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

Interrupting everybody

Gérard Diffloth, writing about the paradox of catching ideophones in the wild, notes the following:

Il faut donc guetter les expressifs et les attraper au vol ; mais dans le feu de l’action et de la discussion animée où ils naissent, qui aurait le culot d’interrompre tout le monde afin de pouvoir vérifier une voyelle, un sens, une intention?
— Gérard Diffloth, 2001

Or in English:

We must therefore watch for the expressive1 and catch it in full flight; but in the heat of the action and animated discussion in which they are born, who would have the gall to interrupt everybody to be able to check a vowel, a meaning, an intention?

Who indeed, we may ask. Interrupting an animated conversation anytime an ideophone flies by is a surefire way to kill any spark of spontaneity.

In good French academic style, Diffloth is highly skeptical about ways to subvert this problem: “Quant au magnétophone, n’en parlons pas, il gâche la spontanéité et il supprime le contexte non-sonore … La caméra est plus balourde encore.” (In English: “As for the tape recorder, don’t get me started, it ruins the spontaneity and removes the non-auditory context. … The camera is even more clumsy.”)

I share a lot of Diffloth’s skepticism, but as the Mawu say (using ideophones), àsi kpoo, ilo kpoo: if you do nothing, nothing happens. Interrupting a videotaped conversation is a lot easier than interrupting “tout le monde”. And using the sequential structure of recorded conversations to get access to participants’ own interpretations of each others’ talk is a extremely valuable complement to post-hoc reflections on meaning or intention. So for all its clumsiness, I prefer the camera.

Building a multimodal corpus of everyday interaction is a job fraught with difficulties (even if cameras have become a lot less clumsy since 2001). But if it is the closest we can currently get to a faithful (if not complete) representation of everyday social interaction, it is infinitely better than nothing.

Note. At the request of Gérard Diffloth, I changed my slightly literalist translation of “tout le monde” as “all the world” to the more common “everybody”.


  1. Diffloth, Gérard. 2001. Les expressifs de Surin, et où cela conduit. Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient 88(1). 261-269. doi:10.3406/befeo.2001.3516.
  2. Enfield, N.J., Stephen C. Levinson, J.P. de Ruiter & Tanya Stivers. 2007. Building a corpus of multimodal interaction in your field site. In Asifa Majid (ed.), Field Manual Volume 10, 96-99. Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. (online)
  1. ‘Expressive’ is a term in South-East Asian linguistics roughly referring to the class of words that is nowadays more generally called “ideophones” []

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