BA (Hons) (Asian Studies) (ANU); PhD (Linguistics) (Melbourne); FAHA; FASSA; FRSN

Nick Enfield is Professor of Linguistics and Inaugural Director of the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre. He has made outstanding contributions to research on the relations between language, society, culture, and mind.

Enfield is a leading authority on language in mainland Southeast Asia, specializing on languages of Laos. He has documented and analysed the Lao language, from structural, historical, and social perspectives, in unprecedented depth. His comparative research on the 600 or so languages of Mainland Southeast Asia has set benchmarks for research on the social dynamics and mutual influence of language in the region. His groundbreaking interdisciplinary collaborations have brought together linguists, geneticists, archaeologists, and social anthropologists to forge new insights about the social fabric of the area.

Enfield has developed a theory of the social dynamics of language contact and change, initiated in Linguistic Epidemiology (Routledge 2003) and refined in Natural Causes of Language (Language Science Press 2014); his framework handles the micro-macro problem by proposing six causal-temporal frames that interlock through social processes at different scales.

Enfield has made significant contributions to understandings of how language is related to culture, society, and mind. His edited book Ethnosyntax (Oxford 2002) shows how grammatical structures are related to culture. In The Anatomy of Meaning (Cambridge 2009), he uses data from hand gestures to confront long-standing puzzles in the theory of utterance meaning. The Utility of Meaning (Oxford 2015) develops a theory of word meaning grounded in the subjectivity and social accountability of language users. Enfield’s work establishes the key status of social cognition where previous research has mostly appealed to general/visuospatial cognition.

Enfield has sustained an interdisciplinary focus on language in human sociality and agency. Roots of Human Sociality (2006, convened with Stephen Levinson) charted a socio-cognitive infrastructure for language and communication. He developed this into a linguistically-grounded theory of sociality in Relationship Thinking (Cambridge 2013), and further established the role of language and social accountability in human social agency through collaborations with anthropologists: Distributed Agency (Oxford 2017) and The Concept of Action (Cambridge 2017). He co-edited the 2014 Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology.

Nick Enfield led the teams that discovered foundations of organization of human interaction, including ‘Universals and Cultural Variation in Turn-Taking in Conversation’ (PNAS 2009), ‘Universal Principles in the Repair of Communication Problems’ (PLoS ONE 2015), and Universals and cultural diversity in the expression of gratitude (Royal Society Open Science 2018). These discoveries were covered from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal. Much of this research is summarized in a 2017 popular monograph How We Talk (Basic Books).

Nick Enfield brings his research insights into international policy debates. He heads the interdisciplinary ‘Post Truth Initiative’ at the University of Sydney, a team addressing social problems of misinformation, failings of rational discourse, and associated power and accountability ( Through regular media appearances he pushes for improvement of rational discourse, and through it, media norms, democratic process, and scientific integrity.

ANU University Medal (1994),

FAHA (2016),

FRSN (2017),

Ig Nobel Prize (2015),

University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence (Outstanding Research) (2018),

University of Sydney Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Research Mentoring Award (2016)

  1. Enfield, N. J. 2017. How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Enfield, N. J. and Jack Sidnell. 2017. The Concept of Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Enfield, N. J. 2015. The Utility of Meaning: What Words Mean and Why. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Enfield, N. J. 2014. Natural Causes of Language: Frames, Biases, and Cultural Transmission. Berlin: Language Science Press.
  5. Enfield, N. J. 2013. Relationship Thinking: Agency, Enchrony, and Human Sociality. New York: Oxford University Press.