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Why we keep using ‘uh‘s’ and ‘uhm‘s’ in our language? When do these subconscious pauses occur?

Posted May 27, 2018

Sometimes we cringe hearing recordings of our speech. It is usually because of unnecessary pauses and slow expression of ideas. Out speech is filled with various ‘uh‘s’ and ‘uhm‘s’, but have you noticed that most of them appear before nouns? Scientists the University of Amsterdam and the University of Zurich came up to this conclusion and have some ideas why that is.

Spontaneous speaking brings out a lot of pauses in our language that are usually filled with meaningless sounds such as ‘uhm’. Image credit: Dennis Hill via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Human language is not perfect. We take huge pride in it, because we can communicate in a variety of ways and people from one part of the world can learn to understand people living thousands of kilometres away. However, sometimes we slow down seemingly for no reason. Scientists analysed spontaneous language samples from various regions of the world, including the Amazon rainforest, Siberia, the Himalayas, and the Kalahari Desert, but also English and Dutch. Researchers wanted to see how slow-down effect (characterized by ‘uh‘s’ and ‘uhm‘s’) manifests before nouns and verbs. Because different languages were analysed scientists had to measure the speed of utterance in sounds per second first.

Scientists discovered that slow-down effect is much more evident before nouns. It means that the brain takes longer to process nouns than verbs. Scientists think it is because nouns in our speech typically represent new information. If no new information is prepared nouns can be omitted or replaced with pronouns, such as ‘she’, ‘he’ and similar. No such replacements are needed for verbs as they rarely present new information.

Scientists say that these results may help shaping the future of neuroscience research, when the information value of words used in conversation is going to be evaluated and scientists will study how brain processes language. This study may also serve as an example why it is important to spread the data pool – Balthasar Bickel, one of the authors of the study, said: “We found that English, on which most research is based, displayed the most exceptional behavior in our study”.

This research could also contribute to our understanding of language evolution. Because it takes more time to process nouns they evolves slower – it is just more difficult for nouns to develop complex forms. Scientists think that this may be the reason why in such languages as German prefixes are far more common in verbs. And then, of course, this study contributes to our understanding about how various languages perform in their natural environments.


Source: University of Amsterdam

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