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 more variable content than this one, traditionally the catch-all basket for linguistic items that bear a complicated relation to sentential syntax. Interjections are a mirror reflecting methodological and theoretical assumptions more than a coherent linguistic category that affords unitary treatment. This chapter focuses on linguistic items that typically function as free-standing utterances, and on some of the conceptual, methodological, and theoretical questions generated by such items. A key move is to study these items in the context of conversational sequences, rather than as a mere sideshow to sentences. This makes visible how some of the most frequent interjections streamline everyday language use and scaffold complex language. Approaching interjections in terms of their sequential positions and interactional functions has the potential to reveal and explain patterns of universality and diversity in interjections.

Anyone who writes about interjections has first to cut through a tangle of assumptions about marginality, primitivity, and insignificance. I think this is incoherent: linguistics without interjections is like chemistry without the noble gases.

Re-centering interjections is possible now because there’s plenty of cool new interactional work by folks like Emily Hofstetter, Elliott Hoey, Nick Williams, Kristian Skedsmo, Johanna Mesch, and many others.

A fairly standard take in linguistics is that interjections are basically public emissions of private emotions — a view that is remarkably close to folk notions about the category. However, corpus data suggests that interjections expressive of emotions are actually not all that frequent — interactional and interpersonal uses are much more prominent (yet they are the least studied). This is why re-centering is important.

In line with this, part of the chapter focuses on some of the most frequent interjections out there: continuers, minimal particles that acknowledge a turn is underway and more is anticipated (like B’s m̀:hm seen at lines 53 and 57)

I am always impressed by the high-precision placement of these items and by their neat form-function fit, a pliable template for signalling various degrees of alignment and affiliation, with closed lips signifying ‘keep going, I won’t take the floor’.

Traditional linguistic tools are ill-suited to deal with the nature of interjections. Perhaps this is why most grammars do little more than just listing a bunch of them & noting how they don’t fit the phonological system. Fortunately, interactional linguistics and conversation analysis offer robust methodological tools, ready to be used in descriptive & comparative work. One aim of this piece is to point folks to some concrete places to start.

In the NWO project Elementary Particles of Conversation, we undertake the comparative study of these kinds of items and their consequences for language; this chapter aims to contribute towards that goal by fostering more empirical & theoretical work.

Some further goals I set myself for this piece: 1) foreground empirical work rather than traditional research agendas; 2) elevate new work by junior & minoritized scholars; 3) treat matters in modality-inclusive & modality-agnostic ways.

I found that often, these goals converge & point to exciting new directions. For instance, including sign language data (as in this case from Norwegian SL Kristian Skedsmo, but also work by Joanna Mesch) shows the prospects of a cross-modal typology of interjections.

Originally tweeted by (@DingemanseMark) on June 30, 2021.

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 a handling editor at Glossa used to desk-reject Henner’s submission.)

The point here is not to hate on a published paper (though to be honest I think that paper is flawed at the very least because of its unexamined deficit-based view of autism). The point is also not to argue that a preprint should be published as is. It is to argue that desk-rejecting that 2nd paper as “mainly about language use” is incorrect, far from theoretically neutral, and problematic for a journal of general linguistics.

As Emily Carrigan wrote on twitter,

The difference is that paper 1 takes a disability-as-deficit approach, which is currently the status quo in linguistics/psychology/education, whereas paper 2 asks us to consider an alternative interpretation, at which point people aligned with the status quo shut down.

Figuring out the myriad ways in which the second paper interrogates, uproots, and respecifies the theoretical premises of the first is left as an exercise to the reader.

Originally tweeted by (@DingemanseMark) on July 9, 2021.

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: Towards Y” in title)

Equivocation by punctuation: (Re)imagining parentheses and un/certain slashes

Originally tweeted by (@DingemanseMark) on March 13, 2021.

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 DO NOT write per year. Our careers are too diverse and precarious to measure output that way. What we write is important, where to find it is key, but how much per calendar year is at best irrelevant.

You may object that it is informative. Ah yes, informative. For whom? Primarily for bean counters who care about ‘deliverables’, ‘outputs’ and other countable things. And of course for managers who care about ‘productivity’ and ‘volume’.

These cursed little histograms invite inferences about productivity, gaps, and publication volume that are guaranteed to be reductive and bias-ridden. One could make the case they are actively harmful, feeding into exactly the wrong kind of feedback loops. So why do unis do it?

Systems like Elsevier Pure are marketed to Research Managers, and every bit of their design shows that. Universities and institutions who use its "industry-proven data model" to create automated profiles for their researchers are making a big mistake (never mind @DORAssessment)

Above I wrote how these public-facing histograms invite inferences that may be harmful. Of course that's pretty much what Pure has been designed to do. Behind the scenes, there's a plethora of ways to track metrics, targets, and progress right down to individual researchers

But I digress; my main beef is with the public profiles, which thoughtlessly include these little plots wherever possible — even in search results! (here, @VU_Amsterdam). Fortunately @Radboud_Uni doesn’t use Pure (unless the VSNU deal with Elsevier forces it down our throat 😬)

Elevating this useless histogram to such a prominent place on every researcher's profile is the web design equivalent of "nerdview" (@LanguageLog ): an ill-thought-out choice that makes very little sense to end users and is telling of your own biases

Fellow academics are probably *the* key audience for institutional homepages. When we look up someone’s page we do it to find a specific paper, read what they’re working on, perhaps check out recent work. We don’t want to see this cursed little histogram.

BTW, one has to admire the efficiency of this screenshot, showing that three researchers whose output was “insufficient” are “former staff”, i.e. have been let go. This is straight from the MARKETING MATERIALS of Pure, in case you were wondering 10/9

Update: two universities (and counting) admit the output graphs violate the principles of @DORAssessment and the @devsnu #RecognitionAndRewards position paper, with @VU_Amsterdam already committing to remove them.

Update 2: @VUamsterdam takes the lead in removing the ouput-per-year graphs from their Research Portal. Not a coincidence that the change was spearheaded by @bosch_se and @LangData, who care about open science and @RecogRewards rather than senseless stats.

Originally tweeted by (@DingemanseMark) on October 26, 2020.

Erkenning en waardering voor schapen met vijf poten

Terwijl er lustig gefilosofeerd wordt over het verlichten van de rat race mag de jongere lichting op 5 borden tegelijk schaken!

Een verbreding van hoe we erkennen en waarderen kan ik alleen maar toejuichen, maar ik heb nog niet vaak gehoord over één van de meest voelbare bijeffecten voor de jongere lichting academici nu: van ons wordt verwacht dat we op álle fronten goed scoren.

Dat zegt niemand zo natuurlijk maar is een eenvoudig gevolg van het feit dat we beoordeeld worden door senioren met verschillende referentiekaders. Tegenover elke Erkennen & Waarderen-adept staat een dinosaurus die watertandt bij publicaties in tijdschriften met een hoge impact factor (IF).

Tegenover elke team science-fan staat iemand die vraagt, maar waar zijn de first-author publicaties? De één waardeert goede onderwijsevaluaties, een ander knikt minzaam maar zegt dat ‘ie nog wel wat meer leiderschap wil zien. En waar is de public outreach?, zegt de volgende.

Dát bonte gezelschap reviewt onze artikelen, beoordeelt ons voor promoties, beurzen, en prijzen, geeft wel of niet groen licht bij vooraanvragen. Dus, terwijl er lustig gefilosofeerd wordt over het verlichten van de rat race mag de jongere lichting op 5 borden tegelijk schaken!

Instellingen mogen Erkennen & Waarderen dan beamen, maar bieden nauwelijks ruimte voor kwalitatief verschillende carrierepaden, want Uniforme Functieprofielen. Excellente docenten worden nog steeds onderworpen aan schadelijke flexwetgymnastiek, tenzij ze misschien excellent publiceren, want rankings.

Wie veel outreach doet mag shinen in het jaarverslag, maar het gaat wel af van je onderzoekstijd — niet je onderwijstijd natuurlijk want want we worden betaald voor het afleveren van studenten, niet het vergroten van begrip. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Om een beursaanvraag te mogen schrijven moet je ervaring naadloos passen bij onze onderwijsbehoefte. Maar om kans te maken op die beurs moet je vooral goed publiceren. En oh, vergeet niet die samenwerking met het bedrijfsleven in je narratieve CV, daar houdt de commissie zo van.

Het gevolg: waar eerder gezocht werd naar 5 high IF-papers is er momenteel vooral vraag naar schapen met 5 poten. En dat was volgens mij precies níet de bedoeling van Erkennen & Waarderen. Ik heb geen oplossingen, het is slechts een observatie.

(Oorspronkelijk gepubliceerd als draadje.)

Semantic primitives and conceptual decomposition

Thought-provoking discussion on semantic primitives and conceptual decomposition this morning at @in_interaction, led by Guillermo Montero-Melis We went from Wittgenstein & Osgood via Rosch & Lakoff to Kemp & Tenenbaum and recent work by Mitchell, Binder, and others

The paper that drew most attention was Binder et al. 2016’s ‘Toward a brain-based conceptual semantic representation’ (link). They present 65 semantic features (operationalised as human-rateable scales) with experiential roots & neurobiological plausibility — organisable into broad domains like vision, somatic, motor, spatial, temporal, causal, social, emotion, attention.

I thought of a very different corner of the language sciences, where Wierzbick, Goddard et al. have for decades refined Natural Semantic Metalanguage, a program for semantic decomposition in terms of a set of 65-odd semantic primitives — as here. On the face of it, the approaches could not be more different: NSM aims for human-readable reductive paraphrases of meanings in terms of semantic primitives thought to be lexicalised in all languages (a controversial claim:; on the other hand, Binder et al. aim to quantify meanings by placing them in a 65-dimensional space of experientially & neurobiologically motivated notions, some of which, to NSM adepts, may look too Anglo-specific and technical — here’s their take on ‘egg’, ‘bike’, ‘agreement’:

Contrast this with “eggs” in NSM (an explication published in…): readable if a bit verbose, and phrased mostly in terms of just 65 words (excepting things marked [m], which are ‘semantic molecules’ that themselves need explications — long story):

This would be worth a more detailed piece at some point but for now I simply want to note one thing: that these *wildly* different approaches to semantic primitives —at different levels of analysis & with different explanatory aims— still show some interesting convergences.

In particular, both postulate the relevance of broad domains like space, time, emotion, movement, body, speech, et cetera, though NSM is designed as a metalanguage (e.g., needing logical operators) while Binder et al. go more experiential and low-level (e.g. temperature). NSM scholars could have a field day with some of the Binder et al. features (e.g. Ekmanesque emotions, whose universal status is not uncontroversial) but they might also take a cue from solid neurobiological evidence for the importance of, say, sensorimotor features in meaning

TL;DR semantic primitives are fascinating & recent work suggests exciting directions for the study of conceptual semantics. I wish NSM open-sourced its explications; I’ve already been playing around with the Binder et al. open data from here.

‘big’ and ‘theory’ in terms of Binder et al. features

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

Sign names and theories of naming

Every time I learn new name signs —e.g. during my UCL visit hosted by @gab_hodge— I’m struck by how they call into question Searle’s (spoken English-based) arguments about how proper names work. Many sign names appear to be descriptive (or at least originate as descriptions)

Moreover, often one gets the ‘baptismal story’ along with learning the name sign, meaning the motivation is kept alive by users. There is some literature on this, e.g. Mindess 1990 has some interesting data on the connection of name signs to identies and descriptive features

And there are surveys like Meadow 1977 and Suppala 1990 that show important sociolinguistic differences in how names originate, how some of them are more arbitrary than others, and how these issues are wrapped up with matters of Deaf culture.

In general, I think the philosophy of proper names (and philosophy of language more generally) could benefit a lot from shedding its spoken language bias and learning from naming practices and name signs in sign languages — these literatures have barely touched each other.

This originated as a thread on twitter: