Uh, Why Do We Say Um?

Author: Stephanie Pappas


Umm… uh… Where to begin?

The typical conversation is chock full of stumbles and awkward pauses, often heralded by those pesky fillers, um and uh. It's easy to overlook these not-quite-words as unimportant, but linguists are now starting to believe they have a purpose — and may even be subject to the same kind of language trends as real words.

"Younger people and women relatively use 'um' more frequently than men and older people," said Martijn Wieling, a professor at the University of Groningen who has studied the ums and uhs of Dutch speakers and Norwegians, among others. The gender/age schism also shows up in American and British English and in German.

Why um and uh should are used differently is a bit of a linguistic mystery. But research going back years suggests that these filler words are more important than they seem.

The purpose of um

Conversational language is often a mess. Take this generic fragment, quoted in a 2001 article in the journal Memory and Cognition:

C: I remember it over aunt Matty. One was always having to find out how many steps there were in places, before one knew whether one could take her there. This house, for instance, there are thirteen up to this room –

D: Yes, but really I meant not so much that, which is bad enough as you know, but places where there are one or two or three steps –

C: Yes, right, I'm sure.

D: Um, up and down to places –

C: [overlapping] m

D: Um.

C: Ramps.

D: Yes, the people are doing a lot with ramps.

Listening to it, that scrap of conversation would make perfect sense. Reading it, though, makes you wonder if the speakers ever studied English. What's with all the ums?

University of Santa Cruz psychologist Jean Fox Tree, in whose article that quote appears, studies the verbal gobbledygook that makes up so much of casual conversation, including ums and uhs. Along with her colleagues, Fox Tree has found that people use these words as cues in conversation.

Studies dating back to the 1960s suggest that ums and uhs are placeholders that give speakers time to plan their next words while still holding the floor. Fox Tree, however, has found that people might deploy um and uh discriminately. In her 2001 paper, Fox Tree found that listeners get better at picking out words after the speaker uses uh, but not um. This fits with the notion that uh signals an upcoming short delay, and um means a long pause is coming up.

"With brief delays signaled after uh, listeners' attention is heightened for upcoming speech," Fox Tree wrote. "But with longer delays after um, listeners do not appear to alter their attention in the same way."

Heightening attention after an um may be useless, because the upcoming pause is likely to be so long, Fox Tree wrote. Or perhaps listeners stop listening so hard after an um because they're focused on helping the speaker get his or her words out, perhaps by thinking of words the speaker might want to use next.

Linguists have boiled down these findings into a possible explanation for what's going on in the mind while someone is stammering out an ummm or an uhhh.

"People have said that if you are saying um you are more likely to be thinking of what you want to say, whereas if you are saying uh you are more likely to be thinking of how you want to say it," Wieling said.

Filler word trends

While this process could be occurring, people also use filler words to gauge their partners' mental state. People listening to conversations judged speakers as less honest and less comfortable with the topic at hand when the speakers used um more frequently, especially if that um was paired with a silent pause, Fox Tree reported in a 2002 paper in the journal Discourse Processes.

Elsewhere, an accidental discovery has led to a surprising twist in the saga of um and uh. In 2005, Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, was playing around with a large collection of recorded telephone conversations in originally collected for speech recognition research. He stumbled upon a weird fact: People use uh more frequently, and um less frequently, with age.

In 2014, Liberman saw a poster at a conference with findings that kids with an autism diagnosis use um and uh approximately equally, while typically developing kids use um at least twice as often as uh. The different prompted him to dig back into the data, looking for more evidence of um and uh varying based on the speaker. Several other linguists, including Wieling, got on board, studying non-English languages, too. (German, for example has the uh equivalents äh and öh, and the um equivalents ähm and öhm.) Liberman has been collecting the results of these investigations on his Language Log blog.

Across English, Dutch, German and Norwegian, younger people use um more frequently than older people, and women use um more frequently than men. This doesn't mean that um is taking over altogether, Wieling cautioned. In the Netherlands, uh is still the word of choice 90 percent of the time. It's just that women are a little more likely to go with the um option — say, using um 12 percent of the time versus men's 8 percent. The researchers have also looked at the use of um and uh sounds in Chinese. They found women were more likely to use um than men, but no variation by age, Wieling said.

In English and Norwegian, the researchers had data stretching back far enough to see that the rise in um is a historical trend. In other words, people who are older now and prefer uh are harkening back to a different language environment. Women tend to be more innovative in language use than men, Wieling said, perhaps explaining their adoption of um.

"If there's a new form on the rise, then women will use it more than men," he said.

Why um should be getting more popular is unknown. Maybe English-speakers are leading the trend, and German, Dutch and Norwegian-speakers are unconsciously adopting English fads.

Or perhaps um simply feels more polite than uh across languages, because um involves closing the lips rather than leaving them slack and open, Wieling said. There's no firm data to test that notion, but it hints at the fact that language — including our most "meaningless" word choices — is a social endeavor.

"It looks a little bit nicer if you use the 'um,'" Wieling said.