Nick Enfield | How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation
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How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation

Publisher: Basic Books, New York
N. J. Enfield

We all had teachers who scolded us over the use of umuh-huhohlike, 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.

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“[Enfield’s] sparkling book, How We Talk, sets out to show that the power of the ‘conversation machine’ is as astonishing as any of our grammatical achievements, and that how we direct our fast-paced exchanges challenges how we think about human nature.”

New Scientist


“Conversation, it turns out, is a finely tuned machine, as Nick Enfield…suggests in How We Talk…From a certain point of view, what is fascinating about human conversation is not how hard it is, but how we subconsciously co-operate to make it seem easy.”



“Has anyone—a parent, teacher, or boss—told you to purge the words ‘um’ and ‘uh’ from your conversation?…In How We Talk…Nick Enfield rescues those words (and everyone who uses them) from censure…expos[ing] the fascinating and intricate workings of what he calls the human conversation machine.”

NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture


“Enfield opens a window on linguistic dimensions far beyond grammar.”



“In Enfield’s analysis, human conversation across cultures is defined by a social unease that begins to develop after a break of 600 milliseconds or so. One of the primary purposes of ums and ahhs is a kindness to those around us, a fulfilling of a neighborly duty that keeps others from growing worried or disengaged from the social encounter…Persuasive.”

Washington Free Beacon


“Enfield calls for more focus on conversation as a key to understanding ‘what makes language possible in our species,’ and he does it in clear prose, and with the use of 30-odd graphs and charts.”

Winnipeg Free Press


“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…This survey performs the neat trick of offering enormous amounts of complex material in a format that remains utterly accessible.”

Publishers Weekly


“If you think grammar is all about nouns, verbs, gender and the subjunctive, N.J. Enfield’s new book will transform what you think of language as being all about. At heart language is about communicating with others in rapid-fire conversation, and linguists have found that conversation has rules just as sentence-making does. You may have heard that ‘mama’ and ‘papa’ are universal words—but Enfield will teach you that ‘huh?’ is a third one. If you want to feel sophisticated just in being able to have a two minute conversation on the phone, How We Talk is the book for you.”

John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University and author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black


“N. J. Enfield is one of the most brilliant, innovative, and insightful researchers to ever work on language as a cultural construct. How We Talk is a superbly readable summary of his and others’ work. It is a book that anyone interested in our species, communication, and the delight of learning should read. I loved every page of it.”

Daniel L. Everett, author of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle and How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention


“N.J. Enfield’s How We Talk is a delight. The book is not about the grammar, vocabulary, or usage of language, but rather about how we collaborate with each other in everyday conversation. Enfield’s topics range from taking turns, forestalling delays, and assuring mutual understanding, to features of talk that are universal and play a role in the evolution of language. Enfield and his colleagues have investigated everyday talk in languages, both major and minor, from every corner of the world, so he is a true authority on these issues. Best of all, he makes these issues come alive for us readers.”

Herbert H. Clark, Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Stanford University


“N. J. Enfield’s new book explains how everyday conversation—language we just take for granted—is all at once both ordinary and extraordinary, and how that paradox defines our very humanity. Full of examples that feel familiar, it’s nonetheless a book full of surprises, written in a straightforward, friendly style distilled from long experience of making complicated things clear.”

Michael Adams, Provost Professor of English, Indiana University at Bloomington, and author of In Praise of Profanity and Slang: The People’s Poetry


12/9/17Innovation Hub (WGBH/Public Radio International) —Interview
TKLanguage in Society—Review
TKLibrary Journal—Review
11/30/17Nature—Books in Brief
11/11/17New Scientist—Review
10/28/17Wall Street Journal—Weekend Review essay (online 10/27/17)
8/28/17Publishers Weekly—Review
9/1/17Psychology Today—Mention
TKNBC News/Better—Author quoted in article about why we say “um”
TKScientific American / Science Talk podcast—Interview
1/9/18 Quartz at Work—Essay
12/31/17Spirituality & Practice—Review
12/12/17Lit Hub Daily—Linked to Atlantic
11/18/17Washington Free Beacon—Review
11/16/17Quartz—Article about book
11/13/17NPR / 13.7: Cosmos & Culture—Review
8/22/17Slate / Lexicon Valley—Mention
8/1/17Reader’s Digest/—Mention
11/14/17 Wisconsin Public Radio / The Morning Show—Live interview
2/15/18Let’s Talk / Talk Radio Europe (Spain)—Interview
12/22/17Moda News (Italy)—Article
12/16/17 Winnipeg Free Press (Winnipeg, Canada)—Review
12/4/17The Drawing Room (ABC Radio National, Australia)—Interview
12/1/17Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, Australia)—Review
12/1/17Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada)—Q&A in Ideas section
11/18/17Toronto Star (Toronto, Canada)—Excerpt in Insight section
11/14/17CJAD-AM / The Leslie Roberts Show (Montreal, Canada)—Interview