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 definitionsNew paper out: 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. doi:10.1075/clu.17.09din (PDF)

Bruner on language learning

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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 American1 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.

References

  • 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.
  1. Shameless self-promotion alert: linguistics still makes its occasional appearance in the pages of SciAm — see our 2014 piece Universal social rules underlie language, Scientific American Mind, 25, 64-69 (PDF). []

Conceptual Foundations of Language Science publishes its first book

Two months ago we started a new book series with the innovative open access publisher Language Science Press: Conceptual Foundations of Language Science. We’re proud to announce that the series published its first book this week. The book, Natural causes of language is introduced here by Nick Enfield:

You can download your own copy of the book directly from Language Science Press: http://langsci-press.org/catalog/book/48. If you prefer a print copy, you can order one through Amazon.

About the series

Conceptual Foundations of Language Science publishes short and accessible books that explore well-defined topics in the conceptual foundations of language science. The series provides a venue for conceptual arguments and explorations that do not require the traditional book-length treatment, yet that demand more space than a typical journal article allows. Books in the series are peer-reviewed, ensuring high scholarly quality; and they are open access, ensuring universal availability.

The editorial board of the series spans the full diversity of the language sciences, from phonology to syntax and semantics, from grammar to discourse, and from generative to functional and typological approaches to language: Balthasar Bickel (University of Zürich), Claire Bowern (Yale University), Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen (University of Helsinki), William Croft (University of New Mexico), Rose-Marie Déchaine (University of British Columbia), William A. Foley (University of Sydney), William F. Hanks (University of California at Berkeley), Paul Kockelman (Yale University), Keren Rice (University of Toronto), Sharon Rose (University of California at San Diego), Frederick J. Newmeyer (University of Washington), Wendy Sandler (University of Haifa), and Dan Sperber (Central European University, Budapest).

Two basic ideas underlie the series. The first is that in times of empirical advances and methodological innovations, it is especially important to be clear and explicit about conceptual foundations. As we write in the series blurb, “In language science, our concepts about language underlie our thinking and organize our work. They determine our assumptions, direct our attention, and guide our hypotheses and our reasoning. Only with clarity about conceptual foundations can we pose coherent research questions, design critical experiments, and collect crucial data.”

The second idea is to take advantage of the affordances of open access publishing and step in a market gap left by commercial publishers. As we explain: “Traditional publishers tend not to publish very short books. The reasons are economic. With open-access, the problem does not arise. One benefit of the short format is that the book is accessible and quickly readable. Another is that authors will find writing such a book attractive because it is manageable, given the usual time constraints, especially for more senior authors.”

Do you have an idea for a book, or do you have a manuscript which would fit the goals of the series? Consider submitting it to Conceptual Foundations of Language Science. You’ll find further information on the website. Also check out Language Science Press, the visionary open access publishing house that hosts our series as well as a dozen others.

Hockett on arbitrariness and iconicity

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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 signages1 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.

  1. This could be what Hockett means to use; the term appears again further on. But given the context it also could be a typo for “sign language”. []

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

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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’

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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)