We all use filler words like um or uh but it’s rare that we hear them in movies, news broadcasts or … uh … this show. Author Michael Erard explains that verbal blunders and hesitations reveal more than we think.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: We say it all the time, but we hardly ever think about it –- “um,” or “uh,” or those other filler words we use to stall because we're nervous or to cue the person we're talking to.
“Um” is rarely written in books, it's usually scrubbed from TV and not included in film scripts. But Michael Erard, who's written a book titled Um, says the word has always been with us. This staticky clip is the earliest recording of a guy named Thomas Edison. [CLIP]: THOMAS EDISON: "Uh, now, Mr. Blaine, as you've been nearly around the world, I — we'll go to Milan. Milan we'll go to, uh, Rome . . . and then to, uh, Bombay. [END OF CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: About the only words [LAUGHS] you can make out from this 1888 recording is the non-word "uh." And Michael Erard says that isn't insignificant. MICHAEL ERARD: The father of recording technology — the first word that he says is, "uh," is a moment of pausing, of delay, because he doesn't know what to say next. Filling pauses with those particular sounds in English happen about 40 percent of the time that we make errors, and we make errors about one every 4.4 seconds, or one every ten words. BOB GARFIELD: And is this a universal phenomenon? You mentioned English. Does it happen in other languages, and do people say "uh" in, I don't know, France? MICHAEL ERARD: Every language gives a speaker a way to fill a pause with a sound. Sometimes it's that neutral vowel. In English it's "uh." In French it's "eu,” in Spanish it's "eh".
Other languages repurpose words that mean something else, so in Mandarin the word for "this” and “that" is the word that you fill pauses with. So if you listen to Mandarin speakers, they'll say nega-neka-nega. Or in Japanese, it's ano, which also means “this” or “that.” BOB GARFIELD: What about the public's patience for vagaries of spoken language? Is there, in fact, an ebb and flow to the way we all handle other people's speech errors? MICHAEL ERARD: We typically don't hear most of the “uhs” or the “ums” that other people say. There was one interesting study that was done where people are given a speech to listen to and about half of them, natively, listen to the content, and about half of them, natively, without any instruction, listen to the style.
When the content, for whatever reason, becomes extremely boring, people who listen for content start listening for style, and that's when they start to notice the “uhs” and the “ums.” So when people say to me, how do I reduce the “uhs” and “ums,” I say, that's easy; just be more interesting. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you mentioned that we typically filter out other people's speech errors, but not every other people. When the people are prominent, we tend to pay very strict attention. And I'm thinking at the moment of President Bush who is a serial offender in disfluencies of various kinds. MICHAEL ERARD: Sure. BOB GARFIELD: What happens when a major public figure like the President of The United States is so language challenged? MICHAEL ERARD: What happens, I think, depends on what your expectations for leadership are. If you expect your leaders to be able to articulate positions and to persuade the public to follow those positions, then you would expect your leaders to be fluent, to speak in longer sentences.
On the other hand, if you expect your leaders to be more like you, you might be willing to tolerate more verbal blunders.
And so, I think that assuming that Bush and the way that he speaks is a political liability overlooks how that mode of speech is also attractive. BOB GARFIELD: Actually, your colleague Geoff Nunberg believes that the President actually cultivates his rough-hewn language in order to cultivate the part of the electorate that appreciates it. MICHAEL ERARD: I suspect that that's true. Now, it would be very difficult for someone to deliberately create some of the malapropisms and some of the true accidents that happen, so "misunderestimate." PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: They misunderestimated the fact that we love a neighbor in need. They misunderes, under - under - underestimate - underestimated the compassion of our country. MICHAEL ERARD: He's very disfluent when he says it, so he's aware as he's saying it that he's not quite hitting it and it should be different, but at a certain point he just lets the momentum of the word and the need to keep going take over and he continues. BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one more thing. I myself can barely utter an English sentence without making some sort of egregious error right in the middle of it. We naturally edit all of this stuff out of the show, or most of it. Are, are we doing our listeners a service by editing out my mistakes, and yours as well, by the way? MICHAEL ERARD: I think you might be doing them a disservice. We live in a media environment that is very glib, and the glib has become praised over what is substantial. You know, in journalism there's a sort of understanding that you won't make someone sound more stupid or low class or uneducated than they actually are.
Quoting verbatim can be used to smear someone. But I think there's also a way to use it in a way that gives you a more authentic sense of who the person is. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Michael, I very much appreciate this. MICHAEL ERARD: Thanks for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Michael Erard is the author of the new book, Um: Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders and What They Mean.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.