Language vs. Reality
Why Language Is Good for Lawyers and Bad for Scientists
- A Next Big Idea Club nominee
A fascinating examination of how we are both played by language and made by language: the science underlying the bugs and features of humankind's greatest invention.
Language is said to be humankind's greatest accomplishment. But what is language actually good for? It performs poorly at representing reality. It is a constant source of distraction, misdirection, and overshadowing. In fact, N. J. Enfield notes, language is far better at persuasion than it is at objectively capturing the facts of experience. Language cannot create or change physical reality, but it can do the next best thing: reframe and invert our view of the world. In Language vs. Reality, Enfield explains why language is bad for scientists (who are bound by reality) but good for lawyers (who want to win their cases), why it can be dangerous when it falls into the wrong hands, and why it deserves our deepest respect.
Enfield offers a lively exploration of the science underlying the bugs and features of language. He examines the tenuous relationship between language and reality; details the array of effects language has on our memory, attention, and reasoning; and describes how these varied effects power narratives and storytelling as well as political spin and conspiracy theories. Why should we care what language is good for? Enfield, who has spent twenty years at the cutting edge of language research, argues that understanding how language works is crucial to tackling our most pressing challenges, including human cognitive bias, media spin, the “post-truth” problem, persuasion, the role of words in our thinking, and much more.
“Language often doesn't quite work, and this book is a master class in why. What we perceive is already only a part of reality, and then of what we perceive, we only communicate what is needed for interaction. This book makes the brilliant case that the result is both messy and awesome.”
John McWhorter, Associate Professor of Linguistics, Columbia University; host of the podcast Lexicon Valley
“In this magisterial book, Nick Enfield argues that language isn't best used for accurately describing the world but rather as a tool for coordination. Seeing language that way makes sense of its weaknesses (how it can distort our representation of the world) and its strengths (how language allows humans to achieve amazing feats of cooperation). Splendidly written, Language vs. Reality uses the latest research to build a compelling argument and a deeper understanding of human language.”
Hugo Mercier, researcher, Jean Nicod Institute, Paris; author of Not Born Yesterday and The Enigma of Reason (with Dan Sperber)
“I am happy that Nick Enfield is a linguist because there are very few scientists in the world who can match him for insights into the cultural and social nature of human language. Language vs. Reality does not disappoint. Language and human reason evolved to serve our genus as social tools. Language is an imperfect system for communication and persuasion, not a perfect system for the expression of truth. Enfield's conclusions are based on years of field research showing how specific languages fit their enveloping cultures. An informative, persuasive, and beautifully written book.”
Daniel L. Everett, Trustee Professor of Cognitive Sciences, Bentley University; author of How Language Began: The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention