You know, lots of people say you shouldn’t, like, hesitate when you speak. But, people have been using, um, filler words since the dawn of, like, language. (Photo in the public domain)
For as long as we’ve had language, people have tried to control it.
Some of the most frequent targets of this communication regulation are the “ums”, “ers”, and “likes” that pop into our conversations.
Ancient Greek and Latin texts warned against speaking with hesitation, modern schools have tried to ban the offending terms, and Noam Chomsky (a renowned linguist) dismissed these expressions as “errors” irreverent to language.
Historically, linguists have lumped these speech components into the broader bucket of “disfluencies”: linguistic fillers which distract from useful speech. However, none of the controversy has made these so-called disfluencies less common. They continue to occur after about every 60 words in natural speech.
Different versions of them exist in almost every language– including sign language. Are “ums” and “uhs” just a habit we can’t break? Or is there more to them than meets the ear?
What are filled pauses in speech?
To answer this question, it helps to compare these speech components to other words we use in everyday life.
While a written word might have multiple meanings, we can usually determine its intended meaning through context. In speech, a word can take on additional meanings. Tone of voice, the relationship between speakers, and expectations of where a conversation will go imbue words (even filler words) with vital information.
This is where “ums” and “uhs” come in. Or, depending on the language, “eh” and “ehm,” “tutoa” and “öö,” “eto” and “ano.”
Linguists call these filled pauses, which are a kind of hesitation phenomenon. These seemingly insignificant interruptions are actually meaningful in spoken communication.
The role of filled pauses
Let’s say you’re talking with a friend. Your friend might interpret a silent pause as a sign to start speaking, while a filled pause can signal that you’re not finished talking yet.
Hesitation phenomena buy time for your speech to catch up with your thoughts or for you to fish out the right word for a situation. They don’t just benefit the speaker– a filled pause lets your listeners know an important word is on the way.
Linguists have even found that people are more likely to remember a word if it comes after a hesitation.
Hesitation phenomena aren’t the only parts of speech that take on new meaning during dialogue.
Words and phrases such as “like,” “well,” or “you know” function as discourse markers.
Ignoring discourse marker’s literal meaning helps to convey something about the sentence in which they appear. Discourse markers direct the flow of conversation, and some studies suggest that conscientious speakers use more of these phrases to ensure everyone is being heard and understood.
Let’s say you’re talking with that friend again. Starting a sentence with “Look…” can indicate your attitude and help you gauge your friend’s agreement. “I mean” can signal that you’re about to elaborate on something. The dreaded “like” can perform many functions, such as establishing a loose connection between thoughts or introducing someone else’s words or actions.
These markers give people a real-time view of your thought process. They help listeners follow, interpret, and predict what you’re trying to say.
The role of filled pauses in English class
Just because hesitation phenomena and discourse markers are a natural part of communication doesn’t mean they’re always appropriate.
Outside of spoken communication, they serve no purpose in most formal writing. In some contexts, the stigma these social cues carry can work against you. However, in most conversations, these seemingly senseless sounds can convey a world of meaning.
The bottom line: it’s best to save up your filled pauses for class discussion, not your book report or speech.