So, like, filler words, you know? They uh, mean something

by John MacBeath Watkins

So, verbal tics like saying "like" every time you introduce new information, or beginning an expository speech with "so," have received their share of ridicule, but now research shows that they actually mean something.

Herbert Clark of Stanford University and Jean Fox Tree of the University of California at Santa Cruz researched the meaning of words previously deemed meaningless, and considered verbal stumbles.

They were called disfluencies, and considered errors be no less august linguist than Noam Chomsky.

In a recent interview, Clark called them "conversation managers."

The speaker has to keep track of the content of what he or she is saying and of interactions with the other(s) in the conversation. It turns out that if you introduce a new topic without an "uh," it's harder for the person you are speaking to to process the information that would have followed the "uh."

Fox Tree, quoted in the same article, points to the fact that teachers discourage this sort of speech. And yes, it can get annoying if someone is nervously resorting to conversation managers to delay getting to the point or conceal the fact that they've lost the plot, but uh, all languages seem to have them, so they must have a purpose.

Martin Corley and Robert J. Hartsuiker, in a 2011 study, gave subjects a task manipulating objects, sometimes preceding the information with a pause or the word "uh," and sometimes not. The result?
 Participants were quicker to respond when a name was directly preceded by a delay, regardless of whether this delay was filled with a spoken um, was silent, or contained an artificial tone. 
Now, I spent an important part of my boyhood in Maine, where I developed a style of speaking that involved pauses, but did not rely on "uh." When my family moved to the West Coast, I found that if I paused, left-coasters would assume I was done talking and jump in. I had to learn that the syncopated cadence of New England would be misinterpreted in the Northwest, where the expectation was for a steady speech cadence. People would interrupt as I paused to prepare the listener for new information.

In short, I had to learn to say "uh."

In The Jungle, Sinclair Lewis has it that "They use everything about the hog except the squeal."

In language, the squeal is not wasted. 

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self