The Secrets of Language

Human speech is full of little magic tricks.

A person walks in front of a wall that says "Welcome" in different languages.
Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters

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Ever feel like the person you’re talking to is just waiting for you to finish so they can start speaking? It turns out every human does that. And it’s a good thing—not necessarily a sign of a bad listener, but a complex communication skill that bonds humans across the world.

When we take turns talking, the typical gap between speakers is just 200 milliseconds (a figure that exists across cultures, and even in sign-language conversations). That gap is too short to do much of anything, which means humans are crafting their responses in real time, simultaneously listening to their conversation partner and building their next set of words.

“Dolphins can swim amazingly fast, and eagles can fly as high as a jet, but this is our trick,” a linguist told the Atlantic writer Ed Yong in 2016. In today’s edition, I’ve collected some of our most fascinating journalism on the magic of human speech. After reading these stories, it’s hard not to feel a little thrill during every conversation, big or small.

On Ways of Talking

A person raises a finger to their chin as the word "Um" appears across the photo.
Ian Ross Pettigrew / Getty / The Atlantic

The Secret Life of ‘Um’

By Julie Beck

How filler words and tiny pauses keep conversations from going off the rails

Five faces in a speech bubble with one person starting a new bubble
Franziska Barczyk

Why We Speak More Weirdly at Home

By Kathryn Hymes

In-jokes, mishearings, and everyday mundanities form our odd home slang, known as a familect.

Three men sitting and talking
Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi / Reuters

The Incredible Thing We Do During Conversations

By Ed Yong

When we take turns speaking, we chime in after a culturally universal short gap.

Still Curious?

  • The desirability of storytellers: Among Filipino hunter-gatherers, storytelling is valued more than any other skill, and the best storytellers have the most children, Ed reported in 2017.
  • The trees are talking too: The nuances of trees’ exchanges and connections have inspired a rich new realm of research, Rebecca Giggs wrote last year.

Other Diversions


I’ll leave you with one last story about humans’ incredible communication abilities: On a small Australian island, 500 people speak nine different languages—and they can all understand one another.

— Isabel