Written by: Dyandra A. Daanisy
Edited by: Fauzan Abdul, Zania Putri, Ghafi Reyhan
Illustration by: Lisa Kalystari
When was the last time you heard someone start a speech with something similar to this? So um, I would like to say. Ums, uhs, and like, are markedly the most common phrases we heard that fill in the gaps of our conversations. It is mysterious in nature and what a renowned linguist, Noah Chomsky, described as “errors”. However, these “errors” continue to occur roughly 2 to 3 times per minute in natural and deliberate speech.
While many of us might share Chomsky’s judgement on these words, let us step out of this view for a while and ask, might filler words actually carry meaning?
Filler words, or also commonly described as vocal disfluencies, are the phrases we use to fill pauses that occur within parts of spontaneous speech. Some of the most common filler in English sounds are ums and uhs. Similar expressions include discourse markers, interjections, and filled pauses.
While filler words may vary in different parts of the world, their presence is ubiquitous. Deborah Riegel, a keynote speaker and leadership consultant said that, “No matter what language you speak, chances are, you’ve developed a habit where you’re unconsciously creating a ‘sound bridge’ between ideas”. Examples of common filler words used in different parts of the world are “Como que” in Spanish which translates to “As if” or “like if” and ええと (eto) for “uh” in Japanese.
Some might find using filler words natural when used moderately; however, used excessively, it may undermine the speaker’s credibility. Nicholas Christenfeld, in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, had found that average listeners assume uhm’s as a product of anxiety (Shapira, 2019). Filler words have also been reflected as speakers’ difficulties in conceptualizing their ideas and seemingly interrupt communications (Shapira, 2019). Suppose you are having trouble formulating your next sentence: if you constantly use fillers, the other listeners would likely assume that you have a lack of confidence as you are momentarily unable to express a sentence.
To avoid this, people have tried various strategies to control their use of filler words. One of the many ways to do this is to simply replace common filler words that seemed distracting with other words, such as using the statement “the next point is” instead of “uh”. Such a technique might be effective because different phrases can leave different impressions on the listener. Susan Behrens, a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Marymount Manhattan College, emphasizes on this point by pointing out that the usage of “Like” is seen as unsystematic and careless, while on the other hand, filled pauses such as “this is to say” is seen as to more academic-sounding (Behrens, 2017). Some people also pause briefly when they find themselves flustered mid-speech before continuing on with their words.
Although it has been consistently associated with uncertainty, linguists and a number of researchers had suggested that adults are better at remembering material preceded by disfluencies. This was shown in an experiment conducted by a linguistic professor where participants were asked to listen and recall a recorded passage from Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland in predictive condition (Fraundorf, et al., 2011, p.6). The experiment resulted in a fluent recitation of the passage preceded by fillers such as “Uh”, suggesting that fillers enables speakers to recall their train of thoughts and become increasingly aware of the words they choose by predicting upcoming materials using past experience (Fraundorf, et al., 2011, p.7).
Filler words could also be beneficial in everyday conversation. For instance, if you go silent, you are not emitting any content that signals a transition, and other speakers might assume that you have finished talking and take over the line of conversation. Moreover, as Allison Shapira (2019), lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and Founder of Global Public Speaking, noted, filler words can also be used to be diplomatic. Using hedge words such as “just” or “simply” or a phrase like “we may want to consider”, for example, can help soften a message and avoid offending other people. She also pointed out that some words such as “so,” “well,” or “actually”, when placed well, may enable speakers to jump in mid-conversation more easily. Looking at these functions, it is clear that using filler words can positively influence our conversations and perhaps, on a larger scale, our social interactions as well.
Given the benefits of filler words, why do they remain badly viewed?
Although this expression may be useful, societal biases such as age stereotypes may have propelled negative views of the overall concept of the usage. This is important because the words that make up the points of contention are used heavily by younger generations, and are rather perceived as “generational speak”. For example, the latest series of the youth-oriented television show Love Island has prompted linguistic debate due to the apparent repetition of the phrase “Like”. After transcribing the show, participants were found to use 299 times in eight episodes according to Rebecca Woods in an article for The Conversation (Woods, 2019). Susan Mackey-Kallis, an associate professor at Villanova University, noted that “The use of verbal pause ‘Like’…is perceived as less intelligent by older generations” (Mele, 2017). One explanation for this view might simply be that age can sometimes determine communication competence more than the choice of words itself. Professor of Vienna University asserts that “trustworthiness focuses primarily on the provider of the information but not the actual message communicated.” (Gikas, 2011). Speaker’s age, manifested in language use, can thus be a powerful tool in shaping the impact and perception of one’s speech.
Closely related to this phenomenon is reputation bias. A speaker’s reputation, such as those who are well known in their professions, can sometimes convey their language credibility, such that even when they overuse verbal pauses, they are still perceived as credible. However, when newcomers use these phrases just as many as professionals do, they might be viewed as less credible as they do not have the years of experience. The overall negative framing of filler words, thus, cannot merely be attributed to the person’s age, but also the reputation they have built up.
Despite its preconceptions, these phrases have been broadly accepted by many individuals as a genuine part of language, thus encouraging them to dive deeper into the practical benefits of verbal fillers. A number of researchers have even argued on considering filler phrases such as “Uhm” and “Like” as to be a word in a conventional sense with the basis of how frequent we used these phrases (Laserna, et al., 2014).
Thus, filled pauses do serve a purpose in our conversation. In spite of lacking conceptual content, it fulfils certain linguistic functions. And even though stigma, carried through social cues, still revolves around linguistic fillers, these seemingly meaningless sounds will continue to convey and create meaning.
Behrens, S. (2017, March 6). Like, those filler words. The New York Times. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/06/opinion/like-those-filler-words.html.
Corley, M., & Stewart, O. W. (2008). Hesitation disfluencies in spontaneous speech: The meaning of um. Language and Linguistics Compass, 2(4), 589-602.
Enfield, N. (2018). A linguist explains why it’s okay to say “um” and “uh”. Quartz. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://qz.com/work/1175505/a-linguist-explains-why-its-okay-to-say-um-and-uh/.
Fraundorf, S. H., & Watson, D. G. (2011). The disfluent discourse: Effects of filled pauses on recall. Journal of memory and language, 65(2), 161-175.
Gikas, L. E., & Sutcliffe, Z. T. (2019). The Effect of Vocal Fillers on Credibility, Communication Competence, and Likeability.
Laserna, C. M., Seih, Y. T., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2014). Um… who like says you know: Filler word use as a function of age, gender, and personality. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33(3), 328-338.
Mele, C. (2017, February 24). So, um, how do you, like, stop using filler words? The New York Times. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/24/us/verbal-ticks-like-um.html.
Pomeroy, R. (2015). Ummmm… here are seven facts you… uh… may have not known about ‘um’ and ‘uh’. RealClearScience. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2015/03/x_things_you_didnt_know_about_um_and_uh.html.
Riegel, D. G. (2018, August 21). Your, UM, filler words are, like, killing your credibility. here’s how to, uh, fix this in 4 weeks. Inc.com. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.inc.com/deborah-grayson-riegel/how-to-get-rid-of-filler-words-sound-more-professional-in-4-weeks.html.
Shapira, A. (2021, September 17). Why filler words like “um” and “ah” are actually useful. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2019/08/why-filler-words-like-um-and-ah-are-actually-useful.
Woods, R. (2021, September 7). ‘like’ isn’t a lazy linguistic filler – the English language snobs need to, like, Pipe Down. The Conversation. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://theconversation.com/like-isnt-a-lazy-linguistic-filler-the-english-language-snobs-need-to-like-pipe-down-122056.