I see the interjection "erm" written in internet forum posts fairly often, and I have occasionally seen it in British novels, in opinion pieces and articles on cultural topics in newspapers and magazines penned by British authors, and in British film subtitles.

How is "erm" pronounced in the UK, particularly in the south of England?

Unlike, say, "uh" or "um," which are listed in most of the online English dictionaries, "erm" as an interjection is largely absent from the dictionaries.

I think Google.com's (American-influenced) translator pronounces it somewhat like /ɜːm/, similar to the American pronunciation in the recording linked to in the Wiktionary entry.
Google.co.uk's translator gives a more non-rhotic pronunciation.

These Youtube recordings linked to below, which purport to demonstrate how the word is pronounced, sound broadly similar to the Google.com "American" pronunciation, with a rather pronounced r influence on the vowel:

But the pronunciations I have heard in films where the subtitled spelling was given as "erm" have always sounded much more like the American pronunciation of "um." An example of that is in most of the pronunciations in these outtakes from interviews of the actor Emma Watson.

Almost no native American English speakers use "erm" in practice in the US, so it does not seem very useful for the guides to provide the supposed American pronunciation for this word. (A search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English finds about 160 uses of "erm" (case-insensitive), almost all of those being for the acronym "ERM." By contrast, a search of the British National Corpus finds over 60,000, with most of those being of the interjection (from a quick glance).

So the questions are:
- How is "erm" pronounced in Britain, especially in the south of England?
- Roughly when was this spelling of the word widely adopted in the UK?
- Is the current spelling based on an earlier rhotic pronunciation that has largely been abandoned?
- Or was it, perhaps, a contraction of "er, um"?

I see that someone claimed in the discussion on Wiktionary that the "explanation of how "erm" and "um" are distinct is completely made up. They are the same thing and are pronounced the same. "Erm" is simply the British spelling and "um" is the American."
If that is the case, why is the British spelling not "um"?

  • Another very British variation is ah, which I at least associate very closely with hoity-toity, upper-class dialects. A good example is Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: ‘We shall all miss your – er – highly individual way of running things, Albus, and only hope that your successor will manage to prevent any – ah – “killin’s”.’ That little ah makes the condecension in Malfoy’s sneering mockery of Hagrid’s dialect all the more palpable. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 21 '17 at 10:57
  • Regarding the wiki discussion - I use them as described by wiki. I use um to foreshadow code shifting upwards and to indicate I'm using an odd register to express something. It instructs you to feel free to substitute the common expression for what I actually wrote. I use erm to foreshadow a strong sense of doubt, hopefully making it clear that what follows is basically hostile - as in Erm, so how exactly does X fit in with your explanation? Meaning that I'm pretty sure I've just trashed your entire argument. – Phil Sweet Oct 21 '17 at 15:33

It's spelled that way because the English of many parts of Britain is non-rhotic. The sound you make when hesitating in speech is traditionally written 'er', but pronounced much like the American 'uh', and 'erm' is just a variant. See https://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.co.uk/2008/05/uh-er-um-erm.html

  • 1
    To me at least, BrE er(m) is pronounced almost exactly like AmE uh/um: /ə(m)/ or /ɜ(m)/. BrE uh/um, on the other hand, is not—it has no AmE equivalent. My BrE uh/um is pronounced /ʌ(m)/, so um rhymes with mum. Uh doesn’t rhyme with anything that I can think of. I don’t think monosyllables ending in /ʌ/ are phonotactically possible in English outside this one discourse filler. (All these variations can have either short or long vowels to me, depending on level of hesitation.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 21 '17 at 10:50
  • Please clarify--are there any parts of Britain where "erm" is pronounced rhotically as the youtube and the Wikitionary so-called "American" recordings suggest, or are those recordings all erroneous? – Shosht Oct 22 '17 at 4:22
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, please listen to the Google.co.uk Translator pronunciations of "um" and "erm." They sound different to me. (And the "erm" sounds very different from the typical American "um.") Would you say the Translator pronunciation of "erm" is within the range of normal for Britain? (Or maybe Google-UK is trying to pronounce the acronym?) – Shosht Oct 22 '17 at 4:31

From my experience with British English, I will try to answer your questions to the best of my ability, in order:

  1. It is pronounced /ɜːm/, as opposed to the American English ⟨um⟩, said as /ʌm/.
  2. This I could not be sure of. At the very least, going from Google's Ngram Viewer, there seems to be a particular spark in its use from the late 1730's to the 1750's and some generally steady use after that, but I do not know whether or not that correlates with when it came to be considered standard and accepted.
  3. I believe that it is based on their typical use of ⟨r⟩, when placed after vowels, as it is typically used to lengthen them (e. g. pronouncing the letter "R" as /ɑː/ or "turn" as /tɜːn /) or else to add the unstressed "uh" sound /ə/ ("hair" as /heə/ and "father" as /ˈfɑðə/), and thus, as they would say /ɜːm/, the vowel there being a long /ɜ/, it would make sense for it to be spelled ⟨erm⟩ if it is to remain consistent with other words with similar phonetic structure.
  4. I sincerely doubt that it was ever used as a contraction of the two, it merely seems to be the sound used by speakers of British English to convey ideas that speakers of American English would use "um" for.

As for your final question at the bottom, that would be because it is pronounced differently, as stated above.

  • 1
    Are you sure that the British vowel /ɜː/ is different from the American vowel /ʌ/? We don't pronounce our vowels the same way. (And Americans have several different ways they pronounce /ʌ/, some of which are a lot like the British /ɜː/.) – Peter Shor Feb 25 at 23:20
  • @PeterShor I'm going from General American to Received Pronunciation here, and though there are some dialects in which they are quite similar, from my dialect, Western American English, to South UK English there is a definitive difference. If you were going from some dialects of Southern American English to South UK English, there would be less of a difference, but at that point they're just using /ɜ/ and not /ʌ/. – Nondescrypt Feb 26 at 4:36

Colloquially, British English has two similar sounds :

  • umm . . when making up one's mind about a choice 'ummm what shall I have, pasta or pizza ?'

  • erm . . usually expresses a disapproving attitude to something or dissension over a decision made by others 'erm, excuse me, but . . . '

As I have heard them both and used them both, they do not have the same meaning and they have distinct differences in sound.

  • 1
    Could you please provide a resource for these meanings? In my experience, umm has more than meaning and could certainly precede a statement disagreement, as in umm, no.... Here the speaker is not undecided about disagreeing. – Knotell Oct 21 '17 at 11:10
  • @Clare I am just passing on my own experience. – Nigel J Oct 21 '17 at 11:14
  • @Clare Of course, every word can have multiple meanings. Regarding the example you cite: umm, no... doesn't necessarily mean the speaker has made up their mind already; they're saying umm to show that they're making up their mind right then and there. – NVZ Oct 21 '17 at 12:03
  • @NVZ Yes, exactly. I have used it (and heard it used) during the thinking process of decision. – Nigel J Oct 21 '17 at 12:07
  • @NVZ "umm, no" is an idiomatic way (in AmE, at least) to express disagreement. that's all I'm saying. You are saying that the same string does not necessarily mean this. I never said it did. – Knotell Oct 21 '17 at 12:08

As a native speaker from the South of England (specifically around Hampshire), this spelling seems to be fairly phonetic. The "r" is generally pronounced, albeit more softly, but mostly stands to have a lengthening effect on the "e".

The final "m" usually sounds more like trailing off, or humming with the mouth fully closed (though is usually shorter if used at the start of a sentence).

In most cases I have found the term is used in two different ways, at the start of a sentence to express surprise, disagreement or extra thought, as in "Erm, are you sure about that?" in the version with the shorter "m".

Alternatively when more drawn out at the middle or end of a sentence it usually is used to a spacer or give time to think.

I cant say I have as much research as some of the other answers, but wanted to give the opinion of a native speaker from the region stated.

  • 2
    The “soft” pronunciation of the r that you seem to be talking about is not what other English speakers recognize as a consonantal “r” sound at all. For comparison, even though “dawn” is not pronounced the same as Dan, there isn’t an actual /w/ sound in “dawn”. The “aw” just acts as a digraph indicating a specific vowel sound. The same is true for “er” in many British accents of English. This is what an American speaker thinks of as “not pronouncing” the r. – sumelic Jul 18 at 21:23
  • @sumelic What I suppose I was trying to describe. When pronouncing the "r", at least in my accent one puts their front teeth together much in the same way as pronouncing any R. – Vality Jul 18 at 22:29
  • @sumelic The closest way I could describe it is like the "r" in urn. In fact the whole word is said very similarly to urn. – Vality Jul 18 at 22:29
  • Do you pronounce “spas” (the plural of “spa”) and “spars” differently, or the same way? Also, do “dawn“ and “born” or “harm” and “palm” sound like they rhyme to you? – sumelic Jul 18 at 22:37
  • @sumelic I do pronounce spas, and spars exactly the same, and I would say both dawn/born and harm/palm are very close to perfectly rhyming, though with slightly different stresses. – Vality Jul 18 at 23:19

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