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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

‘Ums’ and ‘ers’ are a hidden code that helped complex language evolve

Filler words such as uh, mmm and huh may seem inarticulate, but without them human communication would be far less sophisticated


14 October 2020


YOU might expect it to take more than a two-letter word to sink a politician’s credibility. But one did just that for Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, in June 2016. With a huge wildfire burning in the province of Alberta, he had been asked about the country’s capacity to cope. “Uh, certainly, I think we’re, uh, all aware that, uh, uh, a prime minister, uh, showing up at Fort McMurray, when firefighters are busy trying to, uh, uh, contain a massive raging wildfire is, uh, not a particularly helpful thing,” he began. Trudeau went on to use a total of 50 uhs in a statement lasting little more than a minute.

A video soon went viral, and online commentators were universally scathing. “Canada’s dumbest, uh, Prime Minister” wrote one viewer. Reading the unedited transcript, you may well have questioned Trudeau’s intelligence yourself. Surely such hesitation is a sign of sloppy thinking and ineloquence. Weren’t we taught as children to eliminate uhs from our conversation?

Yet the latest research shows that this is an unfounded prejudice. Far from being an inarticulate waste of breath, filler words like um, uh, mmm and huh are essential for efficient communication, sending important signals about the words we are about to say so that two speakers can better understand each other. “They streamline our interactions, smooth the flow of the conversation and manage our social relations,” says Mark Dingemanse, who studies language and social interaction at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Indeed, he argues that the complexity of our language today couldn’t have emerged without them. To which the obvious response …

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