How should descriptive grammars cover interjections?

Interjections are, in Felix Ameka’s memorable formulation, “the universal yet neglected part of speech” (1992). They are rarely the subject of historical, typological or comparative research in linguistics, and as Aimée Lahaussois has shown (2016), they are notably underrepresented in descriptive grammars. As grammars are the main source of data for typologists, this is of course a perfect example of a self-reinforcing feedback loop. How can we break this trend?

Thanks for reading! If you’re looking for a citable version of this advice, consider my 2023 OUP Handbook chapter on interjections which makes most of these points:

Dingemanse, Mark. 2023. ‘Interjections’. Edited by Eva van Lier. The Oxford Handbook of Word Classes. Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198852889.013.14 (PDF)

I was at a very stimulating workshop last week, organized by Maïa Ponsonnet, Aimée Lahaussois and Yvonne Treis as the kickoff of a larger project on Typologizing Interjections. This blog post captures some of my reflections after the workshop.

In more than 11 words

The neglect of interjections is not a modern phenomenon. The following 11 words (out of a total of 11k) constitute the full treatment of interjections in one grammar of Zulu (Grout 1849):

Interjections. The principal interjections are: —au! mame! mamo! maye! o! ou!

And even if some grammars today devote more than 11 words to the topic, the basic format of the interjection section, if it exists, is still a list of items. This invites a view of interjections as items that stand apart from all other linguistic structures, without anything in the way of semantic, pragmatic and combinatorial structure that might be worth investigating. Indeed the single structural fact mentioned about interjections in most grammars is how some of them feature speech sounds that deviate from the average lexical item. 1

Good models

The good news is that better models are already available. An unparalleled example, and possibly the most extensive grammatical treatment of interjections in any one language, is Felix Ameka’s grammar of Ewe, a Kwa language of Ghana. Ameka devotes a whopping three hundred pages to “illocutionary devices and constructions used in interpersonal communication” — so many that the proofreader for my Annual Review article, where I mention this fact, tagged it with a clarification question: “[AU: Highlighted range correct? It spans several hundred pages.]”. Within this part, there is a chapter on interjections spanning 50 pages, with separate discussions of about 30 specific emotive, cognitive, and phatic interjections (another dozen conative interjections are treated in an earlier chapter).

Earlier examples exist. One is Charles Fries’ (1952) The Structure of English, the first grammatical description of English based on actual recorded speech. Fries found that the most frequent single-unit utterances where items of a form class whose function was “continued attention, conventionally signaled”, counting “yes”, “yeah”, and “mhmm” among them. Another is Yuen Ren Chao’s famous grammar of spoken Chinese (1965). It devotes only a handful of pages to interjections, but makes them count. It pulls out some of the most frequent interjections, exemplifies them, and contrast them with one another, providing ample detail on possible phonetic realizations. In the passage below, Chao reviews Ng ~ M ~ ə̃, “the weakest form of assent, which is little more than acknowledging ‘I am listening'” (Chao 1965: 819).

Excerpt from Chao's grammar of spoken Chinese (1965). Chao describes the interjections Ng ~ M ~ ə̃, "the weakest from of assent, which is little more than acknowledging 'I am listening'"

More recent examples of grammars that have more than average coverage of interjections are grammars of Acholi (Rüsch 2020), Alto Perené (Mihas 2017), Kalamang (Visser 2022), Lao (Enfield 2007), and Zapotec (Sicoli 2020). For instance, Visser’s grammar of Kalamang provides the customary notes on the phonology of interjections and a list of them, but also has a few pages exemplifying some of the more common ones. Sicoli’s grammar doesn’t have a section on interjections, as it is organised primarily by interactional domains: how people use linguistic resources to offer, recruit, repair, and resonate in interaction. But because it focuses on studying language in vivo, almost every single extract of conversation in it features interjections, and it provides invaluable materials for the comparative study of these items.

Practical proposals

Based on the examples of these grammars and other recent work on the question of how to cover interjections in grammatical descriptions, we can isolate a few best practices.

I. Present and analyse interjections in the context of conversational sequences

When we analyse grammatical items like case markers or numeral classifiers, we take care to consider their immediate grammatical contexts: the words they latch onto or agree with, the semantic contribution they make to the whole of the sentence. For interjections, this strategy breaks down, because they typically appear alone. The solution is to consider the relevant level of structure.

Interjections come alive in social interaction. They are responsive to prior utterances or events, and invite certain response in turn. To understand their function and to enable comparison, we should consider them in their primary ecology: the conversational sequence. In the below example from Mark Sicoli’s (2020) multimodal grammar of Zapotec, we see interjections at lines 2 and 4, and their sequential context demonstrates an important part of their interactional function. A short conversational extract like this is worth much more than a paraphrase of what the analyst takes the meaning to be. It also allows us to make up our own mind: we can see for ourselves what it does by seeing how speakers treat it.

1 Angeles: Sofía: [S is outside the kitchen] SUMMONS Sofía 2 Sofía: Eè? ACKNOWLEDGEMENT Huh? 3 Angeles: Lìkkì’ ínza itta no á DIRECTIVE L*-likì’ ínza ita=no=á imp-(pot) give water relax=instr=1s (Yo u) would give water so I can soften (the dough). 4 Sofía: Áà (First Sign Of Fulfillment)

II. Cover at least the most frequent and interactionally consequential interjections

Given the long tradition in grammar-writing of just listing interjections without any guidance, it can be difficult to know where to start. Which interjections should be featured in in a grammar? In principle of course, any linguistic item that is part of larger linguistic systems deserves coverage; but in practice we cannot do everything equal justice and choices have to be made. My suggestion here is to start from an evidence-based perspective and aim to identify and describe at least some of the most common and interactionally consequential interjections.

Cross-linguistic work on interjections (some of it my own, but building on the work of many others) has isolated a number of highly frequent interactional jobs for which languages tend to mobilize interjections. Three of these are listed in Table 1 below (from Dingemanse 2023). These represent very common functions that will be encountered even in a few minutes of everyday conversation. They are interactionally consequential in that we rely on them for negotiating mutual understanding and realizing complex syntax, as in storytelling. They are also grammatically relevant, as they punctuate complex turns at syntactic completion points (continuer), invite repetition and clarification (repair initiator), and intersect with epistemic markers (news receipt). In my opinion, any grammar that doesn’t cover at least these interactional resources should be considered incomplete. 2

III. Gloss interjections in more specific ways than just INT/INTJ

Interjections are word forms with specific functions, just like grammatical morphemes. A filler like uhm is formally and functionally different from a continuer like mhmm, and glossing them both as INTJ obscures that difference. Consider the analogy of morphemes marking tense, aspect and mood: if we glossed all of them TAM indiscriminately, our grammars would be much less useful. Eline Visser’s grammar of Kalamang (2022) is exemplary in this regard: it offers a list of interjections and their gloss, and one can search for these glosses and find examples of most of the interjections in context.

IV. Consider animal-oriented interjections as a locus for comparison

This is perhaps the most quirky suggestion but it is based on some of the better grammars and linguistic descriptions covering a particular class of functions for which interjections are often recruited: animal-oriented utterances. Felix Ameka’s grammar of Ewe devotes a considerable number of pages to such conative interjections, but so do the grammars of Lao (Enfield 2007) and Kalamang (Visser 2022). One thing that is specifically interesting about such animal-oriented interjections is that they represent a corner of language that is specifically devoted to interspecies interaction. And we can expect the resources in this corner to be adapted at least partly for that particular purpose, with potential cross-linguistic similarities as a result.

One example I’ve documented in my own work is a curious convergence in the sounds that occur in shooing words: interjections used to chase away birds, especially domestic chicken. As I found, shooing words, often feature sibilant or fricative sounds — a fact that may be connected with the fact, independently established by ethologists, that such sounds are the sounds chicken are most aversive to (Dingemanse 2020:396-8). Words for chicken pattern roughly by language family as expected, showing that the similarity of shooing words cannot simply be explained by cultural diffusion.

Focusing on animal-oriented conative interjections is also a way of achieving comparability, and so it would represent a promising direction for a comparative typological approach to interjections.

Note

This post summarises some of my take-aways from the workshop and builds on proposals I’ve made in my contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Word Classes (here is a PDF). Most if not all of the grammars and sources cited in this post are also discussed and cited there.

Grammars cited

  • Ameka, Felix K. 1991. ‘Ewe: Its Grammatical Constructions and Illucutionary Devices’. PhD dissertation, Australian National University.
  • Chao, Yuen Ren. 1965. A Grammar of Spoken Chinese. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Enfield, N. J. 2007. A Grammar of Lao. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Fries, C. C. (1952). The Structure of English; an Introduction to the Construction of English Sentences. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
  • Mihas, E. (2017). Conversational structures of Alto Perené (Arawak) of Peru. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Rüsch, M. (2020). A Conversational Analysis of Acholi: Structure and Socio-Pragmatics of a Nilotic Language of Uganda. Brill.
  • Sicoli, M. A. (2020). Saying and doing in Zapotec: Multimodality, resonance, and the language of joint actions. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Visser, Eline. 2022. A Grammar of Kalamang. Language Science Press. Language Science Press. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6499927.

Other sources cited

  • Ameka, F. K. (1992). Interjections: The Universal Yet Neglected Part of Speech. Journal of Pragmatics, 18(2–3), 101–118.
  • Amha, A. (2013). Directives to Humans and to Domestic Animals: The Imperative and some Interjections in Zargulla. In M.-C. Simeone-Senelle & M. Vanhove (Eds.), Proceedings of the 5th International conference on Cushitic and Omotic languages. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe.
  • Dingemanse, M. (2020). Recruiting assistance and collaboration: A West-African corpus study. In S. Floyd, G. Rossi, & N. J. Enfield (Eds.), Getting others to do things: A pragmatic typology of recruitments (pp. 369–421). Berlin: Language Science Press. doi: 10.5281/zenodo.4018388
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2023. ‘Interjections’. In The Oxford Handbook of Word Classes, edited by Eva van Lier, 477–91. Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198852889.013.14
  • Fries, C. C., & Pike, K. L. (1949). Coexistent Phonemic Systems. Language, 25(1), 29–50.
  • Lahaussois, A. (2016). Where have all the interjections gone? A look into the place of interjections in contemporary grammars of endangered languages. In C. Assunção, G. Fernandes, & R. Kemmler (Eds.), Tradition and Innovation in the History of Linguistics (pp. 186–195). Nodus Publikationen. Retrieved from https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01361106
  • Lahaussois, A. (2020). Descriptive and methodological issues in Kiranti grammar(s) (PhD thesis, Université de Paris). Université de Paris. Retrieved from https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/tel-03030562
  • Ponsonnet, M. (2023). Interjections. In C. Bowern (Ed.), Handbook of Australian Languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Footnotes

  1. And even this is rarely truly examined. As a matter of fact, the phonological make-up of interjections is probably best described as forming a set of elements that is both (i) smaller than and (ii) partly overlapping with the larger phonological system (Dingemanse 2023); one reason that some have proposed they provide evidence of multiple coexistent phonemic systems in language (Fries & Pike 1949).[]
  2. We could multiple the number of interactionally consequential resources of course. Fillers like uh/um are psycholinguistically important. Conative interjections like psst or shoo show us how we manage attention and recipiency in interaction. All of them deserve more attention in our grammars. However, we have to start somewhere, and the basic interactional functions of Table 1 provide such a start.[]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *