Saturday, May 19, 2018

mm-Hmmm ...

The critical elements of conversation that somehow didn't make it into the "language". A review of How We Talk, by N. J. Enfield.

Written language is a record of elision. The first written languages were hardly more than accounting symbols, and many early forms of writing lacked basic things like vowels and punctuation. The written forms are a shorthand, for those practiced in the art of spoken language to fill in the blanks, and they still hide a great deal today. For example, the same letter, such as "a" can stand for several vowel sounds, as in ate, art, ahh, am, awe. Another rich part of the language left on the editing room floor are completely unrecorded (except by authors of dialog looking for unusual verisimilitude) sounds, like um, ah, huh, mm-hmmm and the like. N. J. Enfield makes the case that, far from being uncouth interjections, these are critical parts of the language, indeed, part of an elaborate "conversation machine" which is one behavior that distinguishes humans from other animals.

Arabic, a language commonly written without vowels.

When we are in conversation, time is of the essence. We expect attentiveness and quick responses. It is a relationship with moral aspects- with obligations on each side. The speaker should repeat things when asked, not take up too much of the floor, provide clear endings to turns. Enfield describes a very disciplined timing system, where, at least in Japan, responses begin before the first speaker has stopped. Other cultures vary, but everyone responds within half a second. Otherwise, something is discernably wrong. One thing this schedule indicates is that there is a sing-song pattern within the speaker's production that signals the ending of a speaking turn well before it happens. The other is that there is an serious obligation to respond. Not doing so will draw a followup or even rebuke from the speaker. Waiting more time to respond is itself a signal, that the response is not what is desired.. perhaps a "no". It can also be softened by an "uh" or "er" kind of filler that again signals that the responder is 1. having some difficulty processing, and 2. paving the way for a negative response.

Likewise, "mm-Hmm" is a fully functional and honorable part of the language- the real one used in conversation. It is the encouraging sign that the listener is holding up her part of the bargain, paying attention to the speaker continuously. Failing to provide such signs leads the speaker to miss a necessary interaction, and interject.. "Are you listening?".

Finally, Enfield deals with "Huh?", a mechanism listeners use to seek repair of speech that was unclear or unexpected. When a response runs late, it may switch to "Huh?", in a bid to say that processing is incapable of making sense of what the speaker said, please repeat or clarify. But at the same time, if something of the original speech can be salvaged, listeners are much more likely to ask for specific missing information, like "Who?", or "where was that?" or the like. This again shows the moral engine at work, with each participant working as hard as they can to minimize the load on the other, and move the conversation forward in timely fashion.

Huh is also a human universal, one that Enfield supposes came about by functional, convergent evolution, due to its great ease of expression. When we are in a relaxed, listening state, this is the sound we can most easily throw out with a simple breath ... to tell the speaker that something went off track, and needs to be repeated. It is, aside from clearly onomatopoeic expressions, the only truly universal word among humans.

A conversation without words.

It is a more slender book than it seems, devoted to little more than the expressions "uh", "mmm-Hmmm", and "Huh?". Yet it is very interesting to regard conversation from this perspective as a cooperation machine, much more complex than those of other species, even those who are quite vocal, like birds and other apes. But it still leaves huge amounts of our face-to-face conversational engine in the unconscious shadows. For we talk with our hands, faces, and whole bodies as well. Even with clothes. And even more interesting is the nature of music in relation to all this. It is in speech and in our related vocal intimacies and performances that music first happens. Think of a story narration- it involves not only poetry of language, but richly modulated vocal performance that draws listeners along and, among much else, signals beginnings, climaxes, endings, sadness and happiness. This seems to be the language of tone that humans have lately transposed into the free-er realms of instrumental music and other music genres. Analyzing that language remains something of an uncharted frontier.


  • Machines can do it too.
  • Varieties of technoreligion.
  • Monopoly is a thing.
  • Appalling display of religious fundamentalism: The US ambassador to Israel refers to old testament and 3,000 year old rights of Israel. If other 3,000 year old land claims were to be honored, the US would be in substantial peril!
  • In praise of Jimmy Carter.
  • Collapse or innovation.. can we outrun the Malthusian treadmill?
  • Truth and Rex Tillerson.
  • Sunlight makes us feel better.
  • We still have a public sector pension crisis.
  • Economic graph of the week. Worker quit rates are slowly rising. Will that affect pay?

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