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.
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.
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.