Ummmm... Here are Seven Facts You... uh... May Have Not Known About 'Um' and 'Uh'
Listen to any speech or prolonged conversation and you'll likely find it peppered with one or both of these two filler words. One of my professors in college probably uttered "um" over one hundred times per fifty-minute lecture.
When utilized, filler words are generally thought to signal that the speaker has paused to think but still has more to say, allowing the continuation of a thought. Linguists, psychologists, anthropologists, and other scientists have studied their use for decades. Here are some of the most interesting facts and findings on filler words:
1. They may not technically be words. While some scientists, like Professors Herbert Clark and Jean Fox Tree, have argued that, "uh and um are conventional English words, and speakers plan for, formulate, and produce them just as they would any word," others, like the University of Edinburgh's Martin Corley and Oliver Stewart, contend that "there is little evidence to suggest that they are intentionally produced, or should be considered to be words in the conventional sense."
2. Fillers come in many languages. In Arabic, speakers often say "ya'ni" ("I mean") or wallāh ("by God"). Filipinos say "ah," "eh," "ay," and "ano." The French utter "euh" (which sounds like a very French thing to say). American Spanish speakers say "este" and "o sea." Koreans say "eung," "eo," "ge," and "eum." The Japanese say "eeto," "etto," "ano," "anoo," etc.
3. Men prefer "uh." Women prefer "um." While fillers constitute roughly 1% of all words spoken by American men and women, the two sexes differ in their favorites. According to research published in 2011 from Stanford's Eric Acton, um was "the 24th most spoken word among women, and the 43rd among men," while uh was "ranked 25th for men and 62nd for women."
4. "Um" is not a flattering thing to say. In 2002, Professor Jean Fox examined people's responses to the hearing "um" during a conversation. Subjects deemed speakers who used "um" to be less honest and more uncomfortable than those who did not.
5. But it's not all bad to say "um" when speaking. According to a study conducted in 1995, if you're going to pause during a speech, it's better to say "um" or "uh" rather than remain silent. Subjects rated speakers who used "um" as more competent. However, speakers who didn't pause at all were judged to be the best.
6. "Uh" and "um" are not the same. "Uh" is used during briefer delays in speech, while "um" is used for longer delays. Uhs also seem to heighten listeners' attention and make it easier for them to identify subsequent words, while ums do not.
7. "Uh and "um" on drugs. Many are probably aware of the anesthetic effects of the drug ketamine, but fewer probably know how it alters the use of filler words. In a small, unpublished, placebo-controlled, double-blind study, researchers at the University of Georgia gave subjects small amounts of ketamine (much smaller than an anesthetic dose) and examined their speech. When subjects were under the influence of ketamine, they used significantly more ums and uhs than when sober.