Friday, November 29, 2013

Nick Enfield: Human Sociality and Systems of Language

Langnet is a Finnish doctoral programme in language studies. Langnet Conference takes place in Jyväskylä from 28th to 30th of November. The program consists of presentations by graduate students and plenary talks by invited scholars. The plenaries are given by Wolfram Bublitz (Augsburg University), Christina Higgins (University of Hawai'i at Manoa), Nick Enfield (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen), and Scott Jarvis (Ohio University).

In 2009, Nick Enfield was awarded European Research Council (ERC) grant to set up a 5-year project under the ERC's Starting Independent Researcher Grant programme. The project 'Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use' has involved extensive fieldwork on several non-European languages. The basic idea has been to test the hypothesis that patterns of language use are universally grounded in social-cognitive interactional propensities. In his talk, entitled 'Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use: the case of "other-initiated repair"', Enfield discussed the background and motivation for the results and presented a number of specific results of his and his colleagues' research.

Enfield started by presenting a transformation of interests in the study of language and cognition. Earlier focus has been in reference and representation. More and more research on language has been considering language as social action and studying sociality of cognition. Enfield's research interests include causal dependencies in semiotic systems, for instance, the interplay between individual cognitive representations and processes, actual communicative interactions, and higher-level systems such as languages. In his talk, Enfield discussed in some detail the relationship between different causal frames or timescales such as diachronic, synchronic, ontogenetic, phylogenetic, microgenetic, and enchronic.

A group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, published recently a result that raised considerable international attention. They suggested that “huh?” is a universal expression based on evidence related to language scattered across five continents. Even though Finnish was not among the 31 languages studies, Finnish media suggested that the Finnish expression "häh" is used all around the world.

Enfield discussed in detail the basis for universality behind the "huh" finding. He presented a pragmatic universals hypothesis: While languages are highly diverse, systems of language use are: (1) largely common across language, and (2) may be locally inflected. Enfield referred to the book "Roots of human sociality: Culture, cognition and interaction", published in 2006, that he and Stephen C. Levinson have edited. Potential reasons for universality include (1) natural meaning, (2) processing, and (3) sociality. Reasons for local inflection includes differences in languages/societies as well as in languages. Enfield's upcoming book is on "Relationship Thinking: Agency, Enchrony, and Human Sociality". The book outlines a framework for analyzing social interaction and its linguistic, cultural, and cognitive underpinnings.

Enfield's own empirical specialization is in the languages of mainland Southeast Asia, especially Lao and Kri. His colleagues and collaborators have collected evidence all over the world. The research method includes six main steps: (1) corpus collection, (2) data workshops, (3) coding design, (4) coding work, (5) ensuring reliability, (6) preparation of results.

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