Puzzle with missing piece
Puzzle with missing piece

Elementary particles of conversation

1 October 2018 until 1 July 2024
Project member(s)
Dr Dingemanse, M. (Mark) Dr Liesenfeld, A.M. (Andreas) Dr Woensdregt, M.S. (Marieke) , Asli Özyürek (Multimodal Language and Cognition Lab, Communication in Brain and Behaviour-lab) , Ivan Toni (Communication in Brain and Behaviour-lab) , Mark Blokpoel (Communication in Brain and Behaviour-lab) , Iris van Rooij (Communication in Brain and Behaviour-lab) , Natalia Levshina (Neurobiology of Language Department of the MPI) , Christoph Rühlemann (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg) , Bill Thompson (Princeton) , Christina Dideriksen (Interacting Minds Center, Aarhus University) , Riccardo Fusaroli (Interacting Minds Center, Aarhus University)
Project type

Humble words like oh, huh? and mmm, which successfully steer our conversations and thoughts, will never top the rankings for the ‘most important’ or ‘most beautiful-sounding’ words, yet they are vital. Even linguists have long overlooked these kinds of interjections and considered them insignificant. Thanks to new methods involving the systematic study and modelling of language use, this perception is now changing. 

Tools for efficient communication

In Elementary Particles of Conversation, words like oh, huh? and mmm will be treated as the vital particles that connect our spontaneous conversations. The research team will investigate how these small words help us to understand each other during a conversation and use complex language efficiently. For instance, using the word huh? will show that you have not heard or understood something correctly, and this can then be rectified by your discussion partner. And every complex story relies on the listeners’ constant interjections of oh and mmm.

The researchers have combined cross-linguistic research with computer models, and found that these words were further adapted to suit their purpose in all of the languages that were studied, much like an efficient set of tools. For example, a straightforward word like mmm, which means ‘please continue’, can be found in many languages. Computer models have been used to further demonstrate that inverted questions such as huh? lead to more efficient communication. Conversations that employ these words require less processing power and achieve better outcomes, while conversations that are devoid of these words may result in considerable confusion.


Most of the research results have been published in scientific journals, but the researchers have also reached a wider audience. For example, a robot was used in a demo at the Kletskoppen Children’s Language Festival and the researchers’ findings on social interaction were published in widely read journals like Aeon and Technology Review. The research study also attracted attention in a variety of Dutch and international media.  


NWO (Vidi SGW)


Contact information

More information on this research study? Questions from the media may be directed to the science editor. All other questions may be directed to the researcher.