Feeds

Why do we say 'um', 'er', or 'ah' when we hesitate in speaking?

Umm ...

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable

(Asked by Tom Lanier of Austin, Texas)

Not everyone says "um", "er" or "ah" when they hesitate while speaking. It depends upon the language.

For example, speakers of Mandarin Chinese often say"zhege" which roughly translates as “this”. In English we say "um", "er", "ah", or other vocalisations for reasons that linguists are not entirely sure about. "Um", "er", and “ah” contain what linguists call "neutral vowel sounds" making them among the easiest sounds to make.

It may be that they can be said without a great deal of thought too. So that may be part of the answer. "Um", "er", and "ah" are what linguists call "fillers". "Fillers" help conversations continue smoothly.

Although we may not consciously realise it, in a two-person conversation, people speak by taking turns. When someone thinks it is their turn to talk, they do. Otherwise, they listen. A two-person conversation becomes like a tennis match. Inevitably there are short periods of silence as people pause to let the other person take over the speaking. But sometimes a speaker doesn’t want to give up their turn and instead wants a little extra time to think about what they’re going to say next. They use a “filler” to signal this.

When a listener hears the “filler”, they continue listening rather than start talking. “Um”, “er”, and “ah” are examples of phonemes. In linguistics, phonemes are the smallest meaningless speech sounds humans make. The smallest meaningful speech sounds humans make are called “morphemes”. Everything we humans say is either meaningless or meaningful. A lot of people never learn the difference. ®

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

HP ProLiant Gen8: Integrated lifecycle automation

More from The Register

next story
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Eccentric billionaire Musk gets his PRIVATE SPACEPORT
In the Lone Star State, perhaps appropriately enough
MARS NEEDS OCEANS to support life - and so do exoplanets
Just being in the Goldilocks zone doesn't mean there'll be anyone to eat the porridge
Diary note: Pluto's close-up is a year from … now!
New Horizons is less than a year from the dwarf planet
Forty-five years ago: FOOTPRINTS FOUND ON MOON
NASA won't be back any time soon, sadly
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Mobile application security vulnerability report
The alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, and the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.