It’s, Like, You Know, Science: Why We Use Fillers When We Speak

You should say what’s on your mind. But sometimes you’ve got to stop and find it first.
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It’s, Like, You Know, Science: Why We Use Fillers When We Speak

Perhaps you’ve been called out for, uh, using fillers when you talk. They’re, you know, the verbal pauses that you subconsciously sprinkle into your speech when when you’re hesitating, stalling or, er, uh — unsure.

Prescriptivist schoolteachers and old-school etiquette experts, for example, have, like, totally lambasted the like that’s characteristic of California English and the stereotypical valley girl parlance. Some claim that younger generations are littering their language with every so, I mean, and you know? that comes from their lips. But what if using these filler words was, um… natural?

Don’t Speak Too Soon

Linguists like Noam Chomsky have argued that ah, erlike disfluencies — known as such because they interrupt the natural flow of speech — are nothing more than a flub in human language performance and production. Mistakes, basically. But others have tried to shed some more light on the semantic and pragmatic roles of these discourse markers.

Jean Fox Tree and Herbert Clark, two psychology professors at University of California Santa Cruz and Stanford, respectively, call these verbal tics “conversation managers.” Tree and Clark say these words, seemingly purposeless semantic chunks, are vital to the development of a dialogue itself.

We tend to use these interjections when we’re nervous or talking fast, stumbling along trying to collect our thoughts. They’re a staple of improvised speech, crucial conversational placeholders for those moments when there’s information on the tip of your tongue or you’re talking at warp speed because your brain won’t, um, uh, er — slow down.

Just as important, they’re listening cues. N.J. Enfield, professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney, calls disfluencies “traffic signals that regulate the flow of social interaction.” In an engaged and cooperative dialogue, speakers will communicate effectively so that listeners will understand when they have the conversational green light, usually indicated by silence. Instead of going silent — and thus letting an interlocutor take a turn — speakers can use filler words like a buffer on a video stream, a “to be continued” expressed in a syllable or two.

It makes sense that you hear these discourse markers less in rehearsed speech like presentations and lectures. Speeches have likely been practiced more, and it’s assumed the speaker will have the floor without interruption. And we don’t put ums and likein our writing because we have time to un-jumble our thoughts before we jot them down.

There’s no need to stress about the occasional filler that finds its way into your speech; they’re more prevalent than you might think. Linguist Mark Liberman estimates that um and uh alone appear roughly every 60 words in the average person’s natural speech, and some researchers claim that filler words make up 6 to 10 percent of what we say spontaneously.

But if you’re looking to make your speaking squeaky clean, the best way to eradicate filler words from your everyday chatter is to be conscious of them — by, for example, recording yourself and listening back or by slowing down and breathing instead of letting your vocal cords take over.

Around the World in Thought Delays

For all the scrutiny English speakers get for every um, like and er they utter, they’re not alone. These verbal pauses can be found in languages across the globe. And, like in English, these fillers are not exactly esteemed in other languages, either. In Czech, they’re called slovní vata — “word wadding” or “word padding” — or parasitické výrazy, “parasitic expressions.”

Some of the fillers might sound familiar. The German equivalents of English’s uh and um are the virtually identical äh and ähm. In French, it’s more than common to hear euhPeople from all around the world have a tendency to draw out the final vowel of the word they say before they take a pause to think, like an English speaker might do with an aaaand or a soooo. Spanish speakers often mix a pues or bueno in their speech, or tack on a ¿vale? or ¿verdad? to the end of their statements. In Japanese, you might hear um as eto or ano. There are even signs in American Sign Language for um.

Even filler phrases that use full words — you know, for example — are by no means exclusive to English; its translations are used as filler in Turkish, Welsh and Icelandic, to name a few. Dutch speakers say weet je? and in German, weißt du is shortened into weißte, paralleling the truncated English y’know? And translations of like abound cross-linguistically. In Italian it’s tipo, among French youth it’s comme and for Finnish speakers it’s niinku.

You’ll find that people all around the world have processing delays that manifest in these vocal pauses. Learning language-specific fillers can help you feel like a local even when you can’t find the right words to say.

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