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

Feedback

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

Evolving words — now on DLC

“A struggle for life is constantly going on among quotations in academic writings. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue.”

Sounds familiar? Perhaps because it’s a variation on a bon mot attributed to Charles Darwin that you may have seen in any of a range of recent papers on how language evolves.

Darwin on Müller on Schleicher: "A struggle for life is constantly going on"

Darwin on Müller on Schleicher: “A struggle for life is constantly going on among the words and grammatical forms in each language.”

I just published a brief piece on this mutant quotation over at Diversity Linguistics Comment, the group blog initiated by Martin Haspelmath. Read it here.

*Grammatically judgements

I stumbled on a paper which is titled (according to the journal metadata and countless secondary sources) Grammatically Judgments and Second Language Acquisition. Read again if you didn’t spot the grammatically error in there.

I was just about to add it to my Zotero collection of articles with recursive titles when I decided to check whether it was really true — and alas, it was not. If you open the PDF (or look up the good old printed issue) you find that the title is actually spelt correctly.

*Grammatically judgements

No *grammatically judgements in this title

Dang! Well, good for the author that his title doesn’t feature such an embarrassing error. Even so, in these digital times, a metadata error like this reflects almost just as badly on authors, and may be just as hard to fix when it’s been propagated long enough through official channels (even with the DOI you end up with the wrong title). It’s long been known  that Google Scholar can be hopeless and misleading when it comes to metadata, but where’s our hope if even the journal themselves can make errors like this?

As a typo, “grammatically” for “grammaticality” is common enough, but it occurs mainly in miscitations by others of works like Schütze’s (1996) monograph on methodology. Below I provide the correct references for the studies cited in this posting. Hopefully.

*Edit: Gaston Dorren points out that I introduced another mutation in the title: adding an “e” in judgement. This is due to the fact that I’m most accustomed to British spelling, where judgement is more common than judgment. I’ll leave it like this for posterity.

References

  1. Ellis, Rod. 1991. “Grammaticality Judgments and Second Language Acquisition.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition 13 (02): 161–186. doi:10.1017/S0272263100009931.
  2. Fischer, Carolyn. 2001. “Read this paper later: procrastination with time-consistent preferences.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 46 (3): 249–269. doi:10.1016/S0167-2681(01)00160-3.
  3. Fromkin, Victoria A. 1975. “A linguist looks at ‘a linguist looks at “schizophrenic” language’.” Brain and Language 2: 498–503. doi:10.1016/S0093-934X(75)80087-3.
  4. Schütze, Carson T. 1996. The Empirical Base of Linguistics: Grammaticality Judgments and Linguistic Methodology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Magritte on Words and Images (PDF)

La trahison des images (Magritte 1928-1929)

La trahison des images (René Magritte)

Magritte’s best known work by far is of course his drawing of a pipe with the text Ceci n’est pas une pipe. He made several versions over the years, but the work originated in 1928 or 1929. The title Magritte gave to this painting is La trahison des images — the treachery of images.

Less well known is the fact that in the same year, Magritte published an intriguing article in the surrealist journal La révolution surréaliste, entitled Les mots et les images. This article shows that the phenomenon so playfully taken up in La trahison des images was only one element of a larger set of problems in verbal and visual representation occupying Magritte. Here’s the first page:

Magritte 1929, p. 32

Magritte,  1929, Les mots et les images, p. 32

Magritte’s article offers 18 panels dealing with different aspects of the relation between words, images, and reality. As a succinct overview, it is extremely effective. I have used it in my own work to clarify the distinction between depiction and description.

While Magritte’s 18 sketches have been reproduced in several places (e.g. French version, English version), the original is somewhat hard to find on the interwebs. Which is why I’m sharing it here. Use the JPG versions below, or download the PDF here. Enjoy!

References

Magritte, René. 1929. “Les Mots et les Images.” La Révolution surréaliste 12: 32–33. (PDF)

Description and depiction

Note to readers: A version of this argument has been written up and published as:
Dingemanse, Mark. 2015. “Ideophones and reduplication: Depiction, description, and the interpretation of repeated talk in discourse.” Studies in Language 39 (4): 946–970. doi:10.1075/sl.39.4.05din (PDF).

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