What is it called when you say “um,” “eh,” or “well. . .” Are these considered words?

Have you ever had to listen to a recording of a conversation, or worse, had to transcribe one? You quickly learn that everyday speech isn’t exactly made of flowing repartee. Grunts, coughs, sighs ― they aren’t pleasant to listen back to, but these sounds are probably more common than the words between them.

Remember that face-to-face communication is a different beast than what you are doing now (presumably reading this silently  from a screen.) The gestures, nodding and weird noises you make when talking to another person may not be part of language, but you would have a hard time conveying your ideas without them.

What about “um?” It means something, but what exactly? “Um” is the classic example of what linguistics terms a filler, a sound which signals a pause (rather a conclusion) to the other people involved.

(Here’s a related issue: what does “amen” literally mean, and what function does it serve in prayer? Read our explanation, plus its origin, here.)

Filler can consist of words, such as “like,” or “you know,” frequently combined in the phrase “like, you know . . .” In these instances, the words are essentially meaningless except as conversation cues. A related phenomenon is speech disfluency, when one pauses in mid-sentence to try to recall the rest of the thought. Here’s an example: “Do you believe what Kanye West ― I mean Lady Gaga ― was wearing last night?”  The middle phrase, about Lady Gaga, is speech disfluency.

Is there a difference between cursing, cussing, and swearing? And are these also examples of filler, or something else? We answer that fascinating dilemma, here.

Even though a dictionary may make it seem otherwise, meaning ultimately comes down to what one person expresses to another. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it.”

A note: Some of our readers have astutely pointed out that paralanguage is another term that describes these utterances. Paralanguage encompasses anything that doesn’t specifically pertain to the linguistic aspect of communication; as we have pointed out above, however, this isn’t always easy to delineate.

We’d like your advice. Is there an aspect of language that mystifies you? What part of jargon, slang, sneezing, or whatever would you like us to explore?