Wednesday Word: Er, Uh, Um

Did you ever stop to think about the words we use when we can’t think of which words to use? I uh, mean, the er… yeah. Those words.

Um. Er. Ahhh. Uhhhhh.

Technically, these little words are called “fillers” (a specific kind of disfluency) by linguists. They are the speech equivalent to the spinning icon while a YouTube video is “buffering” on a slow internet connection. They fill in the gaps when our brain spazzes out (giving us time to think, and allowing us to keep the floor since there isn’t room for someone to easily interrupt). But surprisingly, studies actually show that they also help our children learn to talk. Apparently by giving the baby’s brain time to anticipate what will be said next, is helpful.

All languages has these fillers. But like everything else in language, the forms used are different. Apparently Chinese speakers will say nèi ge and zhè ge (“this”) as a filler. In some languages the filler has a meaning. In others, like English, it is a meaningless placeholder. ASL (American Sign Language) has signs to use as fillers!

Tagalog speakers in the Philippines do not say um or er or anything like that. In fact, for the most part, they don’t insert a word at all. They hang on to a syllable of one of the “real” words.

My wife and I were getting some exercise at a swimming pool a couple of weeks ago and the pool attendant (bless him) had a radio playing. Thankfully, it wasn’t the popular genre here of two (or more) DJs pretending to laugh themselves sick for an hour. It was music, and we were glad that it was not disco (still alive in the Philippines) or techno. Instead, for the most part, the playlist was pop love songs. Maybe a little cheesy and from the 80s, but pretty listenable. I’m always up for a little Air Supply, aren’t you?

But then at 2 p.m. a new dj started his shift. So he had to talk for about 5 minutes to get his show running. And he gave us a good demonstration of Tagalog disfluencies (you hear them a lot on live “news patrol” shows, too.) I’ll try to explain it…

Instead of inserting a word, he would hang on to any word ending in the “ah” sound, or any word ending with ng. This is handy since the way Tagalog forms the plural of a noun is the say manga before the noun, so hanging on and saying mangaaaaaaaa gives the speaker time to remember what noun he is going to say. And not only do lots of words end with ng, but yong means something roughly like “the” or “that,” so again, the speaker gets extra time to think.

The more time he needed to think, the longer and more tenaciously he would hang on.

In English it might come out like, “Good Morningggggggg. Today play a songgggggg by theeeeeeeeeeee band called the Fourrrrrrrrr Seasons from their debuuuuuuuuuuut albummmmmmmm Sherry and Others.”

(For any Pinoys or other Tagalog speakers, you know what I mean. Something like “Mangaaaaaa kaibigan, heto yonggggggggg unang awit ngggggg mangaaaaaaaa….” Ganoon.

You can see how five minutes of this was enough to make us work on our underwater laps at the pool.

I’d love to hear from any of you who speak other languages. Er, what are your um, filler words?

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Thanks for Livia Blackburn for the heads-up on the link showing how filler words help child language acquisition!

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About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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10 Responses to Wednesday Word: Er, Uh, Um

  1. I once had a very young french instructor who used donc (therefore, so) a LOT! It rhymes with ‘bonk’ and makes for a strong, authoritative sound (very useful for an inexperienced teacher). Your post makes me realize that gavel-hammer sounding word, donc, was really just masking a pause to collect her thoughts before launching into the next few sentences.

  2. I’m, like, kinda curious about, like, whether other languages have, like, a word that is similar to, like, you know, like? I’m, like, not even sure that, like, other states besides, like, California have, like, this word.

    • Bill Davis says:

      What’s crazy is that even Filipino young people say it (when speaking English). I’m guessing we have, like, TV to thank for that. It’s also spread to other states. Back in “our day” it was “you know.” Although, my syntax professor Dr. Underhill at SDSU actually wrote a paper, based on college students’ language as data, showing that there is some apparent discourse function for “like.” It’s not, like, totally random. He also analyzed the whole “all” phenomenon (I was all ‘Aaaargh’. Then James was all ‘No way!’), etc. It was hilarious to see something so mundane discussed academically. Apparently, the “all” usage sets up a way to insert emotion without naming it. So, instead of, “I was really mad!” you get, “I was all “Rrrrr!!” Sometimes even a facial expression can follow “all” instead of a word. It’s like a charades signal in that case. And of course you can mix and match! (“I was like all ____ “). Dude!

      Meanwhile, I’m going to listen for a Tagalog or Palawano equivalent of “like” (or even “you know”), y’know?

  3. Don says:

    Bill, I read this on my cell the other day – it’s difficult (more accurately, it’s a pain in the ass) to leave a decent comment on that tiny keyboard, so I didn’t comment then.

    But your post got me thinking about what my students use as filler fodder (not a large enough sampling to draw conclusions yet), and also what I use as a filler when I speak French (I noticed I tend to drag “c’est” out a bit).

    In English though, my wife likes to poke fun at me because a lot of the time when I’m talking I’ll run the conversation off track with some random tangent, then I’ll predictably say “…but uuuuuuuuhhhhh….” as I try to remember what we were talking about in the first place.

    Looking forward to your next Wednesday Word post, and still pondering a post about ‘negating the opposite’ in French – it’s not at all uncommon.

    • Bill Davis says:

      Thanks, Don.

      I used to have a “dumb phone” (hmmm…. sounds like a blog topic). Now I have a slightly smarter phone, but it’s not online. But I can imagine what serious reading and typing would be like on a phone. Texting’s bad enough. Glad you enjoyed the post. I’ll look forward to hearing about FFF (French Filler Fodder, or I guess you’re talking about French speakers of English). Cross linguistic disfluency would be fun, for comparison. Wives are meant to keep us humble, so you’re right on track there. That baby must be coming soon, though, right?

      I will not be uninterested in your French negating the opposite post. Please don’t fail to write it…

  4. Joe Ink says:

    Bill, Malay speakers use a lot of “la” and “kan”. Many of us even use these fillers when we speak English and now kan, this phenomenon is becoming a norm-la!

    • Bill Davis says:

      Thanks, Joe. I heard ‘lah’ a laht (sic) while in Singapore, even mixed into English, like you said. It’s fascinating how people in this world speak, understand, mix languages, etc. Appreciate you taking time to comment, lah!

      • Joe Ink says:

        :) You have a very interesting take on this whole thing. I teach Presentation Skills to undergrads and it’s quite a challenge to reduce the amount of fillers they use (heck I can’t even reduce mine hehe). One thing I have noticed, at least among my students, the first word that they say during presentation is “er” or the more fashionable-Gossip-Girl-like “um” or “ok”. I tell my students that one of the reasons these filler words are frequently used during presentations is that the speakers believe if they STOP, the world would stop moving (I’m pretty sure I picked this up somewhere from YouTube). Anyways, enjoy your holiday-lah!

      • Bill Davis says:

        uh… Thanks, and enjoy your Christmas weekend and Holiday season, too, lah!

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