Sounding out ideas on language, vivid sensory words, and iconicity


  • Pitfalls of fossil-thinking: a peer review II
    This is a the second part in a two part series of peer commentary on a recent preprint. The first part is here. I ended that post by noting I wasn’t sure all preprint authors were aware of the public nature of the preprint. I am now assured they are, and have heard from the … Read more
  • Pitfalls of fossil-thinking: a peer review I
    One of the benefits of today’s preprint culture is that it is possible to provide constructive critique of pending work before it is out, thereby enabling a rapid cycle of revision before things are committed to print. I have myself benefited from comments on preprints, and have acknowledged such public pre-publication reviews in several of … Read more
  • Putting interaction centre-stage
    I’ve been taking part (virtually) in a workshop today at the Cognitive Science conference in Sydney entitled “Putting interaction center-stage for the study of knowledge structures and processes”. Kicking off the workshop, my own contribution was a summary of our Beyond Single-Mindedness manifesto. This was followed by Nick Enfield, who argued that concepts are necessarily … Read more
  • Opening up ChatGPT: Evidence-based measures of openness and transparency in instruction-tuned large language models
    With the first excitement of ChatGPT dying down, people are catching up on the risk of relying on closed and proprietary models that may stop being supported overnight or may change in undocumented ways. Good news: we’ve tracked developments in this field and there are now over 20 alternatives with varying degrees of openness, most … Read more
  • How robots become social: A comment on Clark & Fischer
    — by Mark Dingemanse & Andreas Liesenfeld, Radboud University Nijmegen Clark & Fischer propose that people see social robots as interactive depictions and that this explains some aspects of people’s behaviour towards them. We agree with C&F’s conclusion that we don’t need a novel ontological category for these social artefacts and that they can be … Read more
  • Consolidating iconicity research
    Readers of this blog know that I believe serendipity is a key element of fundamental research. There is something neatly paradoxical about this claim. We might like ‘key elements’ to be plannable so that we can account for them on budgets and balance sheets. But here is an element that I think can make a … Read more
  • At the smallest scale of human interaction, prosocial behavior follows cross-culturally shared principles
    We have a new paper out in which we find that people overwhelmingly like to help one another, independent of differences in language, culture or environment. This is a surprising finding from the perspective of anthropological and economic research, which has tended to foreground differences in how people work together and share resources.
  • New paper – What do we really measure when we measure iconicity?
    It’s a common misconception that iconicity or sound symbolism is universal, perpetuated in part by the almost universal success of famous experiments involving pseudowords like bouba and kiki. But iconicity in natural languages is much more messy than paradigms like bouba-kiki suggest. Which begs the question, what do we really measure when we measure iconicity? This is what our new paper investigates.
  • Playing with R: unrolling conversation
    A lot of our recent work revolves around working with conversational data, and one thing that’s struck me is that there are no easy ways to create compelling visualizations. In the Elementary Particles of Conversations project we’re aiming to change that. Here’s a sneak peek.
  • Malinowski (1922) on Large Language Models
    It’s easy to forget amidst a rising tide of synthetic text, but language is not actually about strings of words, and language scientists would do well not to chain themselves to models that presume so. For apt and timely commentary we turn to Bronislaw Malinowski
  • Mindblowing dissertations
    We don’t generally see PhD dissertations as an exciting genre to read, and that is wholly our loss. As the publishing landscape of academia is fast being homogenised, the thesis is one of the last places where we have a chance to see the unalloyed brilliance of up and coming researchers. Let me show you using three examples of remarkable theses I have come across in the past years.
  • Beyond Single-Mindedness
    No mind is an island (after John Donne). In a new piece, we make the case for putting interaction at the heart of cognition. This represents a figure-ground reversal for the cognitive sciences, which traditionally have focused on single minds.
  • On Bakhtinians
    Perhaps only those who haven’t read Bakhtin can call themselves true Bakhtinians: the ideas have to reach you and influence you through a polyphony of other texts and people.
  • We zijn al lang elders
    NRC vraagt zich af of wetenschappers hun werk blijven delen op twitter en vindt op twitter maar liefst 7 fervent twitterende wetenschappers die desgevraagd bevestigen nog op twitter te blijven.  Twitter is inderdaad van belang geweest voor de wetenschap, maar het lijkt vooral de journalistiek te zijn die nog aan het twitterinfuus ligt. Het geweldige collectief WO in Actie ontleende een deel … Read more
  • Thinking visually with Remarkable
    Sketches, visualizations and other forms of externalizing cognition play a prominent role in the work of just about any scientist. It’s why we love using blackboards, whiteboards, notebooks and scraps of paper. Many folks who had the privilege of working the late Pieter Muysken fondly remember his habit of grabbing any old piece of paper … Read more
  • Monetizing uninformation: a prediction
    Over two years ago I wrote about the unstoppable tide of uninformation that follows the rise of large language models. With ChatGPT and other models bringing large-scale text generation to the masses, I want to register a dystopian prediction. Of course OpenAI and other purveyors of stochastic parrots are keeping the receipts of what they … Read more
  • Talk, tradition, templates: a meta-note on building scientific arguments
    Reading Suchman’s classic Human-machine reconfigurations: plans and situated actions, I am impressed by her description David Turnbull’s work on the construction of gothic cathedrals. In brief, the intriguing point is that no blueprints or technical drawings or even sketches are known to have existed for any of the early modern gothic cathedrals, like that of … Read more
  • Over-reliance on English hinders cognitive science
    Been reading this paper by @blasi_lang @JoHenrich @EvangeliaAdamou Kemmerer & @asifa_majid and can recommend it — Figure 1 is likely to end up in many lecture slides Naturally I was interested in what the paper says about conversation. The claim about indirectness in Yoruba and other languages is sourced to a very nice piece … Read more
  • A serendipitous wormhole into the history of Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis (EMCA)
    A serendipitous wormhole into #EMCA history. I picked up Sudnow’s piano course online and diligently work through the lessons. Guess what he says some time into the audio-recorded version of his 1988 Chicago weekend seminar (see lines 7-11) [Chicago, 1988. Audio recording of David Sudnow’s weekend seminar] We learn too quickly and cannot afford to … Read more
  • Sometimes precision gained is freedom lost
    Part of the struggle of writing in a non-native language is that it can be hard to intuit the strength of one’s writing. Perhaps this is why it is especially gratifying when generous readers lift out precisely those lines that {it?} took hard work to streamline — belated thanks! Interestingly, the German translation for Tech … Read more
  • The perils of edited volumes
    Ten years ago, fresh out of my PhD, I completed three papers. One I submitted to a regular journal; it came out in 2012. One was for a special issue; it took until 2017 to appear. One was for an edited volume; the volume is yet to appear. These may be extreme cases, but I … Read more
  • Some ACL2022 papers of interest
    Too much going on at #acl2022nlp for live-tweeting, but I’ll do a wee thread on 3 papers I found thought-provoking: one on robustness probing by @jmderiu et al.; one on underclaiming by @sleepinyourhat; and one on bots for psychotherapy by Das et al.. Deriu et al. stress-test automated metrics for evaluating conversational dialogue systems. They … Read more
  • Deep learning, image generation, and the rise of bias automation machines
    DALL-E, a new image generation system by OpenAI, does impressive visualizations of biased datasets. I like how the first example that OpenAI used to present DALL-E to the world is a meme-like koala dunking a baseball leading into an array of old white men — representing at one blow the past and future of representation … Read more
  • ‘From text to talk’, ACL 2022 paper
    📣New! From text to talk: Harnessing conversational corpora for humane and diversity-aware language technology — very happy to see this position paper with Andreas Liesenfeld accepted to ACL 2022. This paper is one of multiple coming out of our @NWO_SSH Vidi project ‘Elementary Particles of Conversation’ and presents a broad-ranging overview of our approach, which … Read more
  • Why it is useful to distinguish iconicity from indexicality
    Every once in a while I come across work that conflates iconicity and indexicality, or lumps them together under a broad label of motivation (often in opposition to ‘arbitrariness’). Even if I tend to advocate for treating terminology lightly, I think there are many cases where it does pay off to maintain this distinction, and … Read more
  • New paper: Trilled /r/ is associated with roughness
    Very happy to see this paper out! We combine comparative, lexical, historical, and psycholinguistic evidence for an in-depth look at a pervasive form of cross-modal iconicity.
  • Coordinating social action
    📣New! Coordinating social action: A primer for the cross-species investigation of communicative repair. Very happy to present this work w/ stellar coauthors @rapha_heesen @MarlenFroehlich Christine Sievers @mariekewoe, accepted in PhilTrans B 🧵 In this paper we consider the awesome flexibility of communicative repair in human interaction and take a peek under the hood. We … Read more
  • Always plot your data
    Always plot your data. We’re working with conversational corpora and looking at timing data. What do you do when distributions look off?
  • The Gruner Map: a 1913 map of the Togo Plateau in present-day Ghana
    Few historical maps of Ghana’s Volta and Oti regions have been invested with so much political and sociohistorical meaning as Hans Gruner’s 1913 map of the Togo Plateau. Gruner, stationed for over twenty years at Misahöhe in present-day Togo, was a long-time colonial administrator known for his ethnographical and historical knowledge of the area. His … Read more
  • Why article-level metrics are better than JIF if you value talent over privilege
    I’ve been caught up in a few debates recently about Recognition and Rewards, a series of initiatives in the Netherlands to diversify the ways in which we recognize and reward talent in academia. One flashpoint was the publication of an open letter signed by ~170 senior scientists (mostly from medical and engineering professions), itself written … Read more
  • Van betekenisloze getallen naar een evidence-based CV
    Lezenswaardig: een groep jonge medici ageert tegen de marketing-wedstrijd waarin volgens hen narratieve CVs in kunnen ontaarden — de nieuwste bijdrage aan het Erkennen & Waarderen-debat. Maar niets is wat het lijkt. Over evidence-based CVs, kwaliteit & kwantificatie. Eerst dit: de brief benoemt het risico dat je met narratieve CVs een soort competitie krijgt tussen … Read more
  • Linguistic roots of connectionism
    This Lingbuzz preprint by Baroni is a nice read if you’re interested in linguistically oriented deep net analysis. I did feel it’s a bit hampered by the near-exclusive equation of linguistic theory with generative/Chomskyan aps. (I know it makes a point of claiming a “very broad notion of theoretical linguistics”, but it doesn’t really demonstrate … Read more
  • New paper: Interjections (Oxford Handbook of Word Classes)
    📣New! “Interjections“, a contribution to the Oxford Handbook on Word Classes. One of its aims: rejuvenate work on interjections by shifting focus from stock examples (ouch, yuck) to real workhorses like mm-hm, huh? and the like. Abstract: No class of words has better claims to universality than interjections. At the same time, no category has … Read more
  • WOCAL10 workshop: Centering pragmatic phenomena on the margins
    With the tenth World Congress of African Linguistics around the corner (June 7-12, 2021), let me draw your attention to a workshop we are organizing: Centering pragmatic phenomena on the margins in African languages. Convened by Felix Ameka and Mark Dingemanse, this workshop gathers researchers from at least 8 African universities and from around the … Read more
  • On gatekeeping in general linguistics
    An exercise. Take 1️⃣️this paper on ‘Language disintegration under conditions of formal thought disorder‘ and 2️⃣ this Henner and Robinson preprint on ‘Imagining a Crip Linguistics‘. Now tell us in earnest that only one of these contains “theoretical implications that shed light on the nature of language and the language faculty”. (That was the phrasing … Read more
  • Titling scholarly work in anthropology: Signifying significance, enregistering erudition
    Betwixt and between: structure and anti-structure in titular rituals (>600 papers with “Betwixt & between” in title) Homo Imitatens: Ludic pretense as a cover for essentialist tropes in anthropological titling (>2000 papers with “Homo + Latin Participle”, excluding sapiens & erectus) Beyond Colons: Towards subtitles as sites for ponderous prolixity (>600 papers with “Beyond X: … Read more
  • The sound of rain, softly falling (Tucker Childs, 1948-2021)
    News just reached me that we have lost a dear colleague and one of the people responsible for introducing the world of linguistics to African ideophones: George Tucker Childs, 1948-2021. Tucker was a cheerful presence in the field of African linguistics and a towering figure in the subfield that he and I had in common, … Read more
  • APA but without auto-sorting of in-text citations: easy CSL fix
    For better or worse, APA is one of the most widely used citation styles in the cognitive sciences. One aspect of it that always bugs me is that it prescribes alphabetical sorting of in-text citations. I’m not talking about the bibliography; of course that should be alphabetical. I’m talking about the order of names when … Read more
  • A rant about Elsevier Pure
    I have other things to do but one day I’ll enlarge on the insidious effects of elevating this cursed little histogram of “Research output per year” as the single most important bit of information about academics at thousands of universities that use Elsevier Pure. Consider this mini-rant my notes for that occasion. Most importantly, we … Read more
  • Team science is slow science
    With Times Higher Education writing about citation gaming and hyperprolific authors (surely not unrelated) I hope we can save some of our attention for what Uta Frith and others have called slow science. On that note, consider this: Team science is (often) slow science. Recently two team science projects I’ve been involved in since the … Read more