The Art of ‘Um’ and ‘Uh’: Different Vocal Pokes for Different Media Folks

likeIf you have spent any time in PR, you know there are a fair number of media trainers. Typically, these are hacks-turned-flacks who understand how to help clients talk to the media without sounding like remedial English students.

That brings us to a lingustic affliction called Speech Disfluency.

SD involves speaking with “any of various breaks, irregularities, or non-lexical vocables that occurs within the flow of otherwise fluent speech”. You may think of stuttering or hesitating, but this definition also refers to the use of the universal word (and media no-no) “Huh.” (True story, look it up.)

We call those “vocal crutches.” And now — thanks to some deep, battle-of-the-sexes-type research, such crutches can demonstrate one’s gender you are during one of those deep throat interviews.

So, like, see it, um, after the jump…

Meet University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman. Now this guy is a word nerd and his state’s resident logophile. Liberman apparently had some free time on his hands, so he combed through more than 14,000 transcripts (which together comprise more than 26 millions words and involve about 12,000 speakers from all over the U.S.) for a study on vocal crutches and how it relates to which gender using (and abusing) which word.

As noted on his blog, Language Log, Liberman uncovered some telling numbers regarding these vocal crutches that shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with reality TV:

uh um gender

Take note, media trainers: women say “um” 22 percent more than men do, but men say “uh” more than twice as often as women do. Comical, ain’t it? Here are some other, uh, takeaway points:

  • There is a large sex-based difference in filled-pause usage, favoring males by about 38%
  • There is an enormous sex difference in UM/UH ratio, favoring females by about 310%
  • These sex differences are mainly driven by the difference in UH usage, which favors males by about 250%
  • Older speakers use UH more and UM less, resulting in a large decrease of UM/UH ratios

The study was discussed in an article from The Atlanticwhich quotes Liberman, like, here:

“People tend to use UM when they’re trying to decide what to say, and UH when they’re trying to decide how to say it.”

“As people get older, they have less trouble deciding what to say (because they know more stuff), and more trouble deciding how to say it (because they know more words and fixed phrases, and so have a harder time making a choice). As a result, older people use fewer UMs and more UHs.”

In short, Liberman calls women “linguistic pioneers” while asserting that male grunts operate on a level somewhere between the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras.

Utterances, interjections, vocal crutches, mumblings, brain farts, cerebral flatulence: whatever you want to call them, we’re all guilty.

Even the most experienced public speaker will utter the occasional “ya’ know” or “eh”. Add to the mix terribly overused cliches, such as “at the end of the day,” “when the rubber meets the road,” and the rap fave “you know what I’m sayin’,” and you get why studies like this one — not to mention media training specialists — are necessary.

Viva la PR! Like, you know?