Welcome back friends and happy spring! (Or fall, as the case may be.) Today’s show takes on a disarmingly simple question: What is language for? As in, why do we say things to each other? What do words do for us? Why do our languages label some aspects of the world, but not others? My guest today is Dr. Nick Enfield. He’s Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney. Nick has authored or edited more than a dozen books on different aspects of human language and communication—books on word meaning, gesture, conversation, social interaction, the languages of Southeast Asia, and more. His latest book, just published by MIT press, is titled Language vs Reality: Why Language is Good for Lawyers and Bad for Scientists. In it, Nick argues that language is pretty awful at capturing reality—but actually that’s fine, because capturing reality isn’t the primary reason we use it. The real reason, in his view, is to coordinate with others.
In this conversation, Nick and I flesh out this way of thinking about language as foremost a social coordination tool. Along the way, we talk about the two “reductions” that happen as brute reality gets transmuted into words. We discuss the economist Thomas Schelling and so-called Schelling maps. We talk about color words and plant names, salt and spoons, the insights of Benjamin Lee Whorf, the idea of “verbal overshadowing,” and a bunch of other phenomena and thinkers.
As I say in the interview, Nick has one of the most expansive views of human language of anyone I know. He draws on anthropology, economics, primatology, developmental psychology, not to mention decades of his own fieldwork in Laos. That expansive—one might say, “many minded”—perspective is on full display here.
Briefly, before we get to the conversation: if you have any ideas for future guests or topics—or want to lodge some criticisms—you can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s email@example.com. We’re always eager to hear from listeners.
Alright friends, now to my conversation with Dr. Nick Enfield. Enjoy!