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A Relationship Thinker – An Interview with Nick Enfield

A Relationship Thinker – An Interview with Nick Enfield

niin & näin 3/20

An Australian researcher, Nick Enfield (b. 1966) has written and (co-)edited almost 20 books and huge number of articles on different fields of linguistics. In addition to descriptions of languages spoken in Mainland Southeast Asia, he has thought extensively about metatheory of linguistics: how can we investigate language? The professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney discusses his work with niin & näin.

You are a linguistic anthropologist. How did you become interested in linguistics and anthropology in the first place? Which one came first?

Photo: nickenfield.org.

I became interested in language from a young age. My grandfather studied both Japanese and German, as a hobby, in the wake of the Second World War. And my uncle ran an English language school for foreign students in Sydney. He studied French. As a kid, I used to visit the school and meet people from all sorts of places in the world. I was always inspired to travel and encounter different languages, cultures, and environments, not only by those experiences but also through fiction and film about other parts of the world, anything from James Bond to the Adventures of Tintin. I was also obsessed with the world atlas, which I would pore over as a kid, memorizing the world’s countries and their borders and coastlines. I tried studying at university straight out of high school, first doing random general arts subjects (philosophy, linguistics, Latin, history) then doing journalism and communications, but I decided to take a ‘gap year’ instead. That included nine months travelling in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, East and West Africa and Europe before settling back into university studies at the ANU in Canberra, where I did Asian Studies and linguistics. I never studied anthropology formally. But anthropology was always part of the kind of linguistics that I was trained to do: socially-situated, culturally-informed, fieldwork-based. Over subsequent years I have worked professionally with many anthropologists, particularly in the subfield of linguistic anthropology (especially Jack Sidnell and Paul Kockelman, co-editors of the Cambridge handbook of Linguistic Anthropology1).

Your first monograph titled Linguistic Epidemiology2 was about language contact in Mainland Southeast Asia. It is based on field studies in somewhat extreme conditions. What is like to do research in jungle?

I wouldn’t say that the research in that book was carried out under extreme conditions. I did most of the work in towns and cities of Southeast Asia including Vientiane, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, and various smaller towns. They are comfortable and convenient places to work. But just after the 2003 book was published, I began conducting research on a language called Kri, an Austroasiatic language spoken by a few hundred people in an isolated hilltop region of central Laos. On my first few field trips, the area was only accessible by foot. Even with some boat travel to shorten the travel time over certain sections of the journey, reaching the villages would still require a two-day walk. The hike was spectacular, through incredible rainforest areas. The downside of course was the isolation while on field work. If anything went wrong, for example a medical situation, I would have been two days walk from road transport. This was simply a part of daily life for the people living there. Field work in an isolated village community can be challenging. It is especially demanding because you are immersed, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in a world that is not your own. It can be boring and lonely. And you have to get used to many things being beyond your control. On the other hand, field work is exhilarating in many ways. It requires good preparation and commitment but the payoffs are fantastic. One payoff is the sense of perspective that you get on your own life world. It jolts you out of a sense that your own life is normal. You realise that your own way of life is just one among many.

You have studied extensively the Lao and Kri languages in particular, why? Seen from Finland, Vietnam, Laos and other countries in the area seem culturally and geographically very far from Australia. How does it look like from there?

Mainland Southeast Asia is considered to be in the same region as Australia. People from China have lived in Australia since the Gold Rush in the mid 19th century. In the post Vietnam War period, from the late 1970s, there was a major influx of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. So, for people living in urban areas of Australia, Southeast Asia doesn’t seem far away.

"The ethnographer brings prints of photographs to Mrka taken from a prior visit: this is cause for an impromptu celebratory gathering in the village head's house. Here an aunt and niece enjoy the excitement of new photos." Source: thekri.org.


It seems to me that your work could be characterized in terms of four intertwined ideas or themes: naturalism, combining case studies with meta-theoretical considerations, interdisciplinarity, and "relationship thinking"? Am I completely mistaken?

I haven’t thought about it like that, but I think you are not mistaken. Regarding point 1, I don’t think I’ve ever used the term ‘naturalism’ in my work, but certainly I find it crucial that all claims about language and culture be grounded in causal processes based in natural reality. My 2014 book Natural Causes of Language3 lays out a conceptual scheme for thinking this way about language, and about culture more broadly. Regarding point 2 on the combination of case studies and theory, this reflects my view that if you are going to think theoretically about a research domain, you need to underpin that with an understanding of your domain through significant empirical work. My first research supervisor, the linguist Bob Dixon, is a theoretician of language but has also always insisted on in-depth and sustained empirical work. For example, he has said that you aren’t a ‘real linguist’ until you’ve written a comprehensive grammatical description of a language.

I think there are many kinds of linguist, but I agree that there is no better path to understanding the phenomenon of human language than to personally confront the full breadth of puzzles that any given language will throw at you, from phonetics and phonology to morphology, syntax, and discourse. It’s a solid foundation, from which you can then go on to other things, for example the cultural context of language or the semiotic context of language, including things like facial expression and hand gesture. On point 3, it’s simply the case that language touches on every aspect of human existence, from perception and cognition to meaning and value to performance and politics. Without an interdisciplinarity approach you could not hope to answer the deeper puzzles of language in any adequate way. And on point 4, I see language as primarily a social coordination device. Nothing in language makes sense except in the light of relationships.

Let’s start with the first two themes. Already in your first monograph, you relied on field research in order to argue that particular languages should be seen as collections of speakers and linguistic items rather than, as you put it, as abstract totalities in a metaphorical sense. In this work you stress the importance of a causal approach when it comes to explaining language change and language contacts. In your later book Natural Causes of Language, you try to explain the micro-macro relations in a similar way. How is it possible for uses of utterances and linguistic items in particular occasions to form an entire system of a language? There seems to be a tension between language as an abstract system and as something to be explained in terms of causality. Would you say that naturalism, or causal explanation, provides the starting point for your research into language? If so, why is this so important? How does this approach differ from that of other researchers?

The science of language has many subfields, which work with different temporal and causal units of analysis. For example, some people research the structures of language, others look at how languages are learned, others look at how they change over time, others look at language in social interaction. If these subfields don’t work together, they will fail to see the causal links that mediate the phenomena they study, which means in turn that they will fail to adequately understand and explain their own phenomena of interest, nor will they take us any closer to understanding language in a broad sense. An exception to this in linguistics is the increasingly close relationship between linguistic typology and historical linguistics: the finding that the distribution of linguistic types is partly explained by historical processes. But other frames are still waiting to be incorporated.

Early in my research career, I was influenced by a range of sources that emphasize the importance of causal connections between the real-time decisions and actions of individuals and the higher-level structural and historical effects of those decisions. Economist Adam Smith famously wrote in his book The Wealth of Nations about the ‘invisible hand’ that translates individual preferences into systemic patterns. In a 1968 paper on ‘Empirical foundations for a theory of language change’ sociolinguists Uriel Weinreich, Bill Labov, and Marvin Herzog introduced the ‘actuation problem’, the puzzle of why a specific language change actually takes place when it does. In a 1984 commentary titled ‘Psychological Constraints on Language’, psychologists Herb Clark and Barbara Malt point to the ‘linkage’ problem: how are individual mental processes causally linked to historical changes in language? In sociology, the ‘micro-macro’ problem is a long-standing issue; for example, the 1998 book Social Mechanisms, edited by sociologists Peter Hedström and Richard Swedburg, sought ways to do away with the ‘black boxes’ in our understanding of the link between micro-level individual actions and the macro-level patterns that result. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book The Tipping Point did a good job at laying out the issues for a broad audience. These voices pushed me to keep thinking about the micro-macro problem in any attempt at explaining the social phenomenon that is language.4

In your work, you refer to various fields of study from psychology and sociology to semiotics, conversation analysis and anthropology, to name some. Do you feel that linguists have a tendence to remain in their private silos on their home field, or do you feel that collaboration between linguistics and other disciplines is usually welcomed?

Linguistics is a diverse field. Whether you should collaborate with other disciplines depends on what questions you’re trying to answer. But most questions naturally lead you to more than one discipline, especially when your goal is to explain something. It’s the nature of the phenomenon of language. If you’re interested in sound systems, you need to worry about physics. If you’re interested in how language is acquired and processed you need to understand the psychology of learning, categorization, memory, and much more. If you’re interested in language and social identity, you need to understand the politics of human sociality, how we form coalitions. The list goes on.

Causal frames

In the context of research into language, you have introduced the MOPEDS-framework of causal frames. Could you elaborate on that?

In looking at language over the years, I’ve learned that six distinct frames are needed5. MOPEDS is an arbitrary mnemonic acronym for these: Microgenetic (how language is processed in the individual mind/brain/body), Ontogenetic (how language is learned in the lifespan), Phylogenetic (what are the evolutionary underpinnings of our species’ capacity for language), Enchronic (the frame of action sequences in social interaction), Diachronic (what is the historical development of language structures and patterns), and Synchronic (what are the abstract patterns of language).

For me, the idea of distinguishing frames like this is inspired by the ethologist Niko Tinbergen’s ‘four questions’ that can (and should) be asked about any puzzle in animal behavior: by what mechanism does the behavior work, what is its adaptive/functional value for the organism, what are the behaviour’s evolutionary underpinnings, and how did the behavior develop in the life span. The basic insight is that numerous frames can be invoked for explaining any phenomenon.

The enchronic frame corresponds roughly to what is studied in interaction studies and conversation analysis, but you have felt the need to introduce a novel term. Could you explain what enchrony is about?

I’ve worked a lot in the area of research on social interaction, something that was first inspired by reading Esther Goody’s 1995 edited book Social Intelligence and Interaction6. That book linked to research in Conversation Analysis and other fields of micro sociology (see work by Harold Garfinkel, Erving Goffman, Harvey Sacks, Gail Jefferson, Emanuel Schegloff, and many others)7. As a postdoctoral researcher I went to work with Steve Levinson, a pioneer in the field of linguistic pragmatics. He and I went on to co-edit the 2006 book Roots of Human Sociality8. I began to realize that while social interaction was being studied in fields of sociology, psychology and ethology, it was almost entirely absent from the core curriculum of linguistics. Yet social interaction is where we learn language, where we use it and process it, and it is the context in which language changes and develops. Nick Chater and Morten Christiansen published an important article in BBS in 2008 making the case that language is ‘shaped by the brain’, arguing that as language is propagated across communities and through time it evolves to fit the properties of human brains: it will naturally evolve to be readily learnable and processable by us. In a commentary on that paper, I argued that language is equally also shaped by social interaction. That is, languages must also be adapted to the constraints of social interaction.9

When I talk about the enchronic frame, I am talking about the move-by-move procession of other-directed actions in interaction, where each move is both a response to what came before it and an action that itself requires a response. In everyday social interaction, when a person says something, this often sets up certain obligations and entitlements for others in the next moment. For example, if I ask you a question, you should answer, and you should do so pretty quickly. The enchronic perspective encompasses what conversation analysts mean when they talk about sequence organization and turn-taking, and associated issues such as repair. I outline these issues in more detail in the book Relationship Thinking as well as in my 2017 book How We Talk10.


I feel that the title of the first of those book, ”Relationship Thinking”, characterizes your work as whole. In the book you argue that research into language should not start from the idea of atomic individuals interacting with each other; rather, individuals, their social behavior and linguistic items they use can only be understood in relation to each other. Similarly, you argue that even though causal frames are clearly distinct, they are connected in the sense that an explanation of a phenomenon in one frame must usually rely on several other frames. Furthermore, it seems when you present specific results, they are always connected to larger meta-theoretic considerations, and on the other hand, your more general considerations obtain concreteness in the form of specific case studies. Nothing can be understood without asking how it relates to all other things. Do you consider this sort of emphasis on relations (and relations of relations) something that distinguishes you from many other linguists?

The ‘relationship thinking’ approach is probably not taken by many linguists, but I am certainly not the only one! Many people in the Conversation Analysis tradition, such as Tanya Stivers, Giovanni Rossi, Jack Sidnell, taught me that emphasis. It’s not an emphasis that’s usually taught in linguistics, but some linguists have come to see their work in this way. Sandra Thompson, for example, is highly accomplished in functional linguistics and has developed and promoted the idea of interactional linguistics with others including Barbara Fox and Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen. There are many linguists in Finland and other parts of Scandinavia who are leaders in this approach, including Marja-Leena Sorjonen and Auli Hakulinen: accomplished linguists and also concerned with the social relationships that are enacted by language when people use it.

I am glad that you approve of the term relationship thinking, as I have wondered over the years if people understand it as I mean it to be understood. The term was inspired by the phrase population thinking, a phrase coined by Ernst Mayr to capture the approach to species developed by Charles Darwin (in turn inspired by Thomas Malthus). Darwin’s population thinking was a move away from biological essentialism, grounded in abstract types, to a view of the population as an aggregate of very real and slightly unalike entities. It is a shift away from overly abstract magical thinking to more causally grounded thinking.

With relationship thinking, the function of any linguistic pattern or property should be thought of in terms of the social relationships between people whose behavior illustrates the property. I’ve been inspired in these ways by the ethologist Bob Hinde, who wrote the magisterial 1997 book Relationships11, the work of Edwin Hutchins on the socially distributed nature of human cognition, and work by evolutionary psychologists Robin Dunbar and Mike Tomasello on the essentially social nature of language. Another important influence on my relationship thinking is the anthropologist Paul Kockelman, who has emphasized that meaning in the most general sense is essentially relational. The central lesson of Kockelman’s work is a more abstract but powerful notion of relationship thinking, which states that meaning is not about signs but about relations, and especially relations between relations. The fields of linguistic anthropology and more socially-oriented domains of linguistics tend to adopt this stance.


In a 2017 article titled "Navigating the post-truth debate: some key co-ordinates" you defended “good old truth”.  What is post-truth and what it has to do with language?

The term ‘post truth’ became popular in 2016 after the Brexit and Trump campaigns. It drew the attention of many people to just how widespread propaganda, conspiracy theories, misconceptions and framing had permeated the global infosphere. Of course, lying and propaganda are as ancient as language itself. But in the kind of lifestyle in which most of humanity has lived—without writing or electronic media let alone the internet—we have not been able to spread information directly beyond our circle of immediate social group mates. In the usual context of language use, what we say has an immediate impact on our reputation, so there are strong incentives not to mislead too much (although of course it is still possible to lie, and we can be fairly flexible with how we frame the things we say). But in today’s infosphere, we can spread information anonymously, without consequences. The responsibility has now shifted strongly onto the recipients of information to be more vigilant (in the sense described in Hugo Mercier’s new book Not Born Yesterday12) so as to stop the propagation of bad information.

The 2017 article was the first in a series from The Sydney Initiative for Truth, which you are the head of. Could you tell more about this initiative?

The initiative is a loose association of researchers from across a range of disciplines, from linguistics to philosophy to media and communications to international relations. We primarily want to understand the phenomenon, and also each of us, in our own way, would like to oppose the apparent spread of BS in public discourse as far as possible. It will require a lot of work. I think that because we will never stop the flow of misinformation online, the only alternative is to promote a new kind of cognitive literacy, by which people become more conscious and critical of their own cognitive foibles. We as individuals are the only gatekeepers when it comes to the spread of bad or false information.

Notes & Bibliography

  1. 1. Jack Sidnell, Paul Kockelman & N. J. Enfield (toim.), The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology. CUP, Cambridge 2014.
  2. 2. Linguistic Epidemiology. Semantics and Grammar of Language Contact in Mainland Southeast Asia. Routledge, London 2003.
  3. 3. Natural Causes of Language. Frames, Biases, and Cultural Transmission. Language Science Press, Berlin 2014. Online: https://langsci-press.org/catalog/book/48
  4. 4. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. W. Strahan and T. Cadell, London 1776; Uriel Weinreich, William Labov & Marvin Herzog, Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change. In Directions for Historical Linguistics. A Symposium. Winfred P. Lehmann & Yakov Malkiel (eds.). University of Texas Press, Austin 1968, 95–195; Herb Clark & Barbara Malt, Psychological constraints on language: a commentary on Bresnan and Kaplan and on Givón. In Method and tactics in cognitive science. Walter Kintsch, James R. Miller, Peter G. Polson (eds.). Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale (NJ) 1984, 191–214; Peter Hedström & Richard Swedberg (eds.), Social Mechanisms. An Analytical Approach to Social Theory. CUP, Cambridge 2010; Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point. How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown and Company, Boston 2000.
  5. 5. See: Natural Causes of Language.
  6. 6. Esther N. Goody (eds.), Social Intelligence and Interaction. Expressions and Implications of the Social Bias in Human Intelligence. CUP, Cambridge 1995.
  7. 7. About Conversation Analysis, see: Jack Sidnell, Conversation Analysis. An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwel, West Sussex 2000; and in relation to other fields of research: Sigurd D’hondt, Jan-Ola Östman & Jef Verschueren (eds.), The Pragmatics of Interaction. John Benjamin's, Amsterdam 2009.
  8. 8. Nick Enfield & Stephen Levinson (eds.), Roots of Human Sociality. Culture, Cognition and Interaction. Berg, Oxford 2006.
  9. 9. Morten H. Christiansen & Nick Chater, Language as shaped by the brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences Vol. 31, No. 5, 2008, 489–509; Nick Enfield, Language as shaped by social interaction. Behavioral and Brain Sciences Vol. 31, No. 5, 2008, 519–520.
  10. 10. Relationship Thinking. Agency, Enchrony and Human Sociality. OUP, New York 2013; How We Talk. The Inner Workings of Conversation. Basic Books, New York 2017.
  11. 11. Robert A. Hinde, Relationships. A Dialectical Perspective. Routledge, London 1997.
  12. 12. Hugo Mercier, Not Born Yesterday. The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2020.

Teema/osio: n & n -haastattelu
Henkilöviitteet: Enfield, Nick

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