Um or er: which do you, um, use more in, er, conversation?

Kim Kardashian

English speakers are increasingly punctuating their speech with ‘um’ rather than ‘er’, according to socio-linguists at Edinburgh University. So why the shift?

In the historic struggle between the ummers and the errers, the ummers are getting the upper hand. A study of speech patterns by socio-linguists at Edinburgh University has found that English speakers increasingly tend to use “um” rather than “er” as the filler of choice.

Earlier this year on the Andrew Marr Show, Nigel Farage used 15 “ers” and just two “ums”. Get with the programme grandad: don’t you realise that to er may be human, but to um is increasingly on-trend? Consider Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard who, by contrast, used nine “ums” and one “er” recently when discussing the 1-1 draw with Everton. Separate studies have found that men and older people prefer to use “er”, while women and teenagers prefer to fill their manifold sentential lacunae with “ums”.

What about the likers and the whateverers, the y’knowers and the knoworrimeaners, not to mention my personal favourite, the inniters, you ask? I’m, like, don’t even go there, you feel me? Socio-linguists distinguish discourse markers (like, y’know) from what they call filled pauses such as “er “ (or “uh” as they say it Stateside) and “um”. Discourse markers, says Josef Fruehwald lecturer in socio-linguistics at Edinburgh, help speakers negotiate turn-taking in conversation, while the latter, um, fill gaps.

Both men and women are shifting their preferences towards using “um” more, says Fruehwald, but women are shifting faster “[W]hen language changes, women lead the way – women are about a generation and a generation and a half ahead of men.”

Fruehwald examined 25,000 examples of people in the US city of Philadelphia saying “um” and “uh”. You might say that’s because socio-linguists have exhausted important things to study but I, um, couldn’t possibly, like, comment.

But why the shift from “er” to “um”? Is it because inside every “um” there’s a little “er” that’s been elongated and given a stronger terminal sound, and favouring the former indicates our growing existential confusion at a world increasingly gone, um, nuts? It’s a theory. Here’s another. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Mark Liberman, who did another study of filled pauses, people tend to use “um” when they’re trying to decide what to say, and “er/uh” when they’re trying to decide how to say it.

Liberman transcribed 14,000 phone conversations, totalling more than 26 million words from 12,000 speakers across the US and found that the use of “um” and “er/uh” can reveal the speaker’s gender, language skills and life experience. He told the Atlantic: “As people get older, they have less trouble deciding what to say [because they know more stuff], and more trouble deciding how to say it [because they know more words and fixed phrases, and so have a harder time making a choice].”

But hold on: if life expectancy is increasing in countries including the US and the UK, surely the corollary of Liberman’s point here is that over time there’d be more erring than umming? Unless, of course, older people wanted to seem younger by umming rather than, as they should given their life experiences, erring.

Um, moving on. Liberman’s thesis nonetheless may help explain the difference in umming and erring usage between Barack Obama and Kim Kardashian. In a recent interview, Obama used “uh” nine times but no “ums”, while Kim Kardashian was all “ums” and no “uhs” in her interview.

Neither of these studies, incidentally, investigates whether there is more umming and/or erring than there used to be, but given how world levels of confusion are rising daily and the need for filled pauses is increasing commensurately, um, that would be likely.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Stuart Jeffries, for The Guardian on Monday 6th October 2014 16.28 Europe/London

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