As linguist N. J. Enfield argues in How We Talk, whether you’re speaking with your boss, your spouse, or the clerk at a 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 interlocutors 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.