Archive for June, 2008



Friday, June 27, 2008

Last week, my son at the age of 2 years 3.5 months acquired (or more accurately, started using) the filler word um, which English speakers use to fill in pauses as they search for the next thing they are going to say.

As often happens in such cases, the word just one day started to magically appear. We had developed a game in which he names an animal or motorized vehicle (from the limited set of plane, train, or firetruck) and I do my best to imitate the named animal or vehicle. It is a great game to play as we are driving around. Suddenly one day, he started using um while he was thinking of the next animal to request. So our exchanges now go like this:

Benjamin: Lion!

Me: <Roar> (not one of my better animal imitations)

Benjamin: Um… Cow!

Me: Moo!

Benjamin:  Um… Firetruck!

And so on.

Interestingly, one thing many people may not realize is that filler words like um and uh are language specific. Certainly, I didn’t know this until I was pretty far along in my graduate studies. To me, filler words just seemed so natural, I had always assumed that everyone, regardless of their language, used the same expressions. It must be like saying ow when you hit your thumb.  And it is impossible to avoid these fillers, even when they are pointed out to us. But as I started to work with other languages, I found out the particular words are not universal. One day, my adviser, Pam Munro, pointed out to me that in San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec, speakers say tulaa to fill a pause.

Furthermore, just like all words, children must acquire these words, and these words are subject to borrowing across languages. So, in Macuiltianguis Zapotec, which has a less vital language community than SLQZ, many speakers use este, borrowed from Spanish. (I am not sure if older speakers use this, or if they have retained a native um. I will have to put it on my list of things to investigate.)

Recently, I have had the opportunity to notice North American Native Americans using um as well at the InField workshop at UC Santa Barbara, a workshop to bring together linguists, students, and indigenous community members for the purposes of sharing ideas and skills in documenting indigenous languages, many of which are endangered and losing speakers.

Several Native American participants have honored us with short addresses in their native languages, which for many is not their dominant language. Primed by my son, I couldn’t help but notice the occasional um creeping into their speech. Of course, this is not intended as a criticism. Many of the efforts described in the conference to document, preserve, and relearn these languages have been quite heroic, and it is wonderful to be a small part of the process. Instead, the use of um highlights, I think, the vast amount of information carried by a native speaker and the amount of work that is needed to fully document a language and the many subtle and surprising facts about humanity that are lost when we lose a language.