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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

There's a stereotype about public radio people. We're mellow. We're smooth. We're articulate. And we never say, you know, I mean or um, or do we?

STEVE INSKEEP: Um.

ELLIOTT: Um.

ALEX CHADWICK: Um.

ROBERT SIEGEL: Ah.

ELLIOTT: Thanks to the skills of our producers, all of us can sound fluent and in command of the language. This week on Science Out of the Box, we listen a little more closely to the way we actually speak.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: To find out why people um and ah so much, we turn to Michael Erard. He is the author of the new book, "Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunder."

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: Let's try that again. He is the author of the new book, "Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean." He joins us now from member station KUT in Austin.

Thanks for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL ERARD (Author, "Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean"): Thanks for having me, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So why do people blunder so much? What makes us um and ah, and start sentences over and things like that?

Mr. ERARD: What makes us do that so much is the fact that we are at - on one hand, wired to do that. The language that we have and the brains that we have sort of means that we will do those things. And also, that we have brains that filter those things out when we listen for message and we listen for content. And so the system in the way that it has evolved has both given us blunders and given us a way to listen around them.

Um is a class of things called speech disfluencies, which are interruptions or spontaneities. What um actually means is a matter of some debate. Still, some people think that it's simply a noise that fills the time that - during which we're thinking. Other people say that um and ah are actual words and that they have two distinct meanings.

ELLIOTT: What does um mean?

Mr. ERARD: Um would mean that in the sentence that I'm about to speak there is a delay that's upcoming that will be slightly longer. Ah means there is a delay that's upcoming that may be shorter.

ELLIOTT: Oh, so it's a way of - sort of alerting the person that you're talking to that there's a pause coming up.

Mr. ERARD: Right. Yeah.

ELLIOTT: And um would be a longer pause, and ah would be a shorter pause?

Mr. ERARD: That's correct. Yeah. And a lot of these editing expressions, the you know, the kind of, the sort of, while they are annoying and while maybe we wish that they weren't so frequent in our speaking, there is that sense that when we put them in, what we're doing is signaling to the person that we're talking to, hey, I am actively searching for this stuff. So it's not actually a sign of not thinking, which is sort of the common way of thinking about them, but they are signs of thinking.

ELLIOTT: Now, in your book you write that there are equivalents to ums and ahs in just about every language including sign language.

Mr. ERARD: Mm-hmm. Pretty much every spoken and sign language, even invented languages have a way for speakers to signal some sort of delay or to fill a pause. And in a lot of languages, it is that same neutral vowel - um, ah. In French, it's ei(ph). In Hebrew it's eh(ph). In Spanish it's e(ph).

ELLIOTT: And why in sign language?

Mr. ERARD: Yeah. I mean, it serves the same purpose in sign language that it serves in spoken language. It's to say, I am thinking of the next thing to say or I may be experiencing some difficulty in coming up with the exact word. Or it could be, don't interrupt me. I would like to keep the conversational space. Don't take it away from me. I will have something to add shortly.

ELLIOTT: And what's the sign?

Mr. ERARD: There are different versions of the sign, you know, sort of start with your hand - your right hand in front of you with the palm up, and you sort of make a circling motion towards you with your hand. There's also another sign that's used where people will sort of wiggle their fingers in place so you'll be signing and you'll stop - at the nearest last sign and just kind of freeze your hands and wiggle your fingers. And that will sort of indicate a thinking moment.

ELLIOTT: Michael Erard, are there any prevailing theories of where the sound um comes from?

Mr. ERARD: Well, there is the argument that it's related to the ancient Vedic word for the sound that the universe makes, which is um. And that in the beginning was the word, and the word was um. But that aside, I think that really the sense is that the ah and um are these very easy vowels to say.

ELLIOTT: Now, you write about the history and how people have been using this for centuries. But the one thing that I found interesting is that people didn't notice it so much until the advent of radio. And people were able to start to hear their voices.

Mr. ERARD: Yeah. The technology, the recording technology and the mass media really made speech into an object in a way that it hadn't been before. So people who were even transcribing verbatim prior to this era couldn't transcribe quickly enough to catch these things.

There were writers who noted them. Mark Twain noted them. Tom Sawyer says ah in the "Adventures of Tom Sawyer." But, by and large, it wasn't noticed as a part of good speaking until the early 20th century when attention to it just explodes. And it shows up public speaking handbooks. It shows up in etiquette books. Just all over the place.

ELLIOTT: Um, Michael Erard, thank you so much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ERARD: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Michael Erard's new book is "Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean." You can find an excerpt from the book at our Web site, npr.org.

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