New personal site

Almost 13 years ago, in 2007, this blog started as a sub-site on my personal web page. It soon took over most of my online presence and I moved it to its own domain. Now that I blog much less regularly, and have moved institutions, it’s useful again to have a personal academic web page. So I made one:

This is also fitting because I have, over the past decade, developed a line of research on social interaction that doesn’t really fit what I’ve mostly blogged about on The Ideophone (which is topics around iconicity, ideophones, perception, and the senses). I will probably always keep working on ideophones, and I may well keep blogging here on various topics; but it was high time to have a web presence separate from this that more fully represents my scholarship and science communication work.

I used to have a really good page at the MPI for Psycholinguistics, but an institutional move to Radboud University and a site redesign make the publication list there a little harder to navigate than it used to be. The neat thing is that Zotero makes it really easy to display full publication lists on my new site, even anised by topic:

Give it a gander, a glimpse or a glance —!

Liminal signs

I have a new paper out as part of a special issue filled to the brim with things on the border of language if not beyond it. There are seven empirical articles on response cries, “moans”, clicks, sighs, sniffs, & whistles, flanked by an intro (by editors Leelo Keevallik and Richard Ogden) and a commentary (by me). It was truly a privilege to sit down and spend time with this collection of papers to write a commentary; and quite the challenge to formulate a coherent take on phenomena so diverse in form and function, and so neglected in the language sciences.

Why are these things neglected? As I note in my commentary, there are at least three reasons: we’ve not been able to capture them until recently; some quarters of linguistics have been actively disinterested in them; but most intriguingly, they may be designed to be overlooked, or at least overlookable.

One challenge I set myself was to come up with a characterisation of these items that doesn’t focus on what they are not. “Non”-labels like non-lexical, non-linguistics, non-conventional, non-phonemic, non-committal et cetera buy into the framing that these things are not language, and imply that they have no qualities of their own worth mentioning. However, there is at least one thing that unites them: their in-betweenness. Are they lexical or not? Conventional or not? Phonemic or not? Intentional or not? They seem to skirt these issues — and derive interactional utility from that very ambiguity. Hence: liminal signs.

Many liminal signs originate in bodily conduct with non-interactional functions: sighing, sniffing, moaning, etc. This lends them an air of plausible deniablity and makes them off the record. It also makes them awesome cases of exaptation and ritualisation. Speaking of which: when Darwin wrote about whistles and clicks, he had to rely on anecdotal reports from around the world. The papers in this issue showcase the power of sequential analysis to bring to light the workings of liminal signs in interaction.

Inspired by Harvey Sacks, the commentary also aims to highlight the methodological and conceptual contributions of this special issue — from transcriptional innovations like >.nh< to interdisciplinary connections. As Sacks wrote:

[I]t would be nice if things were ripe so that any question you wanted to ask, you could ask. But there are all sorts of problems that we know in the history of any field that can’t be asked at a given time. They don’t have the technology, they don’t have the conceptual apparatus, etc. We just have to live with that, and find what we can ask and what we can handle.”

(Spring 1966 Lecture, in Sacks, 1992, vol. I:427)

The papers in this issue are part of a wave of new research into multimodal talk-in-interaction that is making remarkable progress in just what the study of talk-in-interaction can handle.

Looking for something to read? Dip into this special issue and prepare to have your sense of the boundaries of language subtly shifted — one sniff, click, or whistle at a time. My commentary (short and open access) is here:

Dingemanse, M. (2020). Between Sound and Speech: Liminal Signs in Interaction. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 53(1), 188–196. doi: 10.1080/08351813.2020.1712967

Farewell, Mr. Ideophone: William J. Samarin (1926-2020)

William John Samarin (photo University of Toronto)

I note with sadness that William J. Samarin has passed away in Toronto on January 16, 2020 at the age of 93. An all too short obituary notes that he was “known for his work on the language of religion and on two Central African languages: Sango and Gbeya”.

In linguistics, Samarin was of course also known for his extensive work on ideophones, playful and evocative words with sensory meanings. Only a few years after his Berkeley PhD he published a short and visionary paper on “African ideophones” (1966) that foreshadowed many of the themes that would occupy him in the next decades. A string of empirical and theoretical papers followed that brought new élan to the study of ideophones by dramatically extending the methodological toolbox and the kinds of topics studied, from lexical semantics to sociolinguistic variation, and from semantic typology to the use of ideophones in insults.

I have worked on the topic of ideophones a little over a decade now, and Samarin was always there in the background. He was there in the form of his formidable oeuvre, but also through active correspondence we kept up until halfway 2018. In this blog I want to share some personal recollections as well as some unpublished notes by Samarin about how he came to the study of ideophones.

Incidentally, we didn’t start off very well. In early 2010, when I first wrote to him as a wide-eyed grad student sharing a half-baked draft of a paper, he wrote back with stern (and justified) advice:

You see that if were your supervisor, I would be giving you a hard time about your generalizations. … Make sure that you are being as hard on yourself as you are (or might be) on others. (Samarin, personal communication, March 2010)

Several of my early interactions with Samarin were like this, and his bluntness was fairly intimidating to a PhD student in love with ideophones. Our exchanges led me to seriously rethink my rhetorical approach, placing more emphasis on theoretical foundations and methodological choices, and being as gentle and constructive as possible — in line with his advice to be “as hard on yourself as you are (or might be) on others”. This is why the acknowledgements of my PhD thesis note that “Samarin in particular has been highly sceptical at one point, and helpfully so”.

In late 2011, I sent him a hard copy of my thesis, a 400 page tome that he received in good spirits. This marked a change in our interactions, as he started to treat me more like a peer than a clueless grad student. In a message acknowledging receipt of the thesis, he fondly recalled how he used to be called “Mr Ideophone” at Leiden University, where he spent part of his sabbatical in 1966-1967:

Considering myself to be one of the pioneers in the study of ideophones (Jan Voorhoeve used to call me Mr Ideophone!), I am so pleased that they finally are getting the attention they deserve. They are the dramatic aspect of everyday speech, and speech should not be reduced to formulas and diagrams. (Samarin, personal communication, October 2011)

In later years, I would send drafts and papers to him knowing that they would get a tough but fair reading; and I would get the occasional email from him asking to look up an academic article not available in his library. His criticism remained as blunt and direct as ever, which made his rare notes of appreciation all the more precious.1

Samarin on ideophones

In one of our exchanges I asked Bill how he got involved in the study of ideophones. He responded, “since you asked me how I got on to studying  ideophones I decided to write a bit of autobiography for my archives.” I don’t know whether this bit of autobiography actually appears in his archives, so I share it here for posterity:

My serious study of ideophones arose from the fact that grammarians were not taking them seriously in African languages. They were even trivialized. This puzzled me because I found that they were used frequently in everyday discourse in all kinds of circumstances in the Gbaya (Gbeya) language which I began to analyze and learn in February 1954. Some of them I heard rather often, others rarely, but I could not ignore them if I wanted to speak the language in the same way Gbayas in northwestern Ubangi-Shari spoke it. I was using the language all day long, almost to the exclusion of Sango, in the Bossangoa district, most of whose population spoke mutually intelligible varieties of Gbaya. … Besides, they were curious words (like kpiti kpiti, with high tones) and hard to define.

But it was after I had written my grammar of the language in 1961 that I undertook to study them as a worthy topic in African linguistics. Naturally, the first thing was to read what had been said about them. This meant perusing grammars. Fortunately, I was a visiting professor at the University of Leiden in 1966-1967. There were plenty of grammars there, also at School of African Studies in London and at the Hartford Seminary Foundation, where I was teaching. (Henry Alan Gleason Jr had been librarian there, making an effort to acquire literature for graduate study in linguistics.)

Following our departure from the Central African Republic in 1960 I made several trips back for further work on Sango. These gave me the opportunity to sneak in some systematic study of Gbaya ideophones, like the one where I tape-recorded descriptions of someone making a clay pot in Sango and in Gbaya. I had more opportunity for study in Leiden, where my assistant was a Gbaya young married man. And in December 1972 my wife and I spent two weeks in the village of Bowai once again working on ideophones.

By this time my focus was on trying to demonstrate that Gbaya ideophones were authentic words that could (and should) be entered in a dictionary, not ephemeral and spontaneous idiolectal creations. And by this time one was able to analyze data with a computer, at that time with punched cards. For a while, therefore, I was working on the origin and development of Sango with my right hand and ideophones with my left one. A fire destroyed my computer data at the university, but there are many tape recordings in my archives at the University of Toronto. (Samarin, personal communication, January 2016)

The papers Samarin published in this period include important methodological contributions (Samarin 1967, 1970a, 1971a), a wide-ranging piece on expressive language (Samarin 1970b), and a comprehensive literature review of work on ideophones in Bantu (Samarin 1971b). I have built on Samarin’s work in several of my papers, but I don’t think a comprehensive appraisal of his methodological and theoretical to the study of ideophones is available. That is beyond the scope of this blog, however.

Rewards beyond words

Samarin and I were last in touch in 2018, when I wrote to him with a note of appreciation about his 1998 autobiographical essay (Samarin 1998). That essay contains the following gem which seemed to me entirely typical of Samarin’s poetic sensibilities and attention to detail:

If you have seen the full moon rising out of the deep sands that surround
Timbuctoo dwarfing the sky as well as earth in its clarity and brilliance while you are drinking mint tea with some Tamachek-speaking ‘Blue People,’ you will have experienced some rewards beyond words and sharing. If you are sensitive to such beauty, of course. It is given to us who study language to have rewarding experiences, sometimes of simple pleasure, sometimes of ‘spiritual’ if not of almost transcendental significance.

I have just teased a young girl going the opposite way by remarking that whereas she had a parasol to protect herself from the sun, what could I do without one. About fifteen feet away from me she stops and says, ‘Kà ga mu ma’, and I am overwhelmed with information and sensations: I hear the first word in a construction where I wouldn’t have expected it; I notice that she does not use the determinant ‘ni’ with the meaning ‘it;’ I enjoy the precise stepping up of pitch from low to mid to high and the abrupt falling to low again as she tells me, with no twinkle of coquetry on her lips, but with the spontaneous generosity of a well-reared African child: ‘So come take it.’ This is an imperishable and complex vignette. It illustrates the reward of being able to talk Sango and use it appropriately with another human being. (Samarin 1998:27)

I wrote to Bill to say I was touched by this vignette — it is such an eloquent representation of that quintessential fieldworkers’ feeling of belonging. It captures something very deep and real about the privilege of taking part in other linguistic and social worlds. It also brings out the always-on analytical mindset of the fieldworker, for whom being in the moment is always puncuated by meta-observations. Field work, for me, is very much about that liminal state between ‘other’ and ‘insider’, never fully one or the other, yet enough of both to feel oddly detached-yet-grounded.

In writing back, Bill shared another biographical fact that few people may know: his involvement as a linguistics expert in an International Criminal Court case about atrocities in Bangui (his expert testimony concerned the possibility of recognizing the Congolese origin of the perpetrators on the basis of their accents). He ended his message, characteristically, with a note of appreciation about field work that will resonate strongly with many linguists and anthropologists.

It was kind of you to comment on my professional memoir. I especially was pleased by your having perceived the emotion I had in recalling that experience with the little girl, which is repeated every time I recall it. She responded to my lighthearted remark with maturity, self-confidence, kindness, and trust, a lot more than many adults would have done. I should have interrupted my walk back home to go with her in the opposite direction to continue with a conversation.

You put your finger on the feeling of “belonging.” That’s what brought tears when I was testifying before the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2011. (A Congolese general was being tried for what his soldiers did in Bangui.) The love I have for Central Africans welled up in me. … Field work gives us the opportunity to be enriched and blessed in many ways. (Samarin, personal communication, April 2018)

Besides working on ideophones, Samarin made important contributions to the fields of contact linguistics, field linguistics, and the study of glossolalia. I hope someone more qualified than me will write a comprehensive academic obituary. Here, I have just highlighted some of his pioneering contributions to the study of ideophones, which his work helped make not merely respectable but also exciting and relevant to the broader language sciences.

Samarin prided himself in being nicknamed Mr. Ideophone by Jan Voorhoeve in the 1960s. His lasting intellectual legacy may be that he helped prepare the field for contributions by a much wider range of scholars, so that today there is no longer a single “Mr” or “Ms” or “Mx” Ideophone, but a broad network of diverse researchers working together. Farewell, Mr. Ideophone!

References cited

A good amount of Samarin’s work is available in the University of Toronto’s T-SPACE repository. In 2018, Samarin sent me a overview of his papers, presentations, and research projects which I will publish in a separate post as it provides a good overview of his work from his own point of view. Here are the papers cited above:

  • Samarin, W. J. (1965). Perspective on African ideophones. African Studies, 24(2), 117–121.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1967). Determining the meaning of ideophones. Journal of West African Languages, 4(2), 35–41.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1970a). Field procedures in ideophone research. Journal of African Languages, 9(1), 27–30.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1970b). Inventory and choice in expressive language. Word, 26, 153–169.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1971a). Measuring variation in the use of Gbeya ideophones. Annales de L’Université d’Abidjan, Ser. H, 2, 483–488.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1971b). Survey of Bantu ideophones. African Language Studies, 12, 130–168.
  • Samarin, W. J. (1998). C’est passionnant d’être passionné. In E. F. K. Koerner (Ed.), First person singular III: Autobiographies by North American scholars in the language sciences (pp. 187–226). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  1. About my Glossa review, he wrote: “It was thoughtful of you to inform me of the publication in ‘Glossa’ of your “chronological narrative” about ideophones. But you are being too modest: the essay is much more than that; it’s a ‘white paper’ or template for the study of this phenomenon that you so clearly describe from different points of view. It’s as if you were holding a handful of ore in you palm that contained a lot of gold. (…) Carry on with your good work. Bill.” []

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

Een week @NL_Wetenschap

In voorjaar 2019 mocht ik een week twitteren in naam der wetenschap voor het wissel-account @NL_Wetenschap (10-17 februari 2019). Omdat het account steeds rouleert van wetenschapper naar wetenschapper en omdat Twitter natuurlijk altijd in beweging blijft is het moeilijk om achteraf een goede indruk te krijgen van zo’n week. Daarom hier een overzichtje in blog-vorm.

De tweets van die week werden meer dan 250.000 keer gezien, wat lang niet gek is voor een account dat op dat moment een paar duizend volgens had. Het leverde ook veel interacties op, zowel met ge?nteresseerde leken als met collega-wetenschappers uit andere disciplines. Ik werd op 15 februari ook ge?nterviewd door Steven Smit in het programma NPO Focus Wetenschap op NPO Radio 1.

Hieronder een paar highlights. Veel van mijn tweets vormden ‘draadjes’, een soort aaneenschakeling van korte berichten die samen een mini-essay vormen. Dat zt voor samenhang en voor behapbare stukken. Klik op de datum of een foto in een individuele tweet om het draadje als geheel te lezen.

Taalkunde: alfa, beta, gamma? All of the above.

Eén van de aantrekkelijkste dingen van mijn vakgebied is dat het zich bevindt op het kruisvlak van zoveel wetenschapsgebieden. Daarover schreef ik twee draadjes. Het eerste begint met een beroemd diagram uit een rapport van toen de cognitiewetenschappen net in bloei waren gekomen.

In het tweede ga ik kritisch in op de populaire, maar misleidende alfa versus beta-indeling. Die werkt van geen meter voor taal of voor taalwetenschappers, en hier leg ik uit waarom de werkelijkheid veel te interessant is om in twee?n te delen.

Alice in Taalland

Elke werkdag plaatste ik een draadje met inzichten over taalwetenschap aan de hand van Alice in Wonderland, dat ik op dat moment aan mijn dochter aan het voorlezen was. N.B. de profielfoto van de tweet is dus de huidige tweeter, niet ik.

Alice in Taalland #1: over taal en sociale interactie
Alice in Taalland #2: over klanksymboliek
Alice in Taalland #3: over ongeschreven regels van de taal
Alice in Taalland #4: over betekenis, taalgebruik en pragmatiek
Alice in Taalland #5: over vlechtwoorden en waantaal


Er kwamen mooie reacties en discussies.

En had Bart Braun een gouden tip over het Taverne-amendement in antwoord op een opmerking over het delen van publicaties:

Integrating Iconicity: session at ICLC15

I’m happy to co-convene a session to take place at the International Cognitive Linguistics Conference in Nishinomiya, Japan. The session and general discussion will be chaired by Thomas van Hoey (National Taiwan University) and Jonas N?lle (University of Edinburgh) and has a diverse roster of speakers.

Integrating Iconicity: recent work and future directions

The study of iconicity —the resemblance? or simulation-based mapping of form and meaning— is seeing a renaissance across the language sciences (Perniss et al. 2010; Svantesson 2017). Studies of signed and spoken languages show the importance of iconicity alongside other anizing principles in lexical and grammatical structure, learning experiments shows how iconicity may help word learning and rely on widespread cross-modal associations, the study of natural discourse anization demonstrates how theatrical staging of action plays a fundamental role, and work in experimental semiotics reveals the affordances and limitations of iconicity in the origin and evolution of communication systems (Fay et al. 2014; Perniss & Vigliocco 2014; Winter et al. 2017; Ferrara & Hodge 2018).

With growing interest in iconicity there is also a growing need to clarify its place in the larger  network of the language sciences (Dingemanse et al. 2015). While it may be rhetorically attractive to cast iconicity as slayer of the dogma of arbitrariness or solution to the enigma of language evolution, ultimately its explanatory power must be positioned relative to (and in interaction with) other known principles of linguistic anisation such as frequency, economy, conventionality, or systematicity; and its roles in learning and communication must be understood in relation to factors like multimodality, embodiment, and intersubjectivity.

This session is devoted to the theme of integrating iconicity. It brings together current work on the varied roles of iconicity in linguistic anisation and communication, with a special focus on linking recent findings from iconicity research to insights from comparative and cognitive linguistics. The session features empirical and theoretical contributions from across the language sciences. Themes covered include typology, semiotics, language evolution, reduplication, sensitivity to sound-symbolism, and embodiment.

Rethinking Marginality: panel on interjections & interaction at IPRA

We’re convening a panel at the 16th International Pragmatics Conference in Hong Kong next week. This doubles as the inaugural workshop of my VIDI project Elementary Particles of Conversation. The workshop ties into the overall theme of the conference, which is “Pragmatics at the Margins”. Have a look at the panel programme & abstracts (PDF), or check out the overview below (? links go to the abstracts in the IPRA programme):

Tuesday June 11, room TU107, 13:30-17:00 (including break)

1330 Intro | Negotiating mutual understanding in multimodal interaction: a comparative and experimental approach
Marlou Rasenberg & Mark Dingemanse
1400 Interjection as coordination device: feedback relevance spaces
Christine Howes & Arash Eshghi
1430 Probabilistic Pragmatic Inference of Communicative Feedback Meaning
Hendrik Buschmeier & Stefan Kopp
1500 break (30min)—  
1530 Turn structure & interjections
Christoph Rühlemann
1600 Hebrew clicks: From the periphery of language to the heart of grammar
Yotam Ben Moshe & Yael Maschler
1630 Interjections in Action
Isabel Ward & Nigel Ward

Here’s the panel session abstract:

Rethinking Marginality: Interjections as the beating heart of language

Mark Dingemanse & Marlou Rasenberg
Radboud University & Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

Oxford linguist Max Müller once pontificated that “Language begins where interjections end”. Work in pragmatics turns this view on its head by studying language in its natural habitat of face-to-face interaction, where interjections help us every moment to calibrate understanding and use complex language efficiently. A guiding hypothesis for this panel is that at least some interjections are highly adaptive communicative tools, culturally evolved for the job of keeping our social interactional machinery in good repair (Yngve, 1970; Dingemanse 2017). Far from being marginal grunts, words like ‘oh!’, ‘mm’, ‘um’ and ‘huh?’ play central roles in the most sophisticated uses of language. As metacommunicative signals, they are one of the places where theories of mind and pragmatic reasoning come to the surface, and they afford human language a degree of flexibility, robustness and error-tolerance unmatched in other known communication systems.

This session brings together new research on the centrality of pragmatic interjections in language, with a special focus on items and interactional practices that play crucial roles in managing the back and forth of everyday interaction. These phenomena have been studied in disparate disciplines, as seen by the proliferation of available labels, including back channels, discourse markers, phatic interjections, collateral signals, response tokens and non-lexical conversational sounds. In this lies both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to formulate a unified perspective that can provide conceptual foundations and ensure cumulative progress. The opportunity lies in the disciplinary diversity, which provides us with complementary methods that can deliver converging evidence on open questions.

Topics covered in the session include: the central roles of ‘marginal’ items in the pragmatics of human interaction; their linguistic status as lexical or nonlexical items; their multimodal composition, as items combining verbal and visual cues; their semiotic status, combining indexical, iconic and symbolic properties; their cross-linguistic attestations, including patterns of universality and diversity; the paths of semantic and pragmatic change leading to and from them; and their implementation in models of language processing, dialogue systems and conversational agents.

What is ‘non-lexical’? Notes on non-lexical vocalisations, II

This is part II of my notes on the “Ideophones and non-lexical vocalisations” workshop. Part I is here. Note: the conceptual distinctions set out here represent work in progress and may be published at some point. I will update these posts with the reference if that happens.

Order at all points

One of the nice features of the workshop was the “rapid data session” format, which enabled analysts to make available one or two data extracts (often with audio, video and transcripts) for repeated inspection, allowing everyone in the audience to study them and make observations or ask questions. In this way we discussed data featuring vocalisations including ermmmnrrrnuh::, ?oui?, ha:i: (sighed), du du ka du du du ka, k’hohhh, zuppum, hop-paa, and many more.

But there is method to the madness. For instance, talking on the topic of “How to audibly not say something with clicks”, Richard Ogden (York) showed how English speakers use various click sounds for double entendres, collusions and in general things that are treated as best left off the record. He also made a convincing case for a systematic, conventionalised contrast between lateral and central click sounds, which maps onto a contrast in social actions. Despite English not being generally known as a click language, English speakers have no trouble mastering this contrast and use it in everday interaction (some details are in Richard’s 2013 paper on clicks).

When speech sounds are distinctive in this way, linguists often use that as evidence to argue for phonemic status: the contrastive sounds earn their place in the phonology of the language. These conversational clicks form an interesting test case. Is a single systematic contrast, or even a small number of similarly contrasting items, sufficient for admission to the phoneme inventory, or is there some kind of threshold we use to determine this?

I think it is fair to point out that the majority of English words don’t feature contrastive click phonemes, and so this could be a reason to say they are not part of English phonology. But such frequency-based arguments can be slippery. Given that phonemes show a Zipfian distribution, we expect there to be relatively rare phonemes. Are clicks simply one extreme of this continuum? I can’t bring myself to agree with this either, if only because their distribution (in terms of places where they occur) seems quite different.

Most importantly, in English, these click sounds don’t seem to be contrastive within words the way p/t or k/g are, but instead are contrastive as stand alone items. So on a generous reading of ‘word’, these items are words, or at least lexical items, or at least conventionalised linguistic items. Which brings me to the key question I was left with after the workshop.

What, if anything, is “non-lexical”?

Throughout the workshop we faced the challenge of how exactly to refer to the various things we studied. One term used widely, mostly for want of a better one, was non-lexical vocalisations. While it may be the best we have currently, there are several issues with it.

First, it’s never great to define by negation. Is not being lexical the key feature setting apart these vocalisations as a phenomenon? What would?lexical vocalisations?be, anyway? We have the term ‘word’, so using an alternative like ‘vocalisation’ already implies some relevant difference between the items in focus and run-of-the-mill words like ‘cat’ or ‘mat’. And as we saw above for the clicks, a case could be made that even these phonologically outlandish items have some recognised (or at least recognisable) status as conventionalised items in a larger system of practices, i.e., a lexicon.

Second, calling them “non-lexical” implies that the lexicality of these items is somehow lacking or in doubt. True, these items are unlikely to be found in traditional lexicons; but the arbitrary constraints of printed dictionaries will never be a reliable guide for linguistic questions. Anyway this doesn’t help if we want to argue (as several of us did during the workshop) that the shape of these items can to an important degree be conventionalised, or that they may draw on partly conventionalised inventories of depictive practices, or that they are used in systematic ways, or that they form paradigmatic relations within larger systems of practices. All of these point to a conventionalised, and therefore possibly lexicalised, status of these things.

Depictions and displays

Before we worry about lexicality, it’s worth asking whether there is a unified phenomenon here in need of a single label like “non-lexical vocalisations”, or whether there are multiple distinct phenomena. I think there may be at least two clear groups of phenomena worth distinguishing:

1. Vocal depictions (≈ Clark’s ‘demonstrations’, Güldemann’s ‘mimesis’)

These are vocalisations typically presented as depictions of sensory scenes that enable others to perceive for themselves the scene depicted. Examples include ideophones, creative vocal imitations of sounds, movements and other sensory scenes. In Peircean terms, their mode of signification is primarily iconic. For example, a vocalisation like wop pa da PUM can iconically depict aspects of the temporal and kinetic dynamics of a sequence of dance moves (Keevallik 2010). Like all signs, vocal depictions may also have symbolic and indexical properties.

While most English speakers won’t feel that wop or pa da PUM are words, one could make a case for a degree of conventionalisation in particular communities of practice. For instance, dancers or musicians who work closely together likely converge on a small set of vocalisations they use in this way (Sundberg’s 1994 syllabling). From here it’s not far at all to the larger inventories of conventionalised vocal depictions we call ideophones. Indeed one place where we find ideophones is precisely in situations where there is a premium on sharing and calibrating sensory perceptions and achieving bodily coordination, as Elena Mihas (2013) has shown for ideophones in Ashenika Perene. (Some of these uses of ideophones are reviewed in a forthcoming article for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics; preprint here.) So I see vocal depictions as an overarching category that includes creative vocalisations as well as conventionalised ideophones, and everything in between.

2. Vocal displays (≈ Goffman’s ‘response cries’, Kockelman’s ‘interjections’ — I’m not sure whether ‘display’ is the best term here)

These are vocalisations typically produced as indexical signs of emotion, effort, evaluation. They are presented not so much depictions?of?events as responses?to?events. Examples include strain grunts, pain cries, yawns, interjections of disgust, vocal signs of cognitive effort, etc. For Goffman these would present themselves more as “giving off” than “giving” information, though of course precisely this opens up the possibility for people to produce or treat them as doing other things ostensibly off record. In Peircean terms, their mode of signification is primarily indexical. For instance, the phonetic form of a strain grunt does not itself present a resemblance to its ascribed meaning of ‘effort’ — it can be seen to indexically show that effort. Like all signs, vocal displays may also have symbolic and iconic properties.

I’m trying to be careful here in saying that vocal displays are “typically produced as indexical signs”. An inbreath or a click sound can be ‘merely’ an index of the physical process of preparing to speak, involuntarily produced; but that it regularly occurs in this indexical relationship means that we can also use it in a more controlled way to display imminent speakership, and therefore do interactional work. Likewise, something like um can be ‘merely’ an index of the cognitive process of starting to formulate a turn but not being ready to speak yet; but that it regularly occurs in this function makes it possible for us to do interactional work with it, for instance, buy ourselves time at interactionally fraught moments (Clark & Fox Tree 2003).

(Non)lexicality is an orthogonal issue

The two groups, vocal depictions and vocal displays, are united at least in being commonly treated as?marginalia?in the subjective sense (Dingemanse 2017). Further, vocal depictions and vocal displays are both?more ‘showing’ than ‘telling’, though for different reasons: depictions because they iconically create a likeness (Donald 1998), displays because they indexically provide evidence of some inner feeling or state (Wharton 2003). Both groups also appear to allow a degree of gradience that seems to be less typical for more descriptive vocabulary: depictions because modifications in form analogically correspond to modifications in meaning, and displays because they are productively combined with a wide range of prosodic resources in the service of showing stance and streamlining interaction. All of these things may justify grouping them together as “vocalisations”. But I wouldn’t want to call them “non-lexical” across the board.

The reason is that lexicality is an orthogonal matter. Lexicality is a graded property (something can be more or less lexical) and it runs through both groups: in both, we have fully conventionalised lexical items like ideophones or the word “um” ; and items that are less clearly conventionalised and linguistically integrated, like the vocal depiction “pa da PUM” or a vocal display like an inbreath. And there are going to be lots of intermediate forms as well.

There are yet other things that have been called “nonlexical” or variations thereof, that may or may not be groupable with either of these two broad categories. For instance, Nigel Ward has an interesting line of work on continuers, backchannels and the like, which he calls “nonlexical conversational sounds” (Ward 2006). Despite an interesting degree of formal gradience, I think the claim of nonlexicality here is premature, and may be too strong. Likewise, Schegloff has described the interjection Huh?, used to initiate repair, as a “virtually pre-lexical grunt” (Schegloff 1997). Comparative interactional linguistic research has since shown that many languages have an interjection of this kind, and while it may not be the most prototypical lexical item, it certainly is a word rather than a grunt: it is integrated in terms of phonology and interrogative prosody, and its cross-linguistic commonalities notwithstanding, the actual realisations show enough language-specificity that they have to be learned.

Some of these items may be close to the vocal displays above, a link that is alluring because they don’t sound like many other words. But I would hesitate to identify them with response cries, exclamations or grunts; as I have argued elsewhere, perhaps their peculiar shapes are not so much because they originate as involuntary grunts, but because they are optimally adapted to the exigencies of conversation (as we have argued in detail for “Huh?”). That topic is at the core of my newest research project on Elementary particles of conversation. More about that on some other occassion.


  • Akita, Kimi, and Mark Dingemanse. 2019. “Ideophones (Mimetics, Expressives).” In: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Preprint:
  • Clark, Herbert H., and Jean E. Fox Tree. 2002. “Using Uh and Um in Spontaneous Speaking.” Cognition 84: 73–111.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2014. “Making New Ideophones in Siwu: Creative Depiction in Conversation.” Pragmatics and Society 5 (3): 384–405.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2017. “On the Margins of Language: Ideophones, Interjections and Dependencies in Linguistic Theory.” In Dependencies in Language, edited by N. J. Enfield, 195–202. Berlin: Language Science Press.
  • Donald, Merlin. 1998. “Mimesis and the Executive Suite: Missing Links in Language Evolution.” In Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases, edited by James R. Hurford, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, and Chris Knight, 44–67. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Goffman, Erving. 1978. “Response Cries.” Language 54 (4): 787–815.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2010. “Bodily Quoting in Dance Correction.” Research on Language & Social Interaction 43 (4): 401–26.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2014. “Turn anization and Bodily-Vocal Demonstrations.” Journal of Pragmatics, A body of resources – CA studies of social conduct, 65 (May): 103–20.
  • Kockelman, Paul. 2003. “The Meanings of Interjections in Q’eqchi’ Maya: From Emotive Reaction to Social and Discursive Action.” Current Anthropology 44 (4): 467–97.
  • Mihas, Elena. 2013. “Composite Ideophone-Gesture Utterances in the Ashéninka Perené ‘Community of Practice’, an Amazonian Arawak Society from Central-Eastern Peru.” Gesture 13 (1): 28–62.
  • Ogden, Richard. 2013. “Clicks and Percussives in English Conversation.” Journal of the International Phonetic Association 43 (3): 299–320.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1997. “Practices and Actions: Boundary Cases of Other-Initiated Repair.” Discourse Processes 23 (3): 499–545.
  • Ward, Nigel. 2006. “Non-Lexical Conversational Sounds in American English.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14: 129–82.
  • Wharton, Tim. 2003. “Interjections, Language, and the `showing/Saying’ Continuum.” Pragmatics & Cognition 11: 39–91.

A variety of vocal depictions: Notes on non-lexical vocalisations, I

Last week I was happy to present my work at a workshop on Ideophones and nonlexical vocalisations in Link?ping, Sweden, anised by Leelo Keevallik and Emily Hofstetter. This was the kick-off for a new project on “Non-lexical vocalisations“. It was my first time in Link?ping and it was great getting to know the vibrant community of interaction researchers from across departments. Also, I kind of fell in love with the Key Huset building and its light-flooded wood toned spaces.

The workshop was thought-provoking in many ways. This is the first of two posts in which I share some of my notes. It’s a personal take, not at all intended as a comprehensive summary, if only because I had to leave early to pick up my daughter from daycare back in Nijmegen and therefore missed the last third of the workshop, which (judging from Emily Hofstetter’s live tweeting) was just as interesting as the first two thirds. A central concern of the larger project hosting the workshop is to “problematise the traditional boundaries of linguistics”. This is something I’m sympathetic to, if only because my own work on ideophones and interjections has made me acutely aware of the subjectiveness of our notions of what is marginal and what is core in language.

Rara versus marginalia

In thinking about marginality, I find it useful to distinguish two ways in which things may be peripheral: rara and marginalia (see Dingemanse 2017). Rara are truly rare linguistic phenomena that are interesting precisely because they are so out of the ordinary: things like click phonemes, nominal tense, or affixation by place of articulation. Marginalia are common phenomena that just don’t happen to be part of the traditional interests of linguistics: things like gesture, ideophones, or indeed “non-lexical” vocalisations.

The crucial difference between rara and marginalia lies in the subjectivity of the latter. We can objectively tell whether something is truly rare or exceptional. But many classifications of things as peripheral or marginal are much more subjective. What we think of as marginal is determined by our data, methods, and theories; and in addition to that, by our own linguistic experience and language ideologies. There is nothing wrong about declaring some things as peripheral to your current interests: time is limited and we all have to make choices. But it is always useful to be aware of how you come to such choices, and to reflect on whether your interests (or methods, theories, ideologies) might benefit from a bit of recalibration.

Many of the phenomena in focus during the workshop were not rara but marginalia in this subjective sense: they occur all the time in language use and might tell us interesting things about language structure — but they’ve been mostly treated as marginal to the concerns of mainstream linguistics. However, the tide may be turning for at least some marginalia: work on ideophones is clearly on the rise, and initiatives such as Martina Wiltschko’s Eh lab at UBC and this new nonlexical vocalizations project at Link?ping University show there is significant interest in this area.

Vocal depiction is rampant

One thing that struck me during the workshop is how common it is to use the voice to depict meaning, often in contexts where other means of communication may be much less efficient or effective. Whether it’s during lindy hop learning sessions (as in Leelo Keevallik‘s work) or band practice (as in Agnes L?fgren‘s data), in professional choreography rehearsals (as in Johanna Skubisz‘ work) or in everyday interaction in Siwu (as in my work on ideophones), people use vocal depictions —often in multimodal ensembles— to evoke perceptual experiences and coordinate bodily behaviour.

One thing all kinds of vocal depictions have in common is that they show rather than tell. It is incredibly hard to tell a dancer to execute a movement in a certain way; it is much easier to show it, either by means of a bodily demonstration or by means of gestural and vocal depictions. Or to take an example from my own research in Ghana, it is quite hard to explain how you can visually tell a real batch of gunpowder from a counterfeit one, but if you manage to depict its particular sheen using using gestures and an ideophone like k?l??k?l??k?l?? (as in example 11.11 here), you can go a long way.

Depictions construe a likeness or a replica of some sensory scene (Clark 2016), making aspects of it more directly accessible and manipulable than would be the case if the scene was merely described in arbitrary words. This is what makes them useful in a wide range of communicative contexts. In my own work on creative vocal depictions (PDF) I mentioned settings as diversified as storytelling, joint work in animation studios, and interaction in music and dance lessons. During the workshop we saw further examples from band practice, choreography rehearsals, multilingual conversations, and doctor-patient interaction. This diversity of contexts brings home the versatility of depiction as a communicative practice.

Versions of the ‘same’ thing are analytical rich points

Some of the richest opportunities for analysis come from cases where the interaction provides multiple versions of some behaviour designed to represent ostensibly the same scene. For instance, in Agnes L?fgren‘s extract from a band rehearsal, we heard a bass player convey (to the drummer) a particular rhythmic structure he had in mind for this piece. The bass player produced at least four versions of ostensibly the same content. The versions can be seen as escalations or upgrades, in part shaped by the drummer’s responses which ranged from ‘isn’t that what I’m doing now’ to ‘alright okay’ to ‘I don’t see it yet’ to ‘like it actually gets kind of cool’:

  1. a prose description (‘so it’s like you play fou- a four against our three’)
  2. a depiction in syllables (du du ka du du ka du ka) with the foot doubling as bass drum
  3. a short rhythmic phrase played on the bass, soon abandoned
  4. an actual demonstration on the drum set

Cases like this raise many intriguing questions, some inspired by Clark & Gerrig’s (1990) classic work on quotations as demonstrations. How do we decide between  modalities (or combinations of modalities) in designing depictions? What determines the ordering of strategies seen in successive pursuits? What is the role of recipient design in choosing one over another strategy? How do we select the aspects of a scene that we are going to depict, and how do we map these to the depictive means at hand? How is the design of our depictions shaped and constrained by the affordances of meaning and modality? And so on.

We saw more examples in Leelo Keevallik’s lindy hop data. In one memorable case, a lindy hop learner asks a question about a possibly problematic element of a dance move, referring to it using the creative vocal depiction “zup↑pum↑”. The teachers decide to show rather than tell by actually executing the moves, and in synchrony with this they produce vocalisations that depict some of the rhythmic and kinetic aspects of the dance — including a piece that structurally is recognisable (for us analysts as well as, presumably, for the learner asking the question) as the relevant referent of “”zup↑pum↑”. Also during the dance, the other teacher produces ‘nonlexical’ syllables like chigi digi digi in sync with the beat and with his movements, and after completing the dance, adds, “So yeah, it’s just a nice little jigijigijigi‘, simultaneously depicting some of the kinetic aspects of the dance in voice and hands.

Versions of ostensibly the same thing are crucial because they give us more material to work with if we want to understand the link between the depiction and the depicted scene — often a challenge not just for the analyst but also for the recipient in interaction. Versions give us analytical purchase in two key ways: they show multiple iterations of ostensibly the same action, and if we’re lucky, they also give us multiple takes on the material by the recipient, providing crucial interactional evidence of the success or failure of depictive stretches of behaviour.

One type of useful interactional evidence is when different participants provide takes on ostensibly the same scene that demonstrate (rather than just claim) their understanding or expertise. With ideophones, I have found that when one participant produces an ideophone evoking a scene (e.g., muny?muny? ‘sparkling’), in second position another participant may then produce another ideophone (e.g., gelegele ‘shiny’) as if to say, I agree with you, and here is how see it. This is where vocal depictions in interaction touch on matters of epistemics and authority.

A key challenge when working with creative depictions is that it can be hard for the analyst to even know what they are supposed to depict. Here, another type of interactional evidence can be particularly useful: when a recipient formulates their understanding of the depiction. In my talk at the workshop I discussed a case from my study on creative vocal depictions where one person’s creative ideophone kpaw is followed by the other’s interpretation in next turn: “the gun didn’t go off”:

  1. A:  lop?↑kpaw↑
         I fired ↑kpaw↑
  2.      (1.2)
  3. B:  ku?du leiba in??
         the gunpowder didn’t go through
  4. A:  kùdu leiba- k?
         the gunpowder didn’t go- gee!

What B does in line 3 is take A’s creative depiction and formulate an understanding of it in descriptive terms. This is analytically very useful, because it saves us the trouble of speculating what the depiction was supposed to evoke. B’s interpretation is ratified by A when he repeats it and continues the telling.

It is kind of wonderful that we can create and interpret vocal depictions just like that.  What cases like this show is that interactional evidence can help us crack some of the most intriguing questions about creative vocal depictions. Their interpretation is scaffolded by context, supported by people’s familiarity with (conventional) depictive strategies, and ratified in interaction by these kinds of understandings.

(An interesting boundary case comes from Hannah Pelikan‘s work on interaction with a Nao robot. She recorded games of charades. Nao would produce a pre-programmed ‘depiction’ (e.g. playing a plane sound and visually imitating wings with arms) and a participant would produce a verbal guess, which was then treated as right or wrong by Nao depending on a pre-programmed set of answers. Hannah’s data shows that people
are pretty graceful even when perfectly reasonable guesses are dismissed by Nao, and rapidly adapt to the limited agency displayed by the robot. What’s potentially interesting here is that we could get multiple takes on what is guaranteed to be the exact same depiction. Holding one side of the equation still, as it were, to see what the other, more flexible human side makes of it. However, due to the restricted format of the charades game, usually there was only one guess and no opportunities for redress.)

In closing

One thing that is so fascinating about marginalia is the combination of relatively common occurrence with a striking lack of systematic attention from linguists and interaction researchers. It means that there are lots of things still to find out about some of the most fundamental aspects of how we use language, and how language is shaped by and for social interaction. In the next installment I’ll explore some other themes from the workshop, focusing on the question: what does it mean to call something “non-lexical”?


  • Clark, Herbert H., and Richard J. Gerrig. 1990. “Quotations as Demonstrations.” Language 66 (4): 764–805.
  • Clark, Herbert H. 2016. “Depicting as a Method of Communication.” Psychological Review 123 (3): 324–47.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2014. “Making New Ideophones in Siwu: Creative Depiction in Conversation.” Pragmatics and Society 5 (3): 384–405.
  • Dingemanse, Mark. 2017. “On the Margins of Language: Ideophones, Interjections and Dependencies in Linguistic Theory.” In Dependencies in Language, edited by N. J. Enfield, 195–202. Berlin: Language Science Press.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2010. “Bodily Quoting in Dance Correction.” Research on Language & Social Interaction 43 (4): 401–26.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2014. “Turn anization and Bodily-Vocal Demonstrations.” Journal of Pragmatics, A body of resources – CA studies of social conduct, 65 (May): 103–20.

John Benjamins collective volumes linguistics CSL style

Linguists will know John Benjamins as one of the nicer academic publishing houses, not quite so terrible as Elsevier or other profiteering behemoths, and one with really good typography to boot. Iconicity afficionados will probably know the?Iconicity in Language and Literature series published by Benjamins. One of my first articles on ideophones and iconicity appeared in this series and though since then much of my work has appeared in journals, I’ve just written a contribution for another volume in the series (this one edited by Kimi Akita and Prashant Pardeshi). I’ll share that paper on another occasion; here I just want to share a CSL style I created to make my life easier. If you’re just after the style, download it here?(and see instructions for use here). If you want some background, feel free to keep reading.

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