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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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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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