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.