Sunday, May 04, 2008

uh, er, um, erm and eh

When I was young, some of my favo(u)rite books were by British authors. The title of one, Five Dolls and a Monkey, I was interested to find, is (until I publish this post) cited only once on the web. Am I the only person who loved that book? After I grew out of Five Dolls, I made my way through Agatha Christie's oeuvre. And in one or the other of these books I first encountered er and erm, as in this transcription of a comedy sketch (before I start getting complaints, please keep in mind that this is an example of the English poking fun at themselves--as they do so well--and not anti-[African]-American humo[u]r!):
CLIVE (playing an interviewer):
Erm, I think it can be truly said that the Americans have, er, their soul singers, and we English have ars-oul singers. And, er, Bo is one our leading, er, soul singers.
DEREK (playing 'Bo Duddley'):
Arsehole singers, yes.
CLIVE:
Bo, I-, I wanted to ask you first of all, erm, .....
DEREK:
Yes.
CLIVE:
This is obviously a sort of, er, boogie, er, .....
DEREK:
This is a boogie, erm, .....
CLIVE:
What? Jive stuff, is it?
DEREK:
Jive boogie woogie song, erm, and, erm, it is-, it is a, a story of ..... well, shall I, shall I sort of go through it?
CLIVE:
Yes, I-, I-, I was thinking that some of the lyrics for, er-rm, English speaking audiences might be a little obscure.
DEREK:
Absolutely. Well let me .....
CLIVE:
I wonder what the-, what-, what-, what it really is all about?
DEREK:
Well, let me-, let me just go through it, erm, for you. Ah:
(sings and plays piano:) "#Mamma's got a brand new bag!"
Er, "Mamma's got a brand new bag", er, this means, erm, that the-, the Harlem mother has gone out into the bustling markets of Harlem .....
CLIVE:
Yes.
DEREK:
..... er, to buy a gaily coloured plastic bag. Erm, and there's a certain amount of pride in this: Mamma's got a brand new bag.
CLIVE:
I-, I suppo-, I suppose a gaily coloured plastic bag is, er, a bit of status symbol in Harlem.
DEREK:
It certainly is. Certainly is. Obviously, er, you know, sign of a birthday or something like that.
Now, when I was a 12-year-old reading British novels, I liked to read them out loud, in my best "English" accent, probably gleaned from Dick Van Dyke's murder of Cockney. One of the unfortunate effects of this was that I pronounced Hercule Poirot as something like "Ercule Pirate" (never mind that he's Belgian--he was in England and so must speak as my 12-year-old self believed the English to speak). But another effect was that I believed that when British people paused in speech, they made sounds that rhymed with my American pronunciations of her and worm. And for much of my life, I continued to believe that there were millions of English-speaking people somewhere (or somewhen) pronouncing /r/s in their hesitations.

But then I had a baby, and the penny dropped.

I regret to say that this is not because motherhood has made me smarter/cleverer. It's because breastfeeding is so horrifically boring. (Contrary to some of the pro-breast propaganda, Baby does not stare worshipfully into your eyes. It may be good for the immune system, your figure and your purse, but it can hurt like hell and you can spend a third of your 24-hour day doing it.) Being a good mother (orig. AmE) wannabe, I'm trying to keep Grover away from the television for as long as possible, but it's tough to type or turn pages while breastfeeding (though I've got(ten) pretty good at both, plus doing Kakuro). But I also want to watch television to distract myself from the realities of breastfeeding, and somehow Grover's always there when I'm doing it. Since she's facing away from the (orig. & chiefly AmE) TV set, I can get away with watching it if I turn down the sound and turn on the 'subtitle' option on our Freeview box. Watching in this way, I've become addicted to Eggheads, but when it's not 6 p.m., I often end up watching Friends or Scrubs, since one or the other seems to be on at all times. And it was only when seeing er and erm in the subtitles for American characters in these American sitcoms that I reali{s/z}ed: it's not that the British put different interjections (or discourse particles, as we say in the trade) into their filled pauses, it's just that they typically spell those pauses er and erm instead of uh and um. Since many BrE dialects do not pronounce the /r/ after vowels in such contexts, the /r/ here is just to indicate that the vowel is not a proper 'e' but a long schwa-like vowel.

And before any of you complain that I should not have been allowed to have a doctorate in Linguistics if it took me this long to figure out something this basic, let me tell you: I've thought the same thing myself. I think the technical term for this is: Duh!

When I mentioned a few posts ago that I'd be covering er/erm/uh/um soon, reader David Up North (as I'll call him to differentiate him from the other Davids I've mentioned before) wrote to ask:
I was interested to see in the comments to your latest blog that you were planning an article on 'er' and 'erm'. I wondered if you'd be covering 'eh?' as well? It's often pronounced (or possibly replaced by) 'ay?' (or something like that – rhymes with 'hey', but I don't recall ever seeing anyone writing either as 'eye dialect' representations of the sound, they usually use 'eh?'). It came to mind because I've occasionally seen Americans transcribe the sound as 'aye?' – which is obviously wrong.
I can't imagine why an American would transcribe eh as aye (pronounced like I in every dialect I know) and haven't seen it happen, myself. I speak a northern AmE dialect that, like Canadian English, ends many sentences with eh? (Famously parodied by the Great White North sketches on SCTV: How's it going, eh?) And when we write that, we spell it eh and pronounce it to rhyme with day. (I was happy to discover upon moving to South Africa that SAfE has the same kind of interjection, but it's pronounced hey. It was very easy to adjust. Much better than when I moved to Massachusetts and was mocked relentlessly for the ehs that I'd never noticed myself saying.) But, of course, the problem we're seeing here is that these interjections are usually spoken and generally only written when one is trying to represent natural speech. Since they're not part of the written language (since they're not needed in the same way when the language isn't immediately interactional), people aren't used to spelling them, and thus the spellings have been slower to become standardi{s/z}ed than the spellings for nouns and verbs. Even within AmE, I find that the informal version of yes is spelt in different ways (yeah, yeh, yea, ya) by different people. To me, yeah is informal 'yes', and yea is pronounced 'yay' and is a positive vote, yay is what you say when you're giddy and ya is what South Africans say instead of yeah. I believe that my spellings are the 'standard' spellings for AmE, but, as I say, I've seen a lot of variation and it's hard to 'correct' such spellings, since the 'standard' is not as well-established for these mostly-spoken sounds.

It's worth noting that all of these discourse particles have meanings, though they can be hard to put into words. My favo(u)rite quotation from the OED's entry for er is:
1958 Aspects of Translation 37 The really astute Englishman..must feign a certain diffident hesitation, put in a few well-placed -- ers.
The interjections' meanings are generally the same in AmE and BrE, but what may differ, as indicated by the above quotation, is how often and why people use them. One reason to use er/uh is to feign hesitation--to make it seem like you're reluctant to say something. Another reason is to hold your place in the conversation--to indicate that although you're not saying anything at this very second, you intend to finish your thought, so no one should interrupt you. It may be that people in different places from different backgrounds use these sounds for these purposes at different rates and in different situations. I believe that the stereotypes would have it that the British use er/erm to hesitate--not to rush into committing themselves to any proposition--and that Americans use um/uh because they're inarticulately rushing to commit themselves to all sorts of opinions. Nevertheless, both American uh/um and British er/erm have the potential to be used in either way by individuals.

65 comments:

Bingley said...

Although I use both in speaking I think I only use 'um' in writing. The consonant is essential for indicating degree of tentativeness or unwillingness to cause offence. Thus, ummmm would introduce a more tentative or more cautious remark. (Southern British English user)

Wishydig said...

A couple of years ago a Jeopardy! questions asked for the British spelling equivalent of American <uh>.

The answer was of course e-r.

After giving the spelling Alex Trebek pronounced it -- with the 'r' undropped.

I wrote back then that it was as if he was claiming that Spanish speakers represent laughter by writing '[dʒa.dʒa]'.

David Up North said...

Lynneguist wrote: "I can't imagine why an American would transcribe eh as aye (pronounced like I in every dialect I know) and haven't seen it happen, myself."

Er… ah. Um, I see now that it might have been helpful if I'd mentioned in my email that they were transcribing non-American dialogue. I haven't seen it often myself, but there's an example at http://youtube.com/watch?v=Jr_01rYKQLg&feature=related

I was in a similar situation to the one you had with BrE "er, erm": I wasn't sure that the AmE "eh?" I'd seen written was pronounced as I would pronounce it, but it seems it is.

So if I had to, I suppose I'd guess that someone might transcribe "eh?" as "aye?" partly because they're hearing unfamiliar vowel sounds, and partly because the dialect they're listening to is one where they expect the word "aye" to occur.

Incidentally, I should confess my own "Duh!" moment: after reading your blog for over a year, it wasn't until I got your email, with your real surname on it, that I spotted the pun in Lynneguist. I was like: "Lynne who? Oh. Oohhhh!"

lynneguist said...

David--sorry I misinterpreted your query!

You're not the only one who has thought my surname was Guist. Better Half made (i.e. printed) me a t-shirt (for our cotton anniversary) with 'LYNNE*GUIST' spelt/spelled out on a Scrabble Board. I wore it to a tournament and several fellow players who I've known for a few years asked if I'd got(ten) married!

Then there are all the folk who write to 'Lynnequist'...

lynneguist said...

Oh, and I still have no idea why the makers of the Taters video would spell it 'aye'! My only hypothesis is that they're not good spellers.

David Up North said...

Lynne – I don't think you misinterpreted the question, I just wasn't sure myself what I was asking. You've actually answered the questions I would have asked if I'd thought about it more clearly – and I can't ask for better service than that!

Now I know that Americans also pronounce "eh" as "ey", I'm leaning towards the idea that the "eh"/"aye" thing is just people suffering from a touch of the old vowel trouble. I can easily see how someone might misinterpret an indeterminate vowel sound in an unfamiliar accent: I watched Boston Legal for several weeks before I was sure that William Shatner's character wasn't called Danny Crane.

John E said...

"I think the technical term for this is: Duh!"

Or, of course, 'Durr...'

jhm said...

While I grew up in Western Massachusetts with "Duh!" (and to a lesser extent, "Durr!), "The Simpsons" have put "D'oh!" into serious contention.

As you suggest, I'm afraid that I also would have looked rather unfavorably upon affixing an "eh" to the end of an utterance. It seems very... oh, I don't know, Canadian (not that there's anything wrong with that).

It isn't really the same, but I think it might be a new, and possibly regional, trend to end an interrogative with an "or...?" which is sometimes reduced to an /(e)r/. For example: 'do you want to go to the beach, or...?' I personally find this idiotic (and feel even more strongly about it since I often find myself saying it). There is a distinction to be made between this 'or...?' and an 'or what?' as the latter can express impatience or exasperation, while the former seems to be a lazy way of admitting that other options are available, but the speaker doesn't want to suggest what they might be.

Ellen K. said...

In the video David Up North linked, I noticed the non-rhotic pronunciation of taters (as well as a rhotic pronunication in there), and the non-rhotic pronunication makes much more sense as an abbreviation for potato than the rhotic version.

bill said...

But there is one thing that is left out a little...what about "Eh" that isn't pronounced the "Canadian" way? I mean the one that is pronounced...well.."EH"...like the first E in "Never."
Often used with a shrug of the shoulders to indicate indifference, or perhaps when you didn't hear someone. (Yes, I know that most often that will be "Huh?")

It seems to me that this would probably be one of the more common sounds (non-words) that is used when someone shrugs...right next to "I don't know" said with all "Mmmmm". (I know that that one is as clear as mud, but if you don't know what I am talking about, shrug your shoulders and do it, and you will see what I mean.)

Then of course, there is the British and Australian "Oy" vs. the American "Oy"

Robin said...

Your post was a revelation to me! I also grew up assuming er and erm were pronounced just as written, to rhyme with were and worm. There's a whole population of fictional British people in my head now who have been saying it that way for years!

Also, I would think "eh" is pronounced with a short e like in Ted. I always assumed it was the same sound I use when I'm being non-commital or ambivalent - "How did you like that movie?" "Eh, it was okay."

Jonathan Bogart said...

bill: Isn't that BrE "Oi" and Yiddish-AmE "Oy"? My understanding (as a American) is that "oi" is analogous to the way AmE speakers use "hey," while "oy" (when said by non-Yiddish speakers) tends to be a quasi-comical admission of frustration or resignation.

bill said...

jonathan:
Thanks, I was unaware of the "Oi" spelling...;)

Who would have thought at some point this blog would be talking about the finer points of grunting...

biochemist said...

Bill and Jonathan:
As you see, I'm not a linguist, but I'm interested in my language (BrE). I have my own theory about the BrE 'oy' - which is used to attract attention - as in 'oy, you! stop kicking the ball against my fence!' - I think it may be the familiar version of the 'oyez, oyez' that town criers (colourful and quaint English custom) call out when they want to attract the attention of a group of people. It's clearly an old French word, pronounced oi-yeah, and the modern equivalent would be 'ecoutez'. But French mothers tell a child 'ecoute' because they call him 'tu' not 'vous'. So, working backwards, 'oi' is what she would have said in olden days.
No relation at all to the Yiddish Oy-vey!

lynneguist said...

I'm not thrilled to be discussing oi/oy here in the comments, as it means that it's a good discussion that won't be found if one searches the blog, but...

While I'm more familiar with the oi spelling for BrE, oy is also found. The OED treats them as equivalent. One should be careful in comparing it to hey, since AmE speakers often use hey to mean 'hello', as well as yelling it to get someone's attention. I wouldn't recommend that Americans come over and try to use it without having observed its use in its native setting, as it is usually a somewhat rude way to call for someone's attention.

Etymologically speaking, BrE oi/oy used to be hoy (which the OED says is a 'natural exclamation'--i.e. not coming from an older word, but just being a noise one makes). It's thus related to ahoy.

Incidentally, the OED also has examples of the Yiddish-derived oy spelt/spelled as oi.

And 'yes, indeed' to those above who note the other pronunciation of eh. Since that wasn't what David was asking about, I wasn't thinking about it when I posted. I like the more recent meh, which I think is even more expressive.

Ginger Yellow said...

In a contemporary text I'd read "Oi!" as a generalised exclamation and "Oy!" as exclusivley Yiddish, but I doubt the distinction holds up very far into the past.

As for hesitation, I had to read Lynne's pronunciation paragraph twice before I realised my error. We do pronounce 'er' and 'erm' like 'her' and 'worm', more or less. Of course we pronounce them like the BrE 'her' and 'worm'.

Anonymous said...

As a child of the 40s and 50s in the UK I recognized 'Oi!' or 'Oy!' as a claim for attention. In the US I notice that the equivalent these days is 'Yo!'. How odd that these are exact opposites. It's almost as if the poltergeist of Noah Webster is haunting us yet.

TootsNYC said...

Contrary to some of the pro-breast propaganda, Baby does not stare worshipfully into your eyes.

You're right! If you're doing things correctly, Baby should be staring at your underarm, or straight into your torso. Not that this is word related at all.

Thanks for this er/uh, erm/uhm discussion. I've seen the "erm" in Harry Potter books, and assumed it was spelled phonetically. Now I know that it probably it, but that the phonetics in question aren't mine! (or my culture's)

I've been meditating a lot on the "you can't pronounce spelling" idea.

terrycollmann said...

Thank you for enlightening me on the fact that Canadian "eh" (a phenomenon I've only seen in writing) is really pronounced "ay". To me (Southern English) "eh?", pronounced like the vowel sound in "deaf", is the sound made at "WTF" moments to express puzzlement or surprise. "Ay?" on the other hand, pronounced to rhyme with "pay", is a sound used by older working-class Southern English people to indicate: "Sorry, I didn't hear that ..."

terrycollmann said...

Oh, and you missed out the best part of that Pete'n'Dud sketch, about how the Harlem mama is going to "groove it all night long", that is, inscribe her bag with grooved patterns cut into the plastic ...

Anne said...

I traveled overseas for a year after highschool and happened to be surrounded by British people. I did not keep in touch very well with family at home while I was away, but I called my sister from the airport right before returning home and was stunned, just stunned, by how hard she pronounced the r sounds in her speech. So Ginger Yellow's comment makes a lot of sense to me.

anne said...

What do pirates say in England? Maybe there aren't a spate of children's pirate jokes going around England along the lines of "Why did the pirate like the movie? Because it was "AHRRRRR!" rated!" and the like? (And not just because their films aren't rated like this.)
Sorry can't think of any more examples of these jokes at the moment.

lynneguist said...

Pirates in England say "Arrr" because it's a southwestern dialect of British English that gives us that stereotypical pirate sound. Don't forget, lots of British dialects pronounce the /r/, even if "Received Pronunciation" doesn't. In the case of the /r/ in the Southwest, a former student of ours is now doing her doctorate on the accent in Dorset, and she's looked into this matter--the piratish /r/ pronunciation is getting rarer and rarer in those parts.

However, your joke still doesn't work very well in BrE, as it'd have to be something like: Why didn't the pirate like the film? Because it had a 15 certificate. Just doesn't work...

Ginger Yellow said...

How about:

Why did the tea drinker enjoy the film?

Because it was PG.

Anonymous said...

WHOOOOOOSSSHHHHHHHH....

That was the sound of the PG tea joke flying straight over my AmE Head.


Which I am sure was the point. ;)

JohnB said...

PG is a British film classification :)

lynneguist said...

The film classification translates, it's the fact that America doesn't have PG Tips tea that creates the problem!

JohnB said...

LOL - So the joke is on me as well :)

Linnet's Nest said...

I laughed at the PG joke :)

Lancashire lass here.

I pronounce 'er' 'ur' in the same way I pronounce 'her' 'hur'.

I pronounce 'erm' 'urm'.

I say both these 'pause interjections' rather a lot.

I pronounce 'eh' 'ay' as in 'hay'

I regularly say 'eh up chuck' as in 'how's it going dear?' or instead of 'hello'. I found out that 'up chuck' in the US means vomit, which means sadly I have been referring to my US blog friends as vomit, they were too polite to correct me...until a friend emailed me and explained the possible confusion. :)

Interesting blog, found you through e-mom at chrysaliscom.blogspot.com

Linnet's Nest said...

...my favourite lancashire dialect site transcribes 'eh' as 'eigh'...

lynneguist said...

linnet's nest--but how do you pronounce 'urm'? :) There's always a problem in these discussions that we expect everyone to read the 'r' as we read it, but probably there are at least a half a dozen 'r' pronunciations reading this blog now!

/r/ is a notoriously difficult sound to discuss, since it can be articulated in lots of different ways--and sometimes different articulations (i.e. placement of mouth parts) result in sounds that aren't perceptibly different. Sometimes they do, but they're pretty hard to describe. Does anyone know how to put audio files into blogger blogs? The only thing I can figure to do is to make a video with no picture...

Anonymous said...

This is a little bit off topic but what does "on the quiet" mean? I'm reading this book by a British author and it keeps saying that and "knocked me for six". I really don't get what those mean.

lynneguist said...

That's a lot off topic, Anon. I try not to let new topics come up in the comments, as they're not searchable on the blog if they're only in the comments. So, I ask people to use the e-mail link to request new topics. I generally send a private answer as soon as I can, so as not to leave you in a lurch, and then blog about it at some point (probably).

That said, if someone else would like to answer the off-topic questions, they can...I'm just feeling like sticking to my guns tonight!

James said...

At the risk of getting my hand smacked for not staying on point,

are there any online recordings of people (competent ones) trying to recreate older English accents? What I have in mind is some kind of ancestral accent before English spread beyond Britain. Even though there's no single ancestral accent, any attempt in that direction would be interesting!

Linnet's Nest said...

You can use gabcast to record your voice. I have an account from a while back, it's easy to use, you simply phone a number and record your message, insert the code into your blog and voila! http://www.gabcast.com/

I've found a recording of a lancashire accent saying 'er' or 'uh'.

You can listen here it's at the point in the transcript that says
"The half-bred one. And, uh/er, they don’t..." That's how I say 'er'...same sound as in 'erm' or 'urm'.

Hope that explains a little better.

James, this chappie still uses thee, thy and thou, which is common amongst older Lancashire and Yorkshire folk...probably the nearest to an ancestral accent you'd get these days with the transient life of people these days.

Anon, knocked for six comes from the game of cricket, where if the ball is hit outside of the playing field it scores six and in local games the ball is most likely lost. Cricket fields are huge, so if something is knocked for six it has been hit really hard. So the phrase 'I've been knocked for six' means something, usually an emotional event, has really astounded and shocked you and rendered you speechless.

On the quiet - means secretly. Sometimes also expressed as 'on the q.t.'

Linnet's Nest said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linnet's Nest said...

I'll try to fit it in the comment box:

sorry, here's the link to the Lancashire chappie using er/uh.

Click here

Erin said...

Wow. It does seem obvious now.

So I guess in BrE "der/durr" and "duh" are equivalent, because they are pronounced the same? We pronounce them differently in (my dialect of) AmE. Their meanings are, of course, very similar. I guess I just tend not to think about the difference between words that sounds the same(ish) in AmE as they do in BrE. Idiolectically, they would have different uses for me: "duh" I use in reference to myself, while "durr" would be in imitation of myself or someone else in a story I'm telling.

chg said...

Unless it was specifically within the context of voting, I would never think of pronouncing "aye" as I. Otherwise, it would always rhyme with hey to me.

New to the blog, but this is about the third or fourth thing that clues me in that Southeast (SC/GA) commenters are rare.

Along the same lines, if a native uses "yo", they are usually makig fun of someone else's speech. Yo is pretty specific to the NE I think. Hey is used to get attention around here.

David Up North said...

chg, that's fascinating — why do you make the distinction between voting usage and otherwise?

Is "aye" a word you hear or use often outside of a voting context?

biochemist said...

Come on David - if you are really from Up North you must have heard old guys saying 'Oh Aye' as an affirmative. It's pronounced same as 'eye' whenever it's used in this sense, not just for voting in Parliament.
And it's not the same as eigh - as in 'eigh-up' meaning hello or 'how's it going?'.

David Up North said...

Yes, Biochemist, I know that. And it's not just old guys -- I say "aye" regularly. (And, for the record, I'm on Tyneside -- about 50 miles north of "ey-up" country).

I'm interested in why chg makes a distinction, and whether he/she often hears "aye" used as an affirmative in South Carolina/Georgia.

Wendy said...

Not to jump in for chg or anything (as I'm not based in Georgia, just DC) but it is fairly common in the US to vote by the "ayes". You'll call off the roll of those attending and after each name is called, an "aye" or a "nay" is recorded.

I have learned that a "whateva" is not an acceptable substitute for "aye".

biochemist said...

Hmmmmmm. (Brit feeling a bit daft at having missed the SC/Ga hint for location of chg)

Now, back to the question of how to write um words - or rather, how to describe them. Don't we refer to a conversation containing 'a lot of humming and hah-ing' (or umming and ah-ing)? And is this what Victorian novelists referred to as hemming?

I wonder if the written version of 'erm' in the sense of 'hold it' is found informally in the use of, well, the word I just used. With that punctuation too; in all the fashion, film, light comment pieces in the newspapers.

lynneguist said...

I just wrote a long response to biochemist and it disappeared. Here's the short version: Hm, mm, and um/erm are pronounced and spelt/spelled differently and have different semantic ranges. Hm is used to express thoughtfulness--often involving doubt. Mm is agreement, but seen less often in print.

Hemming is throat-clearing, as in ahem, according to the OED, but in the phrase hemming and hawing I think it's become somewhat more general.

biochemist said...

Ha!
Thanks (really)

Ellen K. said...

I thought about this thread as I, American from and in the Midwest found myself typing "er" in a casual internet exchange. Pronoucing it in my head as I typed, with the r. And then later I did it again. And I was reminded of the "um, er" combination. Which I googled, and that (in various combinations of uh or um and er or erm) gets quite a few google hits. Which suggests that I'm not the only one using (in writing) er and thinking of it as something distinct from uh. I'm thinking perhaps I and others see it as a literary variation. I don't think I'd ever actually say "er", only write it. And I wonder if the "um, er" users out there only write the combination, or if some of them use it in speech as well.

biochemist said...

I am grateful, lyyneguist, to know that 'hemming' is throat-clearing - some overlapping tactical uses with um and ah, there too!
As a reader/writer rather than a speaker, I don't think I made it clear enough that I think that in informal writing nowadays (in UK feature articles at least), the word 'well', with a comma before and after, fulfils the purpose of a place-holder, like the 'erm' in speech. It's a coy 'wait for my witty remark' usage. I don't think I have seen 'er' or 'um, er' written in this way, although now that ellen has described it, I will look out for it.

lynneguist said...

The fun thing about these things (getting away from the pronunciation for a moment) is that each discourse marker has its own purpose--though they can overlap a bit and be hard to pin down. In writing, we probably do tend to favo(u)r the ones that we think of as 'words' rather than just 'sounds'.

I took a whole course on discourse markers in graduate school--tons of fun. We recorded all of our seminars, had them transcribed, then analy{s/z}ed the DMs we used. I was the only native English speaker on the course, if I recall, besides the instructor. Hearing the number of ums, likes and y'knows that I used was quite mortifying!

Anonymous said...

The script cited as having lots of 'er's and such was not by Derek and Clive, but by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. They are the same people, but the names Derek and Clive were adopted in a later (and very different) incarnation

Anonymous said...

And for the record, the sketch can be found here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDtkmOdYdKY

lynneguist said...

Thanks for this! Watching it, one can hear that the erms are exactly the same as ums.

Anonymous said...

I am a New Zealander and stumbled across this conversation after the 'eh' 'aye' distinction, or lack thereof, had all but driven me completely mad. I have always believed that 'eh' should be used when you want the word to rhyme with weigh and that aye was an old-fashioned usage, pronounced eye, which should be reserved for voting and for other uses in some British dialects - dont ask me which.

I have tried to talk about it with other New Zealand friends and family and they have all disagreed with me so far. I even saw aye written boldly on a billboard recently in a context where I would have expected it to read eh. It was at the end of a rhetorical question that I cannot recall right now.

Anyway, I am pleased to see that others think about these things too.

yan said...

Just to add another layer to this, as far as I've noticed Irish people would tend to use 'eh' rather than 'er', though they might use 'uh' as well. In this case 'eh' wouldn't be pronounced exactly the same as 'er' (though not as 'ay'), so maybe it's not entirely relevant.

Smajie said...

Indeed the Irish pronounce a front unrounded middlish vowel when they hesitate! I was very surprised when I first noticed that. As far as I've heard, they don't use "um" at all.

Asia said...

I think "er", with the "r" pronounced, has seeped into at least my vocabulary because of this very misunderstanding.

Bean said...

Lynneguist, in your grad course on discourse markers, did you find that people who didn't speak English as a first language used the ones that are common in their mother tongue? This is something I've noticed about international students here (Canada, East Coast), they often have wide-ranging vocabulary and grammar, and great pronunciation, but they continue to use a different set of DMs. It takes a while for them to start filling the spaces with the usual English um and uh. When they do their accent becomes less noticeable - evidently like our idea of "accent" is based on more than just pronunciation.

lynneguist said...

It was about 20 years ago...I can't remember much about what other people did...

Anonymous said...

I've been reading too much British stuff on the internet and in books without hearing it. Eventually I, being American, started to subconsciously use "er" as a filler, pronounced like
"er" not "uh".
I just realized how weird I much sound...

Kyra said...

I grew up reading the Harry Potter books, which is where I first learned about people using "er" rather than "um." At first, it would make sense that those with a british accent would pronounce these sounds without the "r." Something about this confuses me though- at one point, the protagonist of the novels is must solve a riddle, where one of the verses reads "And finally give me the sound often heard/During the search for a hard-to-find word." Harry concludes that this sound is "er," and puts that together with the answer to the first part of the riddle, "spy," roughly forming the word "spider." If it's true that British people do not pronounce "er" like "her," then why would JK Rowling put that in there? I conclude from this that there must be people who pronounce "er" with the "r."

lynneguist said...

Except, Kyra, that in the accent of Harry Potter (the film Harry Potter, at least), there is no 'r' pronounced in 'spider'. It's more like 'spiduh'.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about those BrE speakers who do pronounce their "R"s (rhotic, as I understand it). Does such a person verbalize "er", etc., pronouncing the "R", or do they only use "R-less" filler-sounds like "ah", in which case they would be more accurately transcribed as in AmE?

I grew up / live in the US Midwest, so that might make a difference, but I am pretty sure I've heard / said things like "er, um" (with the "R" pronounced, of course). Perhaps I just hang out with weird people, though :)

enitharmon said...

In Lancashire, especially south of the Ribble, the r's are not only sounded but positively relished and lingered on. This can be heard in the pronunciation of those splendid Lancastrian towns Blackburn, Burnley and Bury. The syllable at the end of the latter two would usually be rendered 'eh' by me but that's 'eh' to rhyme with 'deaf' not 'eh' as in how Canadians are alleged to end their sentences. I'm grateful for the clarification since I've never noticed any of my Canadian friends doing it.

As for pirates, in theory pirates speak with a Bristol accent (so should really put an l on the end of all words ending in an unstressed vowel). In practice, however, all pirates speak with Robert Newton's heavily rhotic Shaftesbury, Dorset, accent. Shaftesbury is a substantial distance from the sea.

Clydesdale Jefferson said...

Er - Liverpool response is interesting, not sure if it has been mentioned? Long, nasalised "air" without /r/? Don't quite know how to describe it without IPA and how do you do that on Blogger?

David Crosbie said...

Clydesdale Jefferson

This quote from John Wells's Accents of English may help. It deals with what seems to be your vowel. Even if it's another vowel, it illustrates some IPA symbols.

The quality ... may be central, rounded [e:] or unrounded [ɜ:], or centralized-fronted, [ɛ̈: ~ ë;]. The latter two are the characteristically Scouse qualities, [ɛ̈:] being the more conservative.

I typed the IPA symbols in directly. You can also paste in symbols that you've typed in other applications. Failing that, you can copy the symbols from some on-screen source and paste them into Blogger, or any other text application.

If by any chance the symbols don't show up on your screen, it's not the fault of Blogger. You may need to find a compatible font to install. Or you may need to alter the Preferences in your browser.