Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Uh Must

Posted by Neal on January 7, 2008

I arrived at the agreed-upon location precisely at 10:30. He was waiting for me.

“You got the stuff?” I asked.

He glanced at his shoulder bag but didn’t open it. “Show me the money.”

I handed over a $20 bill, which he pocketed. He reached into his bag, and drew out the package.

“I’ll sign it for you,” he said. As we stood in the elevator lobby of the Hilton Chicago, he opened the copy of Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, and began to write: “To Neal, aka Mr. Literal…” At the bottom of the page, he scribbled an indecipherable glyph, which I have to assume reads Michael Erard.

Thirty-six hours earlier: The fourth annual linguabloggers’ LSA social, in the hotel bar. Sitting around a small round table were the Tensor; Claire Bowern of Anggargoon; Russell Lee-Goldman of Noncompositional; Language Loggers Mark Liberman, Sally Thomason, and Ben Zimmer; and a guy I didn’t recognize. He and Ben were talking on one side of the table, while I talked with the bloggers on my side. But in the midst of my conversation I heard a snatch of theirs, as the stranger told Ben, “Most Toastmasters are homeless.”

Now, I’ve personally met very few Toastmasters, but I learned in Psychology 101 about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and how people have to take care of basic goals like getting food and shelter before they can think about achieving goals of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization, which joining Toastmasters would seem to entail. OK, I didn’t really learn that in Psychology 101; actually it was Psychology 301 in the University of Texas’s numbering system, but you get the idea. The point is, I had to investigate this statement. Across the table, I asked, “Did you say that most Toastmasters were homeless?”

“Most Toastmasters are um-less,” said the stranger. He was, of course, Michael Erard, whose name I didn’t recognize but should have, and he had been talking about some of the research he’d done for his book.

I read quite a bit of Um at O’Hare Airport during the three-hour delay for my flight home, and finished it today. The chapters cover:

  • Spoonerisms. Unlike other pieces you may have read about the Reverend Spooner, this chapter actually tries to nail down which spoonerisms the man actually uttered, which ones he didn’t but which are attributed to him, and other speech errors he made that you never hear about. As Erard puts it, “The myths about the man… say more about our fascination with verbal blunders than about the blunders or the man.” (21)
  • Freudian slips. Freud’s work marked the first time speech errors were seriously studied. This chapter also talks about Freud’s contemporary, Rudolf Meringer, who had a more modern view of what speech errors signified, but whose work was eclipsed by Freud’s.
  • Careers that deal with speech errors. Erard provides anecdotes and insights from psychologists, speech pathologists, researchers at Bell Labs, and a New York homicide detective.
  • Research that has been done on uh/um and other speech errors. Interesting point from this chapter: Though uh and um are popularly believed to indicate a speaker’s nervousness, it’s actually other speech errors that do that, while uh/um are more typical of pauses taken when a speaker has a choice of phrasing to make, or more generally needs thinking time to plan out the next phase of an utterance.
  • A history of uh/um. I was surprised to learn that in the history of rhetoric instruction from the Greeks through the Romans through the Victorian era, the only record of any anti-uh attitude that Erard found was in an 1846 poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes. The idea began to gain traction only after Edison’s invention of the phonograph.
  • The history and culture of Toastmasters. By and large they do have homes.
  • Bloopers. The entertainment industry’s realization of the money to be made in exploiting celebrity slip-ups (and later, noncelebrity ones as well) continues to this day, in reality programs and DVD extras.
  • The Chomskyan revolution in theoretical linguistics, and the subsequent recognition of speech errors as a subject of serious linguistic research. There’s an interesting discussion of how the error the skreeky gwease gets the wheel sheds light on how word-choice and phonology interact. (189)
  • Language error as a source of entertainment. This is the chapter that covers malapropisms, eggcorns, and mondegreens, as well as speech errors made by children. Surprisingly, it was once thought that children didn’t make speech errors, until linguists who assiduously recorded their children’s errors in notebooks and diaries proved otherwise. (“Can you imagine a kid having to live like that?” I asked Doug. “It’s reality, Dad,” he replied.)
  • Errors made by presidents, and not just George W. Bush. Also included are Thomas Jefferson, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight Eisenhower.
  • Thoughts about future attitudes toward speech errors, and their role in future technology.

Um also features recommended reading, and a glossary of types of speech errors. The depth of research in Um (intensive library and Web searches) and the breadth of research (extensive visits and interviews) are apparent in every chapter, yet the book never feels dense or dry. It pushed aside several items on my reading list, including a couple in progress, until I had finished it.

6 Responses to “Uh Must”

  1. Viola said

    Not quite having the clandestine connections you do, I’ve reserved this book at the library. Freudian slips have always been a mystery to me, especially since I seem to be a professional slipper–not the kind you put your feet in and walk in.
    “Um” and “Uh” are clearly stalling words in my vocabulary.
    You know, Doug would still love you if you jotted down his mistakes, but didn’t make him aware every SINGLE time he made them. I would say the love and admiration of bright-eyed little boys is reality. 🙂

  2. My personal hypothesis has always been that “um”/“uh” and other disfluency fillers only rose to consciousness when people started to hear disembodied recordings of humans speaking. With the actual person present, the disfluency filler is accompanied by gesture and other stuff to pay attention to, so we don’t notice it. But with a faceless recording, there’s nothing else to pay attention to and as such it becomes far more salient. I noticed this difference during the making of transcriptions of conversations and speeches. I had never noticed the disfluencies when I was there in person but they became very obvious once I was doing the transcription.

    I totally want a copy of that book as soon as I can get it…

  3. Viola said

    Wow! What an interesting theory. It’s almost as if the disembodied recording is an unconscious distraction. Another observation: I’m always careful not to put an “um” or “uh” when I program the answering machine. People who leave messages constantly leave “um” and “uh” messages, including myself. I guess “disembodied” is an excellent way to describe how we communicate these days!
    Let’s see who gets the book next–public library or ?????

  4. Viola said

    I’ve read the first chapter of “UM” on Rev. Spooner……fascinating! My husband first reminded me of spoonerisms–we have a habit (when we’re tired) of spoonerisming quite often.

  5. […] Um […]

  6. […] Posting from a 2008 blog by a grad student in linguistics who was at a conference, overhearing a conversation on the other side of a table: […]

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