Uh, uh, right – what are filler words for? – SWR2

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Um, well, and anyway – frowned by mistake?

Here, an “um”, a “good” or “exactly” – filler words are considered annoying, and those who use them too much are considered dangerous. Therefore, many people try to get rid of frowning words. It is not unusual for them to spend a lot of money on proper language and rhetoric training.

Discourse markers, discourse particles or hesitation markers

However, filler words seem to serve a function, otherwise they would not be so persistent in our use. Therefore, linguistics is also interested in this question. “Uh” and “uh” are referred to here as “discourse markers”, “discourse particles” or “hasty markers” and are by no means dismissed as unnecessary or annoying. There are now thousands of hours of digital audio and video recordings to unlock the mystery of filler words.

“Powerpoint accuracy” between presentation slides

It is interesting that filler words have often evolved away from their original meaning. Florence Oloff, professor of linguistics and filler word expert at the Leibniz German Language Institute in Mannheim, knows this. An impressive example is offered by a German favorite among filler words: “exact”.

“‘Exactly’ is one of the most iconic filler words in German because it’s so common. It’s so common.”

“Exactly” is used in expressions to mean something define. For example: “The book has exactly 399 pages.” It helps to exchange and compare knowledge in dialogues. You can do with an “exact”. confirm each other, meaning: It is, isn’t it? – That’s right, yes.

And then Florence Oloff mentions it “Powerpoint Accurate”. A term from Freiburg linguist Peter Auer. This is a fairly new linguistic phenomenon that often appears in lectures or exam situations.

Say as many interesting and important things as possible

Why is that? According to Florence Oloff, speakers are often under pressure here. They want and need to say as many interesting and correct things as possible. “Exactly” appears when cognitive performance is particularly high. This is usually between individual slides, as ideas often need to be rearranged or the speaker needs to remember what content comes next. Hence, the appropriate description is “Powerpoint-Exact”.

If possible, make a good impression and don’t say anything wrong: We need to have a high level of thinking, especially in lecture and exam situations. Filler words like “um” and “exact” create cognitive pauses and help structure our speech.

Christine Klose

Filler words improve language comprehension and sentence structure

Many voices from linguistic studies argue that filler words are wrongly rejected. So is Kerstin Fischer. According to a professor of language and technology interaction at the University of Southern Denmark, “um” and “uh” are never a waste of time or mistakes in the human language system. If the dose is right, filler words are even useful for speech, Fischer says. Together with his colleague Oliver Niebuhr, he was able to put the number of ideal discourse particles between 2 and 3 per minute.

Similar findings come from psychology. Jean Fox-Tree, professor of psychology at the University of California, showed this in an experiment Filler words improved understanding of human language and recognition of individual terms.

Larssin Staley of the University of Zurich also deals intensively with filler words. For this, he studied conversations in everyday situations. According to Staley, filler words don’t just help build sentences. If you’ve made a mistake and want to correct a word, they can also take over the repair function. Also, sighs and groans are often inserted before bad news, as a kind of linguistic silencer.

Waiter bills in a coffee shop (Image: IMAGO, imago/blickwinkel)

Can I bring you the bill? – Everyday dialogues like going to a restaurant are peppered with filler words. But here we hardly notice them. They perform many practical functions.


Charisma and linguistic spice

These research findings put filler words in a completely different light:

“Filling words bring a certain flavor by characterizing the speaker in a certain way, simple, original, charismatic, spontaneous, one of us.”

Tip from a linguist: work on pronouncing filler words

Linguist Oliver Niebuhr from the University of Southern Denmark advises to stay calm. In small and normal amounts, up to six times a minute, he says, they don’t cause any problems. On the contrary, filler places give us “acoustic charisma”, so to speak. Otherwise, according to Niebuhr, one can work on the pronunciation of ums, because completely breaking the habit of using ums rarely works. A discrete “Ämm” instead of a drawn-out “Ähhm” is less noticeable in the sentence.

manuscript for the show

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