Until about 20 years ago, few linguists paid filled pauses much attention. They were seen as not very interesting, a mere expulsion of sound to take up space while the speaker figures out what to say next. (In Russian, filled pauses are called “parasite sounds,” which is kind of rude.) But since then, interest in filled pauses has exploded. There are conferences about them. Researchers around the globe, in dozens of different languages, dedicate themselves to studying them. And yet they still remain poorly understood, especially as new forms of discourse begin popping up. […]
Though some researchers have insisted that filled pauses are individual words in their own right, with distinct meanings, many believe that there’s something more fundamental about them. With a few exceptions, filled pauses exist in every language, and are weirdly similar. In English, it’s “uh” or “um,” in Mandarin it’s “en,” in French it’s “euh,” in Hindi it’s “hoonm,” in Swedish “ohm.”
These are all very similar; essentially, they’re a centered vowel which may or may not be followed by a nasal consonant. […]
There are very few elements of language that are consistent amongst English, Mandarin, French, Hindi, and Swedish. And yet this one is pretty much the same.
We don’t really know where filled pauses came from, partly because, Twitter aside for the moment, they are oral sounds, and very unlikely to be found in historical written records. (Scholars have the same problem with swear words.) “Despite the lack of records about historical filler usage, it’s probably safe to assume that fillers have always been a part of human language,” says Katharine Hilton, a linguist at Stanford University who studies (among other things) filled pauses. “The reason for this is because they’re very useful words and communicate a lot of information to the listener.” The very earliest recordings of the human voice show that Thomas Edison was an avid user of “uh” and “um.” That’s about as far back as our data goes, but it seems fair to assume they go back further than that. These non-words, these mistakes, these errors: these are basic building blocks of language.
There’s interesting stuff about Japanese (where the most common fillers are ano and eto) and about second-language learning (Ralph Rose, a professor at Waseda University, “believes that filled pauses should be a significant part of language classes”). Thanks, Trevor!