Uh...
February 8, 2015 9:55 AM   Subscribe

Um, here’s an, uh, map that shows where Americans use 'um' vs. 'uh.' "Every language has filler words that speakers use in nervous moments or to buy time while thinking. Two of the most common of these in English are 'uh' and 'um.' They might seem interchangeable, but data show that their usage break down across surprising geographic lines. Hmm." And these lines may give evidence of the so-called Midland dialect.

Of course, Language Log has also tackled "um" and "uh" (and um, uh, um, as well as "er" and "erm."And if you're a non-British reader of British English who didn't realize that "er" and "erm" are essentially said the same as "uh" and "um," you're not alone.

ASL speakers have fillers, too, along with basically everyone else.

Uhhh...that's it!
posted by wintersweet (44 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Very, very interesting. I am in the unfortunate group/generation that uses "like."
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:00 AM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Eh
posted by GallonOfAlan at 10:01 AM on February 8, 2015


Thanks for posting this and I loved the language logs take on 'Um'.
posted by clavdivs at 10:09 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have a Turkish friend who later informed me that "um" is very similar to a derogatory Turkish term for a part of the female anatomy. I take it Major Lance's song "Um Um Um Um Um Um" won't become a popular song in Turkey any time soon.
posted by jonp72 at 10:11 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


*Except in places affected by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift where it's probably more like "ohm" than "um"
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 10:19 AM on February 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Uh" just has such a nice simplicity to it. Fillers in other languages I know ("ano, eeto" in Japanese, "este" in Spanish, etc) just seen so complicated. I mean, dint get me wrong, I love the sound of a good "eeeeeto," but there's just something so reductionist about "uh," the world's most basic vowel, that it will always hold a special place in my heart.
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:27 AM on February 8, 2015


Somewhere or other I got the idea that "also" could be used as a filler word in German and probably confused a lot of people.
posted by kenko at 10:39 AM on February 8, 2015


I say "uh" (and "like," mostly unrepentantly--though my colleagues have teased me a few times). Both the place where I was born and where I grew up are firmly in blue territory.

Making the links for this post led me to the "placeholder name" article on Wikpedia, which is about words like "thingie," "wossname," and so on, and also links to a list for various languages. Unexpectedly fun to read! The connection between fillers and placeholders is that both can serve as shibbloleths--if you don't use the "right" ones, they mark you as a non-native speaker, a speaker of a different dialect, etc.

One of my Japanese teachers explicitly taught us Japanese fillers, but no language teacher I've ever had has taught us placeholder names. (I picked up "nei ge" and "zhei ge" as fillers while studying in Taiwan.) Now I'm considering whether placeholders would be fun and useful for my English students.
posted by wintersweet at 11:02 AM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Before I clicked I was trying to think which one I used, and decided I used both pretty interchangeably. Lo and behold, I live in a border zone! (Milwaukee)
posted by desjardins at 11:15 AM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm one of those assholes who piles on the adverbs when I can't think of something to say.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:26 AM on February 8, 2015


I am in the unfortunate group/generation that uses "like."

Actually, you may be amongst the favored.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


And then there are those white areas dotting the west where the roving bands of retired English teachers and aspiring business gurus armed with stopwatches and green yellow and red flags must be attempting to establish the self-sufficient outsider communities of Toastmasteropia.
posted by TimTypeZed at 11:58 AM on February 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Who uses "uh" and "um" the same way? Weirdos.
(Like desjardins, I'm in a border zone.)
posted by dhartung at 12:02 PM on February 8, 2015


How about those of us who who use "weeeeeell..." to get time to think? "uh" and "um" have a pretty short half life.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:09 PM on February 8, 2015


When I need to buy time to think, I usually just throw down a smoke bomb and run away.
posted by uosuaq at 12:11 PM on February 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Um, apparently I'm from "Solid Um" land even though I guessed it would be mixed. I feel like I use them interchangeably but I could be wrong I guess.
posted by bleep at 12:22 PM on February 8, 2015


I remember when I had the realization that "er" and "erm" were pronounced "uh" and "um" that it just about blew my mind. It's now kind of fun to spot American authors who use "er" (I presume because they read lots of books by British authors), and audiobook narrators who actually pronounce the r on "er."
posted by ocherdraco at 1:07 PM on February 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


Is a drawn out "ahhh" (in text it looks 'wrong') a variant of "uh"? I feel like that's the "wait for the word to load" sound I'm most familiar with.

It has been pointed out to me that I use "sorta" as an all-purpose unconscious filler word. I have no idea how or why this should be the case (and the "a" of sorta can get drawn out into an "ahhh" for as long as need be).
posted by erlking at 1:26 PM on February 8, 2015


And if you're a non-British reader of British English who didn't realize that "er" and "erm" are essentially said the same as "uh" and "um," you're not alone.

I remember when I had the realization that "er" and "erm" were pronounced "uh" and "um" that it just about blew my mind.

Every time someone says this I'm so puzzled, because they don't sound the same to me at all. I mean, I suppose it sounds the same in the sense that there's no distinct r sound, but the vowels in "er" and "erm" are often much more closed, to my ear, than the ones in "uh" and "um." Am I crazy? Am I just only hearing weird British-English accents that pronounce "er" and "erm" strangely? The world may never know.
posted by dorque at 1:38 PM on February 8, 2015


I remember when I had the realization that "er" and "erm" were pronounced "uh" and "um" that it just about blew my mind.

Wait, what?

WAIT... WHAT?!?

Mind. Blown. And I am in my fourth decade of life... a life lived poorly, apparently.
posted by nemutdero at 1:38 PM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is great, because before today I'd never given any thought to the difference between "um" or "uh" or thought at all about which I used. Though as soon as I thought about it, I did realize that I always use "um" and I grew up in solid "um" country.

My favorite is the Irish "em". It sounds so much lovelier!
posted by lunasol at 1:45 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


... if you just say "mmm" does that count as an "um?" Do you actually have to say the "uuuh part" and expel air though an open mouth?
posted by Auden at 1:48 PM on February 8, 2015


I remember taking a Red Hat training class where the instructor kept saying, "mmm-kay" where the uhs and ums would normally go. After day four, all I could hear when she talked was "Mmm-kay? Mmm-kay?"
posted by surazal at 1:51 PM on February 8, 2015


'uh' and 'um' are two distinctly different words in my experience.

"um" is used to denote thinking, as in:
'Hey, what was the color of Dad's old car?'
'It was, um, green, I think.'

"uh" is used to denote sarcasm, as in:
'Hey, why don't we paint the house chartreuse'?
'Uh, sure, I'll get right on that.'

"Uh" is often drawn out and somewhat deliberate, while "um" is short and unconscious.
posted by madajb at 1:58 PM on February 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


You know that ToastMasters training consists almost entirely of eliminating filler words, right? In some ways it does seem to mark casual vs. public speaking, though putting them back in gives that fun Genx-y Ira Glass vibe.

Instead of using a filler (when speaking publicly), my wife has learned to look slightly up into the sky and squint and tilt her head a little while she desperately tries to think of what to say. It makes you look very smart and wise. (She of course is very smart and wise, you know what I'm saying.)
posted by msalt at 2:03 PM on February 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


I recently had the misfortune of listening to a recording of myself on a client conference call. I said "y'know" in almost every sentence, sometimes multiple times. Along with the requisite "uh's." So bad...
posted by pravit at 2:07 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yep, as a standup comedian and sometimes public speaker, tapes of yourself are excruciating (does my voice really sound that weird?) They're a huge help though.
posted by msalt at 2:19 PM on February 8, 2015


My favorite is the Irish "em". It sounds so much lovelier!

Why thank you. :) I came in to note that's what we say here.

For my MA I had to record and transcribe several client sessions and they were brutal. It's bad enough to listen to yourself talk gibberish, and apparently I say em, like, so, y'know, and yeah a LOT. But to have to type every filler word I said over the course of an hour and then look at pages and pages of them...really, em, painful.
posted by billiebee at 2:47 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I would have written my own filler word as "ah" but I guess it's probably an "uh." "It's, ah, one of those things that, ah, goes up and down?"

wintersweet: "Now I'm considering whether placeholders would be fun and useful for my English students."

"Thingie"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:20 PM on February 8, 2015


*quivers*
posted by um at 3:22 PM on February 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


*Except in places affected by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift where it's probably more like "ohm" than "um"


Sound change often "skips over" words like these-- for example, the vowel in the word "peep" should have shifted, along with everything else, during the Great Vowel Shift, due to the fact that there's some sound symbolism going on there, but it didn't. Next time I run into a NCVS speaker, I'll listen carefully, but I think "uh" might be likewise symbolic enough to resist.
posted by damayanti at 4:37 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am a "derp" partisan, myself
posted by batfish at 5:15 PM on February 8, 2015


I absolutely hate it when people speak casually without filler words like um or uh. It's like they're trying to say something of magnificent importance, no matter what it is they're trying to say. I feel like it's enough to make a person seem somewhat deranged, that is until you realize why talking to them is so off putting.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:50 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


My grandpa had an Ozark accent, and rarely said either. And he had impeccable handwriting.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:50 PM on February 8, 2015


I feel like it's enough to make a person seem somewhat deranged, that is until you realize why talking to them is so off putting.

Ugh, for real? I've been working on getting rid of them for years..
posted by bleep at 6:12 PM on February 8, 2015


Well it's ok if they go away, just don't replace them with long heavy fucking pauses when you're talking about like, how you're thinking about buying a computer because some young people invented a website and made a billion dollars, or like, deals you've gotten at the flea market.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:30 PM on February 8, 2015


I remember when I had the realization that "er" and "erm" were pronounced "uh" and "um" that it just about blew my mind
posted by ocherdraco at 1:07 PM on February 8


oh shit now my mind just got blown; i had no idea
posted by Awful Peice of Crap at 6:47 PM on February 8, 2015


Sound change often "skips over" words like these-- for example, the vowel in the word "peep" should have shifted, along with everything else, during the Great Vowel Shift, due to the fact that there's some sound symbolism going on there, but it didn't.

Except it did, as "pipe"--which is why we have "peep" as a separate word, attested from c.1400 (as "pepe", replacing the earlier sense of by-then vowel-shifted "pype" or "pipe").
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 7:14 PM on February 8, 2015


Can you really know how someone talks by how they write on Twitter though? I say both "um" and "uh", but on text based communication I often find myself using the text-based solution of "...".
posted by p3t3 at 3:09 AM on February 9, 2015


I remember when I had the realization that "er" and "erm" were pronounced "uh" and "um" that it just about blew my mind

Same here but the other way round. I was reading 'uh' as kind of more explosive, a bit more James Brown, than 'er'.

What blew my mind even more was starting to suspect - in my mid 30s - that spellings like 'Ghostface Killah' indicate an actual pronunciation difference to speakers of American English. This came to me while listening to David Byrne sing about being a 'psycho kill-URRRR'. I checked with some Americans and they all said it's true. (The pronunciation thing, not that David Byrne's a psycho killer.)
posted by Mocata at 4:12 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Am I the only one that sort of associates "um" with female/young and "uh" with male/older?

just don't replace them with long heavy fucking pauses

I've read something in the past about how these filler words function psychologically as a bid to keep someone paying attention to you even though you haven't organized what you're going to say yet.

I'm not bothered by people who pause. I'm always impressed when people can speak with all words that have meaning - dense and clear and efficient. Obama, for all his fantastic speaking abiliites, constantly uses "uh."
posted by Miko at 8:40 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Huh, just based on Twitter? I don't think that scales up to general conclusions about use of "uh" versus "um."
posted by desuetude at 8:55 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


I agree about the use of Twitter. Typing "um" or "uh" is a self-conscious act that is probably different from the brain processes behind spontaneous utterance.
posted by Miko at 9:30 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Am I the only one that sort of associates "um" with female/young and "uh" with male/older?

Nope.
posted by billiebee at 9:41 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


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