The 1888 "white wax" recording of Thomas Edison (who "uhs" on all of his
recordings) and Col. Gouraud's recordings of speakers from England
welcoming the phonograph have plenty of "uhs" and unless you can make out
some stuttering on the 1878 "clock" recording must be the earliest examples
of recorded speech tics since they are also the oldest examples of recorded
>From: Michael Erard <[log in to unmask]>
>Reply-To: Association for Recorded Sound Discussion List
><[log in to unmask]>
>To: [log in to unmask]
>Subject: [ARSCLIST] earliest recording of "uh"/"um"/other disfluency?
>Date: Fri, 18 Jun 2004 11:46:16 -0500
>I am a writer based in Austin, Texas, who is working on a book about
>verbal blundering, including speech slips and speech disfluencies. I
>wonder if you can help me find early recorded examples of these
>features of spoken language, including:
>uh, um, and other filled pauses
>repeated words ("I went went to the store")
>restarted sentences ("The main thing is -- Look at it this way...")
>stuttering (both by "normal" speakers and by people who stutter)
>silent pauses (not for effect, but because the speaker is looking for a
>garden variety anticipations, perseverations, omissions & blends of sounds
>other phonological, syntactic or semantic gaffes
>I would very much appreciate being in touch with people who can speak
>about these features of spoken language in their collections, not
>only in detailed terms (as in being able to identify specific
>recordings that contain them) but also the socio-technological issues
>involved in recording them (e.g., when cheaper recording techniques
>allowed people to record spontaneous speech, not only formal,
>Below I am appending a piece I wrote for the New York Times about the
>scientific study of "uh" and "um." My work about language has
>appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Legal Affairs,
>Lingua Franca, Brill's Content, and Technology Review, and my
>reporting on culture & politics has appeared in Rolling Stone, Wired,
>the Texas Observer, and a number of other publications.
>Thank you very much in advance.
>Think Tank: Just Like, Er, Words, Not, Um, Throwaways
>January 3, 2004
> By MICHAEL ERARD
>If you were hearing this instead of reading it, you might
>notice a pause here and there tucked between the phrases,
>filled with a familiar, soft hum or rumble - an um or uh.
>Though a bane to teachers of public speaking, people around
>the world fill pauses in their own languages as naturally
>as watermelons have seeds. In Britain they say uh but spell
>it er, just as they pronounce er in butter.
>The French say something that sounds like euh, and Hebrew
>speakers say ehhh. Serbs and Croats say ovay, and the Turks
>say mmmmm. The Japanese say eto (eh-to) and ano (ah-no),
>the Spanish este, and Mandarin speakers neige (NEH-guh) and
>jiege (JEH-guh). In Dutch and German you can say uh, um,
>mmm. In Swedish it's eh, ah, aah, m, mm, hmm, ooh, a and
>oh; in Norwegian, e, eh, m and hm.
>These interruptions, it turns out, plague machines more
>than people - speech-recognition systems in particular - so
>researchers have increasingly been turning their attention
>to uh and um (among other so-called disfluencies).
>"If someday you want machines to be as smart as people,
>then you have to have machines that understand speech
>that's natural, and natural speech has lots of disfluencies
>in it," said Liz Shriberg, a research psychologist at
>S.R.I. International, a research company based in Menlo
>Park, Calif. Uh and um might tell a computer about a
>speaker's alertness or emotional state so the system can
>adjust itself and let people speak naturally to
>Well before the invention of speech recognition, Frieda
>Goldman-Eisler, a psychologist in London in the 1950's,
>inaugurated the modern study of disfluencies by developing
>instruments that counted pauses in speech and measured
>their duration. Ms. Goldman-Eisler, who was looking for a
>way to make psychiatric interviews more efficient, found
>that 50 percent of a person's speaking time is made up of
>silence. She also hypothesized that a speaker planned his
>next words for the length of the uh or um.
>Around the same time a psychiatrist at Yale, George Mahl,
>counted uhs and nine other speech disfluencies in order to
>measure a person's anxiety level, calculating that during
>every 4.4 seconds of spontaneous speech, on average, one
>disfluency occurs. Eighty-five percent were uh and um,
>restarted sentences and repeated words. A slip of the
>tongue - upon which Sigmund Freud practically built an
>intellectual career - occurred less than 1 percent of the
>Ms. Goldman-Eisler and Mr. Mahl treated uh and um as
>symptoms of nervousness and verbal struggle. But once
>cheap, fast computers made digitized speech easy to study
>in the 1990's, the approach changed. Researchers began to
>study verbal pauses for meaning; they focused on the words
>By far the newest - and most controversial - idea comes
>from Herbert Clark, a psychologist at Stanford, and Jean
>Fox Tree, a psychologist at the University of California,
>Santa Cruz, who determined that speakers use (and listeners
>understand) uh and um in distinct ways. Uh signals a
>forthcoming pause that will be short, while um signals a
>longer pause, she said. Uh and um are not acoustic
>accidents, but full-fledged words that signal a delay yet
>to come. Of course that is not necessarily a good thing in
>public speaking. "It makes you look weak when people have
>come to hear you prepared, and you're not prepared," Mr.
>Ms. Fox Tree, who is a former student of Mr. Clark's,
>became interested in uhs and ums as an undergraduate
>majoring in linguistics at Harvard. There she realized that
>theories of language could not account for the fragmented
>nature of ordinary conversation.
>"I thought, here's something you hear in every single
>conversation during the day, some kind of disfluency, and
>yet people treat them as if they're garbage," she said.
>"Why are they there? Why do we use them?"
>Ms. Fox Tree studies other discourse markers like you know,
>I mean and oh, and is working on so and and. Her dream
>topic is like.
>"I waited before I got tenure to study like," she
>confessed, "because I thought it was going to be messy and
>hard to get a hold of, and I would spend all this time
>Ms. Shriberg agrees that these disruptions are more than
>white noise. "When you realize these things are distributed
>in very clean ways and have a very elegant structure," she
>said, "then you can see they're not garbage at all."
>Heather Bortfeld, a psychologist who studies infant
>language development at Texas A&M University, discovered
>this through personal experience. While living in Madrid
>during her junior year in college, she noticed the distinct
>sounds the Spanish used to fill their pauses.
>"These were often conveying important information that I
>had to learn about," Ms. Bortfeld said. "And then I had to
>learn how to make them myself in order to sound more native
>and to really be speaking Spanish correctly."
>In 2001 Ms. Bortfeld and others reported in the journal
>Language and Speech that speakers taking a more active role
>in tasks said uh and um, repeated words and restarted
>sentences more frequently than those in a passive role. Men
>say uh and um more than women, though their overall
>disfluency rate was the same. One piece of conventional
>wisdom fell by the wayside: whether or not the speaker and
>listener knew each other had no effect on uh or um rates.
>But it may be Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the
>University of California, San Diego, and other researchers
>who have come up with the most appealing findings. He
>counted uhs among professors giving lectures and found that
>the humanities professors say you know and uh 4.85 times
>per minute, social scientists 3.84 and natural science
>professors 1.39 times, which, he said, suggests that
>humanists have more expressive options from which to
>And for those trying to minimize their verbal tics, Mr.
>Christenfeld also found that drinking alcohol reduces ums.
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