Nick Enfield is professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney and director of the Sydney Social Science and Humanities Advanced Research Centre. He is head of a Research Excellence Initiative on The Crisis of Post-Truth Discourse. His research on language, culture, cognition and social life is based on long term field work in mainland Southeast Asia, especially Laos. His recent books include Natural Causes of Language, The Utility of Meaning, Distributed Agency, and How We Talk.
We all had teachers who scolded us over the use of um, uh-huh, oh, like, and mm-hmm. But as linguist N. J. Enfield reveals in How We Talk, these “bad words” are fundamental to language.
Whether we are speaking with the clerk at the store, our boss, or our spouse, language is dependent on things as commonplace as a rising tone of voice, an apparently meaningless word, or a glance-signals so small that we hardly pay them any conscious attention. Nevertheless, they are the essence of how we speak. From the traffic signals of speech to the importance of um, How We Talk revolutionizes our understanding of conversation. In the process, Enfield reveals what makes language universally-and uniquely-human.