How We Talk The Inner Workings of Conversation

By N.J. Enfield

Knowing the Score is perfect reading for armchair philosophers and Monday morning quarterbacks alike.


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We all had teachers who scolded us over the use of um, oh, huh, like, and mm-hmm. But as it turns out, these
“bad words” are actually fundamental to how we speak. They prevent us from talking over one another. They show that we’re paying attention to a friend’s story. And most importantly, they keep the rhythm of conversation on beat.

As linguist N.J. Enfield argues in How We Talk, whether you’re speaking with your boss, your spouse, or the clerk at the coffee shop, language is about more than just sharing information–it’s about cooperation. Conversation is grounded in a uniquely human form of social cognition, held together by a moral code of conduct and high-speed cognitive processing. Across languages, the average time it takes for a person to respond to a question is only 200 milliseconds–less time than it takes to decide to speak, which means we can predict in advance when our interlocutor will stop talking and when we should start. As Enfield reveals, we rely on a system of to-and-fro that is powered by language’s most innocuous–and most shunned–bits. We don’t always acknowledge the importance of a rising tone of voice, a nearly meaningless word, a silence, or a side glance. Linguists have largely overlooked them too. But in the end, these tiny cues are essential to our ability to effectively communicate. Without them, we’d be truly lost.

From the traffic signals of speech to the one universal word, How We Talk revolutionizes our understanding of conversation. In the process, Enfield reveals what makes language universally–and uniquely–human.

Category: Genre: Non-Fiction, Science sku: 9780465059942

Additional information

Weight 13.7 oz
Dimensions 5.88 × 1 × 8.5 in