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Not always these people. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

The Functions of ‘Um,’ ‘Like,’ ‘You Know’

• May 15, 2014 • 4:14 PM

Not always these people. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

It isn’t just valley girl babble.

Interestingly enough, that filler language you might associate with, you know, dumb teenagers in, like, Southern California, is totally more meaningful than we thought.

Filler words like “uh,” “um,” “you know,” “I mean,” and “like” aren’t always just dimwitted lapses in someone’s linguistic canon, and they’re certainly not always indicative of careless oratory, according to a new study in the June issue of Journal of Language and Social Psychology.

Psycholinguists have actually categorized words usually thought of as superfluous blips in speech into separate groups based on their function. “Um” and “uh” are known as “filled pauses.” “You know,” “I mean,” and “like” are termed “discourse markers.”

Previous research has suggested that filled pauses “may inform listeners that the speaker needs a pause to collect his or her thoughts or block the listener from taking the speaker’s turn away.” Scientists believe its a reflection of “the processing of complex thoughts.” Though representations in pop culture might have us think otherwise, previous research suggests people in authoritative roles often make use of them.

Though broadly categorized as transitional speech, discourse markers are more reliant on context.

For example, the phrase I mean serves as an indication that a speaker is planning to modify what is said, and you know is used when the speaker is asking a listener to make inferences about the conversation.

Other research suggests that another purpose of you know is to confirm the understanding of a listener. The purpose of the discourse marker like is more ambiguous, but some studies suggest that speakers use it as a hedge when they do not want to fully commit to what they say. However, Liu and Fox Tree have countered the suggestion that like acts as a hedge by showing that this discourse marker exhibits different patterns from other hedges and likely has its own unique function.

According to one previous study, which analyzed speech in college lectures and seminars, female students were more likely to say “like” than their male counterparts and professors.

In the latest study, the scientists analyzed 263 transcriptions from five previous language studies. The speech was gathered from Electronically Activated Recorders, which recorded “truly spontaneous conversation” from subjects ranging in age from 17 to 69. Then they attempted to see whether there were any correlations between the age, gender, and personality traits of the subjects and the rates of filled pauses and discourse markers in their speech.

Younger college females loved discourse markers, but filled pauses occurred at similar rates across gender and age groups. Oddly enough, the personality trait of conscientiousness correlated with discourse markers.

The possible explanation for this association is that conscientious people are generally more thoughtful and aware of themselves and their surroundings. When having conversations with listeners, conscientious people use discourse markers, such as I mean and you know, to imply their desire to share or rephrase opinions to recipients.

So next time you’re accused of sounding like a bumbling teenager, you can say: “You know, I’m just being conscientious, dude.”

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

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