Article in Babel - Linguistic Horizons

Article in Babel - Linguistic Horizons

I wrote an article for Babel’s Linguistic Horizons series, about iconicity in language change. Check it out!

If you want to know a little more about me, what got me into linguistics and, more importantly, iconicity (!) you can read my interview with Babel The Language Magazine.

This was published in the August 2022 edition of Babel, available here. Special thank you to Kimi Akita for helping me with the definitions of the Japanese ideophones for crying, and to John Huisman for helping me with the illustrations!

Q: How did you first get into linguistics?
I’ve always loved learning languages. At the Australian National University where I did my undergraduate degree, all first year language students take Introduction to Linguistics. Most students hate it, but a small percentage adore it – these students go into linguistics. Obviously, I was one of them.

Q: What do you look at when you look at iconicity?
‘Iconicity’ is a term from semiotics, which is the study of meaning. An iconic sign is a sign whose form resembles its meaning. For example, a picture is an iconic sign because it looks like what it represents.

For a long time, linguists considered a defining feature of words to be their lack of iconicity. The so-called ‘arbitrariness of the linguistic sign’ (made famous by Ferdinand de Saussure) was very important to historical linguistics: if the relationship between the form of a word and its meaning was arbitrary, then we should not expect two unrelated languages to use similar-sounding words for the same meanings. We could then posit that since, for example, the fruit that English speakers call an ‘apple’ is called appel in Dutch, and äpple in Swedish, these three languages are likely to have some shared history.

An obvious exception to this is onomatopoeia. Neither chance nor relatedness explains the similarity between English moomoo [mu:mu:] and Japanese moomoo [mo:mo:] for the sound a cow makes. These two words sound similar because they are used to mimic the sounds produced by the same animal. Early proponents of linguistic arbitrariness downplayed these examples because, at least in the Western European languages with which they were familiar, such depictive uses of language were considered ‘marginal’. However, this is far from the case in other parts of the world. In many languages, particularly in Asia and Africa, onomatopoeic words are very common, and not only mimic sounds but also movements, shapes, colours, textures, tastes, smells, and even feelings and emotions—the whole gamut of sensory experience. Depictive uses of language are also very common in sign languages, and in gesture, which we all use, and which is intimately connected to spoken language.

There is now a growing body of research to attest that iconicity is a key feature of language. It helps children when they are learning language, makes words easier for adults to process, and makes face-to-face communication smoother and more fun. Moreover, when we compare words with the same meaning across unrelated languages, we find commonalities in the sounds employed. This suggests that iconicity is more prevalent than previously thought—even in ordinary words. For example, words for ‘nose’ are more likely to contain nasal sounds like m or n.

Q: What got you interested in these areas of linguistics?
I got interested in iconicity through learning Japanese, which has a large class of iconic words called ideophones or mimetics. Some examples are fuwafuwa ‘fluffy’ and kirakira ‘glittery’. I found these words both fun and useful, because they are highly expressive and can be easily modified to succinctly but precisely depict sensations that, in English for example, we might only be able to describe through a medium like gesture. For instance, when talking about someone crying, you can convey a lot of information about the volume, size, shape, and movement of the tears through the choice of an ideophone like poroporo, boroboro, horohoro or harahara. Poroporo and boroboro are used for round tears ‘bursting out’ in an uncontrolled manner, with boroboro denoting fatter and more intensely overflowing tears than poroporo. A bout of crying in a small child could begin poroporo with small drops, then build up to boroboro tears. Horohoro and harahara, by comparison, involve ‘shedding’ tears in a quieter, more graceful way—tears flowing harahara appear quickly one after the other, whereas horohoro tears are more delineated in drops.

Q: What questions are you seeking to answer in your current research?
I want to know whether the facilitative effects that iconicity has on language learning and processing, and its communicative benefits, also lead it to play a role in language change. I am interested in whether more iconic word forms are more likely to be preserved during the process of language transmission (the passing on of words between generations of speakers, which eventually leads to language change), and whether they are more likely to replace less iconic word forms.

Q: What is your average day like as a researcher?
I started my PhD during the pandemic, so my experience has been different to some researchers’. In my first year I did a lot of online data collection. Crowdsourcing platforms like Prolific have been helpful while running experiments with participants in a lab is difficult. Even though you have less control over how participants conduct the experiment, the rise in online data collection makes the pool of participants more diverse than in lab settings, in which you usually just work with university students. I ask my online participants, who are monolingual English speakers, to listen to Japanese words and try to match them with their meanings based only on how they sound. This helps me to figure out how iconic they are, based on how easily their meanings are guessed.

Now I’m in my second year, we have been able to spend a bit more time on campus and I’ve been learning a lot from other PhD students in my department, and from postdoctoral researchers who have joined our lab. We come from diverse backgrounds. A lot of the people I work with came to linguistics after studying in other fields like biology or mathematics. Working with them has taught me how to look at languages in different ways and has introduced me to a wider range of possibilities for how to analyse linguistic data. I’ve also been collaborating with researchers in England and am looking forward to attending an in-person conference in Oxford in summer 2022, where I’ll present some new results and finally have an opportunity to meet some of my collaborators in person.

Q: Have you published your linguistic research?
I have an article on the Japanese guessing studies in Language and Cognition. I also have an article in Linguistic Typology about the semantic typology of ideophones. It works with implicational hierarchies and relates patterns of cross-linguistic variation in ideophone lexicons, as well as semantic extension in Japanese ideophones, to the depictive affordances of speech. For those interested in language documentation, I have a chapter in an upcoming book by Oxford University Press called Capturing Expressivity: Methods, Tools, and Contexts. It should come out in 2022. My research on iconicity in language change is still very new, but if you keep an eye on my website I’m hoping to soon share some of the results I’ll be presenting at Oxford!

Q: What advice do you have for young linguists, or those seeking to get into postgraduate research?
Be open to everything. When you’re applying for positions, most applications will want you to have a set plan, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. A lot of research is really just serendipity, so don’t be afraid to jump at opportunities when they arise. Also be open to collaboration: a lot of the inspiration for my research has come from tangential work that I’ve done with other people.

Find out more

Taro Gomi (1989) An Illustrated Dictionary of Japanese Onomatopoeic Expressions (translated by J. Turrent), Japan Times.
The introduction to this book is really funny. Taro Gomi doesn’t recommend the Japanese language, but does recommend ‘Japanese onomatopoeic expressions’. His illustrations communicate the clusters of sensory experiences embedded in ideophones’ meanings, and his observations about Japanese onomatopoeia as being connected not so much to the Japanese language itself but to ‘the somewhat grander topic of the nature of words’ reflects his understanding of the role of iconicity in language.

Janis B. Nuckolls (1996) Sounds Like Life: Sound-symbolic Grammar, Performance, and Cognition in Pastaza Quechua (volume 2), Oxford University Press.
This book offers a more anthropological perspective on the cultural significance of iconicity to the Pastaza Quechua. Fascinating, with beautiful linguistic illustrations.

N. J. Enfield (2014) Natural Causes of Language: Frames, Biases and Cultural Transmission, Language Science Press.
Looking at the bigger picture, this book presents an insightful framework for analysing language change in terms of ‘natural causes’.

Pamela Perniss and Gabriella Vigliocco (2014) ‘The bridge of iconicity: From a world of experience to the experience of language’, in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1651).
An excellent overview of the importance of iconicity in connecting language and experience.

Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and N. J. Enfield (2013) ‘Is “Huh?” a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items’, in PloS One, 8(11).
This paper won the Ig Nobel prize for the discovery that ‘huh’ is a universal word. It’s a great example of convergent evolution in language.

Gary Lupyan and Bodo Winter (2018) ‘Language is more abstract than you think, or, why aren’t languages more iconic?’, in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373(1752).
As a counterpoint to the iconicity discussion, this paper explores the role of arbitrariness in conveying abstract meanings.

If you’d like to keep up with my research, you can follow me on Twitter @BonnieMayMcLean, or check my website