The book How We Talk, written by N. J. Enfield and published in 2017, is a fascinating study of the rhythm of language. It turns out that there are rigid, universal rules governing the back-and-forth flow of human conversation, and Enfield (among others) has spent his career carefully deriving them from actual recordings of various kinds of conversations in various languages.

Careful study of recorded conversations reveals, for example, that we generally reply to something some says to us within 0.2 seconds. People do this in all the languages which have been studied so far (and there are many). There is no comparable fast back-and-forth rule among other animals.

Enfield reports on many other aspects of conversational timing. For example, if you are about to give someone an answer different from the one he/she anticipated, you will wait a bit longer before replying.

“Huh?”, “What?”, “Pardon?”. The whole book makes interesting reading, but the part that interested me most was the chapter on “Repair”.  This chapter concerns the way we deal with uncertainties in conversation, and how we confirm that we have heard the other person correctly. (There are abundant examples of this in almost every conversation among Kendal residents!)

Consider the following conversational snippet, cited in the book, about a person named Dippert.

A: Dippert’s there too.

B: Huh?

A: Dippert is there too.

B: Oh, is he?

Here, the word “Huh?” signals B’s failure to understand A’s message. (In more formal circles, “Pardon?” or “Sorry?” serves this function.) The word “Oh” signals that B has understood.

Sometimes, only part of the message is missed:

 A: Dippert’s there too.

B: Who?

A: Dippert is there too.

B: Oh, Dippert.

The word “Who?” conveys that B has only missed the name of the person involved, but has understood the rest of the message.

Exchanges like these happen all the time in conversation, in all languages.

And the word “Huh?” (pronounced in a remarkably similar way) occurs in just about every language that has been studied. Enfield provides a list of 15 examples, from both common and obscure languages and from every corner of the globe.

If you have an interest in words and the way conversation is structured, you would enjoy reading How We Talk. It is available through the Chester County library system.