Speech disfluency

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A speech disfluency, also spelled speech dysfluency, is any of various breaks, irregularities, or non-lexical vocables which occur within the flow of otherwise fluent speech. These include "false starts", i.e. words and sentences that are cut off mid-utterance; phrases that are restarted or repeated and repeated syllables; "fillers", i.e. grunts or non-lexical utterances such as "huh", "uh", "erm", "um", "well", "so", "like", and "hmm"; and "repaired" utterances, i.e. instances of speakers correcting their own slips of the tongue or mispronunciations (before anyone else gets a chance to). "Huh" is claimed to be a universal syllable.[1]


Fillers are parts of speech which are not generally recognized as purposeful or containing formal meaning, usually expressed as pauses such as "uh", "like" and "er", but also extending to repairs ("He was wearing a black—uh, I mean a blue, a blue shirt"), and articulation problems such as stuttering. Use is normally frowned upon in mass media such as news reports or films, but they occur regularly in everyday conversation, sometimes representing upwards of 20% of "words" in conversation.[2] Fillers can also be used as a pause for thought ("I arrived at, um—3 o'clock"), and when used in this function are called hesitation markers or planners.[3]


Research in computational linguistics has revealed a correlation between native language and patterns of disfluencies in spontaneously uttered speech.[4] Besides that research, there are other subjective accounts reported by individuals.

According to one commentator,[who?] Americans use pauses such as "um" or "em", the Irish commonly use the pause "em",[5] the British say "uh" or "eh", the French use "euh", the Germans say "äh" (pronounced eh or er), the Dutch use "eh", Japanese use "ā", "anō" or "ēto", the Spanish say "ehhh" (also used in Hebrew) and "como" (normally meaning 'like'), and Latin Americans but not the Spanish use "este" (normally meaning 'this'). Besides "er" and "uh", the Portuguese use "hã" or "é".

In Mandarin, "那个(nà gè)" and "这个(zhè ge)" are used, meaning "that" or "this", respectively. Arabic speakers say "يعني", the pronunciation of which is close to "yaa'ni", [jæʕni] or [jaʕni], (literally 'he means', there is no grammatical gender-neutral third person) and Turkish say "şey" in addition to "yani" (without the [ʕ] found in Arabic) and "ııı".[citation needed]

Despite the differences between languages, pause fillers in different languages often sound similar because they tend to be the easiest and most neutral vowel sounds to make (such as the schwa), i.e the sounds that can be pronounced with a relaxed tongue or jaw.[6]


Recent linguistic research has suggested that non-pathological disfluencies may contain a variety of meaning; the frequency of "uh" and "um" in English is often reflective of a speaker's alertness or emotional state. Some have hypothesized that the time of an "uh" or "um" is used for the planning of future words;[7] other researchers have suggested that they are actually to be understood as full-fledged function words rather than accidents, indicating a delay of variable time in which the speaker wishes to pause without voluntarily yielding control of the dialogue. There is some debate as to whether to consider them a form of noise or as a meaning-filled part of language.

Speech disfluencies have also become important in recent years with the advent of speech-to-text programs and other attempts at enabling computers to make sense of human speech.[citation needed]


Hmm is an exclamation (an emphatic interjection) typically used to express reflection, uncertainty, thoughtful absorption, or hesitation.[8] Hmm is technically categorized as an interjection, like um, huh, ouch, erm, and wow. The first h-sound is a mimic for breathing out, and the second m-sound, since the mouth is closed, is representing that the person is not currently sure what to say ("erm" and "um" are used similarly). The pause filler indicates that the person is temporarily speechless, but still engaged in thought. The variety of tones, pitches, and lengths used add nuances in meaning.[9]

A "hmm" emoji


The expression is used in many different languages, however the origin of "hmm" is difficult to find, mainly because "the word is so natural that it may have arisen at any time," as highlighted by linguist at the University of Minnesota and an expert on word origins, Anatoly Liberman. It is possible Neanderthals might have used "hmm". Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, and an expert on filled pauses, attests "hmm" is popular largely since it's such a neutral sound and that "it's easier to say than anything else".[10] The earliest attestations of "hmm" are from Shakespeare, "I cried hum... But markt him not a word" (1598 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 1 iii. i. 154). It may be a vocable that grew out of lexicalized throat-clearing.[11]

Use as a filler word[edit]

"Hmm" is a "filler" word, such as "um" and "er". Use of "hmm" for "filled pauses" has been considered by many[who?] as stupidity and showing a lack of skill or competence, but many linguists[who?] attest this judgement is unjustified. Typically, "hmm" is uttered when the person is being especially conscious about whom they are talking with, and as a result are thinking deeply about what to say. Moreover, the use of "hmm" is often interactional and cognitive. The interactional function is to do with politeness: if someone is invited to a party and responded "no" without a filled pause, they might appear rude, but a reply of "Hmm, sorry, no" might appear much more polite, as it seems the speaker is giving the offer some thought, rather than abruptly declining.[12]

Thoughtful absorption[edit]

The use of "hmm" is typically used during "thoughtful absorption", which is when one is engrossed[13] in their flow of ideas and associations, that lead to a reality-oriented conclusion.[14] The utterance of "hmm" is key for listeners to understand that the speaker is currently engaged in thought; if the speaker thought silently instead, listeners may be unsure if the speaker had finished their utterance. "Um" and "er" are also used during thoughtful absorption; however, typically the extent of the absorption of thought is more limited since "um" and "er" are usually spoken mid-sentence[15] and for shorter periods of time than "hmm". For this reason, thoughtful absorption is typically associated with the utterance of "hmm".[16]

"Huh" – the universal syllable[edit]

Research has shown that the word/syllable "huh" is perhaps the most recognized syllable throughout the world.[17] It is an interrogative. This crosses geography, language, cultures and nationalities.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dingemanse, Mark; Torreira, Francisco; Enfield, N. J. (2013). "Is "Huh?" a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items". PLOS ONE. 8 (11): e78273. Bibcode:2013PLoSO...878273D. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078273. PMC 3832628. PMID 24260108.
  2. ^ Fox Tree, J. E. (1995). "The effects of false starts and repetitions on the processing of subsequent words in spontaneous speech". Journal of Memory and Language. 34 (6): 709–738. doi:10.1006/jmla.1995.1032.
  3. ^ Tottie, Gunnel (2016). "Planning what to say: Uh and um among the pragmatic markers". In Kaltenbock, Gunther; Keizer, Evelien; Lohmann, Arne (eds.). Outside the Clause: Form and Function of Extra-Clausal Constituents. pp. 97–122.
  4. ^ Lamel, L.; Adda-Deckes, M.; Gauvain, J.L.; Adda, G. (1996). "Spoken language processing in a multilingual context". Proceeding of Fourth International Conference on Spoken Language Processing. ICSLP '96. Vol. 4. pp. 2203–2206. CiteSeerX doi:10.1109/ICSLP.1996.607242. ISBN 978-0-7803-3555-4. S2CID 8736842.
  5. ^ "Guide to speaking with an Irish accent". 16 June 2020.
  6. ^ Erard, M. (2007). Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. New York: Pantheon Books.
  7. ^ Kowal, Sabine; Wiese, Richard; O'Connell, Daniel C. (1983). "The use of time in story telling". Language and Speech. 26: 377–392.
  8. ^ Online Dictionary Definitions of "hmm"
  9. ^ "Why do We Say 'Hmm' when Thinking?". 8 June 2012.
  10. ^ "Why do We Say 'Hmm' when Thinking?". 8 June 2012.
  11. ^ "HMM | Origin and meaning of HMM by Online Etymology Dictionary".
  12. ^ "Why you say 'um' 'like' and 'you know?' so much". 2017-04-04. Archived from the original on 2022-05-24.
  13. ^ "Absorption | Definition of absorption in English by Oxford Dictionaries".
  14. ^ Marić, Jovan (2005). Klinicka psihijatrija. Belgrade: Naša knjiga. p. 22. ISBN 978-86-901559-1-0.
  15. ^ "Fill in the Gaps: 15+ Common English Filler Words You Should Know | FluentU English".
  16. ^ Online Contrasting Dictionary Definitions of "hmm", "um", and "er"
  17. ^ Schuessler, Jennifer (November 9, 2013). "The Syllable that Everyone Understands". The New York Times. Retrieved November 9, 2013.
  18. ^ Dingemanse, Mark; Torreira, Francisco; Enfield, N. J. (2013). "Is "Huh?" a Universal Word? Conversational Infrastructure and the Convergent Evolution of Linguistic Items PLoS ONE 8(11): e78273". PLOS ONE. 8 (11): e78273. Bibcode:2013PLoSO...878273D. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078273. PMC 3832628. PMID 24260108.

Further reading[edit]