Every language needs its, like, filler words

Illustration for article titled Every language needs its, like, filler words

Um, like, god, I mean, you know? Everyone’s speech is plagued with filler words and phrases. The problem with trying to eliminate verbal filler is the more you concentrate on it, the less you concentrate on what you actually want to communicate. There’s nothing more likely to bring out “um,” “uh,” or the dreaded “like” like being self-conscious about putting them in. But is "like" the useless filler it’s made out to be?


Obviously, you don’t want to pepper a presentation about climate change to the UN with "likes" and "uhs," but scientists aren’t sure these terms are entirely meaningless. I, being Californian, know that saying the word "like" can mean you are about to launch into a summary of what happens that more perfectly captures the feeling of an encounter than literal interpretation does. (I asked him how when the next bus was coming and he was, like, “I don’t care, idiot.” And I couldn’t believe he was like that because I told him it was like, a fifty mile walk home.) Sometimes "like" can turn literal, and be used a verbal quotation mark which you use to launch into a direct quote, complete with the tone of the person you are quoting. "Like" has all kinds of meanings, depending on its usage.

Studies and analysis of people's speech shows that a lot of personal communication can be achieved through what we think of as filler words. “I mean,” acts as a clarification or an emphasis. “You know,” can be used as cue for the other person to reply. "Um" and "uh" are signals that we’re thinking about something and the other person shouldn’t jump in until we’re finished. They also indicate that new, more complex information is coming. One study had people sit in front of an array of objects, then grab and manipulate a specific sequence of objects, as directed by a computer voice. Sometimes the computer voice said things like, “Move the box.” Other times it added a filler word, saying, “Move the, uh, box.” The task wasn’t complex, and people had no trouble following the directions. Still, they were quicker to follow directions that involved objects they hadn’t yet manipulated when their instructions included an “uh.” To listeners, “uh” indicates that something new, which requires more mental processing on the part of the speaker, is about to be introduced. This helped the study participants put themselves in the right mindset of choosing from the as-yet unfamiliar objects.


So even a word that’s no more than a grunt is helpful. Which is good, because all languages have verbal filler. American Sigh Language has a sign for "um," and most languages have some monosyllable that has no meaning but indicates a pause. Other popular fillers are, “I mean.” Arabic, Spanish, Catalan, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Turkish, and Serbian all have variations on it. “You know,” is represented in Welsh, Persian, and Icelandic. There are a lot of "actuallys" and "wells" scattered around language. Perhaps this tells us something about the structure of human thought. All languages have words for certain nouns, because they all need them. Filler words are less tangible, but may not be any less necessary.

Via ASSTA, Kristen May

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I used to teach 'conversational english' in Japan. Terrible job and a terrible industry. But the point of the lessons was to teach Japanese how to speak english for conversation and communication, so proper grammar sometimes took a back seat to things like intonation, slang and sounding natural. One of the tougher things to teach some Japanese students, especially middle aged salarymen, was how to use 'hestitation devices' when they were stuck or need a moments pause, especially ones that sounded natural in english. A lot of time they'd resort to just being silent or awkward pauses.

Using filler words and hesitation devices was basically a lesson for higher level students.