What are the most frequent interjections?

Out now in Annual Review of Linguistics: Interjections at the Heart of Language. This paper presents a take on interjections that departs in significant ways from received views. I would be very happy if you read it (PDF). Here I provide only the tiniest summary along with some details about the publication process, because Annual Reviews presented an unusually pleasant experience.

The paper draws on evidence from interactional linguistics, language development, and conversation analysis to show that interjections are at the heart of language: scaffolding complex grammatical structures, helping early learners to break into morphosyntax, and serving as a pivot between sentential syntax and the anatomy of conversational turns.

Three of its aims:

  1. Replace stock examples of interjections. Tired: ouch, yuck, whew, the rare outbursts that have long allowed us to shelve away interjections as emotive responses. Wired: mhmm, huh?, oh — the sleek interactional tools that streamline every minute of language use.
  2. Review empirical data on the frequency of interjections. In any language for which we have conversational data, on average 1 in 7 utterances is an interjection, and we can expect to encounter one roughly every 5 seconds. These are the load-bearing structures of human interaction.
  3. Supply alternative ways of thinking about interjections. If interjections are not prelexical grunts or involuntary response cries, then what are they? We lack good ways of thinking about interjections. I provide three metaphors that can be used as tools to think with and to generate new questions.
A 30-s stretch of interaction between Mackie (aged 98 days) and his mother. The contour line records overall sound levels, and the rectangles below it partition it into vocal activity by Mother and Baby (only the mother’s turns, indicated by dark shaded rectangles, are transcribed).

Three neat things:

  1. The paper features one the earliest visualizations of a conversational sequence I’ve come across, invented by Mary Catherine Bateson (see above).
  2. It unearths a little known early observation about continuers that appears almost as an afterthought in a classic paper by Newport et al. (2022[1977]).
  3. I’ve tucked in a reference to Ursula Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. I can recommend the beautiful 2019 Ignota edition.

Details matter

Working with Annual Reviews was a great experience. The turnaround was fast and I have rarely seen copy-editing this good: attentive yet flexible, thinking along rather than blindly following style rules, and seriously well-informed. For instance, the copyeditor found that a few words had gone missing in one of the quotations (due to a mishap with tracked changes it turns out). They’d been reading along in Tooke’s Diversions of Purley!

Screenshot showing a quotation with some inserted words highlighted, and a copy editor comment: "missing words here?". Author's response in a comment: "wow good catch".

Throughout, the proposed edits were clearly by an actual reader with an eye for detail and a sense of style. This was not the mindless rule-following and juggling of commas I’ve seen elsewhere; the copy-editor ironed out wrinkles in my prose while staying true to its voice. Today, this is an all too rare experience, reminiscent of the way eminent editors like Jacob Mey and Adam Kendon would handle papers under their care.

As a one-time graphic designer I love good typography, and Annual Reviews is exceptional also in this regard — down to the smallest details. Take the title. An automated process would wrap the words only as they reach the margin (“Interjections at the Heart / of Language”). But here, a human with an eye for position and composition realized it would be better to have Heart flushed to the next line, making for two evenly laid out lines. It’s a small thing, but it matters, and it is exemplary for the editorial and typographical standards of this journal. 1

Annual Review of Linguistics: Interjections at the Heart of Language

This paper is in some ways a culmination of work in Elementary Particles of Conversation project. Yet oddly, some elements of it predate it by several years. In 2017, I wrote an ERC Starting Grant proposal on some of these themes and made it to the interview stage in Brussels next summer. I didn’t win that particular grant lottery and it took me some time before I was ready to look at the writing again. Some of it appears in print now for the first time.

Happily, Annual Review of Linguistics is open access from 2024 onwards, making this paper and all others in its issue available in perpetual open access. This is what scholarly publishing should look like.

Dingemanse, Mark. 2024. ‘Interjections at the Heart of Language’. Annual Review of Linguistics 10: 257–77. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-linguistics-031422-124743.

References

  • Bateson, Mary Catherine. 1975. ‘Mother-Infant Exchanges: The Epigenesis of Conversational Interaction’. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 263 (1): 101–13.
  • Le Guin, Ursula K. 2019. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. London: Ignota.
  • Newport, Elissa L., Henry Gleitman, and Lila R. Gleitman. 2020 [1977]. ‘Mother, I’d Rather Do It Myself: Some Effects and Non-Effects of Maternal Speech Style’. In Sentence First, Arguments Afterward: Essays in Language and Learning, edited by Lila Gleitman and Jeffrey Lidz. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780199828098.003.0006.

Footnotes

  1. The experience stands out for me because in the same period, I published in another highly regarded journal, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, and I have not been impressed at all by their typesetting.[]

2 thoughts on “What are the most frequent interjections?”

  1. Big fan of delay markers, but since they’re more often utterance-initial or utterance-internal than standalone, they don’t fit most definitions of interjections.

    Also, if that paper establishes the frequency of these (Germanic) delay markers, I couldn’t find it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was around the same order of magnitude as standalone interjections (which I found occupy 1 in 7 turns) but I don’t think we know.

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