Lori Anderson: It’s…er…really revealing…y’know

Lori Anderson finds meaningless sounds we make to fill pauses could determine if we’ll vote Ukip or pen a No 1 hit

Nigel Farage is a serial er man. Picture: Getty

TO “er” is not only human but ageing. Folks, we have reached those dark days of judgment when the quality of our phonemes will speak volumes about the last live gig we ever attended; this, of course, has until now been the best way to guess someone’s age, the tree-ring equivalent for homo sapiens.

Someone really needs to tip off Nigel Farage’s spin doctor. In a recent speech he muttered “er” 15 times. This, we now know, thanks to a recent “study” is the linguistic equivalent of cancelling the milk and booking in at Dignitas.

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Say “er” and it’s pipe and slippers time, say “um” and you will take on the kind of supernatural ageless glow of Ursula Andress in Ayesha or the Count in Sesame Street.

I, of course, am an ummer, even if I liked to er, I’d be lashing my neural linguistic grooves into a scold’s bridle in the name of anti-ageing. The quality of your dithering can also reveal gender, with women as much as 400 per cent more likely to mumble “um” than “er”.

The “study” said to be born by the inexorable toil of linguists at universities around the world, including staff at Edinburgh University, revealed that young people and women were more likely to say “um” while older people and men were more likely to say “er” or its American equivalent “uh”.

The “study” was reported this week with some journalists making snide remarks about academics devoting time and effort to such a seemingly inconsequential matter as what phoneme – which is the smallest meaningless speech sound made by humans – is used by what sex. (The smallest meaningful speech sounds humans make are apparently called “morphemes”)

Me? I’m fascinated by this type of linguistic minutiae especially when it reveals that I’m younger and hipper than I had previously hoped.

Yet one of the academics has revealed that the findings weren’t as a result of a formal “study” in which a group of like-minded linguists bloated with expensive grants decided to finally nail down that crucial um/er sexual divide, but was instead the fruit of an informal free-wheeling online discussion between colleagues. The study was actually a group of blog posts pulled together which had analysed already existing material. So, for instance, one of the academics designed a computer programme which was then used to analyse a database, built up over 15 years, in which 25,000 people from Philadelphia were the subject of formal linguistic interviews, which when transcribed included every phonetic “um” or “err” or “y’know”.

As Josef Fruehwald, a lecturer in sociolinguistics at Edinburgh University was quoted as saying: “In the Philadelphia data, women’s preference for ‘um’ instead of ‘uh’ ranges somewhere between being 400 per cent and 120 per cent stronger than men’s.”

He explained that both men and women were shifting their unconscious choice of phoneme to “um” but that women were further ahead, particularly younger women. He said: “It’s actually the case that when language changes women lead the way.” (I’m not quite sure if this should make my heart swell with sisterly pride.)

By why do we reach for these tiny meaningless collisions of consonant and vowel in the first place? It seems that phrases such as “sort ofs” and “y’know” are known as “discourse markers” which help the conversation move, like a shuttlecock, from one person to another, while “um” and “er” are what is known as “filled pauses”.

Michael Erard, author of Um..., a book which examines our inadvertent speech habits, explained we use words like “um” or “er” because, as neutral, meaningless phrases, they come more nimbly to mind while our brains are riffling through our subconscious and figuring out what we should say next. It has also been suggested “um” and “er” perform different functions in how we speak with “um” marking longer pauses and “er” marking shorter pauses.

This week Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, said that, “hesitation sounds with and without final nasals have different functions, retained across Germanic languages and dialects, which are differentially useful to speakers of different ages and genders – like uncertainty about what to say versus uncertainty about how to say it.”

There may also be no reason other than a form of linguistic tradition for women favouring “um” over “er”. As Prof Liberman elaborated: “The age and sex associations of hesitation sounds are purely conventional, like the different lateralisation of male and female shirt buttons, but somehow been retained or reinforced over thousands of years and thousands of miles.”

Having been relieved to learn that as an “ummer” I’m in young and talented company – 71 per cent of Taylor Swift and 79 per cent of Lena Dunham’s phonemes of choice were “ums” – I don’t quite know what else to say… um…