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This question may be a better fit on linguistics.SE, but it pertains specifically to English fillers. Also, the question may have a more straightforward answer than what I'm expecting.

TL;DR: Are these fillers mimetic or trace to other languages? Where are they first recorded in English?

First off, although I've always pronounced them differently, the Wiktionary entry for er has the pronunciation for non-rhotic dialects (/ɜ, /ə in ODO), comparing it to uh (/ʌ, /ʌh). Would this be a very similar sound? I'm skeptical as to whether or not this points to a common heritage. Furthermore, the usual sources show er occurred more recently[1][2] than uh or um.[3][4]

I run into confusion when Etymonline states that uh is "attested c.1600" whereas ODO puts its origin in the 1960s. Perhaps it's because ODO is focused on modern usage. All sources I've seen ascribe the words to natural utterances. However, if they are purely mimetic, this doesn't explain why filler sounds differ so widely across languages (i.e. why doesn't every language have these fillers or vice-versa).

Based on the fillers of other languages, one might conclude these English fillers were influenced by the Welsh ym or German äh (/ɛː/) or hm. Or is this a case of false cognates because "m" is easily produced?

Either way, how do we know uh and um go back to the 17th century since I'd hazard a guess that "realistic dialogue" (recorded on the page) is relatively "new" (no earlier than 1800s)?

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What's next, a question about the origin of "ow"? – David Schwartz Oct 4 '12 at 6:18
@DavidSchwartz I also consider that an interesting question insofar as other languages use different exclamations (e.g. Japanese itai or ite (lit. "painful") similar to ouch in English). Are these constructs onomatopoeic or did the semantic association with an arbitrary sound come first (only to later become a "learned reflex" to pain). However, the topic may be more suitable for linguists.SE where some of my "broader" questions have ended up. :) – Zairja Oct 4 '12 at 12:44
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Mostly they're not recorded.

They're called Hesitation Markers, or various equivalent names. They are the various sounds people make when they're hesitating to think of what to say next, or to remember a word, or just because they've drawn a blank. Emitting one of these markers signals an intention to hold the floor, and to try to keep one's conversation partners from taking the floor and interrupting one. These markers vary, from group to group, and language to language.

They're phenomena of Speech, though, not of writing. So, unless you're transcribing dialog, you shouldn't have to worry about how they're spelled. Which is good, because they're spelled any which way at all.

However, any spelling with an "R" in it comes from a non-rhotic dialect of English, like RP in the UK. And "UH" is a lame attempt to represent shwa - /ə/ - the commonest vowel in English, and the commonest hesitation marker. E.g,

  • He said .. /ə/ .. he said he wasn't .. /ə/ .. going to arrive on time.

How you spell it is up to you. The Academy hasn't ruled on that yet.

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And even if you are transcribing dialogue, these sounds are usually omitted from the transcript. – Hugo Sep 5 '12 at 4:58
+1 But because they're not usually recorded and vary from language to language, what sources do places like Etymonline use to date it (e.g. "attested from c.1600")? I don't think it's unreasonable to assume people centuries ago made the same noises; however, just as "like" has been recently appropriated as a hesitation marker, how would we know which markers came and went without written examples? Is it an extrapolation from words like haw or just a "reasonable" assumption? – Zairja Sep 5 '12 at 11:04
I have no idea where people get the ideas that they freely express about language and words. Since these markers are individual vocal twitches, consider what would be necessary to document the history of winking. Did Bill wink the same wink as Joe did? Or was it different? How could you tell now? How could you tell 200 years ago? – John Lawler Sep 5 '12 at 14:13
@JohnLawler I wasn't trying to be facetious. Sorry if the question is harebrained. The fact is, at some point English writers did document speech. I was curious as to when "uh" or "um" was first recorded. Perhaps centuries ago different markers were used, and it may not matter what they were save that they were in use. I also realize that asking why markers differ among languages is like asking why does any word for something differ. It was this abstract – Zairja Sep 6 '12 at 1:09
(cont.) that got me trying to formulate a question in the first place. Unfortunately, the article's behind a paywall and, as I'm not a linguist, it's probably beyond my ken anyway. I haven't learned anything I didn't know already, but I greatly appreciate the time you invested in your answer. It was helpful, nonetheless. I am accepting it and see no need for anyone to further look into what turned out to be a rather useless question. Thanks. :) – Zairja Sep 6 '12 at 1:11

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