Tag Archives: Michael Erard

Are we witnessing the death of ‘uh’? Um, maybe — and not just in English

US President Barack Obama and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte both favor "uh" (or "eh" in Dutch) over "um." Younger people and women are more likely to say "um." (PRI's The World)

US President Barack Obama and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte both favor “uh” (or “eh” in Dutch) over “um.” Younger people and women are more likely to say “um.” (PRI’s The World)

Read this post from Ari Daniel. Or listen to the podcast above.

According to experts, “uh” and “um” are somewhat different beasts. “It does seem to be the case that ‘um’ generally signals a longer or more important pause than ‘uh,'” says Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania. At least that’s what he thought.

Liberman has been studying these so-called “filled pauses” for almost a decade, and he has made a rather curious discovery.

“As Americans get older, they use ‘uh’ more,” he says. “And at every age, men use ‘uh’ more than women.”

If you look at “um,” exactly the opposite is true. Younger people say “um” more often than older people. And no matter the age, women say “um” more than men. Nobody, not even the linguists, were expecting this result; until they studied these hesitations, they thought it was more about the amount of time a speaker hesitates than who that speaker is.

Then, late last summer, Liberman attended a conference in Groningen in the Netherlands. During a coffee break, Liberman was chatting with a small group of researchers. He brought up his finding about the age and gender differences related to “um” and “uh,” which prompted the group to look for that pattern outside of American English. They scanned British and Scottish English, German, Danish, Dutch and Norwegian.

The result, says University of Groningen linguist Martijn Wieling, is that, “in all cases, we find the same thing.” Just like the Americans that Mark Liberman analyzed, women and younger people and younger people said “um” more than “uh.”

Wieling’s conclusion is that we are witnessing a language change in progress, “and that women and younger people are leading the change.”

The future of “um”

This pattern of women and young people leading us forward is typical of most language changes. But why is “um” our future, across at least two continents and five Germanic languages? It’s still a puzzle.

Josef Fruehwald's research suggests that the use of "um" is more popular among females and young people. (Josef Fruehwald/University of Edinburgh)

Josef Fruehwald’s research suggests that the use of “um” is more popular among females and young people. (Josef Fruehwald/University of Edinburgh)

Josef Fruehwald, a sociolinguist at the University of Edinburgh, agrees that “um” and “uh” may be used slightly differently. But as far as he is concerned, they are pretty much equivalent.

“When you have two options, you can start using one more frequently and maybe replace the other one so that it’s no longer an option,” he says. “So why ‘um?’ It’s just one of these things. There’s always a little bit of randomness to the whole situation.”

By random, he means that we do not know why changes in usage like this happen, or when the next one will be. Fruehwald admits linguists are terrible at predicting the future — worse than meteorologists! Language, he says, is even more chaotic than the weather.

As for how such a linguistic trend might have jumped from one language to another, Fruehwald says “there are some documented cases of that kind of thing happening, usually where people can speak both languages and borrow features of one into the other.”

English is the most likely to be influencing the other languages, but we still don’t know whether that’s actually what’s happening with “um.” More research and more linguists are needed.

And as for the future, “um” and “uh” may yo-yo back and forth in terms of their popularity. Or we may well be watching the extinction of “uh” from our lexicon.

So would Fruehwald would miss “uh?”. “I don’t have a really strong emotional connection to either of these,” he admits. “Although based on my age demographics, I’m likely a high ‘um’ user. So maybe that’s where I should throw my loyalties.”

Patrick Cox adds: Also in this podcast episode, a conversation with Michael Erard, editor of Schwa Fire and author of “Um…:Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean.”


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Up Close With Language Super Learners

More in the podcast this week with Michael Erard about his new book,  Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. This is the second half of my conversation with Erard. Part One is here.

Erard talks about why hyperpolyglots are driven to learn so many languages. He also describes the lives and practices of several language super learners:

Alexander Arguelles, who spends nine hours a day, divided into twenty-minute chunks, on language-learning. It used to be fourteen hours a day before he got married.

Gregg Cox, dubbed the “Greatest Living Linguist” in 1999 by the Guinness Book of World Records. Guinness credits him with speaking 64 languages, though he says he doesn’t speak that many.

Helen Abadzi, who drills the sounds of languages into her brain with the help of a device called a digital language repeater. The repeater plays digitally recorded audio snippets over and over at various speeds.

Erard conducted an online  survey of hyperpolyglots. In the podcast, he talks about the results. He also talks about how writing the book influenced his own thinking—like when can you say that you know a language? As far as the US government is concerned,  it’s if you speak it at home.  But in Canada, the government is more likely to credit you for having learned a language, even if you don’t speak it at home or work or school. So, Erard now believes that the US government underreports the number of US residents who speak more than one language.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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The Road to Hyperpolyglottery with Michael Erard

Language writer Michael Erard’s new book is about people who appear to have a special gift. You, perhaps, and I (and Erard for that matter) struggle to learn one or two languages to a basic conversational level.

Hyperpolyglots aren’t like that. They take on Arabic after breakfast and will have mastered it by dinner.

OK, not exactly. But there is a gulf between  language super-learners and most of the rest of us. You only have to read about some of the hyperpolyglots in Erard’s book.

Erard says most hyperpolyglots are men. Many share a “geek macho profile” that in some cases demands that they don’t “leave any languages uncounted” in their repertoire, even when they don’t have full mastery of some of them. Another of Erard’s findings (based on a survey he conducted and interviews with some of the participants): hyperpolyglots are more likely to be introverted, gay or left-handed.

The patron saint of hyperpolyglots has to be  Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849). Though he never left his native Italy, he learned scores of languges– just how many is disputed.   One account claims that Mezzofanti learned as many 114 languages, though 60 is more likely (and of those, he had mastery of perhaps 30).  He’s far from the only hyperpolyglot on whose behalf  inflated claims have been made.

Like many hyperpolyglots, there was a sense of showmanship about Mezzofanti. He staged public displays of his linguistic prowess, and received guests from around the world. Not dissimilar to TV game shows in which more recent hyperpolyglots have performed (sometimes not all that well).

One of the big questions about Mezzofanti and other hyperpolyglots is: why? Why learn so many languages?

There is the geeky completism (not that you ever could achieve true completism: too many languages for that). There is the desire to learn. There is, for some, a devout faith in one’s methods. What sometimes isn’t there (but does exist in casual language learners)  is a desire to verbally communicate with others. That’s not always the case– some hyperpolyglots are professional interpreters– but for many, the learning is on the page or between the earbuds.

In the podcast, Erard compares a typical hyperpolyglot’s method (they “attack the languages” with grammar and vocabulary drills) with the immersive approach of Hippo Family Clubs (also known as LEX). The Hippo Clubs bring together groups of people, sometimes from the same families, who want to learn several languages simultaneously. The emphasis is on immersion, community and non-judgmental trial by error.

Erard also talks about a term he has coined: the will to plasticity. Linguists and educators have long argued over which is more important in learning a language: personal drive or brain plasticity. Erard argues that hyperpolyglots have both in abundance, and each sparks the other.

This podcast, incidentially, is part one of two. Erard will be back next week to tell the individual stories of some of the hyperpolyglots he met in researching his book.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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Street names, Bible translators and locavore language

When it comes to naming a street, you can go with the bland: Bella Vista Ave. Or not: Mugabe St (which has been among several contentious new street names under consideration in Durban, South Africa.)  In the Palestinian city of Ramallah, some recently named streets celebrate “fallen matyrs”, including American activist Rachel Corrie, who died in Gaza in 2003 in disputed circumstances. Israel too, memorializes  its “freedom fighters” from the early 20th century.

You might expect arguments over street names in Israel/the occupied territories and South Africa: these are places with profoundly traumatic recent histories.  But wherever there are streets — or other things to name —  there are heated debates over what to call them.  Why, some ask, name a new federal government building after Ronald Reagan, a small-government president whose administration tried to prevent such statist expansionism?

Also in this podcast, a conversation with Bob Creson, President and CEO of what appears to be the world’s largest Bible translation organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators USA.  According to Wycliffe, about two hundred million people lack access to the Bible in their native tongue. So, with the help of technology and donations, Wycliffe has set itself a deadline: it aims to have at least started translating the Bible into every language by 2025. Nearly all the languages that Wycliffe is currently working on are oral languages only: Wycliffe’s field translators must first design a writing system for any of these languages before committing a translation to paper.  So in those cases, the Bible will likely be the first book to appear in that language, and that culture.  The act of introducing the written word and an outside religion to a group of people who hitherto knew neither is, depending on how you look at it,  freighted with promise or fraught with peril. More on this in future podcasts.

Wycliffe, by the way, is named after 14th century theologian John Wycliffe, who translated parts of the Bible from Latin into Middle English.

Finally, language journalist Michael Erard makes the case for using only artisanal, locally grown and sustainably packaged words. His satirical essay first appeared in web magazine The Morning News.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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