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Many Minds

Apr 13, 2022

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 That's We're always eager to hear from listeners.

Alright friends, now to my conversation with Dr. Nick Enfield. Enjoy!


A transcript of this episode is available here.


Notes and links

10:00 – Dr. Enfield’s 2002 edited book on “ethnosyntax.” Here is a brief overview of serial verb constructions.

15:30 – Dr. Enfield has another book coming out later this year, with Jack Sidnell, titled Consequences of Language.

20:00 – The website of the influential semanticist Anna Wierzbicka, one of Dr. Enfield’s early mentors.

22:45 – Roger Brown’s classic 1958 paper ‘How shall a thing be called?’

24:30 – Daniel Dor’s 2015 book, The Instruction of the Imagination.

25:40 – A popular article about the contributions of the economist Thomas Schelling. Another article on his notion of “focal points.”

37:00 – The classic treatment of color terms across languages is Berlin & Kay’s 1991 book Basic Color Terms.

40:00 – Dr. Enfield spent a large portion of his early career at the MPI for Psycholinguistics.

44:45 – The classic treatment of plant names across cultures is Berlin’s book, Ethnobiological Classification.

49:30 – Dr. Enfield has been documenting Kri, an indigenous language in Laos.

53:00 – The classic study on “verbal overshadowing” was done by Schooler & Engstler-Schooler in 1990.

58:20 – A classic paper by Krebs and Dawkins on signaling in nonhuman animals.

1:00:00 – The website of the influential (late) linguist Wallace Chafe.

1:08:30 – A widely-circulated 2013 paper by Dr. Enfield and colleagues on whether “huh” is a universal word. Spoiler: it seems to be.

1:10:00 - The researcher Jim Hurford has written several influential books on the evolution of language.


Dr. Enfield recommends:

Origins of Human Communication, by Michael Tomasello

Social Intelligence and Interaction, edited by Esther Goody

Language, Thought, and Reality, by Benjamin Lee Whorf

You can read more about Dr. Enfield’s work at his website and follow him on Twitter.


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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