Are "uh", "er" and "um" words?

Dolly   Thu Aug 02, 2007 8:39 pm GMT
Are "uh", "er" and "um" words?
Dolly   Thu Aug 02, 2007 8:40 pm GMT
By words, I mean linguistic units that have conventional phonological shapes and meanings and are governed by the rules of syntax and prosody.
Guest   Thu Aug 02, 2007 10:22 pm GMT
<By words, I mean linguistic units that have conventional phonological shapes and meanings and are governed by the rules of syntax and prosody. >

┬┐Que?
Divvy   Thu Aug 02, 2007 11:44 pm GMT
Aside: Which is normally longer in speech, uh or um (uhm)?
Skippy   Fri Aug 03, 2007 1:31 am GMT
They're not words because they don't typically have any meaning, they're just space fillers.

I guess there are random circumstances in which they have some meaning, but I would say that generally, they are not words.
furrykef   Fri Aug 03, 2007 2:50 am GMT
Well, they're words in the sense that they have a part of speech: an interjection. They don't really fit into normal rules of syntax or prosody, though. Prosody would be arguable... you could argue that they're always unstressed -- except to indicate discomfort -- and that they're not subject to wild pitch variation except that a sudden change to a high pitch may also indicate discomfort. So it does have prosodic properties, but they don't fit neatly into English's rules of prosody. For instance, the length of "uhh" is very variable, which doesn't apply to normal words. If I knew no English and it all sounded like a steady stream of gibberish, it would still be very easy to identify these "pause" words most of the time, because they stick out so much. I could probably play English speech backwards and identify them easily, at least once I got used to how English sounds when played backwards.

About the only syntactic rules I can think of are that these pauses shouldn't occur in the middle of a word, or at the end of the sentence, the latter because these words indicate that you're pausing before speaking, so there's no reason to say them if the sentence is otherwise finished. Still, both rules are breakable, though I would argue that most cases of these words at the end of a sentence are actually at the beginning of a new sentence or clause. The first rule can be broken, especially but not necessarily at morpheme boundaries, but it's common to repeat the word from the beginning if you pause in the middle. ("I just saw a hip -- uh, a hippopotamus!") The position of the word in the sentence doesn't affect its meaning at all except for indicating what particular thought or word you're having trouble with, and has no effect on the meaning of other words in the sentence.

- Kef
Pos   Fri Aug 03, 2007 8:13 am GMT
<They're not words because they don't typically have any meaning,>

What's the meaning of "hello"? Is it a word?
M56   Fri Aug 03, 2007 8:19 am GMT
<For instance, the length of "uhh" is very variable, which doesn't apply to normal words. >

Whaat? Of course it does.
M56   Fri Aug 03, 2007 8:24 am GMT
<<About the only syntactic rules I can think of are that these pauses shouldn't occur in the middle of a word,>>

"Now what was the old name of Istanbul? It's on the tip of my tongue. Constantin-er-ople. That's it."
M56   Fri Aug 03, 2007 8:28 am GMT
<For instance, the length of "uhh" is very variable, which doesn't apply to normal words. >

He has a greyyy...Ford. That's it."
furrykef   Fri Aug 03, 2007 11:31 am GMT
<< "Now what was the old name of Istanbul? It's on the tip of my tongue. Constantin-er-ople. That's it." >>

I did say that it wasn't a hard-and-fast rule and even provided exceptions myself. My point was that it's just preferable not to do it that way, at least, to me.

<<<< For instance, the length of "uhh" is very variable, which doesn't apply to normal words. >>>>

<< Whaat? Of course it does. >>

I should have known you'd make me clarify this point. :P

What I mean is that there is no standard length for the word "uh". English is a stressed-timed language, which means that, assuming that a sentence is spoken at a steady pace, the stressed syllables are spoken at regular intervals. Words like "uh" always violate that rule. They just don't fit into the sentence's prosody the same way that other words do. You CAN say other words in the same fashion, as you pointed out, but those words are usually spoken "normally". If you hold the length of "whaat", or "greyyy", as in your examples, it is a "marked" usage of these words; on the other hand, a long "uh" is not really a marked usage.

- Kef
M56   Fri Aug 03, 2007 3:16 pm GMT
< My point was that it's just preferable not to do it that way, at least, to me. >

How else would one do it if one did not remember how the last part of the word went?
M56   Fri Aug 03, 2007 3:20 pm GMT
<I should have known you'd make me clarify this point. :P >

I'm paid by the word. ;-)

<Words like "uh" always violate that rule. >

I disagree. If you looked them up in a dictionary, or had to explain the use/meaning of "uh" to a student, you would probably use the same (default) length as a million other natives.
Pos   Fri Aug 03, 2007 3:23 pm GMT
What's the default length of "wow"?
M56   Fri Aug 03, 2007 4:17 pm GMT
<What's the default length of "wow"? >

The same as "one". ;-)