specially designed stimulus materials to study how these words encode sensory perceptions (Majid and Levinson 2011). They make high quality video and audio recordings of everyday conversations to understand how people use these words in face to face interaction — the kind of setting in which language evolved and keeps evolving. In the course of this research it has become clear that ideophones are far from the stylistic flourishes that people once took them to be. They are dedicated sensory words, on a par with industry-designed sensory vocabularies in terms of their structure and coverage of sensory spaces (Dingemanse and Majid 2012). They are used to communicate expert knowledge during joint work and to share and interpret experiences in storytelling. In languages which have thousands of ideophones, they are seen as the ultimate sign of eloquence.

Every challenge represents an opportunity. Ideophones challenge us to innovate theory and methods, encouraging us to move away from a view of language limited by ideologies or traditions to a perspective that is informed by as wide a range of data as possible. In the end, it should come as no great surprise that depiction may be just as important as description in linguistic life. Even our own findings are not communicated just in abstract words. We illustrate them with gestures and visualise them in figures and diagrams. There is truth, then, to the saying that an image says more than a thousand words. But what we may have overlooked was that our words have been peppered with images all along.

Speech tends to come together with gesture. Here, a speaker clearly makes a point.

Speech tends to come together with gesture. Here, a speaker clearly makes a point. (Photo: Mark Dingemanse)


  • Bühler, Karl. 1934. Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: G. Fischer.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2012. “Advances in the cross-linguistic study of ideophones.” Language and Linguistics Compass 6 (10): 654–672. doi:10.1002/lnc3.361.
  • Dingemanse, Mark, and Asifa Majid. 2012. The semantic structure of sensory vocabulary in an African language. In Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, ed. N. Miyake, D. Peebles, and R. P. Cooper, 300–305. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
  • Enfield, N. J. 2009. The Anatomy of Meaning: Speech, Gesture, and Composite Utterances. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Majid, Asifa, and Stephen C. Levinson. 2011. “The Senses in Language and Culture.” The Senses and Society 6 (1): 5–18.
  • Tufvesson, Sylvia. 2011. “Analogy-making in the Semai Sensory World.” The Senses and Society 6 (1): 86–95. doi:10.2752/174589311X12893982233876.

Taal in de reageerbuis

Gek op cross-overs van kunst en wetenschap, muziek en experiment? Ik ook. Daarom organiseer ik met mijn collega’s Tessa Verhoef en Seán Roberts een experiment op het Discovery Festival in Amsterdam — hét festival voor interessante kruisbestuivingen, rare muziek, en nieuwe experimenten. Ons experiment is vermomd als game en, afgaand op de pilots die we al gedaan hebben, erg verslavend.

Logo Taal_in_de_Reageerbuis

We noemen het “Taal in de reageerbuis” en dat nemen we vrij letterlijk. Proefpersonen krijgen van ons een tablet in handen gedrukt, een koptelefoon voor het geluid, en mogen via een app —een virtuele reageer-buis— met elkaar communiceren. En daar kunnen ze trouwens geen taal bij gebruiken die ze al kennen. Ze moeten dus from scratch een nieuwe taal bouwen — een minitaaltje dat evolueert over de duur van het experiment. Dat proces bestuderen wij om zo meer te leren over hoe taalevolutie werkt in echte talen.

De primeur is komende vrijdag op het Discovery Festival in Amsterdam. Een week later kun je ons vinden op het Weekend van de Wetenschap in het Universiteitsmuseum Utrecht. Zie taalindereageerbuis.nl voor meer informatie.

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).

Waarom roep je ‘au’ bij plotselinge pijn?

Waarom au?

Is het echt “au” en niet iets anders? (illustratie Frank Landsbergen)

Voor het Kennislink Vragenboek beantwoordde ik de vraag: “Waarom roep je ‘au!’ bij plotselinge pijn?”. Dat is kennelijk een vraag die nogal leeft, want vorig jaar stelde Labyrint radio me dezelfde vraag en dit voorjaar was het raak op Hoe?Zo! radio. Daarom hier, als service voor zoekers, tweeters en andere au-gefascineerden, mijn antwoord.

In deze vraag zitten twee vragen verborgen. Voor een helder antwoord kunnen we die het beste opbreken:

(1) Waarom roepen we als we pijn hebben?

(2) Waarom roepen we ‘au!’ en niet iets anders?

Bij de eerste vraag zijn we in het gezelschap van een hoop andere dieren. Kreten van pijn komen door heel het dierenrijk voor. Waarom? Darwin, die in 1872 een boek schreef over emoties in mens en dier, dacht dat het samenhing met de sterke spiersamentrekkingen  die bijna elk dier vertoont bij een pijnscheut — een geritualiseerde versie van het zich bliksemsnel onttrekken aan een pijnlijke stimulus. Maar dat brengt ons nog niet veel verder: waarom zou de mond daarbij open moeten gaan? Onderzoek sindsdien heeft uitgewezen dat kreten in het dierenrijk ook communicatieve functies hebben: bijvoorbeeld om soortgenoten te alarmeren bij gevaar, om hulp te roepen, of om zorgend gedrag op te wekken. Die laatste functie begint al in de eerste seconden van ons leven, wanneer we het op een huilen zetten en onze moeder ons zorgzaam in de armen neemt. Baby’s, en trouwens de jongen van veel dieren, hebben hele repertoires aan verschillende kreten. In die repertoires is de pijnkreet —de uitroep bij een acute pijnbeleving—altijd duidelijk herkenbaar: een plotseling begin, een hoge intensiteit, en een relatief korte duur. Hier zien we al de contouren van ons “au!”. En daarmee komen we aan bij het tweede deel van de vraag.

Waarom au en niet iets anders? Eerst moeten we de vraag kritisch bekijken. Is het echt nooit anders? Zeg je au als je op je duim slaat of is het “aaaah!”? In het echt is er flink wat variatie. Toch is de variatie is niet oneindig. Niemand roept bibibibibi of vuuuuu in plotselinge pijn. Pijnkreten zijn variaties op een thema. Dat thema begint met een “aa” vanwege de vorm van ons spraakkanaal bij wijd open mond, en klinkt als “aau” als de mond daarna weer snel naar een dichte stand beweegt. Het woordje “au” vat dat thema prima samen. Daarmee hebben we meteen een belangrijke functie van taal te pakken. Taal helpt ons om ervaringen die nooit volledig hetzelfde zijn toch als soortgelijk te beoordelen. Dat is handig, want als we het willen hebben over “iemand die au roept” hoeven we niet de kreet precies te imiteren. In die zin is au een talig woord en geen kreet meer. Is au dan ook in alle talen hetzelfde? Bijna, maar niet helemaal, want elke taal gebruikt zijn eigen inventaris van klanken voor het beschrijven van de pijnkreet. In het Duits is het “au!”, een Engelsman zegt “ouch!”, en voor iemand uit Israel “oi!” — althans zo schreef Byington in 1942 in één van de eerste vergelijkende studies van uitroepen van pijn.

Ieder van ons komt ter wereld met een repertoire van kreten, en leert daarbovenop een taal. Die taal maakt dat we meer kunnen dan het uitschreeuwen — we kunnen er ook over praten. Gelukkig maar, want anders was er van dit antwoord niets terecht gekomen.

Dit stukje schreef ik als bijdrage aan het Kennislink Vragenboek, onder redactie van Sanne Deurloo en Anne van Kessel. Je kunt de gepubliceerde versie van het stuk hier lezen (PDF).

On “unwritten” and “oral” languages

The world’s many endangered languages are often characterized as “unwritten” and “oral” languages. Both of these terms reveal the language ideologies still implicit in many academic approaches to language: “unwritten” defines by negation, revealing a bias towards stable, standardized abstractions of communicative behaviour (away from a dynamic conception of situated talk-in-interaction); and “oral” defines by exclusion, revealing a bias towards the vocal-auditory channel (away from the multi-modal, fully embodied nature of face to face interaction). How much of our research today is unwittingly shaped by these implicit biases?

Better science through listening to lay people

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

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

Hyperlinks for material mentioned

Convenors and speakers


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