Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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April 20, 2008
the planet on pause

The recent publication of Michael Erard's Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean gives us occasion to contemplate (i.e., "surf webpages about") the phenomenon of "filled pauses" in speech.

Erard's book was preceded a few years back by his January 2004 NYT article on filled pauses, which is fun to pick through. The article is here.

First, the article provides some nice pointers toward research on speech disfluencies.  Such research would include that of Prof. Herbert H. Clark of Stanford. He wrote, among other things, "Repeating Words in Spontaneous Speech" (.pdf)  and "Using Uh and Um in Spontaneous Speaking." (.pdf)

Clark co-authored the latter paper with Prof. Jean Fox Tree, whose publications also include collaborations with Prof. George A Bryant.

Bryant's presentations and publications (.pdf)  seem to include the hilariously titled "Is There an Ironic Tone of Voice? Yeah Right" (.pdf)   and "Recognizing Verbal Irony in Spontaneous Speech." (.pdf)

To trace these links then can lead one to discover Caucci, Kreuz & Buder's poster "Acoustic Analyses of the Sarcastic Tone of Voice." (.pdf)

Erard's 2004 article also cites the work of Elizabeth Shriberg. She has authored such papers as "To 'Errrr' is Human: Ecology and Acoustics of Speech Disfluencies" (.pdf)   and "Acoustic Properties of Disfluent Repetitions." (.pdf)

Secondly of note in Erhard's 2004 article & book, and connecting with much of the above-linked research, is the fascination with pause fillers from around the world, or with the "foreign equivalents of 'um.'"

Webpage surfing on this topic brings us through discussion of the way the world pauses in Danish;   Hebrew and Serbo-Croatian;   Chinese; and . . . Canadian.

Soon enough, we come to hints of statistical research and quantitative analyses out there, that ask -- or tempt one to wonder in a structuralist mode -- whether patterns or commonalities exist, within or across populations, for determination of how often pause fillers appear.

A few more short steps down that road and we can start to imagine "uh" and "um" as tools that speakers use, rather than mishaps to be eliminated, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. would have had it. We can wonder, are such "pauses" only pauses or gaps in a narrow sense, and in fact signals that contain and communiciate some kind of positive informational content?

At this point, it seems relevant to note that the "filled pause" seems to be known too by the phrase "pause filler."

Why two names?

Does the duality provide a name that can be used by people who like to focus on the empty space (the "pause"), with another name that more conjures up the filler that's poured into the space? The negative vs. the positive view?

The spirit of Kurt Tucholsky   seems to hover. He wrote the brilliant "The Social Psychology of Holes" (the original German version of which is here).

A sample:

If a hole is plugged up, where does it go? Does it squeeze to the side and merge with matter? Or does it run to another hole to pour out its heart? What happens to the plugged-up hole? Nobody knows; there is a hole in our knowledge. . . .

Megalomaniacs claim that a hole is something negative. This is incorrect; a man is a non-hole, and the hole is the primary thing.
(above translation taken from this volume)

Then there's the Chaplain in Brecht's Mother Courage: "What happens to the hole when the cheese is eaten?"

(  choice of phrase prhps distinguishes linguistic optimists / pessimists?

fascination w/ human isolation vs. connectedness?

     with failure to communiate vs. failure to shut up?

                            (dependent on if       like to view yr glossolia as half fool vs. half umpteen))

Another possibly related but extremely cryptic research study seems to investigate pause fillers and communicative style in the culture perhaps of discoteque/singles bar-going youths? or celebrity wannabes? -- damned if we can figure it out -- against the aural backdrop of "a babbling gaggle, a scrabbling rabble." These 1988 findings appears under the title "The Queen of Ur and the King of Um," here.

We relate all of the above, however, merely to point out that none of it, from what we can tell, incorporates a very perceptive observation made in fall 2004 by one Debbie Nathan, regarding use of a very special pause filler by certain visitors to that year's Republican National Convention in the USA:

Then there’s the Texas delegation.

At a sumptious breakfast in their honor, sponsored by Halliburton a man giving the invocation demonstrates the Christian fundamentalist, GOP version of "um."

It is "just."

As in, "Lord, we just pray for the police officers. And we just thank you for the great country we live in. We lift up the New York Police Department, and we just thank you for their leaders. In Jesus’ name amen."

Nathan's observation at the time surprisingly seemed to stump even the great Maud Newton, who wrote, "I’m from Texas, sort of, and I just have absolutely no idea what she means."

However, Nathan seems to have been quite correct and far from alone in having noticed the habit.

The "just" pause filler claims to have been identified as early as 1982, when Henry Boonstra wrote about it as, for some, "the all-purpose lubricant in prayer." Its overuse has been noted also, among other places no doubt, in 2002 here; in "intercessory prayer," by the Holy Observer website in 2004 here; and more recently as a pet peeve here and entertainingly here.

TiR has nothing else to say about pause fillers.

The reader may at this point survey the pointlessness that is the above post and ask:

Was the entirety of it simply a lazy excuse for TiR to clean out of its notes and use the links to Nathan & Newton?

All too predictable answer: Uhhh....