The 'um' factor: what people say between thoughts

September 28, 1992|By National Geographic for AP Special Features

In Russian, it's "znachit," "vot" or "v obshem." In Javanese, it's "nah." In German, "oder" or "nicht." The Spanish say "hace." The Turks use "ondan sonra efendim." In India they utter "but," but not to contradict.

Such universal speech fillers may be the least-talked-about elements of everyday conversation, but they are woven into the fabric of every language in the world. And, experts say, they are as much a part of the speech patterns of eloquent orators as of inarticulate mumblers.

The popular American English "uh" or "um," according to Webster's New World Dictionary, is "a prolonged sound made in speaking, as while searching for a word or collecting one's thoughts."

"Er," the dictionary says, is a "vocalized pause, a conventionalized representation of a sound often made by a speaker when hesitating briefly."

One of Webster's many definitions of "well" is an exclamation used "merely to preface or resume one's remarks."

Other bridges between thoughts include "you know," "but anyway" and "anyhow."

Americans may use "um" as often as 10 to 15 times a minute, sometimes more than 1,000 times an hour, says psychologist Nicholas Christenfeld of the University of California at San Diego.

Mr. Christenfeld started counting ums a couple years ago while listening to a boring lecture. Curiosity led him study the um phenomenon.

"I've counted millions of ums -- it's hard to stop -- and I haven't found a single person who doesn't use them," he tells National Geographic. "But I've found plenty of people who think they don't." Even when an audio tape is played back for some people, they still don't hear themselves saying um, he says.

Um use, even with a foreign accent, is not admired. "We think that ums are bad because we notice them when a speaker is bad," Mr. Christenfeld says. "We think they make someone sound fuzzy-headed. But the very eloquent use them; they are just hidden when the speaker is glib and facile."

Why do ums or their equivalents pop up everywhere? "They prime the pump. They serve to get the speech process going," Mr. Christenfeld says. Um production sometimes depends on how many options for completing a thought a person is contemplating while talking.

An English professor may use them more than a mathematics professor relating a formula. Television talk show host David Letterman's um rate, 8.1 a minute, may be higher than his counterparts' rates because he improvises more.

Mr. Christenfeld clocked President Bush at an average of 1.7 ums a minute. He plans to monitor the ums of both presidential candidates during any pre-election debates.

Um or er are "ways of pausing to still keep your turn open so that someone doesn't fill in the silence," says A. L. Becker, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Michigan. "There's a whole range of utterances like them in other languages. They're fascinating things that are used differently in different languages.

"In Javanese 'nah' is used as a pause, a non-committal response to someone," Mr. Becker explains. "Pauses in Javanese can be long. If you jump in, it would be rude. 'Nah' can also signal that you're finished."

"Such discourse particles -- there are quite a number in all languages -- are part of the mechanics of conversation," says John J. Gumperz, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. "They typically occur when people are talking interactively, in dialogue. They are a hesitation phenomenon in monologues."

While such sounds may not have specific meanings or definitions, they do take on different functions. Their interpretation depends on the situation in which they're used, says Mr. Gumperz. "They can be floor-holding devices, in between two parts of an utterance, or they can mark the end of an utterance."

Psychologist Christenfeld says that um seems to become part of people's vocabulary before age 3.

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