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Filler words like uh, mmm, and huh may seem inarticulate, but without them human communication would be far less sophisticated

People


October 14, 2020

By David Robson

You might expect it to take more than a two-letter word to spoil a politician's credibility. But that's exactly what they did for Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in June 2016. With a massive wildfire in the province of Alberta, he was asked about the country's ability to deal with it. "Um, sure, I think we are all aware that a prime minister shows up at Fort McMurray when firefighters are busy trying to contain a massive wildfire. Not a particularly helpful thing," he began. Trudeau went on to use a total of 50 uhs in a statement that lasted just over a minute.

A video soon went viral and online commentators were generally devastating. "Canada's stupidest prime minister," wrote one viewer. If you've read the unedited transcript, you may have questioned Trudeau's intelligence herself. Such hesitation is certainly a sign of sloppy thinking and dishonesty. Didn't we teach as kids to cut Uhs out of our conversation?

However, the latest research shows that this is an unfounded prejudice. Filler words like um, uh, mmm and huh are not an inarticulate waste of breath, but essential for efficient communication. They send important signals about the words we are saying so that two speakers can better understand each other. “They streamline our interactions, smooth the flow of conversation and manage our social relationships,” says Mark Dingemanse, who studies language and social interaction at Radboud University in the Netherlands. Indeed, he argues that the complexity of our language today would not have arisen without it. To which the obvious answer …