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Exploring linguistic fillers

Speech disfluency

Linguistic fillers – or discourse markers – fit under the umbrella term, “speech disfluency.” Speech disfluency incorporates:

  1. False starts
  2. Linguistic fillers, and;
  3. Repaired utterances

False starts are sentences that are cut off, whereas repaired utterances refer to a speaker’s self-correction milliseconds after a slip of the tongue or a mispronunciation. Although it gets a bad rap, speech disfluency is considered to be normal by many experts and not necessarily something you need to alter despite what popular media suggests.

The type of speech disfluency that gets the worst press are linguistic fillers. These are the utterances we use during speech that do not have a particular meaning. They are often viewed as not serving any particular purpose, and are often seen as a sign of distractedness or nervousness.

These verbal pauses have many names and come in many forms. They are referred to as linguistic fillers, discourse markers, verbal pauses, filler words – the list goes on. Whatever you want to call them, they are a part of everyday speech and appear in every language, including American sign language.

Why do we use linguistic fillers?

There are many reasons for using these seemingly useless phrases and utterances. Although regarded as pointless, linguistic fillers can serve many purposes. So what are the reasons that people use linguistic fillers? According to sociolinguists, filler words serve six functions:

Allow for thought

These pauses such as “um” or “eh” give our brain the opportunity to catch up with our speech and decide on our next move while speaking. This is not necessarily a negative characteristic of speech. If anything, it is a signal of more considered speech with the speaker not simply blurting out words without any forethought.

Promote more polite speech

When speaking, our statements are perceived as more polite with pauses or filler words. If we talk less directly, what we say will likely be received as less offensive. For example, if you ask a friend for an opinion on your new sweatshirt, and they say, “I don’t like it”, you might take offense. However, if they say, “Um, it’s just… I’m not sure I like it”, you inherently understand they’re telling you the truth, but they are trying not to offend.

Act as a cushion (for a delicate topic)

Linguistic fillers play a similar role when talking about something that might be sensitive. Instead of saying, “Are you seeing a therapist?”, it might be more socially acceptable to ask “So, do you, like, see a therapist or…?”

Emphasize what we will say next

This type of filler is often used informally in a dialect known as “valley speak.” Valley speak is not only spoken in the California Valley but is common among younger generations and among females no matter where they reside. “Like” is the common term for emphasis among this population. For example, “I think this building is, like, beautiful.”

Communicate subtle nuances in emotion or behavior

A statement such as, “I’m feeling good about this exam”, indicates that the person is confident about their exam results. However, in the statement,“I’m feeling, you know, like, good about this exam” there is a completely different connotation. The overtone here indicates a lack in confidence.

Indicate a degree of uncertainty

If we are making a statement but we are estimating, filler words can explain that to the listener without the spoken caveat. “There are 738 pages in this book” means there are indeed, 738 pages in that book. However, in the statement,“There are, like, 700 pages in this book”, the number of pages is an educated guess.

Idiolect and sociolect

The identity of speech

We all have speech habits that are unique to us. These habits are called our idiolect. Idiolect is our speech identity. It is particular to a person – no two people speak the exact same way. While the language we speak differentiates us from people in other countries, and our accent differentiates us from other people within that country, our idiolect separates us from everyone. It is shaped throughout our lifetime. We form our speaking habits, and this includes not only the vocabulary that we have available to us, but also the linguistic fillers we adopt, the frequency in which we use them, and the places we choose to put those verbal pauses in a sentence.

Influence of social class

How we speak is influenced by where we are from, where we grow up, where we go to school, how educated we are, how much money our family has, our age, our gender, and so on.

Not only does our social class impact how we speak but it can be shaped by the podcasts we listen to, the television programs we watch, and the people with whom we surround ourselves. Our speech can even change if we move to a different part of the globe, and can even be influenced when researching our future travel plans.

Surprisingly, we do not often choose our discourse markers – it is a subconscious development of our idiolect and sociolect.

Multilingual fillers

While we are writing this article in English and using English language examples, it is not only the English spoken language that relies on fillers. There are over 7,000 languages in the world and fillers are one of the characteristics that appear in all languages.

Of over 60 languages studied, the most commonly used linguistic fillers are the equivalents of so, well, like, and um in English and respective languages. English speakers say well, the French say eh bien, and the Hungarians say nos.

On average, a person uses 3.62 linguistic fillers in a minute of formal speech (lecture) and 4.4 when speaking spontaneously.

Want to take a closer look? Grab all tables in Google Sheets!

Fillers change from language to language, but the reasons we use them remain the same.

Interfering with our global message

Linguistic fillers have made headlines with the media often portraying their use as an unfavorable characteristic of people’s speech. These verbalized pauses have become associated with laziness, lack of education, or a lack of vocabulary. When you search the term online, there are articles from popular media discrediting the habit, some outlining steps on how to stop your linguistic filler habit, and there are even smartphone apps you can download that will coach you on how to reduce usage.

These words are so commonly regarded in a negative light that in some languages the term used to name them translates to “parasitic words.” Interpreters are trained to not use linguistic fillers because it is perceived by the listener to be a sign of uncertainty and the listener doubts the accuracy of the interpretation. Automated transcription technology is also being taught to omit fillers from transcriptions.

While there are specific scenarios when it might be best to limit your use of verbal pauses, especially if they are interfering with your overall message, your ability to retain your audience’s attention, or negatively impacting on your perceived knowledge on a given topic, they are not entirely unnecessary. As we have outlined in this article, linguistic fillers can serve a purpose, and while linguistic fillers attract negative press, discourse markers – perhaps most importantly – allow humans to express their identity. And well, um, as the saying goes, if we were all the same, the world would be a very dull place indeed.

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