May 02, 2005

um, em, uh, ah, aah, er, eh

In the Canadian provincial Hansards that I wrote about earlier, some of the instance of what is spelled "eh" seem like "filled pauses", which might be transcribed as "uh" in an American context:

Mr Murdoch: [...] A couple of other ones: the stockyards, the money you talk about, is that the province's money? It is, eh, the money that you're -- who owns them?

If this is a filled pause, it might still be an instance of "eh" -- different languages and dialects have different sounds for filled pauses. And it still might have a "meaning". I first thought about the meaning of "uh" many years ago, when I lived in northern New Jersey and often heard (former New York major) Ed Koch on the radio. Koch speaks rapidly and fluently, but with a large number of filled pauses, and I noticed that he often inserted filled pauses in places where it was quite implausible that he was actually pausing to think of what to say next. For example, he would say things like "this is uh Ed Koch" or even "this is Ed uh Koch". I concluded that he used "uh" as a sort of emphasis marker, for verbally highlighting or underlining whatever came next.

If that's what he was doing, it probably worked, according to J. E. Fox Tree, "Listeners' uses of um and uh in speech comprehension", Memory & Cognition, 1 March 2001, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 320-326(7),

Despite their frequency in conversational talk, little is known about how ums and uhs affect listeners' on-line processing of spontaneous speech. Two studies of ums and uhs in English and Dutch reveal that hearing an uh has a beneficial effect on listeners' ability to recognize words in upcoming speech, but that hearing an um has neither a beneficial nor a detrimental effect. The results suggest that um and uh are different from one another and support the hypothesis that uh is a signal of short upcoming delay and um is a signal of a long upcoming delay.

It's pretty easy to distinguish "uh" from "um", but I'm more worried about what is going on in this transcript of an interview with Billy Boyd, where things written "ah", "aah" and "em" join "um":

Stewart: Hi, ah, you join us here on Billy's official website in the first of hopefully many interviews with Billy just having a chat with the big things with Billy's career and certain movies that he's done certain stage plays that he's done. How are you Billy? Welcome.
Billy: Ah I'm very well thank you Stewart.
Stewart: Good good, eh I think for this interview what I'd like to talk about is what you did and how you started and all the rest of it take you back to your childhood days.
Billy: Aah
Stewart: Running about barefoot
Billy: [Laughing softly]Halcyon days
Stewart: On the streets of Glasgow, um did you always know that you were gonna be an actor I mean was that your dream and your ambition?
Billy: Em from, from very early on actually it was. I can't think of a actual moment that I thought I'm definitely gonna be an actor from now on but I remember being in eh guidance meetings which you used to have a school when they'd ask you what do you wanna be and I said an actor and the guidance teacher said well I- I- I wouldn't tell anyone else that. [both laugh] Honestly that's eh growing up in Glasgow maybe it wasn't the best thing to be but em yeah so from, from quite en early age

Something spelled "uh" in in there too, as in this sequence from the beginning of the third segment of the interview:

Stewart: Welcome back, eh we're now gonna have a chat with Billy about his career, his fledgling career in theatre after college, so Billy you got a job in St. Andrews?
Billy: Yeah, yeah
Stewart: Just as you left college, what was that?
Billy: It was em, while we were still at college eh, St. Andrews had a theatre called The Byer Theatre and they were doin some shows and they came to audition the people who were about to leave theatre and they were doing a show called 'The Slab Boys' by John Byrne a fantastic play ah which was made into a movie actually a few years on and 'The Diary of Adrian Mole' which is a musical on stage and its actually very funny
Stewart: And who did you play in that?
Billy: I played Adrian,
Stewart: Adrian?
Billy: [Laughing] Yeah,
Stewart: Don't look like an Adrian
Billy: Eh, uh That's coz I've no got my glasses on
[Stewart laughs like the Dr from The Simpsons again]

Does Glaswegian really have five different filled pauses ("eh", "ah", "uh", "em", "um"), and an interjection "aah" as well? Are some of these examples of tags (as Canadian "eh" usually is) rather than filled pauses at all? At this point, I think I'd like to have the recording as well as the transcript, and have the option of working from vowel formant frequencies and other phonetic measurements, or from phonetic perceptions, rather than only from orthographic transcriptions.

By the way, Billy's Simpsons reference is not irrelevant -- there's another Simpsons/linguistics connection here for Heidi Harley's collection:

In Montreal for a performance of The Simpsons In the Flesh stage show at the Just for Laughs comedy festival, the shows creator Matt Groening noted Thursday his dad was born in Canada. Homer being named after Groening's father, so what does where does this lead Homer?

"That would make Homer Simpson a Canadian," Groening said in an interview. "I hope Canadians won't hold it against the show now that they know.

Not all too surprising, as one fan noted, "Homer eats foods commonly associated with Canada: donuts, beer, bacon, and has been know to have a glass of maple syrup for breakfast.".

[Fox Tree reference via email from Hugo Quené. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 2, 2005 09:44 AM