30 Oct USYD at Sydney Writers’ Festival: Professor Nick Enfield on How We Talk and the Post Truth Initiative
By Sydney Uni
Illustration and words by Yasodara Puhule-Gamayalage
As people start to leave the Richard Wherrett Studio after the panel discussion, I am hurried by the volunteer usher who shouts ‘run!’, kindly hoping that I won’t miss Professor Nick Enfield. I hurry against the crowd, with my lanyard pulling me back as it gets caught on the back of a chair along way. As the side door starts to close, I push back onto it with more force than I had intended and see him standing there with some of the panel members.
Away from the hubbub, we walk across to Pier 8 and on the wooden steps of a building, begin the interview.
Obviously, I must begin with the question of the day: is it wrong to care about grammar?
“I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to care about grammar. It depends on what you mean by grammar,” Professor Enfield says, “What a lot of people think about, when they think about grammar, are things like spelling.
“The title of the session was ‘Why Your Wrong to Care About Grammar’ and the “you’re” was spelt Y-O-U-R instead of Y-O-U-’-R-E. You can’t get it unless you see the way it’s written down. One of the things we said in the panel was that most languages are written down. In this case, you wouldn’t hear the difference, anyway. So, there’s no point in caring about that but obviously grammar is much more than spelling. And there are some important reasons to care about grammar.”
These include: conveying intended meanings and fitting into certain social groups.
“In linguistics we’re doing descriptive work. We’re not taking an opinion on how people should speak; we’re just describing how people do speak,” he clarifies.
But why do people still have prescriptivist attitudes?
“That is ultimately a question of identity politics.”
He recalls a passionate audience member from the session who had defended “the point that young people today, are a product of a system that’s detrimental to their capacity for expression [because, for example] they don’t know the difference between ‘the number of’ and ‘the amount of’.
“That distinction doesn’t really make a difference to people’s capacity to understand what someone wants to say. What it really comes down to is this idea that there are good people or there are bad people, good practices and bad practices. It’s essentially grounded in morality.
“So it’s actually pretty dangerous ground […] because from a scientific point of view, who’s to say what’s good and what’s not?”
So, what’s the ideal way of using language?
Here, Professor Enfield channels the twentieth century American linguist George Zipf whose “argument was that naturally, language settles on a kind of compromise between minimising the effort and complexity of the job for the speaker and maximising the capacity of the language to convey subtle messages to listeners”.
This is apparent in words such as um, huh?, oh, mm-hmm and even the modern-day nuisance, like, which he labels “the traffic signals of conversation”.
In his latest book, How We Talk, that cumulates more than a decade of even prize winning research, he explores turn-taking, repetition, subtle cues, repairing of mistakes and the fine timing within human conversation which are facilitated by these fundamental ‘traffic signals’.
Something else on Professor Enfield’s plate is leading the Research Excellence Initiative on The Crisis of Post-Truth Discourse.
He describes the current post-truth dilemma as the “dynamic phase in the global information ecology where we don’t yet have the digital literacy around the question of truth and discerning information”. As with all things new in the fast paced world, people require more time to be fully knowledgeable.
This is where the ‘Bullshit Detector’ comes in.
The aim of this crucial aspect of the initiative is “to advance fact-checking through exploiting new technologies that are available. In particular, voice recognition technology, which is getting better. The better it gets, the more possible it becomes to do real-time fact-checking”, he says, “it will track the consistency of the statements made by individuals [which] is one measure of whether a person is making assertions that correspond to their beliefs”, that is, telling the truth.
The initial focus of the project is on the “discourse surrounding the Great Barrier Reef because climate change is a really go-to domain for bullshit and lies”, he says.
But what’s the difference between lies and ‘bullshit’?
Professor Enfield credits this to “a philosopher by the name of Harry Frankfurt who wrote an essay called ‘On Bullshit’. It’s a simple distinction; if you lie, […] you know the fact of the matter and you intend to deceive. With ‘bullshitting’, you might or might not be aware of the truth but you don’t care. That’s the difference […] and they can both be deployed for different reasons”.
But at least now, we have some hope.