My research is fundamentally curiosity-driven. I have a particular fascination for unruly facts that prompt us to innovate methods and theory. Plenty of those are available in the topics I have come to focus on, which include social interaction, iconicity and synaesthesia.
My work on social interaction focuses on language in its natural ecology: conversation. In the past decade I helped pioneer a new field of pragmatic typology —the comparative study of conversational structures— and discovered some striking new universals of language along the way. I think the role of interaction in shaping language and cognition is greatly underestimated. A Vidi talent grant enables me to develop this work into an interdisciplinary research programme: ‘Elementary particles of conversation’ (2018-2023). See publications on interaction.
My work on iconicity —resemblance between aspects of form and meaning in language— is part of a new wave of research that shows iconicity to be of key importance in understanding cultural evolution, multimodal communication, and language learning. My empirical specialisation in this area is a special type of words known as ideophones, found in many of the world’s languages. A Veni talent grant (2014-2018) helped me develop this line of work, that started with my 2011 PhD thesis. See publications on iconicity.
Closely related to the work on iconicity is an interest in synaesthesia and cross-modal associations. Here I study what the intermingling of the senses can tell us about language and vice versa. Our work on vowel-colour associations has shown that practically everyone, synaesthete or not, link vowel and colour spaces in structurally similar ways, and that even the fully automatic colour associations of synaesthetes are modulated by linguistic knowledge. See publications on synaesthesia.
Interwoven with all of the above is a consistent interest in theory and methods in the language sciences. This involves the full empirical cycle, from pioneering new methods in the field and in the lab to articulating new theoretical proposals. One thing I love about language is that it is a meeting point for diverse disciplines from across the humanities and cognitive and social sciences. This is also reflected in my work as consulting editor for Linguistics, Collabra, and the open access book series Conceptual Foundations of Language Science. See publications on theory and methods.
Much of my work is collaborative and team-based. Within the Elementary Particles of Conversation project I work closely with postdoctoral researcher Marieke Woensdregt. I’m a PI in the Multimodal Language and Communication group at CLS/MPI and a member of the Communicative Alignment in Brain and Behaviour lab, funded by the Language in Interaction consortium. International collaborators include Riccardo Fusaroli (Interacting Minds Center, Aarhus) and Sabine Stoll (ACQDIV, Zürich).
On the topic of ideophones and iconicity I have a long running collaboration with Kimi Akita of Nagoya University. Further international collaborators on iconicity-related topics include Pamela Perniss (Cologne), Marcus Perlman (Birmingham), Alan Nielsen (Lethbridge), Bodo Winter (Birmingham), and Márton Sóskuthy (UBC). And with regard to synaesthesia, I’m fortunate enough to work on with Tessa van Leeuwen (Donders Institute, Nijmegen) and more recently Christine Cuskley (Newcastle) and Simon Kirby (Edinburgh).
I’m currently supervising these wonderful PhD students:
- Marlou Rasenberg (with Asli Özyürek), working on multimodal alignment and mutual understanding in interaction . Marlou is a fellow member of the Communicative Alignment in Brain and Behaviour lab and the Multimodal Language and Cognition group.
- Laura van de Braak (with Iris van Rooij, Mark Blokpoel and Ivan Toni), working on developing formal solutions and computational models of knowledge updating and mutual understanding in interaction. Laura is based at the Donders Center for Cognition.
- Bonnie McLean (with Michael Dunn), working on the phylogenetics of ideophones and iconicity. Bonnie is based at Uppsala University.
I’ve been privileged to supervise these PhDs:
- Dr. Julija Baranova, assistant professor in the Psychology and Language & Communication departments at Radboud University. Check out her thesis on Reason-giving in everyday activities (2020) or her first-author article Reasons for requests, nominated for Best Student Paper at the 2014 International Conference on Conversation Analysis.
- Dr. Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland. His 2019 PhD thesis From Kawapanan to Shawi: Topics in language variation and change won the Dutch Linguistic Society’s Prize for best Dissertation in Linguistics that year.
- Dr. Gwilym Lockwood, data scientist at The Information Lab in London and MS Paint artist extraordinaire. Check out his 2017 thesis Talking sense: The behavioural and neural correlates of sound symbolism or the widely cited review we did on ideophones and sound-symbolism.
My work has been recognized with the following honours and awards
- Nomination New Scientist Wetenschapstalent 2017 (top 25 junior scientific talents in the Netherlands)
- Ig Nobel prize (for research that “first makes you laugh, then think”) for our discovery that ‘Huh?’ is probably a universal word (2015)
- Otto Hahn Medal for outstanding scientific achievements, from the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (2013)
- AVT/Anéla Award for Best Dissertation in Linguistics (2012)
See also my curriculum vitae for more details.