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An inverse relation between expressiveness and grammatical integration: On the morphosyntactic typology of ideophones, with special reference to Japanese 1


Words and phrases may differ in the extent to which they are susceptible to prosodic foregrounding and expressive morphology: their expressiveness. They may also differ in the degree to which they are integrated in the morphosyntactic structure of the utterance: their grammatical integration. We describe an inverse relation that holds across widely varied languages, such that more expressiveness goes together with less grammatical integration, and vice versa. We review typological evidence for this inverse relation in ten spoken languages, then quantify and explain it using Japanese corpus data. We do this by tracking ideophones – vivid sensory words also known as mimetics or expressives – across different morphosyntactic contexts and measuring their expressiveness in terms of intonation, phonation and expressive morphology. We find that as expressiveness increases, grammatical integration decreases. Using gesture as a measure independent of the speech signal, we find that the most expressive ideophones are most likely to come together with iconic gestures. We argue that the ultimate cause is the encounter of two distinct and partly incommensurable modes of representation: the gradient, iconic, depictive system represented by ideophones and iconic gestures, and the discrete, arbitrary, descriptive system represented by ordinary words. The study shows how people combine modes of representation in speech and demonstrates the value of integrating description and depiction into the scientific vision of language.

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      An inverse relation between expressiveness and grammatical integration: On the morphosyntactic typology of ideophones, with special reference to Japanese 1
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Corresponding author
Author’s address: Language & Cognition Department, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, P.O. Box 310, 6500 AH Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Author’s address: School of Languages and Cultures, Nagoya University, Furo-cho, Chikusa-ku, Nagoya-shi, Aichi 464-8601, Japan
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We thank NHK for allowing us to use the data from the Earthquake Archives, and Kyosuke Yamamoto for helping with the reliability check. Thanks to Nick Enfield, Gwilym Lockwood, Tayo Takada, Noburo Saji, Francisco Torreira, and three anonymous Journal of Linguistics referees for providing helpful comments. This research was supported by the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science and an NWO Veni grant (MD) and by Grants-in-Aid for Young Scientists (24720179, 15K16741) and Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (C) (25370425) (KA).

Interlinear glosses follow the Leipzig Glossing Rules. An anonymised version of the data with all R code underlying the analyses is available through the Open Science Framework at

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