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  • Matthew Hadodo

Filling Up Space

(Originally published December 10, 2014)



Well, um, yeah, like. People use so-called fillers to provide a lot of information in a short amount of time and space. As discourse markers, sometimes fillers can be annoying, but almost always are they necessary. Either way, they reveal a lot about the person who is speaking and what he or she is talking about. Discourse markers are linguistic tools that provide information for speakers and listeners during a discourse, or naturally occurring conversation. Often said to be empty of meaning in and of themselves, discourse markers tend to be helpful in connecting the particulars of what is being said to the broader context. Connective words such as “so” “and,” and “or” are good examples of that because they directly bring different ideas together in sentences and larger passages of speech. Fillers are specific types of discourse markers that are unlike transitional words (next, therefore, etc.) in that they “fill” silence. They are complements to pauses in that they signal a rest or transition in speech but do so with sound. Normally we think of fillers as “uh” or “um” or something along those lines. Notably, “like” has gotten a LOT of attention as a filler that has been linked with “valley girl” speech. Valley girl speech was first brought to greater public attention in the early ‘80s with music, movies, and television representation of associated pronunciation and characteristics. But all of these fillers are really important. If we never used them, people would sound like robots. Now, this is where the concept of social context is super important. If a candidate for president of a country is giving an important debate that is being televised for millions of people to see, and he or she uses an excessive amount of fillers such as “um” and “uh,” then chances are viewers may perceive him or her to be inarticulate and unprofessional. However, if the situation changes and you are having a chat with a close friend and never use any form of a filler, then you might be viewed as too formal or even cold. Fillers are important discourse markers because they give informal contexts a certain style, which helps the conversation flow into a cooperative experience. Style is very important because it's what makes specific actions and people more relatable to us than others. Essentially, when you use a word or phrase with a specific group of people, you are communicating much more than just what you say; you're telling them that you belong or don't. If you are a teenager from New England and your peers use the phrase "wicked awesome," by saying wicked awesome to describe something, you're demonstrating that you are part of the group. What's so interesting is that these types of word choices are subconscious, so we often don't even realize the reason behind why we say the things we do. "Like" is an important sylistic filler, because it shows subconscious membership to a specific group.

Do you tend to say "uh" and "um" a lot? What about "like"? Does it bother you when someone says it 10 times in a single sentence? Why do you think that is? As always, I'm curious to see your comments!

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