Musings about Filled Pauses and other Hesitation Phenomena

Great article in Atlas Obscura about filled pauses

I was recently contacted by Dan Nosowitz, a writer for the web site Atlas Obscura, requesting an interview about filled pauses. I was pleased to accommodate and we arranged a Skype chat a few days ago. He had already written several other articles on linguistic topics (e.g., Canadian 'eh’, Regional dialects), so it was an easy chat for me. We talked about many facets of filled pauses, sound, meaning, usage, acquisition, evolutionary origins, and more.

At the end of the conversation, I asked how soon he would publish an article and he said it would probably be a week later. To my surprise, about a day and a half later I noticed via Twitter that the article was published! If only I could turn out writing at that speed…

The ums and uhs of yesteryear

Edison phonograph; taken at Vendsyssel historiske Museum (Hjørring, Denmark) in 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki.The UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive is a wonderful new* resource that's being provided for free by the University of California, Santa Barbara Library. These are digitizations of audio extracted from phonograph cylinders produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–in essence, the earliest audio recordings made by humans. While most of the recordings are musical in nature (probably intended to be listened to for enjoyment at the time), some contain speech and these are the ones I'm really interested in.  I've been browsing through the recordings little by little in order to get a sample of some of the earliest recordings of filled pauses and here are a few interesting ones.

Wait, what? A written text can be disfluent, too?

I recently read an article entitled, "Disfluency disrupts the confirmation bias" (Hernandez, I., & Preston J. L. (2013). Disfluency disrupts the confirmation bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 49(1), p. 178-182.) which is a rather interesting look at how confirmation bias—the tendency to give greater credibility to evidence that comports with one's already held beliefs—can be dampened by presenting information to people in a disfluent manner. I was interested in the article for obvious reasons (yay, disfluency!) and quickly added it to my Kindle for reading during my next walk to and from campus.  However, I got about one or two pages in before I realized something: The article is not about speech disfluency, but rather text disfluency.

What does "Disfluency in Spontaneous Speech" look like?

OK, this is purely for fun.  After getting all the information pages set up for the history of the Disfluency in Spontaneous Speech workshop series (here), I decided to extract the text from the proceedings (unfortunately not all, because for some workshops I only have image scans) and then created a few Wordles™ based on the text.  Here are a few results in slightly varying formats.

Filler words and filled pauses: Are they literally the same?

Social media spent some bandwidth last week flogging away at Vice-President Joe Biden's prolific use of 'literally' in his address to the Democratic Convention. Frankly, I don't really have much problem with this. The alternate use of 'literally' as an intensifier as opposed to a literal antonym of 'figuratively' is not some recent neologism. As Ben Zimmer points out at Language Log, this usage has been around since the 18th century. I won't go into the details of all that since the big guns at LL have already done the work.

And anyway, this is the Filled Pause Research Center.  So what's the relevance here?  Well, James Taranto, the Wall Street Journal columnist, took on the task of analyzing the ten different instances of 'literally' in Biden's speech.  Here's part of his contribution to the Biden brouhaha.

What makes this exercise even funnier is the fact that the word "literally" does not appear once--literally!--in the prepared text. All 10 "literallys" were extemporaneous. When Biden says "literally," it seems, he means "uh."

Deception and the use of filled pauses

Meet the Parents (2000, Universal Pictures) - Lie detector sceneI was browsing through Lifehacker the other day and found a recent posting entitled, "Spot Liars by Paying Attention to Their Reaction Within the First Five Seconds of a Conversation" by Thorin Klosowski. This seemed interesting so I started reading and came across the following.

We've talked a lot about the different types of clues you can watch out for when trying to detect a lie, including, the various, scientifically proven methods, the fact many liars begin a sentence with "well", how liars often use filler words like "um" or "ah", and how body language might reveal a liar.

Finally, a Book about Filled Pauses!

[This post was written for a blog I started in 2007 but discontinued soon after. Since that blog no longer exists and the content is relevant here, I've uploaded it here with its original time stamp.]

Um… Book CoverThere's a new book out by Michael Erard called Um... Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, And What They Mean... (website, Amazon). I am excited to read it since it has been recommended by Ben Zimmer and Arnold Zwicky is one of the featured (non-fictional) characters in the book. Both of these guys post regularly at Language Log, one of my most frequented blog sites. Furthermore, the author has a Master's in Linguistics and a Ph.D. in English. It's darn near always good when a linguist gets around to writing a book for the broader public. That's not necessarily 'cause the books themselves are always good, but rather because more linguists should try to engage larger audiences than our own narrow in-group. In this case, though, it looks like we have the added bonus that the book is actually good.

Filled Pause Use and (non)Intelligence

[This post was written for a blog I started in 2007 but discontinued soon after. Since that blog no longer exists and the content is relevant here, I've uploaded it here with its original time stamp.]

Ed Norton (Art Carney) in The HoneymoonersA stock character in much of the entertainment world is the none-too-bright sidekick of a main character. While there are many formulas for this dimwit, one of the most common features in this stereotype is slow speech with lots of long, drawn-out filled pauses. A classic example—perhaps an archetypal example—is Art Carney's Ed Norton (pictured at right) from The Honeymooners. Other examples abound: Edgar Bergen's Mortimer Snerd, Rev. Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd) in Taxi, Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo) in Welcome Back, Kotter, and George Utley (Tom Poston) in Newhart as well as numerous minor characters whose names few would recognize.

What is a Filled Pause?

[This post was written for a blog I started in 2007 but discontinued soon after. Since that blog no longer exists and the content is relevant here, I've uploaded it here with its original time stamp.]

One of my main research interests is filled pauses in speech (and more recently in writing). I intend to blog a lot about it here, although not exclusively. Nonetheless, in order to get the ball rolling in the context of this blog, I'd like to start by trying to give a definition of a filled pause. This is one of those problems that seems easy at first. For instance, once I say that filled pauses are things like um and uh in speech, then pretty much everybody knows just what I'm talking about (with strong intuitions from their own personal experience). However, when we approach this problem formally, it turns out not to be so easy. I have a hard time coming up with a nice objective definition of a filled pause, because I almost always end up introducing some subjectivity into it. For instance, one possibility might go as follows.

Definition 1: A filled pause is a conventional—though non-word—expression used to stall for time during the processing of spontaneous speech.