Psychologists Say 'Um' and 'Uh' Have Meaning

ByABC News
June 5, 2002, 11:46 AM

June 6 -- So, there are these, uh, psychologists who believe that um, I mean, they're trying to prove that those little stops and starts that are, you know, used in conversational speech are, like, legitimate words.

Herbert Clark of Stanford University and Jean Fox Tree of the University of California at Santa Cruz have spent years listening to recordings of spontaneous conversations and speech to analyze the role of "ums" and "uhs" in language.

And unlike previous linguists, they've concluded these so-called disfluencies and discourse markers represent something more than clumsy speakers having trouble expressing themselves they also serve a role for listeners.

Conversation Managers

"People use these phrases in a very particular, deliberate way," says Clark. "If we anticipate a delay in our speech, we choose the appropriate sound to signal this to the listener. These phrases mean 'I need to make sure you realize I'm delaying because I'm having trouble.'"

By signaling a delay is coming, a speaker avoids a silent gap in conversation that might otherwise prove confusing to a listener.

"When we talk, we have to do two things," says Clark. "We have to pay attention to the content of what we're saying and also keep track of the interaction of two people talking."

Phrases like "um" and "uh" and "you know" play an important role in language, he argues, by serving as a speaker's "conversation managers" in the human interaction aspect of conversation.

That idea runs counter to the thinking of Noam Chomsky, a renowned linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who argued in the mid-1960s that such phrases are simply "errors in applying knowledge of language in actual performance." Chomsky didn't consider "um" and "uh" part of proper language and he influenced a generation of linguists to exclude such phrases from linguistic theory.

Um vs. Uh

Clark and Fox Tree are working to change that tide by proving these phrases play specific roles in conversation. Their analyses show that the "um" sound almost always sets up a long delay in speech, while the sound "uh" signals only a brief pause.