cover image How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation

How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation

N.J. Enfield. Basic, $27 (272p) ISBN 978-0-465-05994-2

Linguistic anthropologist Enfield (Dependencies in Language) sets out to address what he frames as a major hole in our scientific understanding of human language: conversation, “where language lives and breathes.” He notes that linguistic studies tend to focus exclusively on formal, typically written language, and argues cogently that, far from the “messy back and forth” it sometimes seems, conversation is precisely and actively managed, a finely tuned product of social cooperation that only humans are known to achieve. His special focus falls on some of the most common (and commonly reviled) utterances in English (with references to comparable expressions in other languages), such as “huh,” “um,” and “uh.” Traditionally ignored in academic study, these tiny pieces of conversational glue turn out to be vitally important, functioning as facilitators of social cooperation. Enfield makes a solid case for more focus—and fieldwork—on conversation as a key to understanding “what makes language possible in our species.” He does all this in clear and casually authoritative prose, with reference to copious examples—study results, yes, but also snippets of “language in its wild environment”—which make his arguments easy to understand. This survey performs the neat trick of offering enormous amounts of complex material in a format that remains utterly accessible. (Nov.)