February 9th, 2015
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Liberman has been studying these so-called “filled pauses” for almost a decade, and he has made a rather curious discovery.
“As Americans get older, they use ‘uh’ more,” he says. “And at every age, men use ‘uh’ more than women.”
If you look at “um”, exactly the opposite is true. Younger people say “um” more often than older people. And no matter the age, women say “um” more than men. Nobody, not even the linguists, were expecting this result; until they studied these hesitations, they thought it was more about the amount of time a speaker hesitates than who that speaker is.
Then, late last summer, Liberman attended a conference in Groningen in the Netherlands. During a coffee break, Liberman was chatting with a small group of researchers. He brought up his finding about the age and gender differences related to “um” and “uh”, which prompted the group to look for that pattern outside of American English. They scanned British and Scottish English, German, Danish, Dutch and Norwegian.
The result, says University of Groningen linguist Martijn Wieling, is that, “in all cases, we find the same thing”. Just like the Americans that Liberman analysed, women and younger people said “um” more than “uh”.
Wieling’s conclusion is that we are witnessing a language change in progress “and that women and younger people are leading the change”.
This pattern of women and young people leading us forward is typical of most language changes. But why is “um” our future, across at least two continents and five Germanic languages? It’s still a puzzle.
Josef Fruehwald, a sociolinguist at the University of Edinburgh, agrees that “um” and “uh” may be used slightly differently. But as far as he is concerned, they are pretty much equivalent.