Pitfalls of fossil-thinking 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 my papers. The below remarks are shared in that spirit. (This is part I; part II is here.)

Di Paola, Giovanna, Ljiljana Progovac, and Antonio Benítez-Burraco. 2023. “Revisiting the Hypothesis of Ideophones as Windows to Language Evolution: The Human Self-Domestication Perspective.” PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/7mkue.

I could keep this short, and I probably should. I wrote about the idea of ideophones as “linguistic fossils” in my thesis:

In Kita’s (2008) view, they are “fossils of protolanguage” and they provide us with a peek into the minds of our protolinguistic ancestors. Although many have granted such ideas at least some intuitive plausibility, in the absence of evidence I think it is hardly useful to speculate about the matter. The lack of evidence shows itself in the fact that speculation goes both ways. For instance, whereas Kita argues that “sound symbolic words are fossils of protolanguage that have been engulfed and incorporated (albeit not fully) into the system of modern language” (Kita 2008:32), we find Diffloth arguing the opposite: “Expressives [ideophones, MD] are not a sort of ‘pre-linguistic’ form of speech, somehow half-way between mimicry and fully structured linguistic form. They are, in fact, at the other end of the spectrum, a sort of ‘post-linguistic’ stage where the structural elements necessary for prosaic language are deliberately re-arranged and exploited for their iconic properties, and used for aesthetic communication” (Diffloth 1980:58).

Dingemanse 2011:341-2

(The passage in my thesis is longer than this; it dismantles some further assumptions about ideophone meanings and formulates a constructive take on the relevance of depiction and multimodality to the cultural evolution of language. As I show, such a take has no need for a problematic notion of “fossils”.)

In my thesis and my subsequent work, I come down more on the side of Diffloth based on a detailed review of the typological evidence and in-depth study of the ideophone system of Siwu, which I have found to be sophisticated, creative, complex, systematic, conventionalized, and an integral part of the larger linguistic system. It is therefore surprising that the present ms, which cites no less than 11 of my publications, somehow finds a way to paint a maximally exceptionalist and exoticist picture of ideophones.

A fraught history

The ms that I review here triggered my Google Scholar notification for “intitle:ideophones”. I was naturally interested to read it, though I was immediately wary of the notion of “linguistic fossils”.

Why might I be wary of such notions in a piece on ideophones? There is a shameful history of scientific racism in the field of the evolution of language and culture, and hastily formed impressions of ideophones have played a questionable role in this. I have called out this scientific racism in 2011 (‘Ezra Pound among the Mawu‘) and 2018 (‘Redrawing the margins‘). As I wrote in the first paper, there is a recurrent pattern where Western scholars meet with ideophones “on the unholy ground of scientific racism and cultural evolutionism” (p. 52). A driving force here has been philosopher and professional racist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, whose view of sound-symbolic words as signs of “primitive mentality” came to dominate public perceptions of ideophones and iconicity in the early 20th century. As I have documented, Lévy-Bruhl’s account acquires its force (if it has any) only through a highly selective and misleading reading of Westermann, a primary source on ideophones at the time.

Given this fraught history, I would expect any paper that broaches this topic to tread very carefully. At the very least, it would seem a good idea to acknowledge the problems and harms of past approaches in this area, and to avoid Lévy-Bruhl’s approach of selective reading, instead carefully weighing all available evidence and arriving at a balanced account.

Unfortunately, the version of the ms I am reviewing here does not show awareness of this history, and I feel that it engages in several cases of oversimplification and what has been called “drive-by citation“. Indeed, it seems to me that this ms presents a strikingly one-sided view of ideophones that not only ignores large bodies of scholarly work on ideophones (even while citing them) but also risks reverting to centuries-old exoticist views without clearly attempting to fend off problematic interpretations.

The notion of “linguistic fossil” is far from innocent in this regard. It paints a living linguistic system in the most static way possible. The use of this metaphor in creole studies and in work on click sounds has been critiqued in the past as indirectly or directly linked to racist and colonial-era notions about supposedly ‘primitive’ language structures (see Güldemann & Sands 2009). It is not clear what using this tarnished term buys one, academically speaking.

That’s it (for now)

I was actually all set to publish a longer post with detailed and substantive critique of many aspects of this preprint. I think those comments deserve to be public just as the preprint is public. However, I noticed that the preprint was uploaded by a senior corresponding author and that the other two authors (including the first, who may be an early career researcher) do not appear to be very active online.

In this situation, I am weighing the very public nature of the preprint (and my blog) against the not-so-public-yet profile of the first author, and choosing to err on the side of caution. I don’t even know whether they are aware that their work is public, and up for public discussion, in this way. So as a first port of call I have shared my detailed comments on the text with the senior corresponding author.

At the same time, since the fraught history alluded to above is apparently not known widely enough, I am choosing to publish this little prelude here and may revisit the post at a later point with an update.

Update: part II is now online.

4 thoughts on “Pitfalls of fossil-thinking I”

  1. I don’t even know whether they are aware that their work is public, and up for public discussion, in this way.

    …surely they know what a preprint is!?!

  2. Heh yes the uploading author surely knows, but the others have no OSF or other online presence indicating that they ever engaged with or disseminated preprints

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