Betsy Pillion, Sarah Kopper & Lenore Grenoble @ LVC on Friday, February 12th

Friday, February 12th @ 3:00PM in Rosenwald 015

“Is ‘huh’ really a universal word? Clicks, kisses & whistles in Cameroon”

Betsy Pillion, Sarah Kopper & Lenore Grenoble
University of Chicago, MSU, University of Chicago

Cameroon, a linguistically diverse country of more than 240 languages, is host to a set of cross- linguistic communicative signals that are ubiquitous in the common space.

In this work, we describe a system of extra-grammatical sounds in use in a variety of speech communities in southern Cameroon attested in four Bantu languages, with three Narrow Bantu varieties: Basaa (A40), closely related Bakoko (A40), and Bulu (A70), all spoken in the Littoral, Central and South regions, and one Grasslands language, Ngoshie, spoken in the Northwest (classification from Hammerstöm et al. 2015). Although not integrated into a morphosyntactic frame, these sounds are meaningful units with specific discourse functions. We identify these sounds as members of a larger class of what we call verbal gestures, defined by a set of functional and structural characteristics. Such sounds are often found in exclamations, animal calls and borrowed words; some may be considered as constituting a secondary phonemic system (Fries & Pike 1949; Harris 1951). Although they are extragrammatical, some have clear lexical meaning and serve as lexical substitutes, while others are more gesture-like in conveying pragmatic, but not lexico-semantic, meaning. Some are segmental and others extra-segmental.

Our data point to a complex system of these verbal gestures. In this paper we describe five that are highly salient across multiple languages:

Table 1: Verbal gestures

form function linguistic communities
(stop-)sibilant attention getting Bulu, Ngoshie, Bakoko, Basaa
whistle calling Bakoko, Basaa
bilabial-lateral click negative affect Bulu, Ngoshie, Bakoko, Basaa
lateral click back channel Ngoshie, Basaa
bilabial click dog call/“wolf whistle” Bulu, Ngoshie, Bakoko, Basaa

The clicks form a special subclass of verbal gestures referred to as tʃámlà in Basaa. In addition, a highly salient use of F0 contours occurs in gestures for calling across distances. These gestures have wide recognition across a large area of the country even though consultants self-identify as speaking different first languages. Thus they exhibit a high degree of salience across speech communities while simultaneously displaying variation, individual variation as well as across speakers and languages. For example, the attention-getting gesture, a hiss, is sometimes uttered with a consonantal onset (e.g. [kss], [dss], [pss]), or as an elongated [s:]. The extent to which this is due to differences in speech communities has not yet been determined.

The identification of the category of verbal gestures has cross-linguistic implications. Their use is universal and can account for claims such as Dingemanse et al. (2013) that ‘huh’ is a universal “word.” In our theory, it is a verbal gesture, with differences in phonetics and discourse functions attributable to language differences. Furthermore, our classification expands the study of non-phonemic clicks in the languages of Africa and provides more details about the actual use of the so-called paralinguistic clicks described by Gil (2011), with some (albeit tentative) support of his hypothesis that the extra- grammatical use of clicks may have spread from Africa.

Data for this study was collected from fieldwork conducted in Yaoundé, Édéa, and Buea, Cameroon in summer 2015.


Dingemanse, Mark, Francisco Torreira, N.J. Enfield. 2013. Is “huh” a universal word? Conver- sational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items. PLoS ONE 8(11): e78273. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078273

Fries, Charles C. & Kenneth L. Pike. 1949. Coexistent phonemic systems. Language 25: 29-50.

Gil, David. 2011. Para-linguistic usages of clicks. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), The world atlas of language structures online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 142. Available online at Accessed on 2015-11-09

Hammarström, Harald, Rober Forkel, Martin Haspelmath & Sebastian Bank. 2015. Glottolog 2.6. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. (, Accessed on 2015-11-09.)

Harris, Zellig S. 1951. Methods in structural linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McNeill, David. 1992. Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Updated Schedule for Winter 2016

LVC is pleased to announce the following updated schedule for our remaining talks of the Winter quarter. All will be held on Fridays from 3:00-4:30 in Rosenwald 015.

February 12th: Betsy Pillion, Sarah Kopper & Lenore Grenoble (University of Chicago & MSU)
“Is ‘huh’ really a universal word? Clicks, kisses & whistles in Cameroon”

March 1st (TUES): Yukinori Takubo (Kyoto University) – alternate time & place, TBA
Title TBA

March 11th: Britta Ingebretson (University of Chicago)
Title TBA

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LVC on Friday Jan 15 CANCELLED

Unfortunately LVC has to announce that this weeks talk by Hans Boas has been cancelled due to family emergency. We know you were excited, but there are still plenty of upcoming LVC talks to look forward to, including a talk by Rajend Mesthrie next week! Check out the schedule below for the events scheduled in January.

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LVC Schedule for January 2016

Happy New Year! LVC is pleased to announce the following talks and workshops for the Month of January. All events will be held on Fridays from 3:00-4:30 in Rosenwald 301, unless otherwise noted!

January 15th: Hans Boas (The University of Texas at Austin) Title: TBA

January 20th: Rajend Mesthrie (University of Cape Town) Title: TBA         IMPORTANT: This is scheduled for Wednesday January 20th, not the regular Friday meeting time. More information forthcoming.

January 29th: ELAN workshop featuring Jordan Fenlon & Jon Keane (University of Chicago)

Updates on presentation topics and future events will be posted later in the quarter!

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Itxaso Rodríguez-Ordóñez @ LVC on Friday, December 4th

Friday, December 4th @ 3:00PM in Rosenwald 301

Understanding Basque Differential Object Marking from Typological, Contact and Attitudinal perspectives

Itxaso Rodríguez-Ordóñez
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Differential Object Marking (DOM) has enjoyed abundant scholarly interest insomuch as theoretical explanations of its key parameters (Aissen 2003; Malchukov and Swart 2008; Hoop and Swart 2007), language-specific constraints (Leonetti 2004; Seifart 2012; Sinnemaki 2014) and synchronic and diachronic accounts in various languages (Morimoto and Swart 2004; Robertson 2007). However, less attention has been paid to the role that language contact plays in the emergence of DOM or the processes that lead to its variable use in contact settings. Basque DOM has been characterized as the product of intense contact with Basque-Spanish leísmo (Austin 2006; Rodríguez-Ordóñez, 2015), but its variable use and the role that attitudes play in its use remain understudied.

Using spontaneous speech of 70 Basque-Spanish bilinguals and 19 Basque-French bilinguals in combination of experimental techniques on production and perception, I provide evidence to the argument that Basque DOM involves a process of replica grammaticalization (Heine and Kuteva 2010) in which contact features and typological constraints work interactively, particularly dependent upon the language dominance of the speaker. The low use among L2 speakers is explained through the attitudinal results; Basque DOM is considered ‘defective’ and ‘non-authentic’ in Standard Basque, the variety of L2 and early sequential bilinguals. It is proposed that these speakers do not use Basque DOM so that their ‘authentic Basque identity’ is not fully questioned.

The present study builds upon theoretical and methodological implications: first, it argues that a multi-disciplinary study of contact-phenomena advances our theory on the interplay of language as ‘human faculty’ and ‘social competence’ in which bilinguals engage in a linguistic task that involve cognitive processing mechanisms and the ability to implement societal norms (Matras 2010). Second, it advocates for the formal study of language attitudes as an integrated part of a theory of contact-linguistics.

Posted in Experimental, invited talks, language contact, morphology, social variation, syntax | Leave a comment

Ross Burkholder @ LVC & LCC on Friday, November 13th

Friday, November 13th @ 3:00 PM in Rosenwald 301

Language use in MOBA Gaming Communities

Ross Burkholder
University of Chicago

In this talk I discuss a recent project investigating language use in Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games, focusing in particular on language use in the community surrounding the game DOTA 2. During the course of this talk I hope to describe, compare, and highlight specific areas of language use in MOBAs.

Describe: What kind of language is being used in-game?
– How do variables effect individuals language use?
– How has language use changed over time?

Compare: How does the register used in MOBA games compare to…
– Other MOBAs?
– Other online gaming communities?
– Other computer mediated language?

Highlight: How does the multilingual nature of the community effect language use?
– What strategies are used when no mutual language is available?
– How are responses to multilingualism framed and formed?

In order to answer these questions, this study makes use of a small (but growing) corpus of game replay files, looking at various frequencies, concordances, and collocations. As this project is in the beginning phases, there will be more emphasis during the talk on the formulation of research questions, and the methodologies used in order to answer them, than on the presentation of results. Discussion of all aspects of this project is strongly encouraged.

Posted in computational, language contact, linguistic anthropology, student talks, Uncategorized | Leave a comment