Playful iconicity: Having fun with words

What do words like waddleslobbertingleoink, and zigzag have in common? These words sound funny, but they are also iconic, with forms that resemble aspects of their meanings. In a new paper we investigate the link between funniness and iconicity in 70,000 English words.

“This is play”

The starting point is a theory about metacommunication: some words (or signs) are more striking than others in terms of their form, which means they draw more attention to themselves and signal “this is play”. We think this explains the first finding of the paper: words that people rate as highly funny are also often rated as highly iconic.

Relations between funniness and iconicity after controlling for word frequency, in: A words with human ratings; B words with human funniness ratings and imputed iconicity ratings; C words for which we only have imputed ratings.

To test how general this finding is we developed a way to predict funniness and iconicity ratings for new words. Based on semantic relationships between millions of English words, we trained an algorithm to predict the iconicity (or funniness) of words that have already been rated by people, and then asked that algorithm to predict iconicity (or funniness) for new words.

For example, say the new word is ‘waggle’. First the algorithm learned that ‘waggle’ occurs in similar contexts to ‘wiggle’ and ‘wobble’. Then it learned that ‘wiggle’ and ‘wobble’ were rated as highly iconic by participants. As a result, it predicts that ‘waggle’ will be highly iconic too. Applying this method to ~70,000 words, we find that the relation between funniness and iconicity holds even for predicted ratings.

But what is it about some words that makes them both funny and iconic? Analysing the words that people rated as most funny and iconic, we found a number of recurring features: complex sequences of sounds at the start like str- and cl- or at the end like -nk and -mp, and an ending -le in verbs that contributes an element of movement and playfulness (as in ‘waggle’ and ‘wobble’).

These structural features, we propose, act as metacommunicative signals that help words stand out as playful, performative, and even poetic. They occur disproportionally in highly rated words. When we combined these cues in an overall structural markedness score, we found structural markedness predicts the iconicity and funniness ratings much better than other measures.

The relation between structural markedness and A funniness ratings, B iconicity ratings, and C funniness and iconicity together. Each dot represents 14 or 15 words. Solid lines and shading represent a loess function of cumulative markedness with 95% confidence intervals. Other lines show relative prevalence of complex onsets, codas, and verbal diminutives.

So our three main findings are:

  1. Words that are rated as highly iconic also tend to be rated as highly funny (in the few thousand words for which we have such ratings)
  2. This relation holds even in for ratings predicted based on semantic relationships (in ~65.000 words for which we have done this)
  3. The highly rated words tend to have special forms: they sound different from other words, which invites people to treat them as playful and performative

Making sense of apparent exceptions

We also found some other things. First, funniness and iconicity ratings do not always go hand in hand. There are highly iconic words like ‘roar’ and ‘scratch’ that people don’t feel are funny because they have to do with negative events. There are also words that are rated as very funny like ‘blonde’ and ‘buttocks’ mainly because they tend to be used in jokes; these are not rated as iconic and they are not relevant for our theory.

Another thing we found is that human ratings are far from perfect. As it turns out, for the data we used, the people who rated words for how much they “sound like what they mean” gave high ratings to words like ‘whoosh’ (where the sound of the word resembles aspects of its meaning) but also to words like ‘bedroom’ (which are built by combining meaningful parts).

Only words of the first type are really iconic; the others are merely analysable. Our theory holds only for the first, which means that the 10-15% of analysable words with high iconicity ratings are probably diluting the effects we find. Indeed, when we control for this issue by looking only at words of one piece, the relation between iconicity and funniness comes out a little stronger.

We included this analysis not just to show the subtleties of the effects, but also because we believe lexical ratings (whether done by people or by machines) should never be taken at face value. Now that there are so many types of ratings available, it’s tempting to just throw together a bunch of them and have a look at correlations. But to avoid cherry-picking or reporting false positives, it is important to start with a theoretical question, and to always control the findings with other methods.

Having fun with linguistics

While the study is based on English, its questions are inspired by work on ideophones, highly evocative words found in many languages around the world. And the theory put forward in the paper is general enough to help account for many other examples of playful language described in the literature, and to guide future investigations of the relation between playfulness and iconicity in spoken and signed languages.

Our study also contributes to broadening the perspective of linguistics. While anecdotal reports about perceptions of funniness and iconicity abound, our study is the first to investigate this relation on a large scale in English, and perhaps in any language. That this hasn’t been done before is partly because linguistics has long preferred to focus on “serious” matters. However, we argue that there is nothing frivolous about studying playful language.

Cybernetician Gregory Bateson argued that the very notion of play represents a fundamental transition in the evolution of communication. This is because play requires a form of metacommunication, a way of saying “What I do now is special”. Human language has perfected such forms of metacommunication, and in our paper we trace its influence in the very texture of the lexicon.

To enable others to build on our work we’ve made sure it is open science all the way: all primary data as well as our new predicted iconicity and funniness ratings are publicly available. We also share the Python code for our prediction algorithm and the R code for all of the analyses and figures. And last but not least, the paper itself is also published open access.

  • All data and code is in our GitHub repository
  • Dingemanse, M., & Thompson, B. (2020). Playful iconicity: Structural markedness underlies the relation between funniness and iconicity. Language and Cognition, 1-22. doi:10.1017/langcog.2019.49

Micromoments in music

This post originated as a twitter thread.


One of my favourite micromoments in music: the creak at 1:15 in Old Folks by Miles Davis. Perfectly timed with an inbreath, I always imagine Davis leaning back in his chair, pure concentration building up for the next lyrical phrase.


Another musical #micromoment — the signature Pastorius reharmonisation at 4:28 in Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, just when Joni Mitchell sings “the music midnight makes” (on Mingus, 1979).


Today’s micromoment: the utterly minimalist fill by the rhythm section at 2:13 in Vulfpeck’s Wait for the Moment (tbh the whole song is worth your while). As one listener on youtube said: “The drumbreak on 2:13 made me seriously reconsider my life”.


Micromoment #4: the start of Benavent’s bass solo at 3:30 in King & Queen (Chick Corea, 2006), prompting an “oh. (.) surrender!” exclamation from a fellow player. Also that whole minute-long bass solo.


Micromoment #5: the four off-beat L+R index finger taps by Tamir Barzilay at 1:34 in Ladies Night, by Scary Pockets with Larry Goldings — Barzilay’s mastery of his instrument is so exquisite.


I’ve listened to this many times, and the way in which, at 2:24, the backing vocals engulf the melody and open up like a flower always lingers — a #micromoment in Formwela 4 by Esperanza Spalding.


I’ve replayed the start of @andrewbird‘s violin solo in this Sam Beam song so many times it definitely makes a musical #micromoment — from ~6:30, best with headphones, also that whole solo is gorgeous & #tinydesk is always worth your while

Some things you need to know about Google Scholar

Summary: Google Scholar is great, but its inclusiveness and mix of automatically updated and hand-curated profiles means you should never take any of its numbers at face value. Case in point: the power couple Prof. Et Al and Dr. A. Author, whose profiles I created following Scholar’s recommended settings (and a bit of manual embellishment). If you have a Scholar profile, make sure you don’t let Scholar update the publication list automatically. If you’re looking at somebody else’s profile, take it with a big pinch of salt, especially when they have a reasonably common name or when messy entries or weird citation distributions indicate that it is being automatically updated. 

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Taal in de reageerbuis

Gek op cross-overs van kunst en wetenschap, muziek en experiment? Ik ook. Daarom organiseer ik met mijn collega’s Tessa Verhoef en Seán Roberts een experiment op het Discovery Festival in Amsterdam — hét festival voor interessante kruisbestuivingen, rare muziek, en nieuwe experimenten. Ons experiment is vermomd als game en, afgaand op de pilots die we al gedaan hebben, erg verslavend.

Logo Taal_in_de_Reageerbuis

We noemen het “Taal in de reageerbuis” en dat nemen we vrij letterlijk. Proefpersonen krijgen van ons een tablet in handen gedrukt, een koptelefoon voor het geluid, en mogen via een app —een virtuele reageer-buis— met elkaar communiceren. En daar kunnen ze trouwens geen taal bij gebruiken die ze al kennen. Ze moeten dus from scratch een nieuwe taal bouwen — een minitaaltje dat evolueert over de duur van het experiment. Dat proces bestuderen wij om zo meer te leren over hoe taalevolutie werkt in echte talen.

De primeur is komende vrijdag op het Discovery Festival in Amsterdam. Een week later kun je ons vinden op het Weekend van de Wetenschap in het Universiteitsmuseum Utrecht. Zie voor meer informatie.

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, 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


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

*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 titles1 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.


  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.
  1. Also in that collection, though for different kinds of recursion: Fromkin’s 1975 A linguist looks at “a linguist looks at ‘schizophrenic’ language” and Fischer’s 2001 Read this paper later. []

Bourdieu’s food space, updated

Food writer Molly Watson from Gastronomica provides us with an update of Bourdieu’s food space, where different types of food are arranged spatially along two dimensions: economic and cultural capital. The beautiful illustration is by Leigh Wells .

Note the four versions of “homemade pickles” appearing in all four regions of the chart. Molly Watson observes:

What I found rather glorious was how, when I thought through any single food item (i.e. yogurt), it couldn’t really be placed in one specific location. Rather, specific versions of it would belong in different places. Such are the choices and range of our foodstuffs. Such is the ever-widening world of human taste.

The original chart appeared in Bourdieu’s 1979 Distinction (translated 1984 as Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste).

    Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

The Albert Einstein Award of Excellence: another ABI scam

Last year’s post on the Great Minds of the 21st Century award continues to attract attention from people who want to find out more about the American Biographical Institute (ABI) and its vanity awards.

Surprisingly, there are still people clueless (shameless?) enough to list vanity scams like this on their CVs. Thankfully, the ABI decided to nominate me again this year, this time for another honour: the Albert Einstein Award of Excellence for 2011, no less. Here’s an excerpt from their letter: Continue reading

The clay tablet tradition of African comparative linguistics

Found this gem in a review of Paul de Wolf’s (1971) The Noun Class System of Proto-Benue-Congo:

This work falls within the ‘clay tablet’ tradition of African comparative linguistics, and, like other things in the same tradition (Meinhof, Greenberg), it has the properties of being inscrutable and yet at the same time, in broad outline, convincing. The two together make an infuriating whole. (Kelly 1973:716)

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The Basque word for their language is Euskara or Euskera, earlier Heuskara. The first part of this word is the Togo R. word for “Akpafu”, Likpe be-fu “Akpafu”, Bowili o-vu-ne “Akpafumann”, Santrokofi o-fu “Akpafumann”, Akpafu ka-wu, ka-‘u “Akpafu”. The early initial Basque h is from k, as can be seen from ka-wu, ka’u. The a has changed to e in this lexeme. The consonant between e and u has been lost. Basque lacks the semivowel w, which drops out here in Akpafu ka’u. See Lafon (1960 : 92) for confirmation from placenames etc.: Ausci, Aoiz, Auch.

The second part of the word, ka or ke is a word for “speak”, Niger-Congo gue “voice, language”, Ewe, Ga gbe “voice”, Agni guere “language, speech”, Yoruba i-gbe “loud cry”, Gbari e-gwe, e-gbe “mouth”. The e is for original a in this word. Niger-Congo e is secondary. Compare Niger-Congo ka, ke, k’e “to speak”, which is related. The final sylable -ra is the Niger-Congo article. No clearer proof could be found that the Basques were originally the Akpafu!

Thus says mr. GJK Campbell-Dunn “M.A. (NZ), M.A. (Camb.) Ph.D.” in a most interesting document titled “Basque as Niger-Congo“. (Just to remind you, Akpafu is another name for Siwu, the language I’ve been doing fieldwork on over the last three years.) I mentioned this story over a year ago in the comments of an excellent post over at Glossographia titled Debunking and de-Basque-ing, but I never got around to posting about it here. In his post, Stephen Chrisomalis notes that “There is probably no culture or language that has attracted more pseudoscientific attention than Basque.”

I’m not intent on debunking Campbell-Dunn’s story here; I think the quotation above speaks for itself just fine.1 But I do want to draw attention to the irony of this particular case. There you are, author of such groundbreaking works as The African Origins of Classical Civilisation, Maori: The African Evidence, and Who were the Minoans?: an African answer. The natural next step in your illustrious career is to solve the Basque enigma once and for all. Since the general thrust of your work is to link everything to Africa one way or another, you set out to discover that Basque is in fact a Niger-Congo language. A look at the rich lexical material in Westermann (1927) provides ample inspiration. Let’s pick one of the Togo Remnant Languages, you think — after all, Basque is sort of remnant too. Akpafu. Euskara. Hey, why not. Let’s just see what we can do… no-one’s going to notice, right?

Well, I noticed. And I just want to say it loud and clear: Graham Campbell-Dunn’s work is crackpot science. Don’t believe it; don’t even read it. Siwu and Euskara are fascinating languages that deserve of serious research. But they are most certainly not related. Although… come closer, I have to tell you a secret…
[spoiler show=”show secret” hide=”hide secret”]Both Basque and Siwu have lots of ideophones! (See Ibarretxe-Antuñano 2006.) Sssshhhh, don’t tell mister GJK Campbell-Dunn!



  1. Ibarretxe-Antuñano, Iraide. 2006. Sound Symbolism and Motion in Basque. Lincom Europa.
  2. Westermann, Diedrich. 1927. Die Westlichen Sudansprachen Und Ihre Beziehungen Zum Bantu. Berlin: In kommission bei W. de Gruyter & co.
  1. See the comments below for some of the problems in the reasoning. []