Monday 9 January 2012

Er, what about this?

er and erm have important functions in speech

We may think of er and erm (or uh and uhm as they are usually represented in American English) as unimportant little fillers, but Gunnel Tottie’s research suggests that they have important functions in speech. Her research also reveals some intriguing social differences in the way that people use them.

Tottie analysed two collections of spoken English: the impromptu conversational section of the British National Corpus, and the more context governed part of the same corpus, which contains transcripts of talk from domains such as business and education. Overall there were more ers and erms in the context governed collection of recordings, but in both sets of data men used them more frequently than women. People over the age of 60 used more ers and erms than younger speakers, and so did speakers who were better educated and from a higher social class.

Even more surprisingly, although er was slightly more frequent overall than erm, erm was used more often by women than by men. The pattern was very clear in both sets of recordings. Not only that, there was a clear social class distribution, with erm accounting for just over 30 per cent of the total number of er and erm in the speech of the lowest social class but rising steadily across the different social classes to reach nearly 50 per cent for the highest class. There was a similar steady increase across different age groups, with the youngest age group using the highest proportion of erm and the oldest age group the lowest proportion. This could suggest, Tottie points out, that a language change is occurring in spoken British English, with erm gradually taking the place of er.

Why do these social differences exist? Tottie admits that her research is a preliminary study, and that more detailed analyses of the way people use er and erm are needed to answer this question. One intriguing avenue of enquiry, she suggests, could be the fact that erm tends to occur before longer pauses in speech, while er occurs before shorter pauses. The question then is why speakers pause at all, and why they utter er or erm to signal that they are pausing rather than staying silent.

Tottie points out that although these little words are often thought to mark hesitation while speakers search for the word they want to utter, they have important functions in speech for listeners as well as for speakers. Using er and erm gives speakers time to plan their utterance and shows the listener that despite the pause the speaker is intending to say something more. But at the same time er and erm help organise the utterance for the listener. In experiments, people are better able to remember a word when it has been preceded by er or erm. It seems that these ‘fillers’ prepare listeners for the introduction of a new concept. They also indicate the structure of the utterance so that listeners are better able to follow the arguments. The fact that er and erm were more frequent in the context governed collection of transcripts, which includes speeches and talk from meetings rather than impromptu conversations, probably reflects the extra effort that speakers expend on planning what they are about to say in these kinds of contexts.

Tottie’s view is that although er and erm are usually referred to as ‘fillers’, a more positive term that better reflects their function would be ‘planners’. Planning is a fundamental characteristic of intelligent behaviour, and speakers’ planning gives listeners time to figure out what will come next.

Tottie. Gunnel 2011. Uh amd uhm as sociolinguistic markers in British English. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics 16.2: 173-197.
doi: 0.1075/ijcl.16.2.02tot

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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