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."

I admit that Taranto is very articulate and has an excellent writer's ear (I am literally envious) and I read his Best of the Web Today column regularly for information and insight. However, I have noticed at times that he tends towards prescriptivism and pokes fun at those he reports on for their linguistic faux pas.  At times, those faux pas are merely supposed--based more on Taranto's personal style guide for writing than on a proven linguistic rule (e.g., split infinitives, who vs. whom).

In the extract above, Taranto pokes fun at at Biden (probably tongue-in-cheek) by alluding to the larger class of so-called 'filler words' or 'crutch-words' that people use in spontaneous speech like 'actually', 'for what it's worth', or even 'uh'.  But he seems to be suggesting that these are all just interchangable expressions: that we can just pick one out at random and use it to fill some space.  Or, minimally, he's saying that other filler words are interchangeable with filled pauses.  His joke really only works if you buy that.

But I don't.  Filled pauses are different from other filler words (or lexical hesitations, as I would prefer to call them).  Importantly, they don't carry any semantic meaning which could convey something about the propositional content. When a speaker says 'actually' or even 'literally', we can draw different types of inferences about the speaker's frame of mind or attitude towards the content. Filled pauses may also allow such inferences, but the inferences would be different. Depending on context, they might suggest some kind of deference to the listener, some on-going processing problem or even highlighting the following word or phrase. Of course, there are some lexical hesitations that can do this, too, but 'literally' is not one of them.

As a result, in my opinion, Taranto's joke fails.

Um, literally.