An Uh, Er, Um Essay: In praise of verbal stumbles [Slate] – I love it when something I think of as inarguable, indisputable – like this one: it’s bad to say “um” in speech, especially when public speaking – is outed as a recent invention and/or sham. Also, this is a huge relief.
“Uh” and “um” don’t deserve eradication; there’s no good reason to uproot them. People have been pausing and filling their pauses with a neutral vowel (or sometimes with an actual word) for as long as we’ve had language, which is about 100,000 years. If listeners are so naturally repelled by “uhs” and “ums,” you’d think those sounds would have been eliminated long before now. The opposite is true: Filled pauses appear in all of the world’s languages, and the anti-ummers have no way to explain, if they’re so ugly, what “euh” in French, or “äh” and “ähm” in German, or “eto” and “ano” in Japanese are doing in human language at all. In the history of oratory and public speaking, the notion that good speaking requires umlessness is actually a fairly recent, and very American, invention. It didn’t emerge as a cultural standard until the early 20th century, when the phonograph and radio suddenly held up to speakers’ ears all the quirks and warbles that, before then, had flitted by. Another development was the codification of public speaking as an academic subject. Counting “ums” and noting perfect fluency gave teachers something to score.