Info Tech, Language

Though a bane to teachers of public speaking, people around the world fill pauses in their own languages as naturally as watermelons have seeds. In Britain they say uh but spell it er, just as they pronounce er in butter.

The French say something that sounds like euh, and Hebrew speakers say ehhh. Serbs and Croats say ovay, and the Turks saymmmmm. The Japanese say eto (eh-to) and ano (ah-no), the Spanish este, and Mandarin speakers neige (NEH-guh) and jiege (JEH-guh). In Dutch and German you can say uh, um, mmm. In Swedish it’s eh, ah, aah, m, mm, hmm, ooh, a and oh; in Norwegian, e, eh, m and hm.

It seems that these disfluencies are a major problem for speech recognition engines. There are also some interesting theories about the role that they play. It seems that the sounds aren’t completely, um, random … but signal information about pauses later in the sentence.

By far the newest — and most controversial — idea comes from Herbert Clark, a psychologist at Stanford, and Jean Fox Tree, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who determined that speakers use (and listeners understand) uh and um in distinct ways. Uh signals a forthcoming pause that will be short, while um signals a longer pause, she said. Uh and um are not acoustic accidents, but full-fledged words that signal a delay yet to come.