Food & Culture

Um ... Language Can't Survive Without These Annoying "Words"

Writers shun them. Public-speaking coaches hate them. They are hardly considered words at all. But sounds like "um," "ah," "er," "hmm," "huh" and even soundless hesitations and pauses are not the scourge on language that people make them out to be. In fact, they are the crucial traffic signals of language that make conversation possible.

It's All About Timing

When we sit down to study language we are usually looking at written text. But most language use does not happen in text. It happens in conversation. Live conversation is messier, less controlled, and harder to study, but no less important. In his book "How We Talk," N. J. Enfield examines the relatively new field of research into live conversation and the discoveries it has made about the "features of language that are seen only in the wilds of interaction."

These features, which include little words like that are usually left out of texts, help show that "even the simplest conversation is a collaborative and precision-timed achievement by the people involved." In order to carry on a conversation, we need strategies for reserving floor time, giving and receiving feedback, adjusting to feedback, and correcting errors. And it all has to happen very quickly.

Studies of spontaneous conversations in various languages showed that 85 percent of all transitions from one speaker's turn to the next occur within three-fourths of a second before or after the other person has stopped speaking. Such a short time frame does not give us enough space to absorb the other person's finished statements and plan and execute a response.

We're Not Just Taking Turns

The tight timing suggests that conversation is not a back-and-forth sending and receiving of messages, where each person acts independently, but a coordinated, joint activity. There are expectations about how this activity should be carried out. For example, if a question is asked, a response is expected. If a person pauses too long after a question the speaker will often rephrase the question within about one second: "Do they have a good cook there?.......Nothing special?"

A speaker can signal that their answer is going to be negative not just with a pause, but with an "um," "well," or even a clearing of the throat. This gives the other person a chance to reframe the question. People are "able to manipulate timing to send social signals about how a response is being packaged."

"Um" and "uh" can also be used to correct errors: "a bro...uh, a yellow and a green disk." In such cases, "um" signals a slightly longer delay than "uh" does. It tells the other person something about the speaker's state of mind.

Words like "mm-hmm" and "uh-huh" can be used to signal that no adjustments or repairs or needed and keep the conversation going. In studies where the listener is given a task that reduces their tendency to give these signals, the fluency of speaker declines. Again, the little, seemingly insignificant words subtly manage the flow of information and the behavior of both participants.

"Huh?" the Universal Word

One of these little conversation-managing words appears to be universal. Languages from all over the world and from very different language families have a word with the same type of form (one syllable, with an "uh"-like vowel) and the same type of function.

The function of "huh?" is to initiate a repair, to signal that something has gone wrong in the conversation and needs a fix. It could be for a mishearing, a misunderstanding, or a point of confusion, things that happen much more often than we realize in conversation because we manage to repair them so quickly. Studies have shown that these repair exchanges happen about every 84 seconds in normal conversation.

So it's very useful to have a word that can signal a problem with a minimal amount of effort. Phrases like "Which one?", "How much?", and "Do you really mean that?" can also be used to initiate a repair, but they take longer to say and require the speaker to be more specific about what they missed. "Huh?" not only works for any kind of communication breakdown, but it uses a neutral mouth, tongue and lip position. This is why every language appears to have hit on a similar form.

"Huh?" helps grease the gears of what Enfield calls the "communication machine." Like other little words we rarely see in print but constantly use in conversation, it makes the exquisitely-timed, social collaboration we call language possible.

Arika Okrent received a joint Ph.D. in the Department of Linguistics and the Department of Psychology's Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience Program at the University of Chicago. She has also earned her first-level certification in Klingon.

For more English insights, check out "How We Talk" by N. J. Enfield. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Arika Okrent February 23, 2018