What is language for20 20 Many20 Minds
May 16, 2022

What is Language For? with Dr. Nick Enfield (podcast)

Drawing on anthropology, economics, primatology, psychology, and decades of fieldwork in Laos a linguistics researcher talks about language as a social coordination tool.

By Templeton Staff

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? 

For this episode of the TWCF-supported podcast Many Minds, linguistics researcher Dr. Nick Enfield takes on the disarmingly simple question "What is language for?" Nick Enfield is a professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney and director of the Sydney Social Science and Humanities Advanced Research Center. His research addresses the intersection of language, cognition, social interaction, and culture, and is based on long-term fieldwork in mainland Southeast Asia, especially Laos.

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

"My guest today 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.


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 is to coordinate with others.


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, and 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."

Play the full episode with the above player.

Learn more about Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences priority.

Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast 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. Artwork is by Ben Oldroyd.