DAVIS: Dr. Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein is a linguistic anthropologist. Back in February, she— okay, actually, I’ll just let her tell the story.
BARCHAS-LICHTENSTEIN: “So there was this article in the New York Times about— asking people to stop using filler words across the board.”
DAVIS: Filler words. Stuff like [beat] like, umm, you know…. Words that public speaking teachers will tell you to avoid. The author of this New York Times piece, Christopher Mele, says these words make you sound, as he writes, “not so smart,” but Jena and her colleagues took issue with that.
BARCHAS-LICHTENSTEIN: “I wrote a letter to the editors of the Times and got, I think, 35 signatures from people with Phds in linguistics and linguistic anthropology.”
DAVIS: Jena and her colleagues out in support of quote-unquote filler words. The Times didn’t end up publishing that letter to the editor, but Jena later published her perspective an article for the online magazine Quartz, which is how I heard about all of this. Jena noticed several different things wrong with that Times article, but her first problem?
BARCHAS-LICHTENSTEIN: “This guy hasn’t quoted any experts on language and the stuff he’s saying kind of runs counter to anything any linguist would tell him.”
DAVIS: Turns out that language experts don’t actually want us just to stop using filler words. While curtailing their usage can help you communicate in some contexts, it turns out that you really can’t just stop using them. Filler words are kind of an essential part of language. They have a function.
BARCHAS-LICHTENSTEIN: “So a filler word is the layperson’s term for what linguists would call a discourse marker. So discourse markers are any words or phrases that help you manage the flow of spoken or written language in a social context. They also do a ton of social work, so they help us speak appropriately.
DAVIS: When you use a discourse marker like “um” or “like,” you’re sending along some extra information so that the person you’re communicating with can better understand your context. The discourse markers we’re talking about here are actually within a subset of discourse markers which linguists call “verbalized pauses.” Now, that may be a little misleading— verbalized pauses are more than just a pause. Words such as “um” and “like” give important context—they qualify what we’re saying.
BARCHAS-LICHTENSTEIN: “We don’t just use verbalized pauses because we’re looking for a word or we need to fill time. We use them for all kind of really important social stuff that would be really awkward if we didn’t use them. So one of the things that you are most familiar with is that we use them to soften disagreement or criticism.”
“So let’s say, I ask you if you like my new haircut and you say,”
ACTOR: Well you know, um, I like the one you had before better but this one looks nice too.
BARCHAS-LICHTENSTEIN: “If you just said,”
ACTOR: I like the one you had before better.
BARCHAS-LICHTENSTEIN: “I would start crying, that’s a terrible thing to say! And, by doing all of that, “um,” “well,” “you know,” it softens it.”
DAVIS: I’ll pause here to say that even though verbalized pauses have an immense effect on our message, they might not always add to what we’re trying to communicate. If you’re doing, let’s say, a presentation for work or school…
ACTOR: So, well, if you, like, look at it this way, um… the history of Latvia is really pretty, like, complex.
…you may want to be a little more careful when using verbalized pauses. It’s possible you could distract your audience, or even lower their confidence in what you’re saying. But even though there are situations where we want to back off, we can’t simply get rid of verbalized pauses. Speaking isn’t just what we say, it’s how we say it.
BARCHAS-LICHTENSTEIN: “Even if we banned “like” and trained everyone to stop using it, something else would take over that function”
DAVIS: To see how verbalized pauses function in language, Jena told me to call up Alex D’Arcy, who is a director at the Sociolinguistics Research Lab at the University of Victoria. She says there’s another level to these discourse markers. They not only give extra information about what we’re saying, but also about who we are.
D’ARCY: “These things that we like to call ‘fillers’ are ultimately really really meta, right? Because they do let us say things like, ‘I’m identifying as young right now’ or ‘I’m identifying as your friend right now.”
DAVIS: That identification is part of what gives verbalized pauses a bad rep. You’ll commonly see them associated with young women, and it turns out that a lot of criticisms of verbalized pauses just have prejudice at the root of the critique. The thing is, young women don’t actually use verbalized pauses any more than other populations. Alex has researched the use of like as a verbalized pause specifically, and she says there are only a few specific contexts in which women use like more. In fact, using like the way that we do has been in our language for a really long time.
D’ARCY: “If we are going to pile up on young speakers today, we actually have to turn the lens and go back to the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and blame speakers there. And then you can see that it isn’t just young girls that it is in fact everybody.”
DAVIS: Attacks on verbalized pauses, and other discourse markers as well, they aren’t just grammar gripes. Here’s Jena again.
BARCHAS-LICHTENSTEIN: Young women tend to be at the front of language change historically and they also get demonized— I say they, I should probably say we. We get demonized for the way that we talk all the time. You hear it in the criticism of uptalk, you hear it in the criticism of vocal fry, even though that’s also a very common masculine way of speaking.
DAVIS: If you don’t know what uptalk is, [using uptalk:] it’s a style of speech where the speaker will raise the pitch of their voice as they reach the end of a sentence, kind of like they’re always asking a question. Vocal fry, well, if you’re a fan of podcasts, you probably listen to This American Life. Let’s listen to an excerpt from their episode on vocal fry. It features Ira Glass and Chana Joffe-Walt.
GLASS: It’s funny until we started talking about it for this story, I never noticed it in your voice.
JOFFE-WALT: And now notice it every single…
GLASS: Yeah. Have you noticed I do it too?
JOFFE-WALT: Not until right now.
GLASS: Yeah. Yeah. Even as I say these words.
DAVIS: Hear how his voice kind of [using vocal fry] fries when he talks? This guy’s the host of one of the most popular podcasts and he still uses vocal fry. It’s not just young women.
BARCHAS-LICHTENSTEIN: Ira Glass can say whatever he wants in vocal fry and everyone thinks he has, like, the best radio voice. If a young woman uses vocal fry it’s cringe-worthy, it’s like fingernails on a blackboard, we get criticised left and right. That’s exactly where the frustration comes from.
DAVIS: Jena pointed out that criticizing the way certain groups of people speak often just ignores those same features of speech in others. That type of criticism isn’t a concern for language, it’s bias. Most of the time, complainers are just looking for something to complain about, rather than the full scope of any one linguistic feature. Linguists spend a lot of time describing the structures and mechanics of language. Even when we’re breaking The Rules that our high school public speaking class taught us, there are still unspoken rules that we’re following, and discourse markers are built right into that system— that’s just how our language works. For example, using like as a way to quote another person, as in: and then he was like, “whatever.” Even if it’s against the textbook rules, using the quotative like is something that our grammar allows for.
D’ARCY: “So it’s not as though those speakers born in the 1960s and 70s just suddenly invented something and started using it. There was already something happening in the quotative system that allowed them to be combined in this new way, to do a new job, a job, by the way, that the system had already been reconfiguring toward before those resources even existed. So if we tried to peel all of that out of language, we would be left with something that didn’t actually enable us to attain our communicative goals.”
DAVIS: If that sounds a little complicated, it’s because it is. We really can’t think about language simply in the present moment, and thinking about it in terms of “right” or “wrong” just doesn’t give an accurate picture to how language and communication work. Instead, we have to consider all the factors of history, culture, and context which go into the way that any particular person says something, and we have to consider how the way we say things can change the meaning of what we’re saying. Shaming other people into using language a certain way just isn’t productive.
If you want to learn more about discourse markers and linguistics, both Dr. Barchas-Lichtenstein and Dr. D’Arcy have written great articles on the subjects. Check out the show notes, where I’ll link to pieces by both of them, and the New York Times article we mention up top.
This has been an episode of Write Right, a production of the Texas A&M University Writing Center, a service of the Department of Undergraduate Studies. My name is Davis Land and I wrote and produced this episode. I had editorial help from Nancy Vazquez, Flo Davies, and Nick Cenegy. If you’re a Texas A&M Student we offer online and in person consultations about your papers, presentations, and anything else that involves communicating clearly. You can find us online at writingcenter.tamu.edu and on Twitter @tamuwc. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, and Tinder. Swipe right!