This never occurred to me…

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Email from CGY.:

I recently read a BBC article detailing some of your work into the uses of 'uh' and 'um' in germanic languages: Ari Daniel Shapiro, "Why we are saying "uh" less and 'um' more", PRI's The World, BBC News 2/7/2014.

I am not a linguist of any sort however I thought you may find some interest in my personal experience. I am a 20 year old English speaking women and I use 'um' almost exclusively as predicted by your research. I am aware that I use 'um' in almost all social situations as I find using 'uh' sounds too sexual. Likewise if I am flirting with someone I find myself using 'uh' almost exclusively.

I thought that this might be the case for others and possibly help provide some explanation for the pattern. Possibly the rise in usage is proportional to the increase in exposure to pornographic material?

This interesting hypothesis is more or less the opposite of the idea discussed in "Labiality and femininity", 12/26/2014, thereby supporting the generalization that for every functional argument, there is an equal and opposite counter-argument.

But seriously, do other young women share CGY's intution?


  1. Ben said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 1:32 pm

    The hypothesis makes me wonder what younger women and girls do? After all, at some age a girl goes from being unaware of her sexuality to being aware of it, and being unaware of male attention to being aware of it. You show a peak of um / (uh + um) for 20 year old women, was it increasing before that age?

  2. Brett said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 5:11 pm

    This is not directly related to the "uh"-"um" distinction, but rather to the way "uh" (and "um") are spelled. I was rereading "Who Goes There" by John W. Campbell, and one of the characters uses "er—uh" as immediately successive interjections. I suppose the reason for this is that the American Campbell didn't realize that "er" was a non-rhotic spelling of "uh"—just as I hadn't realized that the last time I read the story (probably about ten years ago). It's just interesting to see this in edited prose (although, by the time this was published, Campbell was entirely his own editor).

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

    I wonder whether some people's feeling about vocal fry and creak relate to hearing it as sexual. I don't see how to answer such a question, though.

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 10:08 pm

    @Brett: didn't realize that "er" was a non-rhotic spelling of "uh"

    I don't think it's just an American thing. I was brought up in a distinctly rhotic-speaking part of southern England, and when I first began reading heavily, I assumed that "er" and "erm" in print meant /ɜːr/ and /ɜːrm/ (even though I'd never heard anyone say them).

  5. Joyce Melton said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 10:48 pm

    Personally, I thought there was a shade of different meaning between "er" and "uh". "Er" seems to me to signal self-conscious awareness of using a stalling signal, a sort of "give me a moment here" while "uh" is just a noise one makes when the mouth is working but the brain is not engaged.

    Maybe I'm wrong, but that's how I use the two in my own writing.

  6. Difficat said,

    February 8, 2015 @ 11:03 pm

    I am an American woman in my 40's, and I am pretty sure I use "um" more than "uh." It is pretty deliberate. I use "um" to indicate that I am not too sure I agree with something and am looking for a way to be diplomatic, often in a humorous way. "Uh" is for when I can't think of the next word, but I long ago decided that a brief silence would do just as well, and stopped using it much.

  7. Matt said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 12:07 am

    As a child in non-rhotic Australia, I thought that "er" and "uh" were distinct too, both basically lengthened open-mid vowels but with the former more fronted and with a touch of rounding. (But I hope this derail doesn't discourage people from addressing the main point too.)

  8. bfwebster said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

    61-year-old American English speaker. I don't consider "er" and "uh" to be the same thing, but see them much as Joyce states above. I rarely actually use "er" in speech; when I do, it's a deliberate, semi-embarrassed, almost self-referential stall — subtext is, "Uh-oh — there's something here I don't have an answer for."

    By contrast, "uh" is something I constantly try (unsuccessfully) to eliminate from my speech. I am particularly aware of it because of my work over the past 15 years as an expert witness (IT, not linguistics); I often end up reading transcripts of my depositions and court testimony, and I wince when I see "uh" in there.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

    The way to test the hypothesis would be for some enterprising grad student to write up a grant proposal to build an annotated digital database of porn-movie dialogue and see how the uh:um ratios compare to those used by speakers of the same sex/age/SES/etc. in non-pornographic settings.

  10. pj said,

    February 9, 2015 @ 2:22 pm

    Well, for another data point (though perhaps, sadly, I'm not young enough to count), I'm a female BrEng speaker in my mid-30s and it's never crossed my mind that either my hesitating 'er' or 'um' (I can't quantify usage distribution – I'm not aware of a systematic distinction of any sort in my own usage – but I'm a hesitancy-heavy speaker) sounds remotely sexual. I find the idea quite funny.

    Mind, full disclosure relevant to CGY's hypothesis: I've been 'exposed' to (= 'chosen to watch', no?) virtually no porn, so perhaps I'm just naive. This opens the fascinating possibility of work on some kind of phone line where men will call up and pay for me to pause to consider my sentence formulation at them. I could do with some extra cash.

  11. Adrian Bailey said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 10:38 am

    This Englishman agrees with other voices above who think er and uh are different. I think of er as a long shwa (as in "ooh er") and uh as a short one (as in "uh-huh"). Come to think of it, there's probably the same relationship between erm and um. I've no idea which of these tics I use most often.

  12. Chris McG said,

    February 10, 2015 @ 12:16 pm

    I'm another BrE speaker who reads/uses 'er' and 'uh' differently – 'er' like in NURSE, 'uh' more like in STRUT, 'uh' being shorter. When I use 'er' I'm hesitating because I think I might be mistaken, if I use 'uh' it's because I think the other person is. When I'm texting 'uh, yeah' is implicitly 'yeah, obviously, why would you even ask?', whereas 'er, yeah' is more 'yeah, I think so, but correct me if I'm wrong'.

    But aloud, I mostly say 'erm'/'um' and make no distinction between those two.

  13. Chris Waters said,

    February 14, 2015 @ 9:33 pm

    Like bfwebster above, I'm a fully-rhotic American who says "er". I only discovered recently on LL that people like bfwebster and myself don't exist, and am puzzled at our ability to post to LL, given our lack of existence! :D

    my use of "er" is exactly like bfwebster's: a more deliberate stall for time than when I say "uh" or "um". Since I don't believe I know the person behind the nym, I tend to think our shared style may reflect something more common than those who believe that no rhotic person actually says "er" will admit.

    For the record (in case someone is inspired to further study, be it serious or just a breakfast experiment), I'm from Northern California, with roots in the midwest.

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