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Filler words: The enemy of eloquence?


Twitter is awesome for all sorts of random stuff, and sometimes it’s especially useful for flagging up things that make me go ‘wut?’ as a sociolinguist. The most recent one which raised my eye-brow was this gem from the Star Tribune about fillers (Language Log have talked about fillers here and here if you’re interested). The article opens with the cracking line ‘If Martin Luther King had said, “Um, I, like, have a dream,” where, like, would we be?’. Overlooking the fact that Luther King was reading from a script, as a practiced speaker, in front of a international televised audience, most people in Luther King’s position wouldn’t revert to using fillers, especially since they’re not a feature of formal speech styles. What the writer does is take naturalistic speech phenomena (and the features therein) and applies them to a completely different domain and tenor. Not good sociolinguistic practice.

But the narrative that fillers are indicative of a lack of eloquence and sophistication in speech is made clear, and it’s something the writer doesn’t let up on throughout the piece. In fact, the author takes this idea and rams it down the reader’s throat with such zeal it’s almost scary… It gets even better as the article unfolds, with various unsubstantiated points like:

  • Filler words are destroying the English language.
  • [English] contains, arguably, more expressive words than any other language.
  • Filler words have turned into a crutch crippling the development of vocabulary.

It’s still not clear to me how innovations can destroy a language or how fillers can retrograde vocabulary development, nor is there a case that English is more or less expressive than any other language (seriously, where do people get these ideas from?), and it’s worrying that these kinds of ideologies are still broadcast so vigorously.

The last point the writer makes is that ‘The first step to terminate this gruesome habit is to recognize when you use filler words. Instead of allowing these words to dominate your speech, simply pause to collect your thoughts. ‘. If we did that, we would never get anything said…

The Social Linguist

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  1. Aaron
    February 21, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    The first thing this reminded me of:

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0019792

    I have no idea why I should have that sitting in my memory but there it is.

    I’ve only glanced at the abstract but it basically says that word recognition is faster if there is a pause before the word, and that pause can be silence, a tone, or a filler.

    If this is correct, it would imply that these fillers serve a purpose in language and while Valley girls sound a bit ridiculous, I guess it’s not the end of the world that every other word they utter is ‘uh, like’.

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