Food & Culture

These Are the Words That Make You Say "Um"

There's a certain kind of word that slows you down more than any other — that is, it's more likely that you'll have to pause and use a filler word like "um" or "er" before your tongue finally comes up with the word you're looking for. Let's guess what kind of word it is. Hmm ... maybe taxonomic classifications? Or maybe it's the names of your in-laws and their extended family members? No, wait, it's got to be the infield fly rule. Actually, the words that make our brains hit the brakes are some of the most common words of all.

People, Places, and, Um, Things

It's nouns. You know: people, places, and things. Probably the easiest part of speech to wrap your mind around — a whole lot easier than gerunds. What is it that makes words like "shirt," "mug," and "toffee apple" the speed bumps of language? Whatever it is, it's true in English, Dutch, and various languages of the Amazon, Siberia, and the Kalahari desert. When a team led by Frank Seifart from the University of Amsterdam and Professor Balthasar Bickel from the University of Zurich examined native speakers of a broad range of languages, they were able to see that some patterns hold true across linguistic borders. They were listening for brief pauses and filler words, such as "um" or "uh," and found that these tended to pile up before references to concrete objects and concepts.

Why would this be? The researchers believe that it's because when you use a noun, it's usually because you are introducing a new concept into the conversation. Unlike verbs and adjectives, nouns can be mediated by pronouns. That means that if you've already referred to the thing you're talking about, you can often avoid mentioning it by either using a pronoun or avoiding it entirely. For example, you might say "My dog went outside and it played fetch," or just "My dog went outside and played fetch." When you actually use the noun "dog," chances are that it's the first time a dog is being brought up in this particular conversation. You're more likely to have to reel in your conversational flow and slow down to redirect the topic when you're using a noun than you are for any other part of speech. No wonder they slow us down.

Speech and the Cerebellum

It's clear that the way that we use a word changes depending on what type of word it is. But there's MRI evidence that the brain processes different parts of speech differently as well. In 2010, researchers from Spain and Germany taught participants several made-up words, split into nouns and verbs. Their task was to work out the meaning of each word from context alone — from the sentences "The girl got a jat for Christmas" and "The best man was so nervous he forgot the jat," you can figure out that "jat" means "ring," for example. As it turns out, unfamiliar nouns caused activity in the area of the brain most associated with visual and object processing, while strange verbs sparked something in the semantic, conceptual, and grammar-oriented areas. It all goes to show how there isn't a "language" region of the brain — language is so essential that you've got a special place for every part of it.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas June 6, 2018

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