Study Finds Universal Strategy for Keeping Conversations on Track

Huh? Who? What? These kinds of little questions that ask for clarification are so pervasive in conversations that we barely notice them. But they are asked, on average, every 84 seconds. So finds a new study by Mark Dingemanse, Nick Enfield, and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics of video-recorded informal conversation in 12 languages. The languages covered a wide range of language types, from English and Italian to Yélî Dnye (a language isolate from Melanesia) and Argentinian Sign Language. In all of the individual conversations recorded (about 48.5 hours total), after one of these little questions has been asked and answered, another such "repair sequence" took place within six minutes.

What do these repair sequences look like? Across all languages in the study, the questions that came up in repair sequences fell into three types. Let’s say you are talking to a friend, and because of background noise or a distraction you completely miss a whole phrase. In that case, you are sure what you missed, so you would use an open-ended question like Huh? (A previous study by Dingemanse found that all languages seem to have a form close to Huh? for this purpose.) If you only missed a specific word or piece or information, you would ask a more specific question like What time? And if you just want to make sure you heard a specific piece of information correctly you would ask for confirmation of what you understood as in She had a boy?

The first type of repair requires the least amount of effort on your part and the most on the part of your friend, who has to repeat the whole missed phrase. The other two types require increasingly more effort on your part and less effort for your friend. 

Over the conversations analyzed, these repair types were used in a systematic way that supports the idea that there is a universal inclination to create the least amount of work for both participants, not, selfishly, just for the one asking for clarification. When possible, the more specific questions are used, and this was true for a whole range of languages. This tendency appears to be uniquely human. While other animals do have ways of dealing with the problem of ensuring that a message gets through, they are costly, involving lots of repetition, redundancy, and energy. The study shows how our system is geared toward efficiency and cost-savings and reveals, according to Dingemanse, “the fundamentally cooperative nature of human communication.”

When it comes to sound, word structure, sentence structure, and meaning, the world’s languages differ in myriad ways. But at the level of conversational interaction, where problems are spotted, pointed out, and dealt with, there is a notable similarity between very different languages. This reveals, Dingemanse writes, “a common infrastructure for social interaction which may be the universal bedrock upon which linguistic diversity rests.”

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Why Do Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Instead of ‘Football’?
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While more Americans than ever are embracing soccer, they can't even get the sport's name right, according to some purists. For most of the world, including the vast majority of Europe and South America, it’s football, fútbol, or some other variation. In the United States, Canada, Japan, and a few other stragglers, it’s firmly known as soccer, much to the annoyance of those who can't understand how a sport played with feet and a ball can be called anything else. So why the conflict?

According to a paper [PDF] by University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski, it all began in England in the early 1800s, when a version of the sport of football—based on a game played by “common people” in the Middle Ages—found its way into the recreational scene of some of the country’s most privileged schools. To give uniformity to the competitions between these schools and clubs, a set of standard rules was drafted by students in Cambridge in 1848. These rules would become further solidified when they were adopted by the more organized Football Association in 1863.

It wasn't long before variations of the sport began to splinter off—in 1871, the Rugby Football Union was founded, using Rugby School rules from the 1830s that allowed a player to run with the ball in their hands. This new take on the sport would be known as rugby football, or rugger, to separate itself from association football, the traditional feet-only version of the sport. From there, association football would get the nickname assoccer, leading eventually to just soccer. The addition of an "er" at the end of a word was something of a trend at the time, which is why we get the awkward transformation of association into assoccer and soccer.

The first recorded American football game was between the colleges of Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and used unique rules derived from those in both association and rugby football. Though this new, evolving game would just be called football in the U.S., elsewhere it would become known as gridiron football or American football, much in the way Gaelic football and Australian football have their own distinctions. Eventually in England, rugby football was shortened to just rugby, while association football simply became known as football. Which meant that now there were two footballs, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and neither side would budge. And Americans would begin referring to England's football by the previous nickname, soccer.

Despite the confusion nowadays, soccer was still a colloquial term used in England well into the 20th century—it rose in popularity following World War II before falling out of favor in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to Szymanski. In more recent years, it’s mostly been used in England in a strictly American context, like when publications and the media refer to U.S. leagues like Major League Soccer (MLS). Currently, soccer is mostly used in countries that have their own competing version of football—including the United States, Canada, and Australia.

While it boils the blood of certain traditionalists, soccer is by no means an Americanism—like the sport itself, this is purely an English export.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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YouTube, Hélio Surdos
How a Deaf-Blind Person Watches the World Cup
YouTube, Hélio Surdos
YouTube, Hélio Surdos

Brazilian Sign Language interpreter Hélio Fonseca de Araújo woke up on the day before the opening of the World Cup in 2014 thinking about how he could help his friend Carlos, who is deaf and blind, get access to all the excitement. So he hit the hardware store, rigged up a tabletop model of the field, and enlisted his friend Regiane to provide extra interpretation for all the complex information that needs to come through in a game. He recently brought the setup out again for this World Cup.

Here you can see Carlos watching the Brazil vs. Croatia match live, while Hélio provides Brazilian Sign Language interpretation (which Carlos follows by feeling it with his own hands—this is called tactile signing), and Regiane relays information about fouls, cards, times, and player jersey numbers with social-haptic communication on Carlos’s back.

This is the moment in the second half when it appeared that Brazil had scored a goal, but a foul was called. Hélio later makes sure Carlos can see how Neymar covered his face with his shirt.

And here is Coutinho’s game-turning goal for Brazil.

If you're wondering why Carlos occasionally looks at the screen, many deaf blind people have some residual sight (or hearing). Many deaf-blind people become fluent in sign language as deaf people, before they begin to lose their sight.

See the entire video at Hélio’s YouTube channel here.

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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